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Honoring Australia for Misguided Policies

Earlier this month, the American Jewish Committee bestowed on visiting Australian Prime Minister John Howard its highest honor, the American Liberties Medallion. Previous recipients of the award include Martin Luther King, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, Vaclav Havel, Natan Sharansky and Elie Wiesel.

The citation for Howard’s award reads: “in recognition of [his] longstanding commitment, as a member of the Australian Parliament for more than 30 years, and as prime minister since 1996, to championing democracy and human rights, and his unequalled friendship toward the United States and support of Israel.”

On Howard’s support for the United States and Israel, there can be no question. The war on terrorism has been a major concern of Jewish organizations around the world since the September 11 attacks, and the Australian prime minister’s steadfast backing of Washington and Jerusalem no doubt factored into his being honored. But Howard’s record in and out of government stands against almost every significant domestic policy for which the AJCommittee stands.

On human rights, for example, the AJCommittee advocates “the investigation and prosecution of those indicted for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes” and ratification of major human rights instruments, including the International Conventions on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. As federal opposition leader of the conservative Liberal Party of Australia in the late 1980s, Howard opposed the then-Labor government’s Nazi war criminal legislation. Last year, the Howard government sought to downgrade the work of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission by abolishing the dedicated commissioner-level posts of no less than five departments: race discrimination, sex discrimination, disability discrimination, human rights, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice.

On immigration, the AJCommittee endorses the Jewish tradition in which “‘strangers’ are to be welcomed and valued.” It supports “generous immigration policies regarding refugees who are fleeing persecution” and “efforts to reduce the flow of illegal immigration within the context of established civil liberties protections.” The AJCommittee expressly opposes mandatory detention, the “detention of aliens for an unspecified period of time” and “automatic bars to re-entry.” The Howard government incarcerates asylum seekers for unspecified periods of time, even though the overwhelming majority turn out to be bona fide refugees — and even to the point of redefining the borders of Australia to escape human rights obligations.

On public education, the AJCommittee “believes that there must be a rededication to public education on the national, state, community, and family levels, so that the public schools can fulfill their promise as democratic institutions and launching pads of opportunity for all children.” In particular, the AJCommittee believes “that gaps in educational resources and opportunities between our nation’s disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students must be narrowed.” The Howard government has presided over an education policy that privileges already well-resourced private schools and that has exponentially increased the gap between disadvantaged and nondisadvantaged students in Australia.

Why, then, would the AJCommittee, a bastion of Jewish and American liberalism, be moved to honor a politician so antithetical to its own political principles? Enter the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, with which the AJCommittee entered into a partnership in 1997. By far the best resourced of Australian Jewish lobby groups, Aijac is an independent body with no official status within the Australian Jewish community. Though its spokesmen like to claim bipartisanship in Australian politics, this means only that Aijac is perforce willing to work with, and on, any government of the day.

National Chairman Mark Leibler, a prominent Melbourne tax lawyer, and Executive Director Colin Rubenstein both have close links to either Howard or the Liberal Party. Leibler, a longtime Likud supporter and conservative activitist on the local and world Jewish scenes, was among a select few who Howard invited to his private barbeque for visiting President Bush last year. Rubenstein is a Liberal party activist and a member of the Howard government’s Council for Multicultural Australia. He also unsuccessfully sought Liberal Party preselection in 1990 to contest a seat in the Australian Parliament.

The American Liberties Medallion is not the first honor the AJCommittee has bestowed on John Howard. In January 2002, Aijac had Howard receive the AJCommittee’s Distinguished Public Service Award at a ceremony in New York. “No one in Australia is more deserving of this honor than Prime Minister Howard,” Rubenstein told those assembled.

This, just weeks after the most controversial Australian federal election in recent times, in which Howard cynically played on Australians’ deep-seated fears of invasion by whipping up a frenzy against asylum seekers and falsely claiming that some had thrown their children overboard. This, just months after Howard refused a Norwegian trading vessel, which had saved a boatload of desperate asylum seekers, entry to Australian waters because it would trigger Australia’s refugee and human rights obligations. This, just a few years after Howard’s public service of encouraging the populist xenophobia of Pauline Hanson — Australia’s version of Jean-Marie Le Pen — despite the pleas of Jewish and other community leaders for him to denounce her tirades.

No doubt the AJCommittee had its own reasons for honoring the Australian prime minister. Yet working with Aijac on issues of mutual concern, such as counterterrorism and support for Israel, is one thing. Showering tributes on a politician whose politics are so clearly anathema to one’s own is quite another.

Either the AJCommittee has decided in recent years to place support for Israel and the United States above its domestic social justice convictions, or someone on their Asia-Pacific desk failed to ask the standard questions of their Australian bedmate.

Geoffrey Brahm Levey, senior lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, is co-editor of “Jews and Australian Politics” (Sussex Academic Press, 2004).

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