The elephant in the Zionist classroom

Jun 17, 2024
A stained glass window of a Star of David, known in Hebrew as Magen David, a symbol of modern Jewish identity and Judaism.

What is it about the Australian Jewish community, Australian Jewish ‘faith’ schools and Israel?

Israel is another country, with its own raison d’être, decidedly blood-soaked. The young Israel had been created out of settler colonialism and terrorism in a country with a majority indigenous non-Jewish population. Australian Jewish families are Australian with a long history. Significant number of Australian Jewish families are descendants of refugees and survivors of a Hitler-overrun Europe, the Holocaust, and a devastated European terrain post-War.

Some Australian Jewish individuals or families have subsequently migrated to Israel. The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (undated) has estimated that 10-12,000 Australians live in Israel (this figure would pre-date October 2023). The Australian Jewish population, depending on classification, is estimated at at least 100,000. The numbers have been enhanced by migration of Jewish families from South Africa and the Soviet Union/Russia. These families have consciously decided that residency in Australia is preferable to residency in the supposed Jewish ‘homeland’. There are an estimated 11,000 Israeli-born people (mostly Jewish) resident in Australia. In short, for over 100,000 Australian Jews, Australia is the promised land.

However, Australian Jewish schools in general put Israel, uncritically, devotionally, on the curriculum and into school culture.

This excerpt from the Core Values of Sydney’s Moriah College:

‘Moriah … maintains and promotes among its students an awareness of and a feeling for Jewish traditions and ethics, an understanding of and a positive commitment to Orthodox Judaism and identification with and love for Israel.’

Moriah’s Core Values statement has remained unchanged for some time. Under ‘Experiential Jewish Life and Learning’, we read:

‘By instilling knowledge of our Jewish traditions, Torah, mitzvot, history, ethics, family values, Hebrew and a love for Israel, our students are encouraged to strengthen their intellectual, emotional, spiritual and social links with their Jewish heritage, emerging with a stronger sense of identity as Jewish Australians. …

‘Moriah College students enjoy residential camps, Shabbatonim and Israel Study Tours in an informal, fun atmosphere.’

Moriah’s love for Israel went into overdrive on 23 February 2017. Moriah welcomed the sitting Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, where his reception was that of combination rock star and pied piper (c/f the coverage by JWire, SBS and IsraeliPM). How this show business affair enhanced the highly emotional Primary School students’ sense of identity as Jewish Australians is not obvious.

Let’s hear it from Mount Scopus Memorial College:

‘… a dream of establishing a school where all Jewish children, regardless of means, could attend to learn of their heritage, be proud Jews and be dedicated supporters of Israel whilst understanding their role in Australian society.

Under ‘learning and life’ we read:

‘Mount Scopus introduced the Year 10 Israel program to Melbourne in 1982, with 20 students joining the first group. Fast forward 40 years and virtually all Year 10 students now travel to Israel on either the five week or the nine week program, the latter which includes a study program over four weeks in a local Israeli high school prior to being joined in Israel by the rest of the group.

‘The five week program combines touring throughout Israel with opportunities to hear from key speakers from all walks of Israeli society; political, religious, cultural as well as volunteer for a range of unique and memorable experiences. …

‘To ensure that no student misses this valuable program due to financial need, we are fortunate to have subsidies provided by generous benefactors who understand the value of this program in consolidating Jewish identity. Our graduating students cite this as the single most influential experience in their time at Scopus, and in the development of their Jewish identity and connection with Israel.’

At Melbourne’s Bialik College:

‘We recognise the centrality of Israel and Hebrew to the Jewish people;’

Under ‘Jewish Life’ we read:

Israel immersion experience – Chavayah Each year, Bialik ensures that its entire Year 10 cohort, regardless of financial background, can travel to Israel for a 6-week immersion experience in Israeli society. … Students get to experience the daily lives of normal Israelis whilst appreciating their historical and biblical connections to Israel.

‘This is a life-changing experience which ties together so much of our educational programming. Students see Judaism, Zionism and modern life in action, engagement and vitality as can be found nowhere else. They delve into all of Israel’s complexities, vitality and beauty with hands and hearts open, coming back to Melbourne changed forever for the better.’

