SOME years ago, I clashed with the late, great Isi Leibler over his public denouncement of the Anglo-Jewish leadership as “trembling Israelites”. Recently arrived on these shores from the UK to take the helm of The AJN in 2009, I felt a duty to defend my erstwhile countrymen in the face of the legendary activist’s blistering put-down. Sure, I concurred, the stalwarts of the British community could be a tad reluctant to put their heads above the public parapet on matters concerning Israel for fear of fuelling the myth of the all-powerful Jewish lobby. But this did not merit Leibler’s damning indictment of “cowardly” communal leaders, burying their heads in the sand.
I followed up with numerous examples where they had successfully defended Jewish practices that had been targeted, such as shechitah and brit milah, and I also noted that in the face of grassroots pro-Israel demonstrations during Operation Cast Lead, they had organised an official solidarity rally.
Further, I recalled the Salute to Israel parade held to celebrate the Jewish State’s 60th anniversary in 2008. Any one of the 10,000 people who danced through the streets of central London or the 30,000 who then partied in Trafalgar Square did so because those at the top had no qualms about displaying their love of Israel in public. And this in a country not exactly known for its love of Jews or their homeland, where the likes of Jeremy Corbyn, Jenny Tonge and Ken Livingstone are revered by masses for their virulent anti-Zionism and antisemitism.
Fast-forward to May 2021 and again thousands of British Jews have taken to the streets of the capital to declare their support for Israel, loudly and proudly. They rallied in response to a wave of pro-Palestinian demonstrations where speakers and placards vilified their brothers, sisters and cousins as Nazis and as bloodthirsty, genocidal child-killers, while calling for the complete eradication of the Jewish State – from the river to the sea.
Their numbers, their passion and their slogans – however false and offensive – captured the attention of the general public and the media, who in turn fed it unchallenged to their readers and viewers.
But a challenge did ultimately present itself in the form of the thousands of Jews who took to the streets last weekend, passionately waving Israeli flags and brandishing banners proclaiming the justness of Israel’s cause, the murderous intent of the terrorist regime targeting its citizens and, fundamentally, the wish for peace for those not just in the Jewish State but in Gaza as well.
They marched in pride, despite the threats made against them, the physical assaults on members of their community and the hatred spewed at them. And they in turn grabbed the attention of passers-by and secured media coverage, ensuring the public saw the other side of the debate.
But this didn’t just happen in the UK. It happened across Europe and across the United States. Thousands of Jews rallying for Israel, undaunted by the hostility they faced.
Compare and contrast those scenes with what we witnessed in Australia last Sunday.
While pro-Palestinian protests mirrored their counterparts overseas, spouting the same vitriol for the second week in a row, a muted gathering took place, in a Sydney shule – bereft of placards and with only a few flags on show – where speaker after speaker took to the pulpit to preach to the converted.
In Melbourne, a more sizeable crowd gathered in a park – slap bang in the middle of the Jewish community – far from the gaze of the public.
But again the speakers spoke to the converted and, while there were placards proclaiming support for Israel and calling for peace, again there wasn’t exactly a sea of flags.
Several members of the community have despaired in letters to The AJN and online that the turnout at the events could have been far greater or that they had no knowledge of either gathering, such was the security surrounding the release of details.
Some have bemoaned the “shameful display of cowardice” compared to rallies abroad, particularly with the Sydney gathering taking place behind closed doors.
“An absolute embarrassment”, posted one. “Disgusted and disappointed”, posted another.
There were, of course, legitimate reasons why communal leaders chose the locations they did, security and safety being a key one. But sometimes the heart must rule the brain, and Israel is in our hearts.
Indeed, it says something surely about our community that when Israeli soccer star Tomer Hemed takes to the pitch in the A-League, our leaders organise busloads of fans to flock to the stadium to cheer him on and wave Israeli flags. But when thousands of rockets rain down on Israel, killing innocent civilians and striking terror into the nation, and when those who oppose Israel stride through the streets peddling lies, we cower in a corner, rather than fight our corner.
Is this how we will galvanise the younger members of our community, who are already conflicted when faced with the images they see on television and social media?
Last week’s AJN cover, with a simple quote by Golda Meir emphasising Israel’s right to defend itself, was retweeted and reshared tens of thousands of times across the globe. At this time, the Jewish State’s supporters are desperate to express themselves and to be heard, to unite behind the cause. But if they’re not given the opportunity or if they sense the cause isn’t being publicly defended, what does that tell them?
Around 45 years ago, as a small child, I marched with my father and elder brother through the streets of London, along with thousands of others, holding placards calling for the release of the refuseniks – Soviet Jews forbidden from practising their religion and forbidden from making aliyah to Israel.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I know now that the global campaign for Soviet Jewry – and the rally I was part of – was spearheaded by one man, Isi Leibler.
Looking back today, I’m sure Isi would have been proud that a five or six-year-old boy tens of thousands of miles away was publicly campaigning for fellow Jews in a foreign country.
Would Isi be proud of us today though … or would he lament that we, Australian Jewry, have become the “trembling Israelites” he railed against so vociferously?
Zeddy Lawrence is national editor of The AJN.