The death this week of Gough Whitlam (1916-2014), prime minister of Australia from 1973-75, has of course many obituaries and reminiscences.
Popular columnist Andrew Bolt sums up Whitlam well here:
‘Gough Whitlam was lucky his government was sacked in 1975. To our cultural elite, that turned him from a failure to a martyr.
That allowed the ruin he caused to gradually become obscured by the giant shadow of his myth. More ominously, it also allowed Labor to gradually forget what it learned, painfully, from Whitlam’s disasters.
So Labor today weeps for Whitlam and much of the media with it. The ABC’s massive coverage in particular has resembled the state-ordered mourning for a socialist dictator….
Aloof and arrogant, Whitlam was no man of the people and no prime minister was shunned by them so comprehensively — twice.
Whitlam ruled chaotically for just two years and 11 months until he was sacked by governor-general Sir John Kerr to end a damaging stalemate in the Senate, where the Opposition had cut off the scandal-racked government’s money.
The Left raged at the dismissal. On Monday, hours before Whitlam died, prize-winning author Peter Carey was still spluttering on the ABC that his sacking was a wicked conspiracy — “the US government destabilised and helped overthrow our elected government”.
But at the election the public wholeheartedly backed Kerr’s verdict, destroying Labor in a 44 per cent to 56 wipeout. Whitlam the martyr — bellowing “maintain the rage” — nevertheless held on to the Labor leadership, convinced he’d be seen in time as more sinned against than sinning. Instead, two years later the public made clear to Whitlam that he really, really wasn’t wanted, rejecting Labor again by another massive margin, 45 to 55….
Yes, Whitlam made ambitious changes widely accepted as good, bringing in need-based funding for schools, transferring Crown lands to traditional owners, allowing no-fault divorce, legislating for equal pay for women, ending gerrymanders, decriminalising homosexuality and getting sewerage systems to many suburbs. He blew fresh air into power’s musty corridors and to many made Australia seem bigger, broader and brighter.
But other “reforms” came at a cost we’re haven’t yet counted….’
And what of Whitlam’s attitude to Israel?
Let me say that there was a delicious irony in the fact that the person who, in iconic footage (see photo ‘left’) charged with reading out the proclamation of Whitlam’s controversial dismissal from office by Governor-General Sir John Kerr, happened to be a Jew, (Sir) David Smith, who was Kerr’s official secretary (see a snippet regarding Sir David’s personal view of Whitlam here).
Whitlam’s deep hostility to Israel is described at some length in Professor W. D. (Bill) Rubinstein’s volume 2 of The Jews in Australia: A Thematic History, published in 1999 (the professor, of course, is no stranger to regular readers of my blog, having from time to time contributed guest posts to it).
Below is what he writes about Whitlam (pages 541-45) although there are plenty of other references scattered about the volume.
“Whitlam alone of all post-1948 [Australian] Prime Ministers was not merely regarded as no friend of the Jewish community, but as an enemy, and at the 1975 General Election most Australian Jewish leaders recommended a vote for the Coalition [i.e. the Opposition, consisting of Malcolm Fraser’s Liberals and their Country Party allies]
– the only time in history Australian Jewish leaders expressed a party political preference.
There was little or nothing in Whitlam’s background to suggest any overt hostility to Israel or Jewish interests. An intelligent, sophisticated, and articulate barrister, Whitlam (b. 1916) came from the same generation of moderate social democrats as Harold Wilson and Hubert Humphrey who remembered the Holocaust and were almost instinctively Zionist. By 1971, Whitlam had visited Israel four times, and had Jewish confidantes such as Jim Spigelman and Peter Wilenski. Yet he proved hostile to Jewish interests on a variety of key issues: directly on the Middle East War of 1973, the ill-fated Iraqi Loans Affair of 1975, and PLO representation in Australia, and indirectly over the Khemlani Loans Affair of the previous year.
Whitlam’s conflict with the Jewish community first emerged during the Yom Kippur War of 1973, when his Government’s ‘even-handed’ position slipped into gratuitous condemnation of Israel, according to most Jewish leaders. This perception was greatly aggravated in early 1974 when Australia criticised Israel at the United Nations for a reprisal raid on PLO bases in southern Lebanon in retaliation for the PLO’s terror attack on Kiryat Shemona in southern Lebanon. A now-legendary meeting between Whitlam and Jewish leaders in May 1974 failed to clear the air; it was described in a Jewish community press release at the time as ‘disappointing and unacceptable,’ and was, in fact, acrimonious to a degree that is still recounted by those present many years later, Whitlam noting inter alia that the ‘Jewish community, because of its wealth and its cohesion has been able to make its point of view well understood. The Arab has not. I believe it would be wise for the Jewish community to realise that the Arab community is becoming more articulate,’ and claiming that the Israeli raid was ‘not only a raid, but a crime’.
The Iraqi Loans Affair was, in many respects, more inexplicable and outrageous than Whitlam’s stand on the 1973 war. On 16 November 1975, five days after Whitlam’s celebrated dismissal by Sir John Kerr, David Combe, the ALP [Australian Labor Party] National Secretary, was drawn aside at an ALP meeting by pro-Arab activist and extreme left-wing figure in the ALP Bill Hartley and told that Hartley believed the ALP could borrow a substantial sum (usually stated to be $500,000) from Iraq to finance its election expenses in the pending election. In the words of Alan Reid [In his book The Whitlam Venture, published in 1976]:
‘Combe told Whitlam of Hartley’s proposal. Both men knew that Hartley, who functioned as a spokesman for the pro-Arab, anti-Israel cause in Australia, had some very influential Middle East connections. The three men went off to a side office … Hartley put his proposal. Whitlam approved it.’
