Features Australia

Israel, Terra nullius?

4 March 2017

9:00 AM

4 March 2017

9:00 AM

The visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has given journalists and ex-politicians a handy platform. There has been a veritable queue of accusers keen to berate the actions of the Jewish state. This will hardly be a new experience for Netanyahu, but there is something disconcerting in the storm of criticism erupting from our small and far-flung nation.

None of the Australian critics show any awareness of the irony of a nation like ours – founded so recently in terms of world history – berating another ‘new’ nation for the brutality and contradictions of its existence.

Australians enjoy a solid sense of righteousness in our place on this continent. There is little pause for thought on the wellspring of that righteousness – no recognition of the quashing of dissent of this nation’s original owners, and the force used by those who wrested the land from them.

The Australian continent was just as ancient, just as occupied, just as drenched in the history and culture as the territory awarded to the Jewish people by the United Nations.

Our nation was a place for the unwanted of England, just as Israel was a place for the unwanted of Europe.

The main difference in the stories of these two new nations, is that non-indigenous Australians have far less connection to this continent, to its landmarks and history and stories. To most who arrived here, it was like another planet. To the Jews driven out of Europe, it was a homecoming.

Do Australian critics squirm just a little when they repeat the latest claim of Israel’s enemies – that the Jewish people have no historical connection to Jerusalem?

If not, then surely they feel a twinge of hypocrisy when they claim that Israeli territory was not ‘terra nullius’? Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald recently, Mark Kenny described Israel as ‘an island of justice, peace and the rule of law’. But Kenny didn’t come to praise Israel. His aim was to prove that the achievements of Israel were tainted by the inequity of its birth – the fact that the land was already occupied. ‘Terra nullius’, he wrote, echoing the words of the Australian High Court, ‘this was not’.

Not satisfied with linking Israel’s founding with the imperial aspirations of Great Britain, Kenny also equated Israel’s history of defending its territory with the actions of totalitarian states, specifically, with the ‘abomination against humanity’ that was the Berlin Wall.

It’s a bizarre comparison. The building of walls to keep a nation safe and its people free from a constant threat of violence cannot even remotely be connected with the intent of a communist state to deprive its citizens of the most basic of freedoms.

In fact, the borders monitored by Israel are far more faithful to the original boundaries of their territory than the borders of the Colony of New South Wales. In Australia, settlers continually exceeded the boundaries of Crown lands, and forced their way, often with shameful and hidden acts of violence, onto the best land they could find, land that they proclaimed their own, despite their lack of legal status.

Australia’s agricultural and mineral wealth was not claimed by peaceably building settlements, but in acts of ‘open war’ with the Aboriginal people, as the Commissioner of Crown Lands put it at the time.

This is the land Australians live and work on today. These squatters – these illegal settlers – are our forefathers. They are honoured with memorials and statues, names of towns, rivers, roads and mountains.

Mark Kenny claims that Israel’s occupation of territories ‘ensures with every passing day that no contiguous Palestinian state remains’. And yet his own nation achieved a dismantling and ruination of indigenous states much more thoroughly, violently and suddenly than this.

How much longer, then, until 70 year old Israel can achieve the secure possession of their land that Australians feel? How much longer until they are free, as we are, of international judgement condemning our history and its ongoing consequences?

Australia’s squatters claimed their territories less than two centuries ago, as the convict era was drawing to a close. Will Israel’s settlements be as legitimate as ours in another century? Another two? Does anyone doubt the Jewish people’s commitment to their land, which offers so much more than material enrichment?

In the meantime, the condemnation of Israel is a handy distraction, a way for nations to turn their eyes away from their own torrid past. It’s also a way for past leaders – like Bob Hawke and Kevin Rudd – to deflect from the failures of their own administrations in addressing the sufferings of Australia’s indigenous people and the tragedy of remote communities.

Mark Kenny believes Australians need to ‘seriously study’ the actions of Israel.

Perhaps it’s time to worry about our own soul rather than Israel’s, to acknowledge our own blindness before we point to the speck in the eyes of others.

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