Friday, May 27, 2005

Jews and Australian Politics Forum, Thursday night

Just returned from a very interesting forum at the Jewish Museum of Australia, based around the fiery new book Jews and Australian Politics. On the panel was co-editor Phillip Mendes (Geoffrey Brahm Levey was the other hand in this effort), along with Michael Danby and Julian Sheezel, both Jews with a long involvement in the Labor and Liberal parties respectively. All three were in good form, with Mendes offering some interesting insights into the drift toward conservatism (well, toward voting Liberal, at least) amongst Australian Jewry, whilst Danby and Sheezel launched some diplomatic but well directed attacks at their political opponents. I admit I am yet to read the book although I would quite like to, so for now I'll just offer a few interesting snippets from Thursday night's forum:

- Just what is the character of Jewish voters, and how has it changed over time? Mendes forcefully argued that whilst Jews generally come from a higher socio-economic background, they usually identify with a progressive position on social issues such as refugees, abortion and welfare. This has historically led them to vote for the ALP, and can in part explain why 8 of the 9 Jewish MPs since Federation have been from Labor. Now the trend is on toward voting Liberal, in part perhaps to the odiousness of the left fringe of the ALP.

- Danby had a dig at some of the elder statespeople within the ALP over the branch-stacking issue. The issue of ethnic groups being used to stack out Labor branches was raised, and Danby indignantly suggested that Labor should be proud for engaging non-Anglo people in the political process. Danby asked whether it was fair that party elders "with Anglo names like Matthews, Kirner and Cain" (that would be with the equally Anglo first names of Race, Joan and John) determine whether ethnic members were legitimate or just stackers. A clever argument.

- The question of who won the Jewish vote in Melbourne Ports arose. Though it is impossible to give a definate answer (Caulfield might be ghettoised, but it's not that ghettoised), it is possible the theorise. Danby argued that he had won the Jewish vote, whilst Sheezel argued that the Liberal candidate Southwick did, though both seemed a little unsure. Using Primary Votes as the guide, since this gives a good idea of the voter's intention, some quick samples reveal the following:

Electorate-wide:
Danby 39.25%
Southwick 42.94%

Heavily Jewish booths:
Caulfield:
Danby 33.40%
Southwick 58.22%

Caulfield Upper:
Danby 34.95%
Southwick 52.14%

Prepoll:
Danby 37.19%
Southwick 44.51%

Heavily non-Jewish:
Graham:
Danby 45.38%
Southwick 41.51%

Sandridge:
Danby 66.97%
Southwick 24.08%

Port Melbourne:
Danby 42.89%
Southwick 42.83%

Based on these samples, it's hard to see how Danby won the Jewish vote. True, he may have won it on preferences, but overall it seems that Danby lost the Jewish vote but won - or at least drew even - amongst the non-Jewish voters.

- A few interesting comments on the pro-Palestinian movement within Canberra. The Parly Friends of Palestine is currently headed by Liberal Sussan Lay and was previously headed by former MP, Liberal Ross Cameron. The Palestian Authority representative in Canberra, the equivalent of an ambassador for a non-state, is apparently appallingly bombastic and ineffective. There is a growing generation, though, of Australian-born, politically savvy Arabs and Muslims to put a more persuasive and professional case.

- The book has recieved some attention in the Jewish media suggesting that the book was a diatribe against controversial Jewish lobbyists AIJAC (Austalia/Israel and Jewish Affair Council). Mendes was fairly dismissive of the attention, explaining that a critique of AIJAC fills just three pages of the book, in the context of the Hanan Ashrawi/Sydney Peace Price saga. Are Colin Rubenstein et al at AIJAC the Carly Simon of Australian politics ("You're so vain... I bet you think this song is about you...")?

An interesting night out with some worthwhile topics on the table for discussion. Next step: to read the book.

UPDATE 30/5, 10:20pm: A friend has alerted me to AIJAC's response to the perceived criticisms in the book, and in a column in its publication The Review, Ted Lapkin comes out fighting:

Stripped of all the window dressing, the essence of the Levey/Mendes grievance about AIJAC’s purported "political bias" stems from the fact that the partiality in question isn’t theirs. Like many Jewish Leftists, Levey and Mendes resent the fact that their worldview places them far outside the ambit of the community’s political common denominators. They are frustrated that the inherent extremism of their politics consigns them to the status of bit players on the Jewish communal stage.

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