Jewish Australians Are Rejecting the Zionist Establishment

Max Kaiser

Inspired by anti-fascist organizing in the 1940s, a group of progressive Jewish activists have formed the Jewish Council of Australia. Its goal is to challenge the hegemony of right-wing, Zionist groups that claim to speak for all Jewish Australians.

Protesters hold a sign saying “Jews Against the Occupation“ during a rally in Sydney, Australia, on October 29, 2023. (David Gray / AFP via Getty Images)

Interview by
Chris Dite

Since Israel launched its offensive on Gaza in October last year, supporters of the war have waged a worldwide campaign to smear legitimate criticism of Israel as antisemitic. Vocal opponents of the war have been fired, blacklisted, and intimidated. Palestinians themselves have been the biggest victims of this campaign.

In response, a wave of opposition to this intimidation has emerged from Jewish communities. Conservative Jewish organizations have attempted to conceal dissent or present themselves as representing a monolithic community — but many young Jews are now openly defying them and opposing the war, Zionism, and the occupation.

In Australia, a group of progressive Jewish activists has formed the Jewish Council of Australia (JCA) to confront the establishment’s equation of antisemitism with criticism of Israel. The group takes its name from the Jewish Council to Combat Fascism and Anti-Semitism, a left-wing organization that represented Australian Jews in the 1940s. The JCA rejects claims from groups like the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) that Jews are “one people, with one mission and one destiny” and that they hope “for the swift and complete victory of the heroic forces of the IDF.”

Zionist peak bodies have responded with fury. Various establishment figures have attacked the JCA as “fringe and unrepresentative,” “a tiny minority trying to hoodwink the media,” and a “Jew hater’s council.” The JCA has remained adamant that “it is not treachery for Jews to criticise Israel.”

Jacobin spoke with Max Kaiser, a historian and one of the cofounders of the JCA, about Gaza, Zionism, antisemitism, and the message that the newly founded council hopes to bring to the mainstream of Australian politics.

Chris Dite

You helped to found the JCA following Israel’s offensive in Gaza last year. Could you explain the genesis and purpose of the council?

Max Kaiser

The JCA is a response to the political situation we found ourselves in after October 7. Established Jewish organizations were pushing a narrative — one that was reproduced uncritically by the media and politicians — that conflated “Jews” with “Israel.” In this narrative, legitimate anti-Israel criticism is portrayed as somehow antisemitic and an attack on Jewish people — particularly when it comes from Palestinians. This idea isn’t at all new, but was becoming a major part of how politicians and the media were framing the issue.

We realized that a strong Jewish voice was needed to intervene in the media and say that this is not what antisemitism is and that antisemitism can only be combated as part of a wider struggle against racism. Our argument is that Jews have an interest in joining up with other groups threatened by the racism and antisemitism of far-right and fascist politics.

So we formed the JCA as an independent expert body of scholars, lawyers, writers, and teachers focusing on the issue of antisemitism and racism and advocating for a cease-fire. We’ve had a lot of support from inside and outside the Jewish community, particularly for our work challenging the Australian government’s position on the war.

Chris Dite

How does the war in Gaza fit within the logic of Zionism?

Max Kaiser

The issue that led us up to today is settler colonialism. The aim of Zionism — as with other versions of settler colonialism in countries like Australia — is to replace the indigenous people on their land with settlers. A lot of early Zionist ideologues were very open about this fact; the point was to conquer the land.

The early Zionist project culminated in the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians from their land during the Nakba. Jewish settlers took over that territory and made it into the State of Israel. Ever since then the Israeli state has tried to contain the dispossessed Palestinians’ rejection of Zionist colonization and deny their legitimate claim to their own land.

This has taken different forms, including a very long military occupation, obviously, as well as confinement to increasingly smaller areas, and ethnic cleansing. Now, it’s taking the form of war and mass destruction in Gaza.

The Israeli army is not hiding its aims, which include displacing and dispossessing millions of Palestinians and making Gaza completely uninhabitable. It’s a continuation of very long history of destroying the conditions for Palestinian life, political organization, economy, and culture.

Chris Dite

How and why are Australian politicians weaponizing claims of antisemitism in support of the war?

Max Kaiser

Antisemitism is a real and growing problem in Australia. But the issue has not been helped by the way politicians have discussed it. Also, it’s important to note that the Labor government and the opposition, the Coalition, deploy claims about antisemitism in different ways.

Labor foreign minister Penny Wong has openly said that everything Australia does comes back to the US alliance, which her government is committed to treating as the most important part of Australia’s defense strategy. That’s why the government has a broadly pro-Israel position.

But they also know that this position is increasingly unpopular — community pressure has been ramping up since the war started. So, the Labor government mobilizes claims of antisemitism as a sort of shield against criticism. We’ve seen messages from Labor politicians on social media, for example, claiming that all Jewish people want is freedom for the hostages. The intention is that if anyone criticizes Labor, they can reply that the critics of the war are going against what Jewish people want, and are being antisemitic. This messaging not only ignores Palestinian suffering, but it assumes that Jews only care about other Jews. That assumption itself is antisemitic!

