To be a Public Jew

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Central Synagogue

3 May 2024


Thank you for your kind invitation to be with you tonight.

It is wonderful to be here at Central Synagogue.

This is a synagogue and community of renown – with leaders in every aspect of Australian life.

A synagogue that traces its history back before the First World War.

I honour the contribution you have made to our city – and to the broader Australian Jewish Community.

When I first sought out pre-selection to become a Liberal Parliamentarian almost nine years ago, I sought out former Liberal Senator Peter Baume.

He was a distinguished liberal and a great Australian. A Jewish Australian who was a minister in the Fraser Government.

When we met he said to me, “The first decision you will have to make is: will you be a public Jew or a private Jew?” 

Like Peter Baume this was never a choice for me.

 I have always been and will always be a proud public Jew.

Judaism is integral to who I am.

Fundamentally Judaism is a call to responsibility, to lead by example, to be a moral voice in the conversation of humankind, to respect the human dignity of all. In Rabbi Jonathan’s Sacks beautiful words “to be true to our faith and blessing to others regardless of their faith.”

Judaism is integral to who I am.

Integrity is standing for what you believe even if it costs.

The decision to be a Public Jew gave me strength to be me.

But it also took on new meaning in 2023 and continues in 2024.

Publicly standing for what you believe – for the values you cherish matters more than ever.

This is a time of consequence.

In these times, being a part of the Jewish Community – Kol Y’israel – is to be reminded of the important things: our shared history and our shared hopes.


This Sunday is Yom Hashoah.

In normal times, Yom HaShoah would cause us to pause.

…To remind ourselves of those who perished and those who survived.

…To break free from the minutiae of our daily worries and remember where unchecked antisemitism leads.

But this Yom HaShoah we need no reminding of the evil that can be found in the hearts and minds of the worst of men.

We need no reminding of the sickness of anti-Semitism – for we see this sickness in our world and in our own times.

This Yom HaShoah we do not look to the past to pay homage.

No, on this Yom HaShoah we look to the past to draw strength for today.

To resist the day.

And to prevail.

We remind ourselves of Rabbi Sacks’ words – we recall “our ability to survive some of the worst tragedies any people has known without losing our faith in life itself; to suffer and yet rebuild; to lose and yet recreate”.


Central to that capacity is community.

This place, this synagogue, matters.

As I said about the synagogue where I grew up – that synagogue has held me aloft in my greatest days and held me tight through my darkest days.

These are times when we are holding each other tight.

Here is where we find our strength – when we truly are with each other.

To be in community with each other.

To see what we have in common.

Not what separates us.

I was reminded of this only last week.

I spent Pesach in Japan – with my mother, my brother and his family, and my wife and our children.

In the most peculiar of places, the Seder was nurturing and glorious and meaningful.

We usually host the Seder and over the years I have been privileged to have seders in the United States and Israel.

But there was something special about Japan. We were strangers in a strange land but it was so peaceful.

The Jewish community of Japan is led by the wonderful and welcoming Rabbi Andrew Scheer.

At this Seder there were Jews from all over the world.

The Haggadah was in Hebrew, Japanese and English – with Japanese Jews reading passages about the sages in Bene Barak in Japanese.

My six-year-old had been practicing Ma Nishtana and when everyone present joined him in singing I saw that for the first time he saw a glimpse of the universality of Judaism – such a proud moment for a father.

Last week, we also commemorated Anzac Day.

And I thought of my grandfather.

A proud Jewish man, a prisoner of war in the 8th Division of the Australian Army who kept his faith even as he endured the worst of cruelties working on the Thai-Burma railway.

In the Synagogue of the Changi PoW camp they held services every week.

I wondered if my grandfather could have imagined that two generations on, that his family – including his daughter, grandchildren and great grandchildren would be welcomed at Passover by Japanese Jews.

So far from home, my family felt a sense of connection with people whose language and culture is so different from ours.

Even with the difficulties of language, we understood we shared similar hopes and fears.

When I looked at the empty chairs at the Seder table – to commemorate the hostages who are still not returned – I knew that those empty chairs meant as much to my new Japanese friends as they did to me and my family.


Friends, the late Henry Kissinger before he was a statesman, was an academic.

And he once famously remarked about academia “the emnities are so great because the stakes are so small”.

Friends, this is a time of great stakes.

Yet we see each other clearly.

We stand together during a time of consequence for the world.

It’s a time that matters, or as my friend and Leader Peter Dutton has said, it is a time for moral clarity – for Australia and democracies everywhere.

We stand together – for the values that have helped make Australia the most successful multicultural nation on earth.

I am reminded of the words of clarity from another Australian during a time of inflection.

