SERVING four consecutive two-year terms as Zionist Federation of Australia (ZFA) president – an innings of eight years – means gathering a load of memories, but for Philip Chester, one episode stands out.
Chester, who retired at last Sunday’s ZFA annual meeting and biennial conference, recalls a visit to Israel in 2006 with then ZFA executive director Lorraine Abrahams. Soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev had been kidnapped by Hezbollah and war with Lebanon had broken out. Chester and Abrahams were at a United Israel Appeal event near Haifa.
The Australian pair had some contact with Shlomo Goldwasser, Ehud’s father, and they knew he lived some 75 minutes’ drive north of Haifa. Chester suggested they phone ahead and arrange an impromptu visit and express the Australian Jewish community’s solidarity with the distressed family. Abrahams was reticent but Chester persuaded her to make the phone call, and if the family wanted their privacy, so be it. As it turned out, Shlomo urged them to visit.
Chester remembers meeting the family in what felt like a shiva house, although at that stage, there was no news about the young soldier’s fate. (It later turned out that both soldiers were killed.) Chester invited Shlomo to visit Australia to talk to politicians and the Jewish community, and some days later, the distressed father took up the invitation for what was to be a heartfelt tour of Australia, which coincided with the High Holy Days in 2007.
He recalls that Kevin Rudd, then opposition leader, “said many times, before and after becoming prime minister, that his meeting with Shlomo Goldwasser was one of the most emotional and difficult meetings he’d ever had in his life”.
In the former ZFA president’s opinion, Jewish Australians do solidarity with Israel better than just about any Diaspora Jewish community, whenever a crisis erupts in Israel. During Chester’s incumbency, there were a few – Gilad Shalit, Operations Cast Lead and Pillar of Defence in Gaza, violence against Israeli troops aboard the Mavi Marmara, and the creeping Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions activity, to name a few.
The rallies and messages of support from far away make a huge difference to morale in Israel, Chester told The AJN. “I speak to lots of politicians in Israel and institutional leaders, and families and friends on the street, and the support they get from this community is absolutely welcomed and noticed.”
But he says rallying support for Israel also energises Jewish Australians and creates a more cohesive local Jewish community.
Outgoing ZFA president Philip Chester with Gilad Shalit in 2013.