The Liberal Party, by comparison, are using claims of antisemitism as a way to drive racist, antimigrant politics more generally. Opposition leader Peter Dutton recently gave a speech where he made a ludicrous and offensive comparison between the Port Arthur massacre [a 1996 mass shooting in Tasmania that left thirty-five dead and eighteen wounded] and a pro-Palestine rally at the Sydney Opera House in October last year.

There were offensive antisemitic chants at the protest — but it was a very small number of people who were doing the chanting, and they were asked to leave multiple times by the protest organizers. Despite this, Dutton and others have attempted to whip up fear by falsely describing the whole protest as a large mob trying to hunt down Jews.

Dutton’s alarmist line is meant to bolster the idea that Western civilization is under threat from a barbaric migrant Other, and that we mustn’t surrender to these anticivilizational forces. According to him, the root cause of antisemitism is migrants who don’t share our values, in particular, Muslims.

Dutton is also starting to use antisemitism claims as a hammer against the Labor Party. He’s criticized Prime Minister Anthony Albanese for treating antisemitism as analogous to other forms of prejudice. There’s an implication that Jewish interests are either opposed to other racialized groups. Either that, or that there’s some sort of zero-sum game of competing racisms, where Jews are the only righteous victims because they’re stand-ins for Western civilization. This equates Jews with the state and Western imperialism, which in fact makes us more liable to racialization.

Chris Dite

Internationally, antisemitic politicians have thrown their support behind Israel. Locally, at the street level, we’ve even seen far-right Zionists collaborating with neo-Nazi groups to work against anti-racist movements. What is going on here?

Max Kaiser

There’s an international far-right alignment happening, particularly given the direction that the Israeli government has gone in. There’s always been a heavily racist element to the Israeli state. But genocidal ethnonationalists are now very mainstream in Israeli politics, and are at the center of the Netanyahu government. Part of their perspective is an orientalist commitment to the defense of Western civilization. It’s very similar to the anti-Arab, anti-Muslim tropes that justified the “war on terror.” The far right, in Israel and elsewhere, sees Israel as the white European outpost in a barbaric neighborhood. The shared narrative that pits Western civilization against the other leads these politicians to team up.

Far-right white supremacists obviously don’t like Jews. But we should remember the famous quote from alt-right neo-Nazi Richard Spencer, where he says, “I’m a White Zionist.” Spencer says he wants an ethnonationalist homeland for white people — just like Israel is an ethnonationalist homeland for Jewish people.

So, the far right internationally sees what’s happening in Israel and thinks, “That’s the sort of politics I want in the United States for white people, or in India for Hindu people, or in Europe . . . ” You can see why they align.

Previously, mainstream Jewish organizations would probably have had the good sense to distance themselves from this kind of politics. But nowadays the ECAJ promotes Islamophobic “Never Again Is Now” rallies in different capital cities. These rallies are also sponsored by Christian Zionist groups who are in league with Avi Yemini and prominent far-right figures. Today, ECAJ press releases often sound exactly like those put out by the Australian Jewish Association, a far-right group associated with racist extremist settlers.

Chris Dite

Detractors have framed the JCA as a tiny fringe minority. But at least 30 percent of Jews in Australia don’t identify as Zionists. And opposition to Israel’s actions is clearly growing among Jewish people. How do you respond to the accusation that the council is unrepresentative?

Max Kaiser

We’ve never claimed to speak on behalf of all Jews in Australia. Some more established organizations claim to do so, but I certainly never voted for them.

That 30 percent statistic is from 2017. We don’t have any really good up-to-date data about Jewish community attitudes. The support we’ve received from a whole bunch of different people across the community suggests that many people do not feel aligned with these established Jewish organizations, which double down in support of Israel whenever the Australian government makes the slightest critical remark.

Even if many Jews supported the war initially, given everything that’s happened, I just don’t think that mass support still exists. A very sizable minority of Jews — if not a majority — would support a cease-fire. But they’re really not seeing one iota criticism from the established Jewish bodies. So it’s no wonder people are pissed off. And no wonder they’re looking for new Jewish organizations that better align with their values.

Chris Dite

The historian W. D. Rubinstein argued that in the context of a fight for survival, “Jewish universalism is a luxury which cannot be afforded, and which, regularly, represents an impediment to Jewish aspirations.” You clearly disagree. Against the backdrop of the war on Gaza, is Jewish universalism growing?

Max Kaiser

Rubinstein represents a Jewish viewpoint that was widely accepted. In the 1950s a conservative politics based on nationalism and Zionism took hold. This worldview saw our ideal position in Australian society as “Jews just going about our business.” Which is to say, the perspective was that we don’t need to care about anything else, provided we don’t get too involved [in Australian politics] and continue to support Israel as our ultimate guarantor of safety.