Bialik offers myriad ‘Ways to support’ Israel through donations during the current unexplained upheaval.

At Melbourne’s Leibler Yavneh College:

The Yavneh Difference Built on strong Jewish values, Leibler Yavneh College seeks to educate with the purpose of creating Torah and Israel-committed youth.’

Under ‘Jewish Life’ we read:

‘Our dedicated Tzevet (a team of young Shlichim from Israel) bring a strong Israeli flavour to our school and are involved in our Jewish Studies program, Chagim celebrations, Jewish Life initiatives, and Hebrew programs. …

‘Each year, our Tzevet works tirelessly to create an authentic Yom Ha’Zikaron experience through the eyes of Israeli soldiers who have lost friends, family and community members in the various tragedies which Israel has faced.’ [see below]

At Melbourne’s King David School:

‘Yisrael Sheli – Yesh: My Israel Yesh is King David’s peak Israel program that allows our students to transform Israel from being a place they learn about to a place that they directly experience. Students spend four weeks traveling through Israel, understanding Israel through the lenses of People, Land and State. Students explore Israel’s history, society, political system and natural environment, including meaningful mifgash (meetings) with Israeli teens. Students deepen their sense of Jewish and Israel identification, while developing the personal, social and emotional skills that come with living in a group setting away from home.

‘From camping in the Negev to visiting the Kotel, from snorkeling in Eilat to touring the Golan, students touch, hear, taste, smell, and see Israel from north to south. …

‘The King David School created the Yesh Trip to Israel for Year 10 students in 2005. Since that time almost 1,000 students have benefitted and participated in this transformative Israel experience. Developing an attachment to Israel and Judaism at a formative period in a young person’s life has a significant impact on strengthening their sense of Jewish identity.’

At Sydney’s Mount Sinai College:

‘The College calendar reflects the centrality of Jewish festivals and Israel in its Informal Jewish Educational Programs. … Informal or Experiential Jewish Learning is a significant feature of the curriculum and is facilitated by both teaching staff and Informal Educators (Shlichot) from Israel. …

‘We believe that the centrality of the Hebrew language to Jewish Learning should never be underestimated. It links both to our past and sacred texts as well as the Modern State of Israel. … Graduates emerge as self-directed, life-long learners with a strong Jewish identity and a commitment to the State of Israel.’

Sydney’s Masada College has no reference to Israel in its mission statements. However, Masada did unfurl the blue and white on 19 October 2023 with:

‘#standwithisrael In a beautiful display of unity, the Masada College community came together to express unwavering support for the state of Israel.’

The school also rallied in support of Hamas-held Israeli hostages:

‘On Thursday 28 March [2024], vibrant splashes of yellow could be seen throughout the entire College, symbolising Masada’s united support for Israel and the hostages.’

Sydney’s Emanuel School also takes a formally low-key approach to Israel. However, Emanuel emphasises celebrations on the Jewish calendar, amongst which:

‘On Yom Ha’Atzmaut, we celebrate the miraculous history of the Jewish State, while looking at present-day Israel, its challenges and promise …’

Melbourne’s Sholem Aleichem College was founded in large part by Jewish Labour Bundists. Their Wikipedia entry notes:

‘… the SKIF [the Bund’s youth organisation] and Bund act as an “important antidote” to the ‘overwhelming strength’ of Zionism within the Australian Jewish community, and that the Bund’s ideology of Doikayt or “Hereness” has been important in preserving both Yiddish culture and a Jewishness that is rooted in living in Australia; as opposed to focusing around Israel.’

In spite of that divergent trajectory (and in spite of attempts to suppress Yiddish in Jewish Mandatory Palestine and subsequently in Israel), we read on Sholem Aleichem’s website:

‘Our purpose is to cultivate in our students a passionate Jewish identity, and a sense of belonging to the worldwide Jewish and Australian community with strong ties to the State of Israel.’

Michael Brull spent 13 years at Moriah College, and he has outlined his experience as a fish out of water. The Jewish schools system’s attachment to Israel appears deeply embedded. In particular, camps, both in Australia and Israel, involve soldier training simulations that feed, whether directly through recruitment or in sympathy, into Israel’s militarised society and killing machine.

Is this school system the nursery for the Israel lobby in Australia?

