Biennial Conference Keynote, Zionist Federation of Australia

  • Speech, E&OE

Thank you, Yossi, and can I say how glad I am to be here in Melbourne as a guest of the Zionist Federation of Australia to address you, the leaders of the Australian Jewish community, as part of your first biennial conference since the pandemic.

I acknowledge Israeli Ambassador, Amir Maimon, Zionist Federation of Australia President Jeremy Liebler, Mark Leibler, State Member for Caulfield, David Southwick and my fellow Members of Parliament, Josh Burns and Michelle Ananda-Rajah.

Thank you for having me here to address your conference today.

As you know, the Albanese Government is deeply committed to the cause of reconciliation with Australia's First Nations peoples.

So today, I start by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land on which we meet and paying my respect to Elders, past and present.

I'd like to acknowledge any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here with us today.

And I reaffirm the Australian Government's commitment to implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full – Voice, Treaty, Truth.

I'd highlight the particular role played by the former head of the Zionist Federation, Mark Leibler - as one of the co-chairs, with Pat Dodson, of the process that led to the Uluru Statement.

That was a great contribution to the great cause of reconciliation with Australia's First Nations people.

West Jerusalem issue

The first thing I want to touch on today is something I know is a very important issue for Australia's Jewish community, and for our friends in Israel, an issue that has been talked about much in the past fortnight.

A bit over a week ago, Foreign Minister Wong announced the decision to reaffirm Australia's position on the status of Jerusalem.

I wanted to tell you why we took that decision.

What it represents.

And what it does not.

As Minister Wong wrote in The Australian Jewish News last week, Australia had a bipartisan national position on the status of Jerusalem for most of Israel's history.

Only in 2018 did the Morrison Government recognise West Jerusalem.

Our decision last week was to restore Australia's decades-old position that Jerusalem is a final status issue that should be resolved as part of any peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian people.

A position that had been held by successive Australian governments from 1948 until 2018.

Seventy years of successive Australian governments have had consensus on this issue. All of Australia's Prime Ministers have been faithful friends of Israel.

Under Prime Minister Curtin, it was Australian Labor Foreign Minister H. V. (Doc) Evatt who was instrumental in the creation of Israel after World War II.

As president of the United Nations General Assembly from 1948 to 1949 he played a pivotal role in establishing a homeland for Jewish people.

He was also the chair of the UN Committee (UNSCOM) that recommended partitioning the British Mandate of Palestine into a Jewish and Arab state. This resulted in the 1947 UN Partition Plan, and Resolution 181, which Australia was the first country to vote yes for.

As Gideon Haigh wrote in his biography of Doc Evatt:

“No task so consumed Evatt's energies as the division of Palestine – which is remarkable for there being almost no incentive for him to do so….Populated by fewer than 40,000 Jews, Australia had no ‘Jewish vote to be courted and the idea of a homeland enjoyed far from uniform support anyway.”

In other words, he was motivated not by domestic politics, but by justice and the Australian national interest.

We understand that the status of Jerusalem is a highly sensitive topic for Jewish people all around the world.

And like Minister Wong and the Prime Minister, I regret that the shift away from Australia's longstanding position in 2018, and the shift back last week, have been distressing for Australian communities who care about this important issue.  Including our friends in the Australian Jewish community, or our friends in Israel.

Like Minister Wong, I think the timing of this news, falling during the High Holiday period, was deeply regrettable.

What it does not represent, however, is any change to the Australian Government principled approach to the fundamental Israeli-Palestinian question.

Please know that Australia's commitment to Israel has not wavered in the slightest.

Let me reiterate the fundamentals of our approach.

Our position

We remain deeply committed to an enduring peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

To a two-state solution in which Israel and a future Palestinian state co-exist, in peace and security, within internationally recognised borders.

We continue to call on all parties to progress negotiations towards a just and enduring two-state solution.

And the principle that will guide the actions of this government on this issue is this: will it support the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians?

As a friend of Israel, we will not support unilateral actions that undermine this peace process.

As a responsible international actor, we won't impose our view of the final borders and boundaries.  These should be the result of peace negotiations.

Because we understand an enduring and just peace can only come from a negotiated agreement between the parties.

We remain friends of the state of Israel: a modern, vibrant, diverse, and multicultural democracy with which Australians share cherished values.

This issue is too important to be treated this way. True friends of Israel see this issue like Doc Evatt did.

Not through the lens of domestic political advantage, but through the prism of justice and peace.

Not by asking what narrow political benefit can be drawn from the conflict but instead asking how we can contribute to building conditions to support peace-making.

So we will call out the unfair and disproportionate targeting of Israel in international forums.

And we continue to fight the scourge of antisemitism.

It isn't easy. Sometimes it feels like the modern information ecosystem and political environment are designed to maximise division.

So I'd like to talk a bit today about the challenges of disinformation for democratic societies like Australia, and like Israel.

Disinformation and antisemitism

Day by day, we read about this in the papers or online.

