‘Malcolm Turnbull is Jewish.’
This was one of the newer Palestinian banners held high at the anti-Israel, anti-Netanyahu rally last weekend in Sydney’s City Square outside St Andrew’s Anglican Cathedral. ‘Netanyahu is a terrorist,’ proclaimed another. ‘Netanyahu is a maniac!’ was one more. ‘In our thousands. In our millions. We are all Palestinians!’ screeched yet another.
It was not a huge rally. Only a few hundred, mainly young, turned up (including babies in arms) although the ABC managed to count a thousand. Some of the old protest regulars — the BDS crowd (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) or those allergic to Max Brenner (that is, pro-Israeli) chocolates—were more or less absent. There was even some attempt to present a more respectable and ‘responsible’ front to the public in a petition headed by a former Solicitor-General (Gavan Griffith QC) calling on the Australian government to take ‘a more balanced role’ in its dealings with Israel and the Palestinians. (‘We strongly oppose the official visit.’) The crowd also included some quieter ‘representatives of Grandmothers against Removals (GMAR)’ — ‘removals’ since they can’t still be dubbed ‘stolen’. (One or two even came from Evensong in the Cathedral where they intoned: ‘The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ… be with us all evermore.’) Although the Green Senator Rhiannon was not to be seen, her followers handed out ‘No Bans. No Hate. No Fear’ leaflets. Even the disciples of John Pilger determined to tell the ‘filthy truth’ about China were comparatively restrained. But the shouters, screechers, jeerers, sneerers and fishwives still made up for the quieter ones. No one seemed prepared to start an argument over President Trump’s boast at a recent press conference that ‘I am the least anti-Semitic, least racist person you will ever meet in your entire life.’ The rally culminated in a march through the city streets — where the protesters reached a wider if still bemused public.
Small numbers, or the absence of prominent names, were not problems for the organisers of the other, more or less official and public welcome to ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu at the Central Synagogue in Bon Accord Avenue during the week. There were famous names wherever you looked—from Malcolm Turnbull, John Howard, Tony Abbott to Gladys Berejiklian, Billy Shorten, Mark Dreyfus or Michael Danby. Various leaders of the Sydney Jewish community were present and some 2,000 hot and sweaty enthusiasts not only from Sydney but from all over the country, had queued in the Bondi heat since 4pm — for the welcome which began at 6pm. It was, some said, the longest queue on one of the hottest days of summer.
The audience welcomed Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, wearing his kippah, with a standing ovation. He spoke eloquently of the ‘absolute solidarity’ between Australia and the state of Israel. Israel has no better friend in the world than Australia, he said. We have so much in common—shared values, democracy, freedom, the rule of law. We will never support a resolution like the recent UN Security Council resolution 2334 condemning Israeli ‘settlements’ (including those in East Jerusalem). The audience responded ecstatically. Turnbull declared: You can’t expect any Israeli government to put itself in a position where its security is at risk, where its citizens are not safe. The first duty of any government is the safety of its people. ‘This is my first duty. And it is Bibi’s.’ The state of Israel must retain control over territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. It is the refusal of the spokesmen for the Palestinians to accept this essential principle that leads to the sterility of the border negotiations. ‘Bibi’, Turnbull noted, had visited Australia twice before, but the current visit was the first time an Israeli premier had ever visited Australia. ‘Prime Minister, you are most welcome’, Turnbull declared, to thunderous applause.
Bibi told them that Jerusalem will never be divided again, that the Golan will never be returned to Syria. For 2,000 years, he said, the thrust of Jewish history has been to return to the ancient home. Israel should have disappeared long ago, he said. Why did it not disappear? It is an ancient nation and most ancient nations disappear. They go through predictable cycles. They are born, they flower, they shrivel, they die. But the Jews are different. They refused to die. They are reborn again, again and again. Throughout the centuries, our people have never succumbed, no matter how great the oppression and persecution. They always said : ‘Next year in Jerusalem!’
Netanyahu reminded his audience — if it needed any reminder—that October 31 this year will be the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Beersheva, in which Australian lighthorsemen routed the Ottoman forces in the Middle East. Often described as the last of the great cavalry charges of history, it was quickly followed by the Balfour Declaration supporting Zionist aspirations and by the occupation of Jerusalem by British forces under General Allenby. It has been the subject of several Australian legends (and such films as Forty Thousand Horsemen and The Lighthorsemen). There will be re-enactments in October and Prime Minister Netanyahu urged everyone in his audience to come to Beersheva for the occasion. He would see to it, he said, that anyone who did come was given a horse!
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