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Australia's Jewish community is witnessing a surge of promised funding for Jewish schools and particularly school security initiatives, in the run-up to the country's hotly contested November elections.
Expected to be a close contest, with the opposition Australian Labor Party holding a slight lead in polls and expected to oust the Liberal government, the two leading national parties have been delivering a string of initiatives meant to attract Jewish voters.
Since 9/11, a high-level alert has been placed on Australia's Jewish schools, necessitating precautions that can cost hundreds of dollars per child. In many schools, parents man the security details during drop-off and pick-up hours.
Last week, opposition leader and Labor head Kevin Rudd presented an AUD 20 million (US$24 million) plan, to be paid out over four years, to increase security at schools nationwide.
While the plan was created for any schools that required extra security, Rudd himself noted the funding is "predominantly [for] the Jewish schools," the Australian Jewish News reported this week.
"We are not talking about regular acts of vandalism," explained a spokesman for Rudd, "because they occur at schools right across the country. [But] where, because of national security considerations there are particular threats to a particular school community, we believe nationally we have a responsibility to actâ€¦ We would actually [prefer] the schools to be spending money on educational outcomes."
Meanwhile, the government has moved to create a tax-deductible national fund that would go toward school security. In legislation in the Income Tax Assessment Act, the government intends to give tax deductible status to the Council for Jewish Community Security, an organization that will be established by the Executive Council for Australian Jewry and will help facilitate increased donations to security program in Jewish schools.
"Jewish schools and other communal institutions, including synagogues, must now routinely undertake extensive and expensive security measures, including round-the-clock guarding. There are elements in our society who preach hatred against Jews and against Israel and as a consequence the Jewish community faces a security threat far greater than that confronted by most Australians," explained Liberal MP and Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull, whose own parliamentary seat is being strongly contested by Labor candidate George Newhouse in the heavily-Jewish electoral district of Wentworth, outside Sydney.
The Labor party has also offered some AUD 16 million (US$19 million) to Orthodox day schools which are disadvantaged by the regular per-capita funding formula. It also promised it would support the government's changes to the process by which poorer schools are funded, the socioeconomic status (SES) appeals process.
The new SES funding mechanism, announced just two weeks ago by the government, comes after a decade of lobbying by Jewish groups, and would effectively increase funding for poorer schools, particularly in Australia's ultra-Orthodox community.
Under the new appeals process, Jewish schools have already begun to appeal their SES rating based on a calculation that will take family size into account, the AJN writes.
"The two major parties are throwing money at the Jewish communities," says Ashley Browne, national editor of the Australian Jewish News. While "both parties are pro-Israel," Browne asserts, "I can't remember a time when this was backed so strongly with money."
According to Mark Leibler, national chairman of the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC), the blitz in initiatives for the Jewish community is not just electioneering.
"Both the prime minister and Kevin Rudd are very favorably disposed toward the Jewish community," he said.
"Both are extremely pro-Israel and value the American alliance," and both are recipients of Jewish donations.
Besides, he noted, "the Jewish vote is not significant, except perhaps in one Victorian and one Sydney electoral [district], and support for Israel is not attributable to those two electorates. Our influence isn't anywhere near that of the Jewish community in the United States."
In fact, Leibler believes, "when the Jews vote, their vote is affected by other issues, such as economics and social issues that impact the general public. We don't have the [American] phenomenon where 75% of the Jews will vote Democrat rather than Republican."
Rather, the support comes from "good relationships we've had with both sides of politics for many years now."
"I believe this support will continue whichever party wins the election."
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