Institutions are being challenged around the world.

By some actors, information is valued not for its truth or insight, but for its ability to fuel division and extremism.

Alternative facts are put out there, regularly, with the intent of reinforcing and exploiting existing prejudices.

Ours is an age of disinformation and misinformation.

For states and individuals with malign agendas, truth is an optional extra.

Lies can be a path to influence.

To building political support.

Or to attaining power.

Vladimir Putin's cynical contempt for the truth has reached new lows during Russia's illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine.

His revolting propaganda and false narrative that a Jewish President is a Nazi is particularly galling. It epitomizes Peter Pomerantsev's description of Putin's aim to create an information environment in which “nothing is true, and everything is possible.”

This kind of information environment is actively hostile to our ability to build understanding, to build agreement, to build peace.

The Jewish community knows this well, having been subjected to the biggest lie of all.

Antisemitism has fuelled bigotry, discrimination and violence across the generations.

Antisemitism happens in schools, in universities, in workplaces.

It happens online. It is perpetuated by celebrities and ordinary citizens.

It happens in the real world, and it has real impacts.

The Christchurch terrorist in 2019 was radicalised by online hate speech – a clear and horrific example.

And as Deputy Chair of a Committee of Inquiry into Social Media and Online Safety in 2021, I and my fellow committee members heard evidence time and again that Australia's current online safety regime was not adequately equipped to deal with online abuse directed at groups of people rather than individuals. Abuse directed at groups on the basis of their ethnicity and religion – most commonly at people of Muslim and Jewish faith – was identified as a particular problem to which there was little recourse.

That's something the Albanese Labor government has committed to doing something about.

Because while we know that hatred and bigotry has always existed, but that online environments are a major vector for the spread of such ideology in our modern world. 

The sad fact is, even in 2022, antisemitism is still with us today - and it intersects with this global trend towards online spread, including when it comes to Holocaust denial.

It is one of the reasons the Albanese Labor government will bring religious discrimination legislation before the parliament in this term of government.

The core of this law will be to bring a prohibition on all discrimination, including online vilification, against people on the grounds of their religious beliefs.

That will be an enormous step forward for community safety, and for the values upon which we seek to build our society.

Holocaust remembrance

I want to take this opportunity – as I know Penny Wong has done – to acknowledge the important work of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

Australia remembers the 6 million people murdered in a state-driven program of attempted eradication.

We remember it because the Holocaust happened, because it was genocide, and because things like that can happen again.

I've visited Yad Vashem to bear witness.

The Holocaust is an almost unimaginable part of human history.

But a part of human history it is.

As a global community we have to confront the facts of our own past.

All the palatable ones, and all the unpalatable ones as well.

This isn't about left- or right-wing, progressive, or conservative.

You don't have to be on an extreme fringe to be captured by false narratives. It is incumbent on all leaders in our society to confront this bigotry when we encounter it.

It's why Labor embraced the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism and reaffirmed this position in 2016, 2019 and 2022.

As Penny Wong stated in opposition:

“It is precisely because we value our friendship with Israel, and our ability to engage on complex matters, that the IHRA's definition is so important, because it ensures respectful debate, where disagreements are aired without descending into hateful and antisemitic slurs.”

We won't dodge distressing facts – like antisemitic attacks and Holocaust denial – that are still with us today.

To the contrary, as Penny Wong has said, we will “continue to fight the scourge of antisemitism... and we will call out the unfair and disproportionate targeting of Israel in international forums.”

And we are doing exactly that in this term of government.

Commission of Inquiry

Australia's Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva, Amanda Gorely, recently condemned recent comments made by Miloon Kothari, Commissioner for the UN's Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem and in Israel.

As Representative Gorely said, Australia was “deeply concerned by recent comments made by UN Commissioner Miloon Kothari. Antisemitism is unacceptable and we condemn it wherever it appears.”

More broadly, Australia has consistently made clear our concerns about the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry.

We've said the mandate has too broad a scope and should have included an end date.

We did not support the resolution creating the Commission of Inquiry.

Australia's long-standing position has been to support the independence of the Human Rights Committee's special procedures and mechanisms to enable independent comment and assessment.


We have a new federal government in Australia and with this change comes an opportunity to bring our nation together.

The Albanese Labor government understands that at the heart of any stable, peaceful society, is equality of opportunity, acceptance of the rights of others, guaranteed basic human rights and freedoms.

It's also an opportunity to strengthen Australia's ties to other nations and build positive and productive relationships with friends like Israel, with which we have had diplomatic relations since 1949.

Continuing that tradition, the Albanese Labor government will always be a friend of Israel.

As former Prime Minister Julia Gillard said in 2009,

“…the true root of democratic freedom is conversation.

Without readiness to exchange our beliefs and experiences freely and fiercely, we cannot build the understanding we need for collaboration and compromise.”

In that spirit of understanding, collaboration and working together to build our democratic freedoms, I wish this conference good conversation and good friendship.

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