Speech by FM Alexander Downer
Australia’s Foreign Minister Alexander Downer speaks at the dedication of Ohel Devorah Melbourne, on November 9, 2006
Well Rabbis, ladies and gentlemen I just want to say what a great honour it is and an unusual honour for me to come along here this afternoon and spend some time with you and participate in the opening of this synagogue.
I feel it is a great honour for a lot of reasons - some of them are very modern, some of them are not so modern I’m not Jewish, as you probably know I’m a Christian. But I went to university in England and when I was at university in England I got in with as they say, a whole lot of Jewish people, for no particular reason. I just came across them and became friendly with them to the extent that one of them a girl called Judy and I and a couple of others I hasten to add shared a house in our last year (It was a platonic relationship…) We still keep in touch with her to this very day.
Judy had a cousin in Israel as many Jewish people do and her cousin came to stay with us from Israel. It’s rather exciting having an Israeli come to stay with us in our student house, eating our modest maybe I could say even disgusting food of baked beans and toast and other nasty things that students in those days ate when they were away from home. Only this was 1973 and while this friend, this cousin of Judy’s was staying with us as the Yom Kippur war broke out. And you can imagine the absolute agony of this for these young people who I was living with at the time. The cousin had a brother who was in the Israeli Defence Forces at the time. And the worry, the agony, I think is the right way to put it, that Judy and her fiend in particular felt as they listened to the reports on the BBC coming from the battlefield….
Well it had an enormous impact on me. And it helped I suppose to put into perspective for me as a Christian the appalling history of the Jewish people, in the sense that they have been targeted, they have been discriminated against, they have been ridiculed, they’ve been murdered, and yet despite all the horrors that they have put up with, they have continued and they have shown courage and they have a record of simply extraordinary achievement.
I am just enormously proud that in this country of Australia, and you know this was true to some extent of Britain, but in this country, Jewish people have been a fundamental part of the writing of the modern Australian story. It’s nice that we have had two Jewish Governors General and it is wonderful to see Sir Zelman and Lady Cowen here tonight. It’s a particular honour to be with them. Sir Zelman succeeded Sir John Kerr as the Governor General and it was of course a tumultuous period in Australian history - tonight’s not the night to relive that. He used a phrase when he became the Governor General and that phrase that he used was that he would like to bring a touch of healing to the job. He very much did do that. He did a wonderful job as our Governor General.
Sir Isaac Isaacs was our first Australian-born Governor General and he was Jewish. I come from South Australia. I think I am right in saying South Australia is the only state that’s ever had a Jewish Premier in the form of Premier Solomon back in the 19th century. I think one of the most important figures in Australian history has been none other than General Sir John Monash who was also Jewish - a great general, not just a great Australian general, but a great allied general, a great general on the Western Front during the First World War.
So Jewish people in Australia have prospered yet they have been monstrously persecuted over and over again through history for the most intolerant, irrational and unacceptable of reasons. And it is just wonderful as a country that we have crafted for ourselves a place in the world where we have stood up for the equal value of all people regardless of their religions or even lack of religions, of their colour, of their race, even of their ideology. I often say the only people we don’t tolerate in Australia are the intolerant. You should never tolerate the intolerant but you should tolerate everyone else. It’s a truly great thing about this country and as I travel around the world I can’t help but be proud of it.
The second thing I wanted to say is that I think as a country we have shown that we are prepared to stand up for our values and sometimes even to die for our values. I didn’t realize as I came here this evening that this was the anniversary of kristallnacht, the 68th anniversary. This was a truly dark time in the history of the world. The 30s was the ugly decade, really the decade where National Socialism, Nazism, fascism increasingly gained a grip on Europe and on the centres of power in the world. And good people did so little about it. Good people did not confront it until very nearly it was too late. Many good people thought, well, it’s going on in Germany. I suppose, they’ve had a tough time the Germans - they couldn’t face another war after the horrors of the First World War And there emerged the policy of appeasement. The price of appeasement was not just the lives of the six million Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis but of the 60 or so million people that died through the Second World War.
