SYDNEY – Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull used Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to his country this week not only to showcase the extremely close ties between Australia and Israel, but also to salute the contributions of Jews to Australia.
At an extraordinary event at the Moriah College Jewish day school on Thursday morning, Turnbull told the hundreds of high school students jammed into an auditorium that “we could not imagine our modern Australia without the extraordinary contributions of Jewish Australians like yourselves, your parents and your grandparents. And I thank you for that contribution.”
Just minutes earlier, the Australian prime minister urged primary school students, who sat with incredible discipline for an hour on the floor of a gym waiting for Netanyahu and Turnbull to arrive, to be anything they wanted.
“Believe in yourselves, hold to your Jewish ideals,” he said.
There was something incredibly moving about hearing a non-Jewish leader entreat Jewish students to hold on to their Judaism.
“Hold to your fight, hold to your belief in yourselves. Your determination will make Australia greater,” he said.
And therein lies the rub, an inherent Zionist dilemma.
What should Diaspora Jews do? Make the land of their birth greater, or take their talents with them and move to Israel? This tension came across clearly when Netanyahu spoke to the students after Turnbull. Because Netanyahu appreciated what was going on: the need to walk a tightrope between not wanting to be impolite to his host and call for the Jewish students to move to Israel, and wanting to signal the students that – at least in his worldview – their place is in the Jewish homeland.
And this tension was evident in the way each leader related to the great Australian Gen. John Monash.
Turnbull had referred to Monash – who has a village named after him in Israel – a number of times over the past two days, including in his speech to the students.
Monash, he reminded them, was a brilliant Australian general during World War I, a man Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery later described as the most brilliant general on the Western Front.
“He was an Australian Jew, born in Melbourne, son of Polish Jewish immigrants,” Turnbull said. Due to his brilliant victory in the 93-minute Battle of Hamel in northern France, “the tide of war was turned. It was an extraordinary achievement in military history.”
And what was Turnbull’s point in recalling this tale? “In every field, Jewish Australians have led again and again,” he said.
“In science, literature, arts, education, business, politics and more, and of course in war as well. So you are an essential, magnificent part of our great nation. I thank you for it, believe in yourselves,” he added.
Then Netanyahu took the podium, and the inherent conflict between whether to advocate being creative Australians, or Zionists moving to Israel, came to the fore, though in a subtle way.
Monash, Netanyahu said, was indeed a great Jewish warrior. “But Monash was the exception,” he said.
Sure, there were in antiquity great Jewish warriors: the Maccabees, Joshua, King David. But, he told the students, all that took place as long as the Jews had independence in their own land.
“But once we were stripped away from that land, we were stripped of our powers,” he said. “Century after century, the Jews were stripped of the powers to resist the vicious attacks on their freedoms, and on their very existence.
And over the centuries, the Jews in the Diaspora, who were known as gallant fighters in antiquity, were known essentially as a rootless people unable to defend themselves, unable to demand the basic rights and respect that any human being and human group deserves.”
Calamity followed calamity, he said, until it culminated in the greatest tragedy of all: the Holocaust.
But after the Holocaust, the premier continued, “we mustered that ancient courage that characterized our people.
We established our independence in our ancestral homeland, we rebuilt a state and formed an army that brought the courage of the Maccabees back to life. You see it in the soldiers of Israel, in their courage – young men and women who time after time stand up and defend our state.”
This is the rebirth of the Jewish state, he declared.
“And the amazing thing is the transformation this created for Jews everywhere, because Jews everywhere drew power, strength, conviction and pride from the rebirth of the state of Israel.
“Jews were transformed as the Jewish state transformed Jewish history and Jewish destiny,” he declared. “You are part of that destiny, you are part of the reborn Jewish people.
If there is one thing I can tell you today – be proud Jews.
Stand up with our people. Be proud. Stand up with Israel.
Be proud Jews. Do this in Sydney, and do this in Jerusalem, and come this year to Jerusalem.”
Come this year to Jerusalem, he said. The natural conclusion to his words would be to come live in Jerusalem, but good manners prevented him from saying that in front of so warm a host as Turnbull.
I asked Netanyahu about this later in the day, and whether he felt it was legitimate for Israel’s prime minister, in this day and age, to go to prosperous Jewish communities – communities not under threat – and call for aliya.
Netanyahu said it was legitimate.
But he added, however, that the way he made the case was wiser, since it was clear what he was saying without him actually having to come out and insult anyone by saying it.