But there have always been different groups and individuals who have rejected particularism and acted in a much more universalistic way. They’ve seen Jewish freedom and flourishing as bound up with other groups’ freedom. That’s the perspective that we share at the JCA.

Jews shouldn’t just be put in a box where all we hear about is Israel and all we care about is nationalism. We can participate in wider political society and wider struggles. We get to a better world precisely by working with other groups, and joining a broader struggle against racism and antisemitism. This position is increasingly attractive to a wide layer of people who are sick and tired of the conservative Jewish establishment.

Chris Dite

Your grandfather helped organize the original Jewish Council to Combat Fascism and Anti-Semitism in the 1940s. Many people might be surprised to learn that this left-wing body was the official political link between the Jewish community and the general public. Do you think the legacy of the 1940s council has been deliberately obscured and distorted?

Max Kaiser

From the early ’40s to the early ’50s, the Jewish Council to Combat Fascism and Anti-Semitism was hugely popular. It had thousands of members. Committees of doctors, lawyers, and prominent Jews supported it. Almost everyone was on side with their message, which centered around the continued need to fight fascism and reactionary politics, and argued that Jews needed to align themselves with progressive forces and other racialized groups in order to fight the threat of antisemitism.

Because of what happened in the Holocaust, the Jewish community was initially very supportive of these ideas. But the hegemony of anti-fascist politics in the Jewish community came to an abrupt end in the early 1950s, with the alignment between anti-communism and Zionism on the international stage. The council lost its central position within the Jewish community.

The new political settlement between Australian Jews and the Australian establishment — and broader society — involved a more narrowly constructed idea of Jewish identity. Zionism became the sole allowable political expression for Jewish people.

Zionism came to be seen as a political project in alliance with Western imperialism. It was acceptable to Australian foreign policy and soon became a mainstream part of Australian political culture more broadly. The people who later wrote the histories of the Jewish community denigrated and misunderstood the original council. They painted its members in simplistic terms, as unrepentant Stalinists. The goal was to sweep some of its really valuable ideas under the rug. 

Chris Dite

Some paint the anti-fascist current in the Jewish community as the useful idiots of an antisemitic left. How would you respond?

Max Kaiser

The smear made against the pro-Palestinian movement — that being critical of Israel is in itself antisemitic — is something the JCA was formed to dispute.

There’s no denying that there is some antisemitism on the Left, though this is not a problem unique to it. A 2021 survey of Australian attitudes toward Jews found relatively low levels of antisemitism and racism against Jews compared to other forms of racism and compared to rates of antisemitism in other countries.

Still, the same survey recorded that over 20 percent of Australians agreed with statements like “Jews are particularly good with money.” So there’s definitely a persistent racial thinking out there. The survey also measured these attitudes against people’s voting intentions. Interestingly, Greens voters were significantly more likely than Liberal voters to reject these stereotypically antisemitic statements. As you’d expect, people who are more consciously anti-racist are more likely to reject antisemitism.

When we do see antisemitism on the Left, it often repeats the Zionist conflation between Australian Jews and Israel. Greens MP Jenny Leong, for example, spoke publicly about “the pernicious influence of the Jewish lobby,” and used the term “Jewish lobby” interchangeably with “Zionist organizations.” But this is exactly the same idea being promoted by Zionist organizations — only they paint it in a positive light. Fortunately, when antisemitic tropes or symbols do occasionally creep into anti-Israel messaging, Palestinians in the movement are very quick to call it out.

As for the claim that we’re useful idiots, we think that our strategy is the best way to fight antisemitism. We have a common interest with other racialized groups, to fight against conspiracist racial thinking. Jews shouldn’t play into racist narratives that target or denigrate specific racial groups — because we can very easily become the victims of the same kind of narrative.

Examples are easy to find. Take the “great replacement theory,” for example, which claims there’s an Islamist or migrant takeover of Europe and the United States. This paranoid conspiracy theory often portrays Jews as the puppet masters behind the great replacement. That’s why marchers at the infamous “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville chanted “Jews will not replace us.”

Or, more recently, following the stabbings at the Bondi Junction Shopping Centre, Islamophobic rumors swirled around claiming that the killer was Muslim. At the same time, tales spread alleging that the killer was Jewish, with some people making extreme antisemitic claims like “only a Jew would stab a baby.”

The point is that we’re not going to fight antisemitism by teaming up with the Right, Islamophobes, and fascists. The established organizations certainly aren’t going to give up their right-wing, pro-Israel advocacy anytime soon. But the extremity of Israel’s genocide has shaken things up and changed people’s minds. The aim of the JCA is to open up the political space even more, so that having a pro-Palestine position anywhere in the Jewish community becomes an accepted part of the mainstream. And there is now a groundswell of support for this alternative strategy: fighting alongside Palestinians for liberation and an end to racism and antisemitism.