Australia needs to do better

Article published in The Sydney Jewish Report, 4 June 2024. © Richard Kemp

Australians can take immense pride from the critical role their country played in the re-creation of the State of Israel. Without the fighting prowess and blood sacrifice of the ANZACs, who defeated the Ottoman Empire alongside the British and other armies in the First World War, the Jewish state could not have emerged 30 years later. In the face of British opposition, Australia was also the first country to vote in favour of the UN Partition Plan which led directly to Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

In the intervening years Australia has been one of Israel’s staunchest friends anywhere. But visiting Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra in the last few weeks I have seen a somewhat different story, with Hamas supporting mobs in the streets and on university campuses. Like many others around the world, the Australian government has rounded on Israel as it is fighting a war on seven fronts that so far has lasted only about a month less than the 1948 Independence War. I spoke to a rabbi in Sydney who recounted how the Prime Minister told him that Israel is fighting the war all wrong. Mr Albanese did not, apparently, offer a view on how it should be done differently. That’s not surprising: I’ve met many politicians, military experts and academics who make the same complaint but not one has any solution to offer beyond platitudes about ‘negotiated solutions’ and ‘world peace’.

In any case it’s not about how the war is fought; all this anti-Israel noise is about the country’s very legitimacy. Decades of political warfare against Israel, the most successful slur campaign in history, has created an almost unshakeable narrative that the Jews stole Arab land, illegally occupy Palestinian territory, practice apartheid and are trying to perpetrate a genocide. This is of course all lies, every single part of it. But it is widely believed, even among some politicians who should know better. Under this narrative, whatever happens to Israel, even 7 October, it has it coming.  Whatever Israel does in self-defence is wrong.

Therefore the IDF is repeatedly accused in the media, on campuses, by the UN and so-called human rights bodies, of indiscriminately killing civilians and depriving them of humanitarian aid. Both are lies. I have been inside Gaza several times since the war began and I can say unequivocally that the IDF is taking immense care to minimise civilian casualties while fighting an enemy whose strategy is based entirely on trying to lure them to kill as many of their own population as possible. Casualty statistics available to us at present show a lower ratio of civilian to combatant casualties than in any comparable conflict anywhere, confirming my first hand observations. I have visited humanitarian crossing points and have seen the almost superhuman efforts of the IDF to get aid into Gaza. The result is that the amount of aid entering the Strip since the war began has been more than double the quantities that went in during equivalent periods before 7 October.

Despite the efforts of so many around the world to prevent an Israeli victory in this war, the IDF has been astonishingly effective at destroying Hamas on the most complex of any battlefield I have ever known. The last formed terrorist units are currently being dealt with in Rafah. Once that is done the IDF will face the task of destroying the remaining Hamas infrastructure, dealing with the surviving terrorists, and suppressing any re-emergence of a threat to Israeli civilians. That will take a very long time and require the IDF to maintain permanent security control over Gaza indefinitely, irrespective of who ends up running and reconstructing the place. Then there is Hizballah to deal with in Lebanon.

It would be easy to become depressed as this long war proceeds and world condemnation grows. But I am optimistic. Once the dust settles, Israel will emerge with its honour fully intact, even though the haters will deny it. It will also emerge stronger than when the war began. Recognising now that it can rely on nobody, not even the US, it will become more self-sufficient and militarily powerful. With so many young and older Israelis having fought and sacrificed so much for their country, it will also regain an even stronger sense of national identity, purpose and cohesion. Much as Australia’s own terrible baptism of fire in two world wars played a major role in forging a strong, proud and independent nation.

It should not be seen as a burden to stand up for Israel, but an honour. Australian Jews and non-Jews who do so now can take as much pride as their forebears who played their part in the re-creation of the Jewish state. I am reminded of the words of Winston Churchill to the boys of his old school in 1941 as the Second World War raged: ‘We must all thank God that we have been allowed, each of us according to our stations, to play a part in making these days memorable in the history of our race.’