The Australian Jewish Democratic Society in 2011 – Report presented by Harold Zwier at the 2012 AJDS AGM

Annual_report_pic.jpg12th February 2012
Rather than simply talk about the activities of the AJDS over the past year, I want to track our activities in the context of major and not so major events happening locally and in the wider world. It has been an interesting year and much has happened that has been of direct interest to us.
Nationally we have seen the introduction of a carbon tax passed by the federal parliament amid an environment of increasing scepticism about climate change.
The High Court threw out the Federal government’s so called Malaysia solution by which the government planned to deport to Malaysia 800 asylum seekers arriving by boat in Australia, in exchange for accepting 4000 refugees from Malaysia. That both the government and opposition continue to play political games with the lives of asylum seekers is abhorrent to all who value the overriding importance of human rights, the protection of people escaping persecution, and the need to treat people with common dignity.

We note the death in December of Sir Zelman Cowan, former governor general of Australia; a distinguished Australian. On the international scene, the protests across the Arab world referred to as the Arab Spring have seen the governments of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen fall and instability in Bahrain and Syria. Ousted Libyan President, Muammar Gaddafi was killed and a US raid in Pakistan on May day resulted in the death of Osama Bin Laden. An earthquake near Japan in March killed around 20,000 people and caused a threat of contamination from the nuclear power plants at Fukushima.
There are no strong signs that there has been any forward movement in resolving the conflict between Israel and Palestine and in Israel there are increasingly shrill cries from the far Right to curtail the activity of Non Government Organisations involved in human rights, civil society and social justice. But all is not quiet in Israel. From July there have been massive peaceful protests in Israel against the rising cost of living and in support of social justice. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have taken part in these demonstrations over several months and in December there were additional protests by a wide spectrum of Israelis against gender segregation and discrimination originating in some ultra orthodox Jewish communities.
An Australian chapter of the New Israel Fund was launched during the visit to Australia by NIF president, Naomi Chazan in June. The most extraordinary aspect of the arrival of NIF in Australia is the reaction of some leaders of the Jewish community. As an organisation with strong and unambiguous support for Israel as an open democratic society, with equality of opportunity, support for human rights and complete equality of social and political rights for all, headed in Australia by Robin Margo, a past president of the NSW Board of Deputies, one would have expected NIF to be welcomed by the community.
Instead, it has come under sustained criticism from prominent individuals such as Philip Chester of the Zionist Federation of Australia, Ron Weiser of the State Zionist Council of NSW and Isi Liebler of the ECAJ. Dr Danny Lamm, now president of the ECAJ, did not repeat his ill considered 2010 attack on Naomi Chazan when she visited Australia in June last year, but he did attack a subsequent NIF Australia speaker, David Landau, former editor of the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, who visited Australia in November last year. The grassroots reaction, however, gives much greater cause for optimism and there are signs that younger people in our community are increasingly dismissive of the narrow political attitudes prevalent in the public statements of communal leaders.
In February last year the AJDS and Sandy Joffe in particular, played a prominent role in countering a campaign to stop a Muslim prayer group in St Kilda from using the Alma Road community house. The prayer group had in fact been using the community house for around 2 years, but the campaign made false claims that the community house was to be converted into a place of religious worship.
The campaign, run by some local people and a group called the Q Society, claimed that the Muslim prayer group was linked to extremist Islamic groups; that ‘social-cohesion’ would be undermined by allowing Islamic ritual prayers to be recited; that ritual washing by Muslims before prayer would waste large amounts of water and that the “well documented” escalation of violence towards non-Muslims during Friday prayers would likely strike terror into the hearts of local residents.
Sandy Joffe as many of you already know, is the director of the Port Philip Community Group which manages the Alma Road Community House. She was therefore at the heart of the controversy and fully aware of both the factual information about the use of the community house and the misinformation being circulated in the press, online blogs and in the Jewish community. She co-ordinated action by Port Philip Council, Professor Spencer Zifcak from Liberty Victoria, Deborah Stone of the Anti-Defamation Commission and a number of orthodox Rabbis who publicly supported the Muslim prayer group’s right to use the community house. Liberty Victoria made prominent mention of this issue during their AGM in November.
The Muslim prayer group continue to use the community house for their Friday prayers, and the Port Philip Council made changes to the rules of use of the community house that effectively affirmed the use of the facility for the prayer group and additionally benefited all users of the community house.
One of the most fascinating aspects of this issue was the way in which misinformation was used to push an anti-Muslim line. On at least one occasion I was able to provide factual information about the issue that materially changed the attitudes of one group of people in the Jewish community. It was a clear lesson on the importance of effective action being underpinned by a decent understanding of the situation and its background.