As his go-betweens, Hartley used Reuben Scarf, a Lebanese-Australian businessman who had corresponded with Whitlam over the admission of PLO representatives to Australia, and one Henry Fischer, a Sydney businessman with a long record of association with ultra right-wing and racist causes. Secret negotiations ensued between the Arabs, Hartley and his intermediaries, and Whitlam. Whitlam met Fischer on several occasions, as well as Iraqi representatives who flew to Australia for this purpose. No money arrived by election day (11 December 1975) but, according to Alan Reid, probably did so in 1976.
As Reid noted: ‘the story did not become public knowledge until early in 1976.
Whitlam was later to claim that the money would not have changed his foreign policy approach… [B]ut if Arab sources were to provide large amounts of money, they would not be providing such amounts for nothing. They would undoubtedly feel themselves entitled to something in return, if only a change in emphasis in an ALP government’s so-called ‘even handed’ Middle East policy, a change that would be of benefit to the anti-Israel cause.’
A former ALP minister, Kim Beazley, was even franker when he stated, of the Iraqi Loans Affair, that
‘it would be inevitable for the Australian Jewish community to regard any such [Iraqi] money as being in effect blood-money that might be paid for, ultimately, in Israeli blood’.
The Iraqi Loans Affair was not, of course the first entanglement by the Whitlam government with vast amounts of Arab money. In the more celebrated Khemlani Loans Affair of 1974, the Australian government sought to borrow US$4billion from shady Arab sources, repayable in a lump sum of US$18billion after twenty years. Whitlam’s hostility to Israel and the ‘Jewish lobby’ continued vocally after he resigned the ALP’s leadership in 1977. In May 1979 he told a lecture audience at Harvard University that the United States was being
‘dragged through the nose’ by Israel, and unambiguously supported a Palestinian homeland in the Middle East. In 1980 he accused the Australian Jewish community of ‘crude political blackmail of spokesmen and letter writers from the Jewish community’.
There has been much speculation as to the reasons for Whitlam’s stance. Whitlam, it has been claimed in print, cynically calculated that there were more Moslem votes in Australia than Jewish votes. In 1978 Don Chipp noted to his biographer:
‘In later years, however, I found that expediency had made its way into [Whitlam’s] principles. I remember being disappointed in him recently when in my presence he advocated a hard anti-Israel line, only for the reason that he believed that there are now more pro-Arab than Jewish voters in Australia’.
Remarkably – and oblivious to the deep cynicism underlying this statement – Whitlam repeated this view even more explicitly in his autobiography, published in 1985:
‘By the time of the 1972 elections there were as many Arabs as Jews in Australia. While the Arabs were not as articulate and established as the Jews they were as important in as many individual electorates as the Jews’….
Professor Rubinstein’s narrative points out at that stage that the accuracy of Whitlam ‘s statement regarding the number of Arabs in Australia at that time is “highly arguable,” most Muslims in Australia being Turks, Pakistanis, Yugoslavs and Malays. He continues:
At a Canberra Press Club address to mark the launching of his book on 11 November 1985 [the tenth anniversary of “The Dismissal”] Whitlam was asked about the ‘blackmail references in it. He stated:
‘the blackmail was exercised by some heroes in the Australian Jewish community on the other side of the world from the hostilities, that we should support Israel in the dispute between Israel and its neighbours… Now if I should enlarge on this, since then, people in Australia should realise that there are now as many Arabs as Jews in Australia. There are as many Moslems as Jews …
‘ Whitlam went on to boast that as Australian Ambassador to UNESCO he changed Australia’s vote in an anti-Israel direction on resolutions condemning ‘excavations of archaeological purposes in the Old City of Jerusalem and … the harassment of the universities in the occupied Arab territories’ – both clear-cut examples of purely propagandistic motions contrived by the Arab-Communist-Third Wold bloc to humiliate Israel of the type which has done so much harm in the West to the reputation of neutral international bodies such as UNESCO.
Here the professor quotes Bill Hartley at length, regarding Whitlam’s support for what Hartley noted were ‘the growing links between the Libyan and the Australian people’. The narrative continues:
More deeply, Whitlam clearly went beyond the traditional western social democratic stance towards Israel to support for a more radical position favouring the Third World and the anti-Zionist position found so often among Third World states, especially those with substantial Moslem populations. Whitlam’s foreign policy while Prime Minister was quasi-neutralist and often, implcitly or explicitly, anti-American; after Labor’s return to power in 1983 Whitlam was appointed Ambassador to UNESCO, where he resolutely defended the corrupt leadership of UNESCO President M’Bow and its anti-Western stance which led to the withdrawal of the United States and Britain from that organisation. Whitlam’s stance was highly illustrative of the transformation of the geo-political position of Israel and the Jewish people in the contemporary world, with attack and hostility coming from the Left rather than the Far Right….’
(See also Aussie Dave’s at IsraellyCool here)
First Posted as: Arab Loans & Arab Voters: ‘Gough Whitlam’s hostility to Israel & its causes.’ at the Daphne Anson Blog