By Rob Harris
It was a little-seen social media post that sent a major wave of panic through federal Labor.
The Melbourne University ALP Club posted a photo of a handful of its members alongside Labor MP Ged Kearney, at a May 22 rally in solidarity for the people of Palestine. It was accompanied by the phrase “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”.
Israeli security forces were seen using stun grenades and rubber bullets while Palestinians retaliated by hurling rocks.
While the party’s Right faction in Victoria has held firm for Israel, the NSW Right – mainly through the influence of former NSW premier and one-time foreign minister Bob Carr – has split.
And after a damaging anti-Semitism scandal that plagued British Labour under controversial leader Jeremy Corbyn during the past five years, Labor’s Israel supporters saw it as a major step forward when leader Anthony Albanese wrote to Jeremy Leibler, the president of the Zionist Federation of Australia, to support the definition of anti-Semitism adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
“I strongly believe that the fight against racism, including resurgent anti-Semitism, requires ongoing action and, for all politicians, leadership by example,” Albanese wrote.
“Labor has also made it clear that we completely oppose the BDS campaign against Israel.”
Mr Albanese, who has become increasingly disciplined in his quest to win the next election, did not need the latest blow-up in internal tensions, which some of his colleagues believe is severely damaging to the perception Labor could govern responsibly.
The latest round of discontent followed the controversy at Labor’s national conference, in March this year, when it was proposed the party’s platform be amended to call on the next Labor government to treat the issue of Palestine as an “important priority”, bringing it in line with a resolution passed at the 2018 federal conference.
Senator Wong argued its inclusion in the document meant “no lesser or greater weight” to the matter. Some pro-Israel MPs were not overly concerned about its addition to the platform although in a year where the document was to be cut from 115 pages, down from 310 pages, others were puzzled as to why it was necessary.
Many in the Jewish community did not agree with the decision but did not think, ultimately, it undermined bipartisanship between the Coalition and Labor in support of Israel.
But in a conference that was deliberately designed to be low-key and minimise any internal debate, the issue exploded.
The most outspoken critic was former Labor MP Michael Danby, who was denied the opportunity to speak to the wording.
Mr Danby, a passionate defender of Israel during his 21 years in federal parliament, said the decision to give priority to “unconditional recognition” of a Palestinian state was “stupid” and he was furious that he was denied a chance to speak to it.
Days later the front page of The Australian Jewish News splashed with the story about Mr Danby’s objection with the headline “Today Will Live In Infamy”. And it had become a major headache for Labor.
Party member Adam Slonim, the co-convener of the Australia-Israel Labor Dialogue, said the weekend’s Queensland resolution “demonised Israel and created a double standard that no one else is held to”.
He hit back at comments from Carr in The Australian on Thursday, which accused those raising concerns about a growing strain of anti-Semitism within Labor as trying to shut down criticism of Israel. Carr, an outspoken critic of Israel for decades, was an enthusiastic supporter of the Queensland motion.
Slonim told this masthead he and other members of the dialogue were “Labor to their bootstraps”, would never shy away from open debate but were no longer prepared to not call out anti-Zionist statements from within the party.
“We are very disappointed that the Labor Party in Queensland blamed Israel entirely for the recent conflict.
“When you see a motion like this that demonises, delegitimises, doesn’t discuss at all the 4300 rockets fired by Hamas on Israeli citizens … when you have these ‘three Ds’ you are moving from anti-Zionism to anti-Semitism.”
But the motion was viewed by the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network as a major step forward by federal Labor.
Bishop George Browning said the Queensland ALP was right to focus on the party that had “overwhelmingly more power and therefore responsibility”.
“The uncomfortable truth is Israel’s occupation is the primary instigator of violence. We cannot say we are a true friend of Israelis and Palestinians and pretend it is otherwise.”
Fellow APAN executive member Dr Peter Slezak said as a child of Holocaust survivors he welcomed the resolution.
“Holding Israel to account is not antisemitic and remaining silent is not neutral or balanced,” he said. “Israel must be held to the same standards as all nations and abide by international law.”
Reacting to the Queensland motion, Victorian MP Josh Burns, who is Jewish, and Kitching have taken out a full- page advertisement in this week’s edition of The Australian Jewish News declaring “Labor stands with Israel” and will “always defend its right to live in peace and security”.
Burns, a first-term MP who holds the seat of Macnamara with a large Jewish community, labelled the weekend’s motion “disappointing” and “blatantly one-sided”.
“But rest assured it in no way represents federal Labor’s balanced policy in support of Israel and a two-state solution and it will have absolutely no impact on federal Labor policy.”
But for some within his community, the weekend’s latest events have raised some doubts.