SYDNEY – The 2,000 people shoehorned into the Central Synagogue in Sydney’s Bondi neighborhood on Wednesday jumped to their feet and cheered rapturously – as if they were welcoming basketball heroes – when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Australian counterpart, Malcolm Turnbull, entered the main sanctuary.“Netanyahu never gets this kind of reception at home,” the Australian Financial Review’s Luke Malpass was told, as Netanyahu waved to the crowd.“Neither does Turnbull,” Malpass replied, noting that this type of thunderous reception was highly uncommon for politicians in Australia.
And both leaders – beset by various domestic troubles – clearly basked in the moment.For Netanyahu it was a moment when he was called during one of the introductions “a great leader of the Jewish people,” not words he often hears used to describe him in the difficult political environment back home. It was also a moment when the audience applauded loudly when it was announced that he was the second-longest serving prime minister in Israeli history.And for Turnbull it was a moment – if only fleeting – when the constant sniping from the right wing of his party was replaced by an MC introducing him as a “man of great moral conviction.”Both men were in front of a “home” audience.For Netanyahu it was an invitee- only audience composed of representatives of a Jewish community that is overwhelmingly passionate about and supportive of Israel, and for whom his message of “greetings from Jerusalem, our eternal capital, never to be divided again” elicited loud, extended cheers.And for Turnbull it was an audience that included more than a few members of his core constituency. His home is not far from the synagogue, and one of those who introduced him to the audience said this was the non-Jewish prime minister’s “local shul.”At an earlier meeting with some 400 business leaders, Turnbull mentioned he felt among “mishpacha,” or family. He picked up that theme again at the synagogue. “It is always wonderful to be here in Central in this beautiful shul,” he said, articulating “shul” very naturally. “We talked today at lunch about the mishpacha, this is the heart of it.”The crowd responded with warm laughter, and applause.This was the type of event that has to get Netanyahu to ask himself why he doesn’t travel abroad and visit these types of communities more often.“Wow,” he said when taking the podium, acknowledging the reception.“I want to salute this Jewish community, which is unusually committed to the State of Israel, to the Jewish people,” he said. “You’ve shown it time and time again, you show it here today even though I think we’ll have some problem with the Jewish community in Melbourne, but that’s for the next trip,” he said, jokingly acknowledging that some Jews of Melbourne were miffed he did not visit them as well during his short visit to the country.The Jewish people, he said to the crowd that seemed riveted by his words, should have long ago disappeared, “because most nations in antiquity do not exist anymore. There are exceptions, but they’re very large exceptions and very few.“Most nations disappeared,” he continued. “Nations go through predictable cycles: they’re born, they flower, they shrivel, they die. But the Jews are different. The Jews refused to die. They’re reborn again and again and again. And throughout the centuries, our people never succumbed to their fate, no matter how large the oppression, no matter how great the oppression and the persecution. Generation after generation, Jews said, ‘Next year in Jerusalem. Next year in Jerusalem.’ We never gave up the dream.”The Jews from distant Australia applauded.Netanyahu’s words, said Mark Goldman, one of those in the audience, were “incredibly inspiring” and an “important infusion” for a community with a strong emotional tie to Israel.Ilana Den, another attendee, was equally enthusiastic. That it took so long for an Israeli prime minister to visit her country – Netanyahu is the first sitting premier to do so – only showed that Australia was not always a top priority, she said. However, she added, the visit now is a sign that Australia’s importance on the world stage is on the rise.And Shmuly Kleiner, an Orthodox rabbi at the South Head Synagogue, said that Netanyahu’s decision to come to Australia and address the community was important and significant because “it is good to know he cares about us, as much as we care about him.”
Australian schoolchildren cheering for Netanyahu during his state visit on Feb. 23, 2017 (credit: HERB KEINON)