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New head of Zionist Federation of Australia wants to build local leadership and ‘reclaim Zionism’

Alon Cassuto stepped into his role as CEO of the Zionist Federation of Australia during one of the most tumultuous periods in the roughly 200-year history of the country’s formal Jewish community, just a few weeks after the October 7 terrorist attacks as an anti- war attacks. Israel and anti-Semitic acts, speeches and demonstrations raged across the continent.

Protests against Israel began almost immediately after the massacres, including a particularly infamous protest outside the Sydney Opera House, where the Israeli flag had been projected, with the crowd chanting menacingly: “Where are the Jews?” (initially reported as “Gas the Jews,” until a clearer audio recording emerged) and “Fuck the Jews.”

In the following months, anti-Israel and anti-Jewish demonstrations filled the streets earlier this morning, as protesters blocked traffic around Melbourne – and students reported feeling unsafe on their campuses. In February, a group published the contact information of about 600 Jewish creatives in a WhatsApp group chat, resulting in threats against at least one of the members’ children.

In October and November 2023 alone, there was a 738% increase in reported anti-Semitic incidents compared to the same time the year before, including graffiti with swastikas and swear words such as ‘gas the Jews’ and ‘bring back Hitler/finish the job’, social media. media and internet posts containing anti-Semitic sentiments, attacks and threats of death and/or rape against Jews, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry reported.

In response to this growing problem, Cassuto recently told eJewishPhilanthropy that he is calling for strong leadership from Australia’s federal and local governments, as well as the security forces, to condemn anti-Semitism and assert that they will not make Jews feel threatened or unsafe. He also advocates building and strengthening ties with other communities in Australia and strengthening the resilience of the Jewish community through Jewish schools and youth movements, free trips to Israel with Birthright and Masa and social circles where Jews deeply connect with what it means to be Jewish. , “with their people in their tribe and feeling welcome and supported.”

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As he takes the reins of the umbrella organization, which represents 20 affiliated groups from a wide range of backgrounds, Cassuto said the Australian Jewish community needs to “build phenomenal leaders, who know what their Jewish identity means, what Israel means to them, but also how to build movements, develop strategies and make an impact wherever they go… [who can teach the world] those were not Jews who tremble: We are Jews who are proud.”

Cassuto, 39, said the community’s research shows only an “extreme minority” of Australians hold anti-Israel or anti-Semitic beliefs, while most Australians simply want to avoid discussing the Gaza conflict entirely. “They say we’ve had enough of the war with all its background noise – we don’t want to import that friction here,” he said.

Australian Jews looked to the country’s population of about 800,000 Muslims for gestures toward interfaith reconciliation, but none came; instead, extreme progressives have allied themselves with a radicalized Arab and Muslim community, Cassuto said, saying things like: “Zionists can go to hell” and “Oct. 7 was legitimate resistance.”

“We should be able to hold two truths at once,” he said. “That Israel wages a just war against a ruthless terrorist organization that has no concern for its own people, let alone the safety and security of Israelis, and [that] There is enormous suffering in Gaza,” Cassuto said. He believes that someone can be “deeply passionate and committed to building a thriving Jewish community deeply connected to Israel and at the same time have compassion for what people in Gaza are experiencing, which is horrific,” he said.

Born and raised in Jerusalem and involved in Jewish organizations for most of his life, Cassuto worked for years as a consultant to nonprofits before applying for the CEO position in September. In January he succeeded Ginette Searle, who had held the role for more than a decade.

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Cassuto said he wants to take back the word Zionist for the Jewish community. “It is up to us to reclaim Zionism, to spotlight Zionism for what it really is: a beautiful and successful rebirth of self-determination,” he said. “For some reason ‘Jewish’ is a great word and ‘Zionist’ is not. A large majority of Jews believe in the principles of Zionism – Jewish self-determination and the right to live freely in the State of Israel, which is a reality, not an ambition.”

Although it has had a number of issues with the State of Israel over the years – most notably over its handling of the 1997 Maccabiah Bridge collapse, which killed four Australian delegates and injured more than sixty, and more most recently the Malka Leifer case, in which members of the Israeli government are alleged to have gone out of their way to fight an extradition order for the later convicted rapist – Australian Jewry has historically been one of the most vocally Zionist Jewish communities in the world.

According to Cassuto, the “vast majority of Jews in Australia” feel closely aligned with Israel and 90% of Australian Jews support Israel’s efforts against Hamas. When Israel is attacked, he continued, a “significant majority… feel like they are experiencing the attack themselves,” making the intellectual distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism irrelevant because “it doesn’t really matter to the people who represent our community and attacked.”

Approximately 400 young Australians travel to Israel every year for various education programs, and hundreds more older Australians on various missions and delegations. The community also brings about twenty shilihim (envoys) to serve in local Jewish youth movements, and as a result, says Cassuto, “we have one of the most Zionist, passionate, deeply connected communities anywhere in the world… I think that is because of the investment that this community has made in its organizations and institutions, in its relationship with Israel,” he said. “We are the beneficiaries of that.”

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Although the Jewish community is relatively small – there are about 100,000 Jews in the country according to the 2021 Australian census – it has a “disproportionate impact within Australian society”, Cassuto said.

Take, for example, Sir John Monash: a Jewish-Australian military officer and civil engineer, who was called ‘the best general on the Western Front of Europe’ during the First World War, and a proud Zionist, who almost a century ago founded the federation that Cassuto is now leads.

“When he died, a few years after he founded the ZFA, 200,000 people lined the streets for his funeral. He was an Australian legend – universities and hospitals are named after him,” Cassuto said, adding that Monash delivered an opening speech as ZFA founder and president. He spoke of “how much it meant to him to have both an aspiration for Jewish self-determination, but also as a Jew making a deep contribution to Australian society. These two truths still hold true today.”

Cassuto said Australian Jews still have multiple identities, emotional commitments and connections to multiple places. In his case, he said, he is “super proud” to be a Zionist Australian, Israeli and Italian.

Cassuto says he has seen a “reawakening” of Jewish identity and belonging. Even before October 7, roughly two-thirds of college students reported experiencing anti-Semitism in the past 12 months, but 85% of those students said they didn’t complain because they didn’t feel it would make a difference.

Cassuto said the Australian Jewish community has recently seen a 70% increase in membership in Jewish campus groups. “[They] recognized that both Israeli and Jewish identities are in fact part and parcel of who they are,” he said, and that it is up to “strong leadership to be able to channel and ensure that we support these reawakened members of our community , like and make it safe to be a proud Jew and a proud Zionist.”

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