As mentioned earlier Naomi Chazan visited Australia in June and the AJDS held a successful function with her at a bar/cafe in Elsternwick. It was an informal gathering that was largely advertised through Facebook and included a number of new faces. Naomi talked about 5 possibilities for movement in trying to resolve the conflict with Palestinians. Following her address there were questions and then a general opportunity to talk over drinks.
In late July the annual Renate Kamener oration was held with Gareth Evans speaking about a new principle in the United Nations called the Responsibility to Protect. This places an obligation on governments to protect their own populations and the term Responsibility to Protect has been in the news recently regarding the situation in Syria and the killing of thousands of its citizens by its government. The opportunity to hear about R2P from one of its originators was unique and we look forward to this year’s Oration with Professor Glyn Davis Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Melbourne.
In August the Palestinian Authority started moves to seek recognition of Palestine at the United Nations. The AJDS wrote an article on why Australia should support that recognition. The article was published in the Age newspaper in the middle of August and we were very pleased with both the positive reaction it elicited in the Jewish community and the invitation we received from Zeddy Lawrence at the Australian Jewish News to write an article for the AJN on that topic. The AJDS article appeared in late August under an article by Ron Weiser who opposed recognition of a Palestinian state. I know I speak from a biased position but I believe that our arguments in favour of recognition were much stronger and more intellectually based than the arguments put forward by Ron Weiser. We were also pleased to discover that both the AJN and Age articles were used in the year 10 curriculum at Bialik College.
In September the AJDS put out a statement criticising some of the tactics used by protesters who support the BDS campaign- the Boycott Divestment & Sanctions campaign – against Israel. The statement elicited a significant and negative response from BDS supporters and after discussion within the AJDS executive we put out a revised statement clarifying aspects of our criticism. As with all documents, you can read our statements on our website.
On December 11 we had our annual dinner at Almazett Restaurant with speaker Paris Aristotle Director of the Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture. I was particularly taken by the way Paris managed to discuss the issue of torture, and the arguments for and against its use in a manner that avoided emotive response. He managed to strongly and intellectually argue why torture cannot be legalised. I hope there will be opportunities for us to have Paris as a speaker at other functions.
At the Annual dinner we also honoured Steve Brook for all the work he does and continues to do for the AJDS. Thanks once again Steve.
Sol Salbe published his last edition of the AJDS newsletter as editor in February last year. Since then we have published 2 Newsletters in June and December. It is our intention to publish our newsletter quarterly in 2012. Sivan Barak is editing the newsletter and she and Max Kaiser, our new Community Organiser, have been putting much effort into having a theme for each edition and engaging with younger members of our community who are involved with progressive issues.
Since I have mentioned Sol Salbe, let me also add that aside from a significant debt of gratitude we owe to Sol for his work over many years I am hoping that now he is back from Israel there are opportunities for us to collaborate on future projects in the AJDS or projects of mutual interest that he initiates.
In late November and into December, SBS television aired a 4 part drama titled The Promise. The drama is set against the historical background of Palestine at the end of the British Mandate in 1947/48 and Israel in 2005. Many people in the Jewish community believe the drama to be antisemitic and the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) made a 31 page complaint to the SBS ombudsman regarding the drama. While we believe that there are valid criticisms that can be made of the drama, in our view its bias does not amount to antisemitism.
The AJDS had the number one position for a letter published in the Age newspaper on January 18 that followed a report in the Age on January 17 about the ECAJ complaint to the SBS ombudsman. Our letter made it clear that people in the Jewish community have a variety of views and that not all people agree that The Promise should be regarded as antisemitic. The AJDS letter to The Age was accompanied by AJDS articles published in The Drum on 17th January which discussed the implication of the ECAJ complaint and the Australian Jewish News (AJN) on February 3 on the expanding definition of Antisemitism and why it works against fighting antisemitism. There were 162 responses to the article on The Drum and no response to the AJN article on its letters pages, though responses received privately has been fairly positive.
I was part of a meeting with Bob Brown and Adam Bandt in the middle of December, regarding The Greens policy on Israel, BDS and attitudes to the Greens within the Jewish community. There may be further discussion.
As you are aware, Max Kaiser has been contracted as the community organiser for the AJDS. As someone with an activist background – and strong family connections to the AJDS; his grandfather was Walter Lippmann – we are looking forward to more activity and more diversity in the AJDS and the involvement of younger people in the AJDS. It is past time that this organisation did some serious succession planning and we will shortly hear from Helen Rosenbaum about some research that the AJDS has engaged in to better understand how we might engage and interest younger people. I am quite seriously hoping that the outcome of this work will see me retiring from the AJDS executive in favour of a new generation of people.

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