Within the Jewish community, discussions about Julia Gillard often include the whispered question: “She might support Israel now, but have you heard what she was like in her university days?”
So, when we spoke to her last August, while she was still Deputy Prime Minister, The AJN decided to explore Gillard’s days in student politics. Where did she stand in debates about Israel when she was president of the now-defunct Australian Union of Students (AUS)?
“The AUS in the late 1970s and into the early 1980s was racked by conflicting views over Israel and Palestine,” Gillard explained during an interview with The AJN in her Melbourne office on Friday. “It caused many Jewish students around the country and their representative organisation – the Australasian Union of Jewish Students – to become anti-AUS.”
Gillard commenced studying an arts and law degree in Adelaide in 1979, but it wasn’t until a couple of years later, when she transferred her studies to Melbourne, that she launched into the quagmire that was student politics at the time.
“When I came into the AUS, sensible people – and I put myself in that category – were saying ‘Well people will have their individual views about this question, it is a democracy, people can debate and try and persuade each other, but this is not business for AUS’.”
Gillard went on to become a leading figure in the movement and she supported the AUS members’ vote to discard their Middle East policy and not replace it.
“I supported that – the union not having any formal policy on that – as a way of concentrating, or trying to concentrate, the union on the things that make a difference. That was always my position on it.”
The Middle East debate, she added, was at its height a few years before she joined the AUS and her time there was during the tail end of the controversy.
With her early relationship with Israeli politics established, Gillard told The AJN about her recent trip to Israel.
Last July, she led the Australian delegation to the Australia-Israel Leadership Forum in Jerusalem.
Speaking highly of that forum, the first of its kind between the countries, she compared it with the prestigious Australia-American Leadership Forum.
“[The Australian-American Leadership Dialogue] has done so much to drive connections between the two countries: at a political level, at a business level, at a social level, at a scientific level. So to be there for the start of what you would hope will grow into something like that, I thought that was a tremendous privilege and opportunity.
“While it is early days and it was the first meeting, I thought all the signs were good.”
The contents of the forum were, unfortunately, confidential.
But one can imagine the debate that took place between Gillard, former treasurer Peter Costello, Liberal shadow minister Christopher Pyne and other Australian MPs sitting across the table from members of the Israeli Knesset, journalists and other decision-makers.
Writing in the Australia Israel Cultural Exchange newsletter, a journalist called the event an “invigorating, candid and often amusing collaboration”.
Gillard said the forum and the rest of her time in Israel demonstrated to her that, excluding the security situation, the two countries had wide-ranging commonalities.
“I think both countries visualise themselves as having a highly skilled, high-tech, high-innovation future,” Gillard said.
She echoed a thought that appears to be verbalised more and more in recent months: that Australia has a lot to learn from Israel, particularly in the high-tech field.
Speaking on education, a matter close to her heart – as well as Deputy Prime Minister, she holds the portfolios of education, employment and workplace relations and social inclusion – she said Australia and Israel would benefit from sharing knowledge.
“Both countries are working through how do you keep improving quality, particularly in circumstances where you’ve got large numbers of migrants into the nation from different places,” she said.
“They have had to have an education system aspiring for excellence, but dealing with a lot of diversity and our education system is the same. I think the possibilities for exchange there are very strong.”
Throughout the interview, Gillard was relaxed and comfortable talking about Israel, emphasising recent meetings with President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leaders.
“To have a discussion about economic issues, security issues, world events generally, that was a great privilege,” she said.