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Downer all the way with Israel
This is a speech Alexander Downer delivered on June 26 to the Israel Australia Chamber of Commerce Gala Dinner at the King David Hotel, Jerusalem.
I can only say that tonight is a very important evening for me and I feel very touched by the great honour that’s been bestowed on me by Bar Ilan University. I feel that it’s exciting on the one hand but I feel very humbled by it as well – perhaps a little undeserving. I did get an honours degree at university but my wife says to me that “Darling, you’re now a doctor but you’ve not done a stroke of work towards a thesis”. When I graduated as an undergraduate I thought that was enough university and it was time to go out and make money and I failed at that and went into politics [laughter]. Anyway, I’ve come full circle and now I’m a doctor and so I appreciate the great honour.
A lot of people ask me why I seem to be so committed to Israel - I mean, I’m a Christian, not Jewish and although I remember staying here in this hotel about three years ago ... and I think I could almost be described as an honorary Jew with a lot of the views that I hold about the issues that Jewish people confront. But a lot of people do ask me why I am so committed to Israel. And I think there are a variety of explanations for that. One of them is a bit historic and I think some of you have heard me say this before. When I was a child at school and subsequently when I went to university in England, for no particular reason, Jewish people seemed to befriend me as some other people did as well [laughter], but I seemed to have quite a lot of Jewish friends.
When I was at university I shared a house with four people. One of them was a New Zealander, one of them was Jewish – her name is Judy – and a Scotsman. This was in 1972-73, that sort of time, the significance being 1973. And Judy had a cousin come and stay with her from Israel. And it was at the time, just as the cousin came, the Yom Kippur War broke out. And I remember this just as though it were yesterday, going down into our little kitchenette – imagine a student’s kitchen how completely disgusting it was, with washing up not done for about four days, just a complete mess really, and we ate such disgusting food as well. Judy’s sitting there in her dressing gown with her cousin from Israel and the cousin from Israel had tears in her eyes. They were both listening to BBC radio, to the details of the Yom Kippur War and you’ll remember better than I do how in the early days it wasn’t going so well. This cousin of Judy’s brother was in the Israeli army and - you know all of this so much better than I do.
But I was tremendously struck by the power of the moment. I was tremendously struck by the Jewish people, as in the Israelis in this case, under siege and so unreasonably in my view - now some people will criticise me for that - but I think completely unreasonably under siege in the way that they were and suffering so much yet again after all the wars that they’d been through. And, I don’t know, it seemed to me that somebody had sometimes to stick up for the Israeli people and as the years have gone by the cause of Israel has, in many countries around the world, become decreasingly fashionable. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. It hasn’t changed my mind that it’s become decreasingly fashionable, in fact I’ve never claimed to be fashionable, I’ve just tried to do what I thought was the right thing.
So for those sort of historic reasons, I’ve had a strong feeling for Israel. One of the other reasons I have a strong feeling for Israel - when I come here and it’s forty degrees it reminds me of Adelaide, it’s like going home. When I come here and look at Israeli politics it also reminds me of home. The interesting way that Israelis conduct their politcs, the same robust – dare I say it - slightly rude way in which your politicians deal with each other, the volatility of your politics – a bit more volatile than ours. Yes, you’ve had more Foreign Ministers, as Stanley was pointing out, than we have over the last eleven years, but nevertheless the volatility, the confrontation, the partisanship of your politics is very familiar to us.
Of course in a broader sense Israel shares so many of the core values that Australia has as well. Australia is the world’s sixth oldest continuingly operating democracy; its democratic roots are very deep. Israel is such a vibrant democracy as well, it’s one of the great heartlands of modern democracy as well – the passionate belief in the freedom of the individual that we have in our own society. There’s something else about Israel that Australia shares as well and that is that your country seems to me to be a kind of brutally egalitarian society and we kind of like that in Australia. Airs and graces don’t go down very well in our country – that’s why Europeans think that we’re very noisy and perhaps a touch common [laughter]. But it’s just that we’re very egalitarian. And I think that Israelis suffer from – if you could call it that – the same thing. So there are those great sort of bonds of kinship, I guess, that we have.
We have in Australia a wonderful Jewish community about 100,000 strong. They are just enormous contributors to our country. Our country would not be the great country it is if not for our small but incredibly successful Jewish community in the professions, in business, not so much in politics in our country but there have been from time to time in politics – the first Australian-born Governor General of Australia was Jewish and we’ve had two Governors General – I think, two – who have been Jewish. Jewish people have been an enormously important part of our society – continue to be - and we’re very proud of that as well.
But I suppose on top of all of those things, in very recent years we have kind of been bound together yet again because of the way the world has evolved. I suppose for Jewish people one of the most defining experiences is what happened to them in the 1930s and 1940s. So for Jewish people they understand more than anyone else on earth the pain of the confrontation between liberal democrats, social democrats on the one side and fascism and Nazism on the other side and totalitarianism. After that we had the confrontation between liberal and social democrats and Communism. And I think when we got to 1990-91, the Berlin wall was torn down, Communism collapsed, it became a barren and bankrupt ideology. The Soviet Union itself broke up, we thought it was, to use Francis Fukuyama’s phrase, the end of world history, meaning that the great ideological confrontations had finished. We thought that we could pocket a ‘peace dividend’ as they used to say in the early 1990s, we could put away our arms and spend that money on the things we’d truly love to spend it on – health and education, services and so on.
