Australia might not be the first A in the alphabet, but every Australian Jew knows that it was first to cast a "yes" vote in favor of the partition of Palestine 65 years ago. Yesterday, Australia recast its vote on what’s left of Palestine as an abstention, disappointing the yeas who believe that the vote was a vindication of history, and the nays who fear its catastrophic undoing.
Australian Jews have always boasted the bipartisan nature of Australian support for Israel, and have meticulously measured this support by U.N. resolutions. In 1947 it was Doc Evatt, a distinguished Australian jurist and Labor politician, who made history for Israel as Chair of the U.N. Committee on Palestine. Many feared that since routing Finland to win a seat on the Security Council this year, Australia would finally sell out its ally, prefigured by a series of abstentions on U.N. resolutions relating to Israel.
Making amends for these equivocations, Prime Minister Julia Gillard was set to vote against the Palestine resolution. At the last minute she was rolled by her own party, known for its caucus infighting and "faceless men" whose machinations once brought Gillard to power in a coup against her rival, Kevin Rudd.
The faceless men on this occasion happened to be staunch allies of Israel. Bob Carr, who recently replaced Rudd as foreign minister, had argued all along that Australia should vote with its conscience and not its American patron. Gareth Evans, a former foreign minister himself, flew in from New York to urge Australia to position itself on the right side of history, which he has done much to rectify through U.N. related agencies such as the International Crisis Group and the Global Centre for Responsibility to Protect. Even Bob Hawke, who as prime minister shed iconic tears on behalf of Soviet Jews, urged Gillard to change her vote.
The national Jewish press, whose reportage resembles an Israeli army Tweet, led the charge of treachery with its cover picture of Bob Carr. "You’ve let us down," the headlines screamed Judas against the same party that a week earlier was praised for one-sidedly supporting Israel’s Gaza operation. The Jewish lobby group, the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council, was uncharacteristically mute, preferring to hold its punch for a battle that had not already been lost. The Zionist leadership stepped onto center stage by proclaiming that it was heading to Canberra to set matters straight, and was as successful in its quest as its minders in Jerusalem.
Lost on the Australian public are the subtle nuances posed by a U.N. vote which conferred statehood on a nation divided by geography and strategy. Australian sentiment on most matters foreign can be summed up by the local expression, "Fair Go," a no fuss approach to world affairs based on a visceral attachment to compassion and justice. No matter that "Fair Go" has been lacking in Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. On the Palestine issue, the Jewish community appeared to be flexing muscle to type, when the actual scene on display was the spectacle of Jewish powerlessness in the face of reason.
For in this vote about Palestine lies a deep sense—amongst the public, and also amongst Jews who feel disenfranchised from the lobbyists—that an abstention was the least old mates could do for this region, beset by death and dead peace processes. Whatever one's reservations about this resolution, the significant shift is neither to Australia’s voting pattern nor to its unwavering support for Israel. The change of paradigm is to the conflict itself, which can finally use the expression Israel and Palestine in place of the vocabulary of lethal confabulations—Israel-Palestine, Israelestine, Palestine from the River to the Sea, Secular Democratic Palestine, the West Bank and Gaza, Judea and Samaria.
Whatever power Jews possess in reality rather than mythically, it would therefore best be spent knocking on the middle-sized doors of Canberra, and urging our friends to support these two nation-states by settling the issues bookended by two U.N. resolutions—borders, refugees, resources, occupation, security, and that old blessed one, Jerusalem, which also troubled Doc Evatt who recommended it be an international city.
As the poet Natan Alterman once said of Israel’s own struggles: "No nation is handed over on a silver platter." Now begins the hard work of righting the past.