|The Hall Was Transfixed|
|Written by Ruby Ong|
By Robin Margo
The launch of the New Israel Fund in Australia in May sparked some controversy among the 110,000-strong Jewish community on the outer edge of the Diaspora, the majority of whom have heard only the official party line on Israel for years.
NIF president Naomi Chazan flew into that storm late last week, greeted by some calls for her to be banned from speaking at Limmud-Oz and by other vocal critics of the NIF.
After four packed sessions at Limmud-Oz, however, the jury was in: not only was Professor Chazan the star attraction of the two-day festival of Jewish learning, she had won over some of her critics and quieted others with skill, intellect, passion and a not-insignificant amount of humour.
But arguably her greatest challenge was in Sydney’s Inner West neighborhood, the arena of a recent bitter battle by a local council to adopt the Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. The founding members of NIF-Australia deliberated long and hard over what kind of event to host there, who to invite and what the possible outcomes could be. It was a venture into a side of Sydney that could have backfired, a fear that was partially confirmed when the original venue cancelled, intimidated by calls from BDS supporters.
As the Harbour City produced heavy winter rain, more than 100 people crammed into a small hall adjacent to the old Newtown synagogue.
They were an eclectic mélange of progressive Jews, dissenting Jews, pro-Palestinian activists, Green supporters, unionists, at least one Communist and proponents of the global BDS movement.
No microphone. No frills. Standing room only. An air of anticipation from an audience slightly uncomfortable with itself.
At the front stood a small lady with a lion heart. For 40 minutes and more, she opened her heart to them, slowly, surely, with subtlety, delicacy and brutal honesty.
She told the story of the state of Israel through the prism of her own life story. That her first memory was the siege of Jerusalem in 1948. That she has endured and survived every war, and has the scars to prove it. That her Palestinian friends have their scars, too.
And that she has “probably” been on every demonstration against the occupation since the first one against the first settlement soon after the Six-Day War.
No one moved. No one murmured. She never needed to raise her voice. The hall was transfixed.
And then, having explained where she comes from, this progressive human rights champion fired a barrage at the leftists in the room and the rightists who attack her from the comfort of their computers: she declared her and NIF’s strong opposition to the global BDS campaign, articulating in succession six cogent reasons to back that up.
In conclusion, she then explained the people-to-people work that is required to bring about a Palestinian state living in peace beside Israel.
At the end of her address the small hall was booming with applause. And then slowly, one man rose to his feet. Then another. And then another. Pockets of people felt compelled to rise in admiration and appreciation.
It was a moment that encapsulated Professor Chazan’s ability to argue her case, and the power of her values and beliefs.
What she managed to achieve was not just to convert some skeptics, but to challenge in a profound way leftists – both pro- and anti-Israel -- who had never previously been exposed to such a powerfully compelling argument by a fellow leftist.
Naomi Chazan is an experienced speaker. She handled herself with aplomb in print, TV and radio interviews as any seasoned pro would be expected to do. And even under the wrath of some confrontational attacks at other venues, she remained calm and composed.
But what took place in Sydney’s so-called “Inner West Bank” on Tuesday night was a tour de force. One courageous woman facing a potentially hostile crowd and arguing against an occupation that is “immoral, undemocratic and un-Jewish” and for a two-state solution.
And despite the fact that she had poured cold water on the boycotts, flotillas and the international campaign to delegitimise the Jewish state – some of the key battlegrounds of BDS supporters – she received rousing applause and acclaim.
Every one present that evening will remember it. It was a defining moment. Arguably the birthing moment of the New Israel Fund’s branch Down Under.
Robin Margo is the Chair of New Israel Fund’s newly established Australian affiliate. A former Rhodes Scholar, Robin has held several leadership positions within Australia’s Jewish community. A former anti-apartheid activist in South Africa and a passionate proponent of civil and human rights, strengthening trust and cooperation between inter-faith communities and social justice, Robin brings a unique and exciting presence to NIF’s newest venture.