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2008 Australia-Israel Hawke Lecture

Old-New Lands: Antiquity, Modernity and Europe's Complex Legacy in Israel and Australia

Wednesday 13 August 2008

Jointly-presented by the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce and The Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre at UniSA

Fania Oz-Salzberger
Professor and Leon Liberman Chair in Modern Israel Studies, Australian Centre for Jewish Civilization, Monash University
Senior Lecturer and Director of the Posen Research Forum in Political Thought, Faculty of Law, University of Haifa

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In 1902, in the German town of Leipzig, a novel was published. It was a science fiction novel, as futuristic as Jules Verne's works of the same era. It was Theodore Herzl’s Altneuland. The meaning of the title was 'Old-New Land'. It was a fantasy of two travelers, an old German-born American millionaire and a disaffected young Jewish modernist, who chance upon a magnificent experiment of new Jewish nation-building in the ancient land of Israel. It was a wonderful modern polity, democratic to the core, with Jews and Arabs, men and women, peacefully sharing full civic rights. European anti-Semitism was no more. Its former victims were now running a modern economy, replete with agriculture, industry and commerce. Europe was their major trading partner. "If you will it", the book’s motto says, "it is no legend".

No legend? Herzl, of course, was dealing in dreams. Reality on the ground came nowhere near his fantastic Altneuland. There were a handful of idealistic Jewish settlers in the Ottoman-ruled Palestine, and some hundreds more, mainly from Eastern Europe, intending to join them and create agricultural settlements in the ancient homeland. That was it. No Jewish state was on anyone’s cards.

Yet soon enough, Tel Aviv started growing out of the sand dunes by the Mediterranean Sea. In 1909 its small whitewashed buildings sprang up, just north of the Arab port of Jaffa where the age-old surf had washed both the biblical Jonah and the mythical Andromeda. But Tel Aviv had no time for myths. Young and irreverent, modern to the bone, Tel Aviv is the poetic Hebrew translation of 'Old New Land'. It was a city willed into being, and it did not rely on legends.

At the time of Altneuland's publication, the independent Commonwealth of Australia was one year old.


Let me tell you something personal. For an Israeli such as myself, there is something very refreshing about visiting a continent that is not mentioned in the Bible or in the Talmud even once. Indeed, the whole southern hemisphere is conspicuously left out of the ancient Hebraic scriptures. For us, Australia is a clean slate of a land, its vast expanses untrodden by our demanding forebears.

And yet, there is something deeply biblical about Australia. Its far horizons, its myriad yellows, its aridness, its immemorial sung traditions - all of these speak a strangely familiar language to Israeli ears.

Even modernity here strikes an intimate note for us, and I am told that Australians coming to Israel feel the same way. Ours are two vehemently modern nations, energetic and alert, and they have both experienced a very recent awakening. Some time in the 1980s, we traded a certain quaint insularity for a full-speed-ahead globalization. We embrace new technologies with a buzz, often designing and producing them ourselves. We treat the future with fearlessness, even with love.

We resemble each other in some cultural matters - uncalculating friendliness, unchecked directness, unabashed human proximity. Ours are g'day and shalom societies, mate and chaver interactions. We share an instinctive familiarity, aversion to hierarchy, no talent for pomp and circumstance. Both our nations are tuned to the world, with youngsters backpacking their way from the Himalaya to the Andes.

Besides, both Australians and Israelis nowadays speak fairly decent English.


Still, can any two lands be more different than Australia and Israel? Australia is slightly smaller than the continental USA. Israel, for its part, is slightly smaller than the state of New Jersey.

Australia's land boundaries with other countries span zero kilometers. Israel’s are one thousand kilometer long, and a good half of those borders are temporary or unstable, held in vitriolic controversy, disputed or unrecognized by the international community. Rockets and missiles fly over them. Warplanes cross them. Suicide bombers smuggle their deadly belts.

Australia is the only country in the world to own the entire continent it inhabits. Israel is one of the world’s smallest countries, tucked into an edge of its biggest continent. In numeric terms, Australia has almost eight million square kilometers to its name; Israel has twenty thousand. Size matters a great deal. This difference defies the imagination.

Australia is surrounded by oceans and its border disputes - I won't be so impolite as to call them non-existent - are about fishing rights and the dimensions of its continental shelf. Israel is semi-surrounded by enemies, never had a peaceful day in its life, and its continental shelf - the whole 7 nautical miles of it - is where the President of Egypt once promised throw out its entire Jewish population.


