Israel study mission


The Hon. LUKE FOLEY (Leader of the Opposition) [12.23 p.m.]: Why would a group of State parliamentarians undertake a study mission to a foreign country, in this case Israel, given that the Australian Constitution provides that foreign affairs is a matter for the Commonwealth Government? I believe the answer is twofold: firstly, the role of the New South Wales Jewry in the life of our State; and, secondly, flowing from that, Israel's emotional appeal to the New South Wales Jewry. Jews came to Australia on the First Fleet. The first policeman in the New South Wales colony, a freed convict, was a Jew. In the nineteenth century Jews went on to play an increasingly prominent role in the life of the colony. Jews were prominent in the Legislature, the Executive and the judiciary.

The Clerk may correct me if I am wrong, but I believe the first Jew to serve as a member of the New South Wales Parliament was Sir Saul Samuel, who entered this place in 1854. Of course, he went on to be long-serving colonial Treasurer. Sir Julian Salomons was another prominent nineteenth century Jew who served as a member of this place in the Legislative Council.

Vic Alhadeff, whose presence in the gallery I acknowledge, is a distinguished former editor of the Australian Jewish News. Vic would know that a Jewish press has existed in New South Wales since the late nineteenth century. The first edition of a Jewish newspaper, the Hebrew Standard of Australasia, was published on 1 November 1895, a copy of which has been gifted to me by the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies. That very first Jewish publication quotes the first speech of Sir Julian Salomons in this place when he faced ferocious assault from his political opponents. Some criticism directed at him targeted his Jewishness. Sir Julian Salomons said:

I am a Jew. I was born a Jew … and I should be a poltroon and a coward, as well as a fool, if I were not proud of belonging to a race which has given an Isaiah to the world; the Psalms of David, and all the mighty mysteries of the Bible, upon which the civilisation, the consolation, and the happiness of the world depend.

That comes from the speech of one of New South Wales' most distinguished Jewish citizens in this place in the late nineteenth century. So it is the case that Jewish citizens of the colony and then the State of New South Wales have always played a prominent role in the affairs and governance of our society. Why did we take a trip to Israel? Israel exercises an extremely powerful and emotional pull on Australian Jews. Professor Philip Mendes wrote recently that Australian Jewry have the highest rate of aliyah—that is, emigration to Israel—in the western world. A 2009 study by the Monash University Centre for Jewish Civilisation found that 80 per cent of Australian Jews regarded themselves as Zionists, 76 per cent felt a special fear if Israel was perceived to be in danger, 74 per cent had relatives living in Israel, and 86 per cent had visited Israel.

The country of Israel has an intense connection with our Jewish citizens. The New South Wales Parliamentary Friends of Israel group is not merely a friendship group with a foreign State, that being Israel. It also is a friendship group with the New South Wales Jewish community. Given that powerful, emotional attachment of the Jewish citizens of our State with Israel, it was therefore appropriate for members of the New South Wales Parliamentary Friends of Israel to embark on a study tour. Indeed, I do not believe it is possible to fully understand the Jewish community of our State without making an attempt to familiarise ourselves with and understand the State of Israel. I note for the record that the 10 parliamentarians who went on the trip met their own airfares and accommodation costs.

The establishment of Israel was a decision of the international community, the United Nations, to provide a homeland and a sanctuary for the Jewish people after the holocaust. The most powerful experience of my trip to Israel last month was a visit to Yad Vashem, the holocaust memorial. I have spoken in this House before of the literature of Vasily Grossman, who wrote, amongst many works, The Hell of Treblinka. He was the first outsider to enter that death camp in Treblinka 13 months after it had been liberated by allied forces. He writes in harrowing detail of the conveyer belt execution blocks. He writes of the soil trembling under his feet with the human bodies buried beneath the soil. Then he sees human hair. He writes, "You feel as if your heart must stop now, gripped by more sorrow, more anguish, more grief than any human being can ever endure."

To go from merely being a reader of holocaust literature as powerful of Vasily Grossman's to visiting Israel's official memorial to the holocaust, Yad Vashem, was an intensely moving and powerful experience for me and I believe for all of those parliamentarians on the delegation.

The mover of this motion has given a good overview of the meetings and engagements that the delegation undertook through the course of that busy week. We had a jam-packed itinerary. I acknowledge that in addition to our activities in Israel we also visited the Palestinian territory, the West Bank, and were guests of the Palestinian Authority. We met with the Palestinian Authority governor of the Bethlehem district and some of his colleagues. They, like our Israeli hosts, were most gracious with their time. I conveyed to them the strong support of the Palestinian community in New South Wales for their legitimate national aspiration for a Palestinian nation state recognised by the United Nations and the international community.

I will not take up any further time of the House. I believe that the reasons for a group of State parliamentarians visiting the country of Israel can be summarised by reference to the prominent role that the Jewish community plays in the life of our State and the incredibly powerful emotional attachment that our Jewish citizens have to the nation of Israel. I am so glad that the Parliamentary Friends of Israel embarked on this study mission. I am proud to have been part of it. I thank the Jewish Board of Deputies for organising the trip and I commend the motion moved by the Hon. Rick Colless to the House.