Hope Despite the Tragedy of Ofra
Tuesday, March 7, 2017
I have just returned from a wonderful trip to Australia where I spent 10 days travelling and speaking in three states: New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland. It was my seventh trip to Australia in as many years and each year I feel more gratified to have had the opportunity to travel to this land and to meet so many of its wonderful people.
I have always had the impression that Australians love and support Israel but in truth it is difficult for me to form an objective opinion on that matter. After all, I spend all of my time in Australia meeting and speaking to pro-Israel audiences, people who often go out of their way to come to an Israel event and hear me speak. This time, there were several meetings where groups of people traveled more than an hour to come and hear me speak. It was an amazing experience!
While I was in the country this time, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu visited Australia. And that did present an opportunity for me to gauge how pro-Israel the country actually is. While there were some protests against his visit, the overwhelming impression was of warm and enthusiastic support.
Netanyahu and Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull addressed a crowded gathering in the main synagogue of Sydney and the Zionist Federation broadcast it on live podcast to those on its list. I was together with our new Australian representative Joy Heylen and our wonderful friend Marion Sully, driving to my next speaking engagement, and we were able to listen to the entire broadcast. The atmosphere in the synagogue was electric and Marion, Joy and I could not contain our own excitement as we listened attentively to the entire event. The warmth exuded by the Australian prime minister matched that of US President Donald Trump the week before. The two prime ministers joked with one another and talked eagerly of economic cooperation between the two countries. There was real friendship there. The visit marked the first time a sitting prime minister of Israel had visited Australia.
There was another cause of excitement during my visit to Australia. This year, 2017, we mark 100 years to the Balfour Declaration, the historic declaration that paved the way for the British Mandate, which gave the British control of the region of Palestine with the express purpose of establishing “a Jewish Homeland” there. But critical to that declaration was the victory of the ANZAC’s, and specifically of the Light Horse Brigade, the Australian and New Zealand Calvary, in Beersheba against the Turks. That battle turned the tide in the Land of Israel during World War I and ensured the establishment of the British Mandate immediately following the war.
For years, Australian Zionists have felt a special affinity to Israel because of this decisive battle. But today, as we mark the 100th anniversary, Australians are really excited. On October 31st, hundreds of Australians, including their Prime Minister, will visit Israel for the re-enactment of the Beersheba battle.
The day after the visit of the two prime ministers in the Sydney synagogue, The Australian, a prominent newspaper in Australia, gave the story front page coverage and devoted two full internal pages to the story, as well. I could not believe it! The coverage was amazingly positive and the headline noted Netanyahu’s criticism of Australian Opposition leaders for their support of Palestinian claims. The weekend paper included an extremely supportive opinion piece written by the foreign editor of the paper.
When I ask Australians how they characterize their nature, what has determined their future, I have often heard reference to the convict beginnings of the country. It has given them a greater conviction to survive, and injected them with a healthy dose of audacity and drive — what we would call Chutzpah in Israel. Their wide expanses of territory fueled their imagination from the beginning, not unlike the American pioneering spirit at the same time, in the 19th century. While the entire country of Israel can fit into a fraction of Australia’s smallest state, Tasmania, the spirit of our two countries is similar. No one is going to tell us what to do!
I cannot end this newsletter without a mention of the tragic destruction of nine homes in Ofra last week. Even as we celebrated the Australian –Israeli relationship, we witnessed the final implementation of the incomprehensible Israeli Supreme Court decision that the homes must be destroyed. These homes were built by the government of Israel on land that was assumed, for good reason, to be public land. Palestinian Arabs were able to claim ownership without even proving their claim and the Supreme Court of Israel ruled the homes must be destroyed.
I have written previously on the problematic issue of land claims in Judea and Samaria but words cannot encompass the absurdity of the situation. These homes, in the middle of the oldest community in the Benjamin region, are destroyed, although it is clear that no Arab will be able to actually realize a claim to the land. No Arab houses will go up here. What, then, has been accomplished other than pain and suffering? If indeed the Arabs could prove their claim, they would be entitled to generous compensation. Wouldn’t that serve them far better than destruction?
Just two weeks ago, Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked appointed four new judges to the Supreme Court. Her appointees were all highly regarded justices as well as conservative in their outlook. Some were Orthodox Jews — Jews who take the Bible seriously and believe it is the word of G-d. Even as we witness the destruction of something we hold dear, we see the hope for a better future. A future that seeks a return to Jewish values and Jewish pride. A future that, despite the growing clamor of boycott against Israel, includes increasingly warm bonds of friendship between Israel and the US, and between Israel and Australia. May G-d bless our friends!
Sondra Oster Baras
Director, Israel Office – CFOIC Heartland