Can it be, then, that Australians have something to teach the Israelis, and something to learn from them?

I think that the answer is yes. If we acknowledge our huge differences and take them on board, we are still left with common denominators that belie a unique potential for dialogue. We are, after all, two fairly young and very dynamic democracies, grown from diverse immigrant populations, and burdened (as well as blessed) with very ancient and often painful pasts. Ours are old new lands, in unique and comparable ways. We have so much to talk about.

The ancestral legacies of Israel and Australia are so different, that they defy comparison. What do Bible and Dreamtime have in common, apart from their belonging to the loose universal category of foundational legends?

I can think of just one specific similarity: the Hebrew Bible has the whole world created by God’s word. Australia’s aboriginal tribes, and I hope that my reading serves me well here, took part in Creation by word of mouth, by song.

Other cultures have myths of creation that rely on battle, on patricide, on gods and monsters and heroes maiming or eating one another. Australia’s legends, and ancient Israel's too, are not devoid of violence but they are not dependent on it. The core of their creationist myths is about the wording of the world. They tell how a Founder, or Founders, spoke or sang the world and its inhabitants into existence.

Australia's aboriginal myths were oral; ancient Israel's foundational stories were for many years oral too, and eventually they were written down. But both our legacies are profoundly verbal. So verbal, indeed, that our Moment of Creation is a moment of speaking. This, I think, is an Australian-Israeli similarity. It is rare. And it is very beautiful.


Let us return to our differences. Let me ask a modern question, a political one, a painful one. We all know who the indigenous Australians are. But who are the indigenous Israelis?

Are they Jews or Palestinians? Who are the true son and daughter of the land, of the landscape? Whose songs are the truly ancient ones? Who is the latecomer and conqueror? How long is the latecomer considered a latecomer, and when does the conqueror cease being a conqueror?

And here is another painful question: we can assume that Australia's original population will not regain the hold it once had on the land. But can Israel's competing resident nations - both claming native rights to their land - be able to share or divide it between them?

I think that the answer to this one is more painful to Australia than it may yet be for Israel. But who knows? How can this sort of pain be measured?

And yet, our dealings with our pasts are not only about pain. In both our modern societies, the past - far and near - is the stuff that national identity is made of. For Australians and for Israelis and for Palestinians, identity is of great importance. In a globalized world, where so many individuals are cut off from any roots, where so many societies recall almost nothing of their collective pasts, we share a very strong sense of our legacies. Our memory, be it indigenous or migrant memory, goes a long way back.

Memory is the subject matter of identity. We are haunted by the spirits of the past, and at the same time enriched and inspired by them. Pain and anger notwithstanding, here is a source of great strength for Australians and Israelis alike. Our respective identities derive from the tension fields of an old new land.


The upward mobility of both Israel and Australia on the recently globalized economic map is, in both cases, nothing less than sensational. Both economies were transformed during the 1980s or the 1990s by new market policies and a powerful wave of innovation. In both cases, entrepreneurs teamed up with scientists to create cutting edge technology. In both cases, this home grown energy was strongly supported by the well-timed influx of educated immigrants.

Consequently, Australia has become one of the world's strongest economies, with a GDP on par with Europe's four strongest countries. Israel, in the meantime, evolved into a world-class economy. Our humble Shekel is now, as we speak, the world’s strongest coin. Israel is the world’s leader, for 2008, in attracting research and development investments.

In all fairness, I do need to mention that Australia owns vast layers of valuable minerals, bauxite and coal, iron ore and copper, tin, gold, silver, uranium, nickel, and the list goes on. Israel, by contrast, has been blessed with meager natural goods: a little potash and phosphate and magnesium bromide. As Golda Meir once said: "God led us through the Sinai desert for forty years. It took all that time for Him to find for us the only Middle Eastern Country that has no oil."

Still, Israel has more arable land -16% to Australia's 6%. But then again, we Israelis spend well over 7% of our GDP on our military budget. You lucky Australians only spend 2.4% thereof.

These figures underscore Israel's unique success. The very fact that I am able to compare our two economies is remarkable. High tech innovation has gained Israel its recent economic fame, putting it on par with the richer and peaceful Australia. "Israelis have at last found oil in the Negev desert", wrote New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, after visiting an Open Day at Beersheba University. Our oil, as Friedman saw, is creativity. Our minerals are mined in human minds and in innovative laboratories.

