One of the more bizarre and intriguing events in Australian Christian Jewish relations took place last month when the Australian, Israel and Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) took a group of church leaders on an all expenses tour of Israel. The group included the senior staff of the National Council of Churches, the councils of churches in Queensland, South Australia and Victoria, as well as the Dean of St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral in Melbourne. In the words of the AIJAC leader of the group, they were chosen because they were “all people of promise”!
While there are many organisations within the Jewish community that work co-operatively with churches on issues of interfaith dialogue, AIJAC is not one of them. It is better known as an aggressive, no holds barred, privately funded, political lobby group. It is variously described as “the only effective organisation that lobbies for Israel”, a “Melbourne based pro-Zionist think-tank”, “Zionist propagandists”, “contentious”, but not a body, according to the President of the New South Wales Board of Deputies, “that is in any elected or democratic sense representative of the community”. In fact, its relations with churches have generally been antagonistic and vitriolic.
It appears the recent delegation was content experiencing Israeli propaganda, and did little to discover the Palestinian church and its problems. Furthermore, according to Alan Matheson:
AIJAC has every right to organise all expenses paid tours with whom ever they want and to provide them with any itinerary they choose. In the case of the church leaders, these were “people of promise” and worth the time and effort of AIJAC just in case there was a move in Australia to begin to respond to the WCC campaign [against the Israeli occupation.]
For leaders of the church its a different issue. Their naivety and insensitivity and ignorance is breathtaking. No questions were asked about who or what or where AIJAC was coming from. No attempts were made to consult with the council of churches in Palestine and no meetings took place with Palestinian theologians. Both the councils of churches and the Anglican Church have significant aid programs in the Occupied Territories, but no attempt was made to visit them. And equally disturbing, none of the councils of churches or the Cathedral appear to have policies about accepting funding from partisan lobby groups.
AIJAC is fighting a PR battle with Israel’s critics it can never win. Rather than trying to end the occupation or improve the security of both Israelis and Palestinians, the lobby thinks it can simply shield influential players from facts on the ground. This will inevitably fail.