The 60th anniversary of the State of Israel has come and gone but the strong relationship between Australia and Israel continues to endure and grow.
Australia is one of the Tarshish powers and it is remarkable how the hand of God has brought Australia and Israel together despite the fact that the two countries are geographically far away. We can take comfort from these events to know that the outworking of the prophetic plan is marching inexorably to its grand conclusion.
Over the next four issues we will be adapting an article taken from the Australian/Israel & Jewish Affairs website (www.aijac.org.au) which illustrates the development of this unlikely affinity between Australia and Israel.

On March 12, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd sponsored an unprecedented resolution, passed with bipartisan support, in which the Australian House of Representatives “celebrated and commended the achievements of the State of Israel in the 60 years since its inception” and acknowledged “the unique relationship which exists between Australia and Israel”.

Geopolitically, there is little reason to expect Australia and Israel to have any closer relationship than any other two states of a comparable size and similar distance from one another – say Brazil and Thailand, or South Africa and Costa Rica. But, in reality, over the past 60 years, the relationship between Israel and Australia has been at an entirely different level from any similar such dyads – much more intense, emotional and politically important.

The reasons are doubtless complex, but given the history of the last 60 years it seems difficult to question that one factor is a degree of affinity between Israelis and Australians. There is something in their respective cultures, national outlooks and personalities which tends to draw them together.

Australia and the Yishuv

Most accounts agree that the encounter between Australia and the Yishuv (the Jewish community inside what became British Mandate Palestine) can be dated back to the First World War. Serving at Gallipoli was the 600 strong Zion Mule Corps, made up of Jewish volunteers largely expelled from Palestine by the Ottoman Empire. Four Australian light horse brigades and a battalion of camel troops subsequently served in General Allenby’s conquest of Palestine in 1916–17. According to official Australian war historian HS Gullet, they were welcomed by residents of the Yishuv and hailed as deliverers from Turkish rule and Arab depredations. Moreover, the feeling was often reciprocated, “There began an association, often marked by affection, which was broken only by the close of the war… The [Australians of the First Light Horse Brigade] always recalled with gratitude those pleasant Jewish settlements with their groves of large golden oranges, their supply of wine, and their warm-hearted people.”

Despite these early contacts, Australian governments were not notably sympathetic to the Zionist cause in the years from 1919–39. Australian government leaders largely supported the increasingly anti-Zionist British government line, and even on occasion urged the British to go further in appeasing Arab opposition to Jewish immigration to Palestine.

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Australian Light Horse passing through Bethlehem

Australian soldiers returned to the Middle East in large numbers during World War II, and many were stationed temporarily in Palestine and again developed good relations with local Jewish communities. The Zionist Federation of Australia (ZFA) arranged with the Jewish Agency in the Yishuv to attempt to make the visiting Australians feel at home, providing visits to local families on Jewish holidays, and helping make leave arrangements with the Australian commanders.

Australians and residents of the Yishuv fought together as well. The famous Israeli General Moshe Dayan lost his eye while fighting in Syria alongside Australian forces.

According to the late Yitzhak Rabin, the Australians were very well-liked in the Yishuv, and contrasted positively with the local British troops. Australian poems and other accounts from the period seem to suggest the feeling was reciprocated by many of the Australian ‘Diggers’ serving in Palestine.

Australia and Partition

Australia subsequently played an important, perhaps even decisive role in securing the passage of the UN General Assembly’s partition resolution of November 29, 1947, through the agency of its foreign minister, Dr HV Evatt, Chairman of the UN General Assembly’s Ad Hoc Committee on Palestine.

The Australian Labour Party (ALP) government under John Curtin, which took office in October 1941, maintained the line that issues related to Palestine were strictly a matter for the British. However, by 1947, when Britain referred the Palestine problem to the United Nations, the ALP government under Curtin’s successor Ben Chifley followed a more pro-Zionist policy and Evatt was thoroughly sympathetic to Zionism.

Australia was one of the eleven members of the UN Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), which ultimately recommended partition by a vote of seven to three. Australia abstained from supporting either this recommendation or the alternative, a single federative state, because of Evatt’s belief that UNSCOP should engage only in fact finding.

Evatt was then unanimously elected Chairman of the General Assembly’s Ad Hoc Committee on Palestine, set up in September 1947. Evatt skilfully used his role as Chairman to see to it that partition was passed, by a vote of 25–13, with 17 abstentions, two months later.

A Polish envoy to the UN, Dr Julius Katz-Suchy, himself Jewish, later confirmed Evatt’s crucial role in securing partition. He reportedly said to an Australian journalist, “Ah, from Dr Evatt’s country. Now that’s a great man for you… Without him the Israelis would never have got in. He bullied, pleaded, cajoled, coaxed until he got the right numbers for them.”