Australia's and Israel's worries and concerns are often similar: global warming and desertification, aridity and the challenges of hydrology have recently propelled several joint. True, Australia is geographically closer to the depleted part of the Ozone layer, and it also has the Great Barrier Reef to protect. Israel, for obvious reasons, cannot share the Australian luxury of putting the environment at the top of its national agenda. We always have other things to worry about, and sometimes we push environmental issues down the list. Our Australian friends must remind us not to do this.

Modernity is a state of mind. Our two societies love innovation. Our people travel the world, surf the web, crave modern design, and buy electronic gadgets with relish. We like developing them ourselves, too.

On state-of-the-art technology, our two societies are very young at heart. Almost adolescent. Australians now own about 20 million mobile phones, roughly one per person. There are 15 million internet-users on this continent. Israelis own about 9 million mobile phones, rather more than the 7-million population. We seem to be on the World Wide Web more than anywhere else, out-surfing just about everyone except the Californians.

But the modern frame of mind is more than the love of technology, high-tech addiction and gadget-craving. Australia and in Israel share a similar sense of equality between men and women. We both have a strong instinct of a classless society.

Not all of us, of course. Australia has indigenous and migrant communities that maintain old social traditions. Israel has Arab and Jewish orthodox populations that maintain their own sub-cultures amidst or alongside the modern mainstream.

With regard to Israel let me suggest that you look closely at young people raised in traditional communities. Watch out especially for the young. Young Arab, as well as ultra-Orthodox Jewish, women are changing the inner rules of their own societies at this present time. They are moving centre stage, getting higher education, taking up professions, and entering civil society. Some of them are resolved to have fewer children and provide them with superior education. They demand and enact more equality at home, based on their novel status as breadwinners. Their voices are heard in the public and political arenas.

Thus, Israel's modernization is still evolving, and its impact is reaching out to previously secluded communities. This is an exciting process, and as regards young women of traditionalist backgrounds, it is no less than revolutionary. Times are changing. Stay tuned.


Australia has now been a sovereign state for over a century. It came out of the British Empire's womb at an opportune moment: in 1901 imperial acquisition and colonial practice went unchallenged. No international entity ever questioned Australia’s right to its land. Troubling questions about fairness and decency towards Australia’s native population arose only recently, and largely out of this society’s own conscience and evolving moral worldview.

Israel's case is, of course, vastly different. Its independence was gained in 1948, a crucial half-century after Australia's, and in a radically different world. Israel did not come out of the comfortable womb of the British Empire, but from the collapsing post-war ruins of that empire. It was not a cherished Commonwealth child, but an unruly and unwanted Mandate Rule stepchild that the British were happy to leave to its own devices, quite possibly to be devoured by the other and much bigger colonial stepchild, the Arabs.

No Queen and Governor General for us, just a hastily folded Union Jack at the Haifa seaport and a last farewell and good riddance from the outgoing British troops.

And yet, in a way not unsimilar to the Australians, we retain an ambivalent memory of our British past. A certain Anglophilia that runs deep in the Israeli bloodstream, not so much the yearning for a good cup of tea, no Marmite, but a good old affection for British books and film and parliamentary culture and rule of law.

On the highest, clearest peak of statehood and politics, both our nations owe a great deal to our British pasts. A deep notion of fairness decency and law and order has survived. Certainly this is the case in Australia. But also, subtly, in Israel. Our judiciary, in particular our Supreme Court, was founded by legal experts educated in Germany and America, but then tutored in the Common Law system under the British Mandate. Consequently, Israel's judicial branch has been, from 1948 until this day, a mainstay of its democracy.

Without delving current affairs, I would like to emphasize that the double ills besetting Israel today, the prolonged occupation of Arab lands and the recent disclosures of pockets of governmental corruption, are not symptoms of a lack of democracy. Both of these issues are constantly, and especially today, the loci of a free and open democratic struggle. While corruption is being faced with increasing juridical effectiveness, the end to occupation - followed by the establishment of a sovereign and peaceful Palestine alongside Israel - requires work from many quarters, some of them beyond the reach of Israel itself.

I have spoken of the benign aspects of a complex British legacy in the politics and law of both our countries. But another Europe lurks in our collective pasts. It is a shadowy Europe. There is a far darker to the continent from which many modern Australians and Israelis are descended.

Israel's founding fathers and mothers came, in the greatest numbers, from central and eastern Europe. Their countries of origin were never democratic, and seldom maintained even a scant liberal or parliamentary tradition. Worse, their countries of origin had them discriminated against, humiliated, persecuted and ousted.