But what happens when suitably socialised students hit the university?

(Jewish) American academic and journalist Eric Alterman has commented on the phenomenon on US campuses (‘Biden’s Lonely Stance on the War in Gaza’, Le Monde Diplomatique, February 2024):

‘Almost all upper-middle-class American Jewish high school students go on to college. Most do so, however, having been educated about Israel in an ideological bubble. In college, they enter an alternative universe in which Israel is understood to be the oppressor and the Palestinians their victims. This caused cognitive dissonance, and the result was often panic.’

What is termed ‘insecurity’ for Jewish university students is rather cognitive dissonance in the face of accurate descriptions of Israel’s character.

Former Liberal MP and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg (schooled at Mount Scopus) wants university campus protest encampments closed down. He asserted, mid-May: ‘Our universities must be safe spaces for learning and education, not indoctrination’.

Liberal MP Julian Leeser appeared on Sky News, 28 May, to claim:

‘Universities are ground zero for antisemitism in Australia today … People go to universities to learn about the world around them, and what if they are learning is … that Jews should be destroyed … then that is a terrible thing that we are creating for the next generation of Australians.’

Sky News quickly followed up the Leeser interview with one of Labor MP Josh Burns (schooled at Mount Scopus, self-appointed Minister for Israel in the federal Labor Caucus, as was his predecessor Michael Danby, also schooled at Mount Scopus) and of Liberal Senator Dave Sharma (the Liberal equivalent).

Frydenberg have the story upside down. The academy is chockfull of selective slants on history and society, but there’s sufficient tolerance and learning capacity for tertiary students to pick up on essential elements of the history of Israel and of Zionism. It is not a pretty story. These are opportunities apparently not available in the representative Australian Jewish school. Nobody is being indoctrinated against Israel at university level and nobody is learning that ‘Jews should be destroyed’ or is denigrating Judaism.

If there is indoctrination going on, it’s by the Zionists themselves. Representative is the commemoration of Yom HaZikaron. A separate annual event was established in Israel in 1963, to commemorate soldiers killed in battles, later enhanced by adding ‘civilian victims of terrorism’. The phenomenon came to broader attention when pro-Palestinian protestors disrupted a comparable event at Monash University in May, apparently attended by 1000 people. It turns out that Zionism Victoria hosts the event and it has been occurring at Monash for some years. What is a university doing hosting such propaganda for a foreign rogue state? The lovefest starts in the schools.

At university, Zionist students have a security blanket against open inquiry in the Australasian Union of Jewish Students, thus:

‘AUJS subscribes to the Zionist ideals espoused in the World Zionist Organisation’s Jerusalem Program. We seek to promote a positive image of Israel on campus; to encourage truth in student political dialogue, and to educate the wider student population about Judaism and Israel.’

The comfort zone is complemented by Departments of Jewish studies (and by Jewish residential colleges). At Sydney University, it’s the Department of Hebrew, Biblical and Jewish Studies (HBJS). There we discover:

‘Our advanced exchange program provides life-changing experiences in Israel with our partner university, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where students exercise their language skills and develop an understanding of cultural intricacies first-hand.’

Suzanne Rutland, long-time Department Head, has had a consistent diversionary focus. In The Conversation, 24 November 2023, Rutland assumes a priori that criticism of Zionism and of Israel is an attack on Jewry sui generis and thus heralds antisemitism. This conventional sleight of hand is decidedly unscholarly. Rutland is an active supporter of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and its fraudulent definition of antisemitism and of permissible criticism of Israel – again, decidedly unacademic as a means of defending the indefensible.

Rutland claims that there exists a ‘political antisemitism associated with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which ostensible criticisms of Israel can morph into an irrational hatred of Jews’. Criticisms of Israel are merely cover for Jew-hatred? This conflation is a grievous insult to anti-Zionist Jews, and to Jewry in general.

Rutland later confronts Jewish anti-Zionism in the flesh and is unrepentant. Rutland was interviewed as a representative counter-weight in an ABC documentary on Antony Lowenstein, ‘Not in My Name’, 6 May 2024. Rutland claims:

‘The anti-Zionist message leads to attacks on Jews in Australia. So it fosters anti-Semitism, and we’ve seen that with a huge upsurge post October 7 … The mainstream Jewish leadership, most Jews see people like Antony Loewenstein, that extreme left-wing voice, as highly destructive to the wellbeing of Jews, and particularly the wellbeing of the over 7 million Jews living in Israel.’

