Israel’s story over the last 60 years has been an amazing and inspiring one. In the welter of debate over terrorism and violence, peace plans and peace processes, accusation and counter-accusation, it is easy to lose sight of what can only be regarded as a remarkable record.
A scattered, dispossessed people, suffering oppression and having just emerged from history’s most heinous genocide, accepted the newly formed United Nations’ Partition Plan and built an enviable society in part of their ancestral homeland.
Israel remains virtually the sole democracy in the Middle East, with full protections for the democratic and human rights of all its citizens.
Almost one-fifth of its population is Muslim or Arab. Such citizens have the same democratic rights as Jewish citizens and are represented in parliament, in the cabinet, at the higher levels of the judiciary and civil service. There is an Arab justice on Israel’s powerful Supreme Court. Arabic is one of the state’s two official languages, and instruction in Arab schools is in Arabic, and includes Arab history and culture.
Israel’s booming economy is centred on the hi-tech industry and its currency recently became one of just seventeen freely traded in the global market. It has made enormous contributions in culture, science, medicine and agriculture. Its companies have led the world in irrigation technologies that maximise and preserve scarce water resources.
Israel is of course not perfect, but, as the cover story of this edition of the AIR illustrates, Israeli founders would be overwhelmed to recognise how far Israel has come over the last 60 years in all these areas.
The unique Australia-Israel relationship, recognised in the bipartisan resolution celebrating Israel’s 60th anniversary passed by Australia’s Federal Parliament in March, has been an important dimension of Israel’s remarkable story. This relationship stems from ties that have developed over almost 100 years.
Despite vast differences in size and geographic distance, there appears to be something in our cultures, national outlooks and personalities that seems to draw Australians and Israelis together.
The first contact between Australia and the Jewish community in Palestine dates to Gallipoli where the 600-strong Zion Mule corps, made up of Jewish Zionist volunteers from what was not yet called Palestine, fought alongside Australian troops. The relationship continued as Australian troops under General Allenby led the conquest of Ottoman Palestine and “Diggers” returned again to fight in North Africa in World War II.
Then, Australia helped midwife Israel’s creation, through Foreign Minister Dr. H.V. Evatt’s possibly decisive role in securing the passage of the UN General Assembly’s Partition Plan in 1947 while serving as Chairman of the UN General Assembly’s Ad Hoc Committee on Palestine
Since them, historically, and continuing through the present day, almost all Australian governments of both political persuasions have gone out of their way to cultivate positive Australia-Israel relations.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the kibbutz movement inspired many Australians of all political stripes to travel to Israel to serve a stint there.
The support given by the Liberal-Country Party Coalition during and after the 1967 Six Day war was exceeded only by the remarkable feelings of ordinary Australians, who understood that Israel’s very existence was imperilled by the provocations of Syria, Egypt and Jordan. That warmth continued through the Fraser years.
The extraordinary level of emotional understanding and intellectual rigour brought to bear on the rightness of Israel’s cause by Bob Hawke was evident in his government’s lead during the 1980s in helping rescind the outrageous UN resolution equating Zionism with racism.
Between 1996 and 2007, Prime Minister John Howard and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer brought the relationship to even greater heights by making Australia one of Israel’s closest and most consistent friends. And it should be noted that the ALP Opposition largely supported the Howard Government’s policies on Israel and the Arab-Israel conflict.
At the UN, Howard’s Australia fought to end institutional discrimination against Israel; played a leading role in the fight against the violent anti-Zionism mixed with antisemitism that marred the 2001 Durban “anti-racism” conference; and was willing to oppose one-sided anti-Israel resolutions.
Importantly, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his team have shown in word and deed that they too are committed and long standing friends of Israel, and appear to fully intend to maintain and build on the Howard legacy in Australia-Israel relations. The bipartisan 60th anniversary resolution introduced in parliament by Mr. Rudd in March strongly symbolises this commitment by his government.
Clearly, significant challenges remain for Israel. Foremost among them is for Israel to finally achieve an enduring and equitable peace with the Palestinians and its other neighbours. With Hamas, Hezbollah and other terrorist groups still denying Israel’s right to exist and launching daily attacks with the material backing of Iran and Syria, coupled with a rising tide of new antisemitism, achieving lasting peace will not be easy. Yet just as clearly, Australia’s unique friendship and steadfast support for a fellow democracy, which has helped nourish Israel throughout its first 60 years, will remain a crucial and much valued asset as Israel continues to seek the final crowning achievement of the Zionist dream – a Jewish state whose citizens are at last able to enjoy the fruits of the last 60 remarkable years in peace and security.