The numbers add up for Australian Jewry

JEWS, of all people, should know that numbers don’t always tell the whole story. But let’s settle for 120,000 Jews in Australia.

Some say the 2006 Census shows there are fewer some say it shows there are more.

But if we look outwards and globally rather than just inwards and parochially, at 120,000 we have certainly moved up in the world.

Oz Jews are now the seventh or eighth largest Jewish community outside Israel, and one of the few whose population is growing.

Consider that alongside four other basic demographic numbers according to the authoritative Jewish People Policy Planning Institute (JPPPI) in Jerusalem:

· The world Jewish population is 13,300,000

· Some 80 per cent live in Israel and the United States

· Over the next 20 years, Israel’s Jewish population will grow while the Diaspora’s — even Australia’s — will decline.

· For the first time in 2000 years, there are more Jews in Israel than in any other country.

Consider further those figures together with JPPPI’s 2005 rankings: United States (5,280,000), France (494,000), Canada (372,000), United Kingdom (298,000), Russia (235,000), Argentina (185,000) and Germany (115,000). Australia then followed with 102,000, a figure based on the 2000 Census.

Assuming that we’re 120,000 now, and even if Germany’s Jews have also increased somewhat, we’re among the half-dozen leading Jewish communities outside Israel and the United States.

This is itself something new in world Jewish history. But there don’t seem to be too many Australian Jews who have caught up with the news.

Yet even if they had, the numbers aren’t the real news. That’s because our ranking on another scale, population numbers aside, is potentially second only to American Jewry’s.

That’s right. Second. The scale that really matters is the one that measures a community’s geo-political importance to world Jewry’s key interests — support for Israel, combating antisemitism and Islamo-fascism, and the development of Jewish civilisation.

Here are four reasons, three positive and one negative, why Australian Jewry matters on the geo-political scale:

1) Geography is destiny. Globally, power throughout the 21st century will continue to shift to the Asia Inc orbit. Asian voices and votes will continue to grow louder and mean more. Given its natural resources, standing and diplomatic know-how, Australia can help influence what those Asian voices say and where the votes go. Australian Jewry is where it is on the world Jewry map. It has the resources, potentially, to be far more active.

2) History is also destiny. Compared to the West, the Jews, the Bible, antisemitism and the Holocaust virtually don’t figure in Asia’s historical and cultural consciousness. This opens up creative possibilities for dialogue. As do the differing political realities of Islam for countries such as Indonesia, India, China and Thailand.

3) Looking south-east from Israel to Asia, there is no community between Jerusalem and Perth of any size or stature that can meaningfully pursue Jewish interests. Looking north-west from Melbourne and Sydney to Tel Aviv, the small, scattered Asia-Pacific Jewish communities need Australian Jewry.

4) Canada has recovered its former vigour recently, but still remains a North American extension of the US. The three largest communities in Europe – France, the UK, and Germany – are struggling with their own various anti-Israel and antisemitic challenges, their best days are behind them, and they show little sign that they’ll do much to change the European malaise.

On the geo-political ladder of Jewish communities therefore, this leaves the United States and, well, Australia at the top.

IN one sense, of course, none of this is news at all. After all, as far back as the 1980s, the then Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) president Isi Leibler formed the Asia Pacific Jewish Association, initiated a series of conferences in Singapore and Hong Kong between leading Jewish and Asian intellectuals, and became a roving ambassador for the World Jewish Congress in Beijing, New Delhi and Tokyo.

More recently, the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, under Mark Leibler’s and Dr Colin Rubenstein’s leadership, has undertaken valuable research in the region.

It has also worked with the American Jewish Committee to establish links with key opinion makers in Jakarta, New Delhi and other capitals. And the Asia Pacific Jewish Association, although far less active, continues within the ECAJ to provide some support to the small regional communities.

But we have to do far more. What’s needed, beyond a handful of lay leaders and professionals who’ve recognised the need, is the community’s understanding of an historic opportunity.

We need an understanding that the “beautiful set of numbers”, to use last week’s AJN heading on its editorial about the census results, is more than just “good for the Jews” at home.

It’s a reminder that when we move up in the world, we have to try harder to do the same for the Jews abroad.


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