But then we were very brutally reminded, as time went on, that in fact the great conflicts were not over. That the world still faces a great conflict, which I often define as a conflict between moderate people, between tolerant people, between caring people on the one hand and between extremists, and the intolerant and the uncaring on the other hand. And the intolerance of a minority is an intolerance that causes great death and great suffering.
Now I ask myself what should we do about those who are intolerant, those who have ideologies which they wish to impose on others, and those who are prepared to cause suffering to others for the cause of an ideology because the ideology is more important than human life or it’s more important than any individual, that in fact individuals don’t count, the corporate ideology is what counts? And this is what we see from the Islamic extremists from, in our part of the world, in south east Asia, from Jemaah Islamiyah, the Abu Sayyaf group, you see from Al Qaeda, and you see to some extent from both Hamas and Hizbollah right around you here in Israel.
Some people said that the best way to deal with Nazism was through a policy that was very fashionable and very popular in the 1940s called appeasement. And we all know in this room that that policy was the wrong policy. And yet it’s so often repeated, despite the fact that we know it’s the wrong way to deal with extremists we’re still inclined to want to repeat it. So when it came to the Soviet Union and the spread of Communism and the challenges that laid down some people thought, “Well that’s the way the world is, we just have to find ways of accommodating it”.
A lot of you won’t agree with me here, because you can see I don’t mind always whether people agree or not, but I reckon one of the great speeches of the 20th century, or at least the second half of the 20th century, was Ronald Reagan’s speech in 1987 in Berlin where he said, “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall”. The importance of that speech was that it was a speech where Reagan was saying, “I want to confront this type of regime, I want to confront this totalitarianism, and I want to defeat it”. And he and his successors and a number of other people – there were a lot of people involved in that victory, but they did.
When it’s come to Islamic extremism and terrorism, there are still people who think we shouldn’t confront it, and we shouldn’t try to defeat it, and we should try to negotiate our way out of it. I’m often reminded of the phrase that Osama bin Laden uses – you want to watch these people’s videos - just as it was important to read Mein Kampf, so it is important to look at and take seriously what people like Osama bin Laden say. And he says the West is a weak horse. That if you keep confronting the weak horse for long enough eventually it will walk away, that it won’t be able to sustain for a long time a campaign against extremism and terrorism. And when I think about the debates that there are – the debates there are about what to do with Hamas or with Hizbollah and Al Qaeda – what should we be doing in Iraq and Afghanistan – should we let the Taliban take over and just go back home, go back to bed and have a cry at night.
Or, in our case, should we and the Americans and the British and others just walk out of Iraq and leave people like Al Qaeda and other extremists to play merry havoc in that country. Imagine what that would mean for you nearby, here in Israel. And people say that’s the easy way, that’s the way we should do it. I keep thinking to myself, “It would be quite easy”, and sometimes I think it might give us a bit of a boost in the polls if we were to do that sort of thing at home. And then I think, “What will it mean for my children? What will it mean for future generations? What will it mean for you here in this country?” if in the end we show weakness, if we are weak horses, if we run away. Will that mean these people themselves will disappear, will their ideology vanish? Will they become our friends as a result of us being weak horses? I think the answer to that is perfectly obvious. And therefore when we think about confronting this great challenge that we have today, that you have of course right here in the forefront of it, and that we have to some lesser extent in south east Asia.
When we think about it we need to work with people who are like-minded, and we need to show a sturdy courage in continuing to confront it. And I don’t just mean a physical courage, and it certainly requires on the part of many people that above all and, I’m sorry to say, very often very sad sacrifice. But also for politicians, a lot of political courage as well to continue to make their arguments in their own countries. And some have done that and you know I’ve admired those people who have been prepared to do that in their countries, sometimes in the teeth of public opposition.
So I say all those things here in Israel on this wonderful evening here tonight, I think our countries have joined together in that great struggle that we have. And what I want to see is an Israel that can live in peace, of course, in peace with its neighbours with two states there, with the State of Israel entirely secure. You don’t want to have to spend ten per cent of your GDP, as we were discussing, on defence, but much less, and with a Palestinian state too which is a secure and a prosperous place and a prosperous neighbour and a good neighbour for Israel. And we want to see a world where people are able to live in freedom and democracy and I think Australia and Israel and a number of other countries know that can’t be achieved for free - we do have to show strength if we are going to achieve those things. And you know those of us who believe in those things – let’s try to stick together, let’s not argue too much and fall out with each other.
So, it’s always an enormous pleasure for me for all of those reasons and I’ve talked about them at great length to be in Israel and to be here in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is a spectacular city. I always say to people there are about 10 cities you have to see before you die and one of those cities is Jerusalem. It’s a wonderful city, a controversial city, a very divided city, but a magnificent city. I think Sydney actually - although a lot of people here come from Melbourne – [laughter] don’t worry, I’m from Adelaide, the city with the greatest football team [laughter] - but I think, just to look at, Sydney is one of the 10 cities you have to see. So those of you who are Israelis who have never been to Sydney you must make sure you at least go there and perhaps go to Adelaide as well [laughter]. It has quite a small Jewish community, Adelaide, but a very good one.
So I’d like to, if you’ll just let me, say once more what an enormous honour it is to be here this evening. It’s a wonderful feeling to receive from Bar Ilan University the honorary doctorate, I appreciate that enormously, and I look forward to coming back before too long, after our election - confidently, in the same position I’ve got here today [applause]. The one thing that I definitely want on the record, Professor Kaveh, is that I would like to make a commitment to going to Bar Ilan University and giving a lecture there about some of the things that I believe in. So, thank you very much.