In a way quite different from Australia's convict founders, but in other respects so very similar, Israel's pioneers were Europe's most unwanted sons and daughters. Many of them were washed to these Middle Eastern shores unwillingly, not as ideologues but as haven-seekers. They always longed for the world they left behind, a greener, colder, wetter world, a cultured and brutal world. A world we have lost, while creating another.

This makes our achievement all the more poignant: Europe's unwanted ones made good, fended for themselves, took along with them Europe’s best traditions, not its worst. Here I find a deep link, a spiritual sameness, between Israelis and Australians.


What might we learn from each other?

I would like to see my society take up several Australian character traits. Specifically, the calm sense of safety and wellbeing that does not preclude a strong interest in world affairs and a sense of political and moral decency and responsibility.

Israelis are learning, and should learn more, to pay attention to world misery even when far from their borders. There are now Israeli volunteers in Darfur and in other parts of Africa, aid workers and doctors and teachers. There are Darfurian and other refugees in Israel. Australians are further advanced in such aid operations and better schooled in the requisite global consciousness. Israelis should take heed, but still, Australia’s geography and politics naturally allow a calmer attitude to migration and asylum issues.

Israelis may well learn from Australia how to apologize for past wrongdoings to a present-day minority group. However, in our situation, such a step may be too early. Our conflict with the Palestinians is not yet resolved, and by the time it is resolved, many of them will no longer be under occupation or in the status of an ethnic minority. Unlike Australia's Aboriginals, Israel's Palestinians are likely to have a sovereign state of their own.

Apologies are not a natural aspect of Middle Eastern politics. We may yet achieve peace without a photogenic emotional climax. But perhaps one day in the future, Israelis and Palestinians will apologize to each other. Perhaps this will even happen on a ground more equal than the Australian situation allows.

On this issue, I think that Australia may have something to learn from Israel. Our Arab minority, while of course in all conceivable respects is not comparable with the Aboriginal minority, is certainly comparable to migrant Muslim minorities in Australia and in Europe. It is a motivated minority, full of energy, assertive in its own narratives, and entering Israeli civil society in full swing. I, for one, find more hope than fear in this process.

The University of Haifa, where I teach, has Arab undergraduates that make 20% of its student body. This is similar to the proportion of the Arab citizenry of Israel. It is a huge achievement, shared by Beersheba University, and signaling a sea change in the civic growth of Israel’s Arab minority. A good half of our Arab students are women. Many of them continue into graduate studies and into professional careers.

These Arab students and professionals are mostly Muslim, including Bedouins, and others belong to the Druze and Christian communities.

I hope that other Western universities, including Europe’s and Australia’s, will follow in the footsteps of Haifa and Beersheba. Both universities, and many other Israeli colleges, can feel justly proud as they continue their work of democratic education.


I started with a book, Herzl's Old New land, and I will end with two newer books, an Australian novel and an Israeli one.

In Kate Grenville’s The Secret River (2005), an English convict named William Thornhill and his family find freedom, prosperity and guilt in nineteenth-century New South Wales. Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness (2002), comes from the radically different world of mid-twentieth century Jerusalem. One of its protagonists is my grandfather, Yehuda Arie Klausner. It would appear that little if anything connects the Ukrainian Jew and the London cockney. But they have so much in common: two unlikely immigrants forcibly ousted from Europe. They were poor, dismal, not your grand white colonizers. Their own tragedies, and those of their families, met the local populations’ tragedies midway. In the end, they fared better than the indigenous people who crossed their paths, and their children could expect a brighter future. But that at a great price of human calamity and moral qualms.

These two good books (one of them, I must disclose, written by my father) were not written as sermons, but they inadvertently offer a valuable lesson. The past, they say, can weigh heavily on us, but it must not choke the present and infringe upon the future. After all, both our flourishing societies stemmed not only from the dispossession of others, but also from the clinging to life, to hope and to freedom, of Europe’s unwanted and unloved sons and daughters. In this respect, we Israelis and Australians are not just mates, but profoundly similar travel-mates in modern history.

And now that we are doing well for ourselves, sovereign and free, self-sufficient through hard work and creative spirit, we must and we can, turn our attention to the worlds lost under our migrating feet. To the people whose memory and lore tell stories other than our own. In some way, these people too should share our future and make it a better one.

While the views presented by speakers within the Hawke Centre public program are their own and are not necessarily those of either the University of South Australia or The Hawke Centre, they are presented in the interest of open debate and discussion in the community and reflect our themes of: strengthening our democracy – valuing our cultural diversity – and building our future.

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