So why is this relevant to us today? It’s relevant to us today because I think as a country and I think as a global community we have to have the courage to confront evil when we find it and deal with it and not find excuses to walk on the other side of the road and do nothing about it. Because if we do nothing about it, it will grow in its intensity and the consequences will become increasingly ghastly. I think back over the last few years, you know, 1994 in Rwanda Nearly a million people were murdered before the international community thought it was right to do something about it and even that was controversial. People were murdered in vast numbers in the Balkans, in Kosovo as well, until the international community decided do to anything about it and even that was very controversial. What do we confront this very day? We confront - and I think Israel obviously particularly has to contend with this - we confront the ideological scourge of extremist Islamist terrorism. It’s ideological because what these people want to do is eliminate all other points of view and stamp upon the world their extremist Islamic interpretation - a completely ideological interpretation encapsulated by the work of the Taliban.
Under the Taliban no girls were allowed to go to school or women to go to work, nobody was allowed a television or a radio or a CD player. Society was plunged back into the 7th Century and if you didn’t agree with them philosophically or ideologically or theologically you were put to death. This is the ideology that these terrorists are trying to impose. When it comes to Israel, I don’t think the world should forget that these people want to eliminate Israel. It’s not as though they never say they do, it’s not as though they keep it a secret. It’s that the world seems to show such a lack of understanding of the Israeli’s determination that this doesn’t happen. I often say to people how would you feel? And you have just heard the testimonies about the mothers who were in the holocaust, the children of these people and the descendants in other forms of these people. They live in Israel. They have their own country and surrounding them are people - not of course all people - I’m not saying all the Arabs hold this view - but the terrorists, the Hezbollah terrorists, the Hamas terrorists, the Al Qaeda terrorists, so the list goes on… These are people who are committed to yet again the destruction of the Jewish people and in particular the destruction of their state.
And the IDF can be a bit aggressive in defence of Israel. Well that shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody who has a bit of sensitivity and a bit of understanding of what the Israeli people and the Jewish people are up against in Israel and it’s particularly important to keep a historical perspective of that. Does it matter to Israel and to the Jewish people that these terrorists could win in Afghanistan or in Iraq? It matters enormously. These are life or death issues in terms of dealing with this ideology and defeating this ideology. And I think as an international community it’s enormously difficult to keep the public on side and to encourage the public to support our policies or any country’s policies of confronting and defeating these people. There are all sorts of different ways I know of defeating them. Interfaith dialogues … very useful … very successful by the way in South East Asia. It’s been possible to defeat them by harnessing the ideology of modern Muslims, again more successful in South East Asia than in the Middle East. Sometimes they have to be defeated them in the battlefield. But in the end we, as what I might broadly describe as a Western society, can decide whether we will defeat these people or whether we won’t. We can make that decision. They can never destroy our society even though they want to They can never destroy our tolerance and our decency and our humanity even though they want to destroy that and impose their extremist ideology and their intolerance on us all. Only we can allow them to make progress, gain ground by sending a message to them that we can be defeated by showing a lack of will, by showing a lack of determination.
I think this is an incredibly difficult, a very difficult time. I find and I’ve been doing this today as we cast our votes in the United Nations against some of what I call the extreme Palestinian resolutions. I mention this today because at Melbourne airport I was signing off on how we would vote on a number of these resolutions that are coming up over the next couple days. These resolutions are deeply anti-Israeli, deeply anti-Israeli, and big majorities always carry them. And we are always being told, the best thing for diplomacy is to: all right minister, you don’t like the resolution, but in the interests of diplomacy why don’t you abstain? And I say, let’s vote against it because it is wrong. And the more we and other countries stand up to this sort of behaviour, the more we stand a chance of success… the more we try to appease, the more we will encourage. And it is enormously important to remember that.
So I spent more than my five minutes talking to you but it’s just an opportunity to say that right from those days when I was a student and I was so enthusiastically befriended by the Jewish people I met at university to the extent that I shared a house with one of them for 18 months, a couple of years, and made so many friends in England through her and other of her friends in the British Jewish community and of course in Australia as well and the kindness that has been shown to me by Jewish people and the tolerance they show towards me… and I appreciate that… some of them are, dare I say the word, Labour.
But they are still quite tolerant and the decency of them and the energy and the hard work and the long record of achievement in the Jewish community in Australia - I think it’s fantastic So it is with the greatest of pleasure that I come here this afternoon and participate in this ceremony to open a synagogue and to see so many of you here and thank you very much for tolerating me here in your presence