Australian Prime Minister John Howard recently received a standing ovation at a Jewish community event, reflecting the admiration felt throughout the Jewish world for his courageous support for Israel. Unfortunately, the polls are predicting that after having been one of Australia's longest-serving prime ministers, the its-time-for-a-change syndrome could defeat him. Yet it would not be the first time Howard has confounded election predictions.
When he does retire from the political arena, Australian Jews of all political persuasion will regret the end of an era in which their prime minister emerged as Israel's greatest champion among world statesmen.
This is not to suggest that Howard's predecessors were unfriendly. Since the creation of our state, Australia has been led by a succession of governments from both sides of the political spectrum who were supportive of Israel. The solitary exception was Gough Whitlam (1972-1975), whose hostility against Israel during the Yom Kippur war is regarded as a historical aberration.
WHY SHOULD a country so geographically distant from the Middle East have adopted such a warm relationship with Israel? Two factors stand out.
Australian troops served in Palestine during both world wars and became acquainted with the Zionist enterprise. During World War II a particular bond was forged between Australian servicemen and Palestinian Jews. To this day, veteran Israelis still recount vignettes contrasting the warm and uninhibited Australians in stark contrast to the cold and frequently hostile British.
More importantly, the relatively small Jewish community in Australia - about 110,000 people, dominated by Shoah survivors - has succeeded in creating unique relationships with successive governments. Their lobbying efforts and unqualified support for Israel have been highly effective.
They also succeeded in persuading the Australian government to assume a key role in the global campaign to free Soviet Jew - as exemplified in 1962, when Australia became the first nation in the world to raise the plight of Soviet Jews at the United Nations.
In former years most Australian Jews tended to support the Labor Party. The conservatives (who call themselves Liberals), were usually perceived as somewhat aloof and occasionally even hostile. The Jewish relationship with the Labor party reached its peak when the charismatic former trade union leader, Bob Hawke, headed the party. However, when he became prime minister, his ardor for Israel cooled somewhat.
The relationship with the Liberals began to blossom in 1975 under prime minister Malcolm Fraser. John Howard served as his treasurer, and Jewish support for the Liberals peaked after he was elected to the leadership in 1996.
HOWARD'S FRIENDSHIP toward Jews can be traced back to his days as a young lawyer in a legal firm with Jewish principals. He first visited Israel in 1962 and since then has remained a champion of the Jewish state.
His feelings are best reflected in his own words: "The personal affection I have for the State of Israel, the personal regard I have for the Jewish people of the world, will never be diminished. It is something I hold dearly, something I value as part of my being and as part of what I have tried to do with my life."
Howard is a genuine conservative. When I headed the Jewish community I recollect discussions concerning his reservations about the multicultural evolution of Australian society. Jews all supported the notion of multiculturalism, regarding it as an ideal framework by which to retain their Jewish identity and yet integrate into the broader Australian mainstream.
Howard was concerned that multiculturalism would encourage minorities to create self-contained enclaves and discourage integration. Well before Islamic extremism raised its ugly head, he warned that anti-democratic elements would exploit multiculturalism in order to undermine the open society.
Regrettably, his views were affirmed in recent years, when Islamic fundamentalist elements employed multiculturalism as a Trojan horse to infiltrate and create havoc in the Western world, not least in Europe, and to a lesser extent even in Australia.
MY MOST fascinating encounter with Howard took place in 2000, when I was already a Jerusalemite and he was visiting Israel in his prime ministerial capacity. This was just prior to the first intifada. He invited me and Leon Kempler, visiting head of the Australian Israel Chamber of Commerce, to accompany him on a visit to Yasser Arafat in Gaza.
I was reluctant to go, having until then prided myself on not having joined the stream of Jewish leaders paying homage to Arafat in the wake of the Oslo Accords. My view was that, irrespective of Israeli relations with Arafat, there was no obligation for Jewish leaders to embrace a man who was undeniably a duplicitous murderer.
I was finally persuaded. But in Gaza I tried to make myself as inconspicuous as possible. Unfortunately, the Australian PLO representative recognized me, and before the end of the meeting I was called forward to meet Arafat who, to my dismay, publicly embraced me and presented me and the prime minister with huge mother-of-pearl jewelry boxes embossed with "Doves of Peace." He declared that he had always wanted to meet me, but I was in no doubt that my name had only been whispered into his ear a few seconds earlier.
After the event, during a brief stopover on our return to Tel Aviv, Howard took me aside and asked me what I thought of Arafat. I responded unhesitatingly: that despite the nice words Arafat had expressed in support of peace, I did not trust a word he uttered. I told him that despite the fact that the majority of Israelis had convinced themselves that they were on an irreversible path to peace, I had a feeling of dread about the future and was convinced he would betray us.
I clearly recollect Howard's response: "I want you to know that should Arafat ever renege on the commitments to peace he conveyed today, I give you a solemn undertaking that if I am still prime minister, the Australian Jewish community and the people of Israel will never have reason to feel that I forsook them."
HOWARD KEPT his word. In subsequent years Australia walked a lonely path, courageously supporting Israel at international forums. I have frequently thought about what he told me then, and on repeated occasions I would reiterate my respect to him for never having deviated from his commitment. Indeed, while most of the world turned fiercely against Israel after the intifada, Howard's support for Israel intensified.
As he recently told a Jewish gathering: "Good friends stand together when it is unfashionable to do so."
We can only hope that in the years to come, other statesmen may emerge who will replicate the courageous and principled stance toward us as exemplified by Prime Minister John Howard.
The writer, a veteran international Jewish leader, was for many years head of the Australian Jewish community. firstname.lastname@example.org