In honour of Israel’s forthcoming 70th anniversary, Government MP Stuart Robert moved a motion in Parliament on February 28, in the lead up to the 80th anniversary of the Evian Conference on the plight of Jewish refugees, to officially apologise for Australia’s position on persecuted Jews in 1938. This position, as expressed by then Minister for Trade and Customs Lieutenant Colonel T.W. White, is still visible in the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem as a representation of international indifference to the catastrophe. “It will no doubt be appreciated also that as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one by encouraging any scheme of large-scale foreign migration…I hope that the conference will find a solution of this tragic world problem,” White stated at the time.
Debate on the motion took place on March 26. The motion moved by Robert, who chairs the Parliamentary Australia-Israel Allies Caucus, includes a request to Yad Vashem that the parliamentary apology be displayed there alongside White’s quote as a testament to Australian remorse and enduring friendship. “We failed to protect more of God’s holy people, the Jews. Our ram and the additional one-fifth value we present today, our guilt offering, are our words of atonement, our apology, our profound sense of sorry,” he said.
Labor MP for Eden-Monaro Mike Kelly, who retired from the Australian Army Legal Corps in 2007 after 20 years of service, supported the motion and discussed the long-standing ties between the Jewish State and Australia. Kelly spoke about the close relationship between Australian and Jewish forces during the World Wars, from the Zion Mule Corps to the Jewish Volunteer legions of the 38th, 39th and 40th battalions of the Royal Fusiliers – which included such future Israeli persons of note as David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan – and how his own grandfather was looked after in Mandatory Palestine during the Second World War by the Jewish community while serving in the AIF. These relationships and events, according to Kelly, impacted Australians like Herbert “Doc” Evatt, the Australian President of the United Nations in 1948, who successfully championed the establishment of the Jewish State. “So this is a bond formed in blood. It is a bond that is growing today with the wonderful technological achievements of the state of Israel in renewable energy and technology in general,” Kelly said. “It’s a relationship that will continue to grow.”
Mark Dreyfus, the shadow Attorney General who raised the issue of an apology in Parliament a decade ago, stated that “Australia is not merely an ally of Israel; it is a friend… I’m deeply proud that Australia has important historic links to the creation of the state of Israel and I’m equally proud of the enduring friendship our nation has built with Israel in the nearly 70 years since its establishment.”
Tim Wilson, Liberal MP for Goldstein, also lauded the friendship and the incredible achievements of Israel, and decried attempts to attack the State and deny the connection between Jews and Israel. “Particularly I want to stand up and speak out always against the efforts to delegitimise the state of Israel through the United Nations, where some countries want not just to continue the sttisation of the Jewish people but to sever their connection to their homeland…We must stand proud and we must stand clear against these efforts. We must do it in celebration of the 70th anniversary of the rebirth of the state of Israel.”
Labor MP for Oxley Milton Dick also strongly supported the motion. “What is also written in the history books is that Australia could have done more during these tumultuous times for Jewish people,” Dick lamented. “As we know, it’s estimated that six million Jews and millions of others died during the Holocaust. Had the world acted sooner to more fully protect the Jewish people, this number could have been far lower.”
Steve Irons, the member for Swan who seconded the motion, declared that “The Australian government and many other nations around the world failed the Jewish people… In this great place and in our strong democracy we have the opportunity to right the wrongs of our past. As the member for Fadden noted, we can do that by having this House – the house that represents all political parties of Australia and all Australians – issue an apology to the Jewish people for the indifference demonstrated by the Australian parliament in 1938… War is an atrocity, but the atrocities visited upon the Jewish people by the Nazi regime must be set right.”
Finally, Michael Danby, Labor MP for Melbourne Ports, praised the motion. “The idea of this resolution was to be presented as a bipartisan, non-partisan repudiation by modern-day Australians of that terrible indifference to our colleagues in the Israeli Knesset and to be placed right next to Colonel White’s infamous declaration…I think nothing could be more thoughtful than this, and I commend the many members who spoke on it in the debate earlier today in the House,” Danby said. “My father was one of the refugees who luckily made it to Australia… All I can say, in response to this resolution is: Am Yisrael Chai.”