This characterisation is misconstrued and defamatory. Loewenstein’s stance is not ‘left-wing’ nor ‘extreme’. Loewenstein is transparently rational and sober. It is Israel itself, under its successive leadership of whatever stripe, that is ‘highly destructive to the wellbeing of Jews’.

On 15 September 2015, I attended a meeting held at Sydney University’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (since dismantled under Zionist influence). The agenda was to discuss a proposed academic boycott of compromised Israeli institutions following the 2014-15 incursion into Gaza. Rutland turned up with a student platoon who proceeded to talk mumbo jumbo. Indoctrination anyone?

Rutland’s move to Emerita status has apparently not shifted the orientation of Sydney University’s HJBS Department. An internal email exchange between Sydney University staff, 6-8 November 2023, followed a Professor of international standing questioning Vice-Chancellor Mark Scott’s discounting of the carnage unleashed by Israel after the 7 October Hamas killings. An email from 17 staff, headed by the current HBJS Head, claimed that the Professor had a right to express his opinions but the reader has a responsibility to see through the inaccuracies. No corrections of the learned Professor’s stance (I saw none) were offered.

HBJS is the recipient of generous funding by the Australian Jewish community, not least the NSW Jewish Communal Appeal (JCA)’s Committee for Jewish Higher Education. A select administration document to which I have been privy discloses donations from the JCA (unreservedly committed to Israel) for the HBJS Department in May 2012 which summed to a whopping $573,000. It wouldn’t have been a one-off.

Is Israel the grand ultimate endpoint of thousands of years of Jewish history? If that is the intended agenda for university departments of Jewish studies, it’s a calumny on thousands of years of the history of Jewry.

The Australian Jewish school system has remained steadfast in its devotion to Israel in the face of escalating Israeli criminality.

There is the exemplary case of Ben Zygier who died in an Israeli prison cell in December 2010. The nature of his death has been inexcusably covered up by Israeli and Australian authorities. He attended King David School and was then a talented favourite son of Bialik College. The tragic affair was well covered by the Melbourne Age in 2013 and in a 2014 book by journalist Rafael Epstein. Ben Zygier died for what? Has Bialik reconsidered its Zionist orientation?

On 27 May, antisemitic graffiti was sprayed on the front wall of Mount Scopus College. The College reacted, bizarrely, by flying not only Australian flags but a bevy of small Israeli flags.

Gazans have been subject to a starvation diet since 2005, regular murderous incursions, and now subject to full-blown genocide. West Bank and East Jerusalem atrocities are daily occurrences. In 2021-22, respected Human Rights organisations finally acknowledged Israel to be an apartheid state, though its apartheid character has been built into its fabric since 1948 – as documented by the Haifa-based organisation Adalah. There appears to have been not a peep of concern from the Australian Jewish school system.

King David School’s Principal Marc Light, in a recent visit to Israel (‘Solidarity in Israel’, undated) despairs at the ‘unfathomable grief, despair and disillusionment in the challenging circumstances facing the nation’, expressing no comparable sentiments regarding the hell in Gaza, with seemingly no interest in understanding the origins of the current nightmare.

Light is unrepentant in his defence of Zionism (‘Calling out Anti-Zionism’, undated), claiming, moreover, that ‘the very substantial majority of Australian Jews see Zionism [and the existence of Israel] as a central tenet of their Jewish identity. Light claims ‘Indeed, many Zionists have devoted themselves towards peace-building …’. I’d like to see the evidence.

The implications of an unqualified attachment to a pariah state sit uneasily with the Jewish school system’s other ‘core values’ that emphasise critical thinking and Jewish ethics.

It appears that nothing is going to change with the Australian Jewish school system’s devotion to Israel, whatever barbarities Israel perpetrates. At the same time, the relative openness of the Australian university system is going to leave Israel subject to analysis and criticism, save in self-sustained (and well funded from external sources) departments of Jewish studies. The matriculants from Jewish schools when exposed to the real world at tertiary level will have to like it or lump it.

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