Following partition, in 1948, Evatt was elected President of the UN General Assembly, and Australia repeatedly submitted resolutions calling for Israel to be admitted as a UN member state. An Australian-sponsored resolution to this effect passed in 1949.

More controversially from an Israeli point of view was Australia’s proposal of, and crucial role in ensuring the passage of a December 1949 General Assembly resolution demanding the full internationalisation of all of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The best evidence suggests that, in pushing this resolution, Evatt was probably motivated primarily by a desire to win Catholic votes in the Australian election of December 1949.

From Independence to the Six Day War

Following its installation in early 1950, the new Liberal-led government under Robert Menzies began once again to tack closer to the British government line on Middle East issues. However, its predominant concerns about the region were containing Communist influence and freedom of shipping in the Suez Canal.

Relations in the early 1950s were hampered also by the first Australian Minister (equivalent to ambassador) to Israel, the openly anti-semitic OCW Fuhrman, whose reports back to Canberra had no sympathy for Israelis and found the hand of Moscow in many Israeli actions.

The lead-up and aftermath to the 1956 Sinai/ Suez war saw increasing warmth toward Israel displayed by Menzies and his Minister for External Affairs, RG Casey.

Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal on July 26, 1956 was seen as a major blow to Australian interests. The Government supported preparation for British military action in response, and discussed Australia’s participation in any such efforts. Meanwhile, Israeli diplomats and Australian Jewish community representatives pressed Australia to support Israel’s rights to use the canal as part of its diplomatic efforts. Casey argued that raising such considerations publicly would be ill-advised but insisted it was Australian policy to demand such freedom of navigation as a principle for any settlement. As feelings against both Egypt and the Arab cause rose in both Australia and the Department of External Affairs (DEA), Casey began to express stronger pro-Israel views privately and in Parliament.

Following the outbreak of the 1956 war, and once it became clear that Israel’s attack had been coordinated with Britain, Menzies expressed understanding in parliament for Israel’s position, quoting favourably Ben Gurion’s complaints about both Egyptian aggression and UN lack of help for Israel.

Australia was later to join Britain, Israel, France, and New Zealand as the only nations to vote against a US-sponsored UN General Assembly resolution calling for a Suez ceasefire and a withdrawal of forces.

The increasingly positive Australian Government attitude toward Israel created by Suez did not fade, but instead, relations continued to improve over the following decade. A parliamentary debate on the Arab-Israel conflict in April 1957 saw no fewer than 43 speakers address the House, and according to the Australian Jewish News, “Speakers on both sides seemed to agree that Israel had suffered much from Egyptian aggression and that it should be protected in future.” That same month, a speech in Melbourne by Menzies was characterised by a visiting emissary from Israel’s right-wing Herut movement as “one of the finest Zionist speeches I have ever heard”.

Later, as the Australian Jewish community became the first in the world to begin to campaign on behalf of the plight of Soviet Jewry, Australia in 1962 raised the issue at the UN Third Committee, while Menzies spoke out publicly calling for the Soviet Union to allow its Jews to emigrate. These were both world firsts.

By the mid-1960s, reciprocal official visits between Israeli and Australian public figures had become common and routine.

In September 1966, when criticised by a member of the Labour Opposition for failing to protect the rights of Israel to use the Suez Canal, the new Liberal Prime Minister, Harold Holt, defended his government’s record of friendship for Israel. As the crisis that led to the 1967 war heated up, Australian Minister for External Affairs Paul Hasluck issued a statement that called for diplomacy but also hinted that Israel had a right to be protected from “aggression” and “war-like acts”, and criticised the fact that the arrangements made for the Straits of Tiran and Sinai in 1957 had been “so abruptly terminated”. This declaration angered the Egyptians.

Holt made Australia one of the few nations prepared to contribute forces to an international military solution to the crisis created by Egypt’s closure of the Straits, offering US President Johnson two Australian cruisers to be part of a mooted international fleet to try to forcibly break the blockade.

In the diplomacy following the war, Hasluck insisted that Australia’s UN Ambassador, Laurence McIntyre, revise a planned speech at the UN calling for an Israeli withdrawal in exchange for a vague Arab recognition of Israel’s right to exist. Hasluck instead wanted a ceasefire, followed by negotiations, including on possible boundary adjustments. Cairo viewed this statement as hostile.

Then-Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban described Australian officials of the period as “endemically pro-Israel” in his memoirs.

The Australian public was, if anything, even more pro-Israel. Press comment was largely sympathetic during the war, and this reflected the general attitude of the community according to contemporary polls.