It was in 1980, a year when Afghanistan was invaded by the Soviets and the Ayatollahs seized control of Iran, the then Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser went to Washington to receive a humanitarian award from B’nai B’rith.

At that ceremony, Malcolm Fraser said this:

“Liberty is not an inevitable state and there is no law which guarantees that, once achieved, liberty will survive. Its preservation requires skill, determination and strength.

“But first and most important of all, it requires a knowledge and understanding by ordinary people of what is at stake for them: not an abstract concept but a whole way of life whose survival depends on their commitment to it.

He went on and said:

“Once less than a lifetime ago it was possible for the voice of Churchill to bring these truths home to the Western democracies. Now, in an age that is suspicious of heroes and skeptical in temper, the task is harder. Leaders of Governments cannot master it without the support of ordinary men and women, their readiness to argue the case for liberty with intelligence and passion.”

The late General Jim Molan used to argue that the foundation of a country’s security was the willingness of its people to defend it.

We have seen that in Ukraine, and of course, we are seeing it in Israel.

I believe these times require an active citizenry.

It requires Jewish Australians to continue to do what we are called to do – to participate in the culture that is shaping our national life – be it the arts, sport, business, politics or philanthropy.  To participate in our campuses, our workplaces and local communities.

The Greens MP Jenny Leong is demanding Jews be excluded from public and community life. Our answer must be to participate and involve ourselves even more.

To answer the Goebbels inspired slur of ‘tentacles’ – with the generosity, warmth and civic mindedness and good deeds that Jewish people are known for.

I was reminded after Anzac Day of something that happened after the Second World War.

After the war’s end, my grandfather built and ran a hardware store in Merrylands.

My aunt tells a story that a German migrant named Wolfe applied for a job. Wolfe admitted to my grandfather that he had been a member of the SS.

My grandfather gave him the job – saying it was the best way to show Wolfe that the Nazis had been wrong about the Jews.

We are good people. Our faith and its teachings, and the example of past generations proves that.

But ours is not a passive faith – ours is a faith based on action.

These times call on us to participate – and to stand where we are – to engage with our world.


I mentioned my friend Peter Baume earlier. In 1989, he spoke at the University of New South Wales. He gave a speech entitled “the mud of prejudice”.

In that speech he quoted Pericles.

“We do not think that a person who takes no part in politics is minding his own business. We think he has no business in a democracy at all.”

Today we are required to stand up and speak up and be public Jews.

For me, ground zero in Australia is our campuses.

The idea that young Jewish Australians do not feel safe getting an education is an anathema to me.

I speak as a lawyer, a parliamentarian and  a former university administrator and a Jewish Australian.

It is clear to me that what we are witnessing on campuses represents a failure in propagating our Australian values, a failure in enforcing the law, and a failure in leadership amongst most of Australia’s Vice Chancellors – who are more concerned about adorning their own necks with AOs and ACs than ensuring the students in their care can get their own start in life.

It’s also time for the federal Minister for Education to step-up. I have had private and respectful conversations with him and I acknowledge his personal decency – but the time has come for action. Frankly, I think the Government is hamstrung by Labor’s Corbynite left and its fear of the Greens and Teals.

In the coming May Parliamentary sittings I will be moving a Private Member’s Bill to establish an independent judicial inquiry into anti-Semitism on Australia’s campuses.

I want a judicial inquiry by a judicial leader that is widely respected and for that inquiry to have the necessary powers and protections that will give Jewish students and staff the confidence to come forward.

This moment profoundly matters for our entire country – because if any Australian student cannot feel safe on an Australian campus because of the religion they hold, then our universities are failing the principle test of character.

Let’s be very clear.

Universities have a long tradition of protests and are the places where young question and indeed challenge authority. But this is where these protests are different. They aren’t protests against authority, they are protests against the presence of other students and staff.

The conflict in Gaza is the thin veneer for the excuse to protest the presence of Jewish students and staff.

In coming months, these protests will take full flight during University open days – because these protests are not about Gaza, they are about making young Jewish Australians feel unwelcome on Australian campuses.

It is pure anti-Semitism.

To Australia’s Vice Chancellors I say this: Australians are watching. Those who donate to and fund your institutions are watching. And international university rankings will be watching too – because if Australian students cannot feel safe at the university they are attending, then frankly, that university does not deserve any place in any legitimate international rankings list.

Our universities have lost their way.

Most lost confidence in the West’s shared liberal democratic values some time ago, and we are now seeing the consequences of that as freedom of religion and freedom from fear are under challenge on too many campuses.


Friends, as I mentioned I am a former university administrator. I worked at a catholic university.

Some have unkindly suggested I was hedging my bets in the after-life.

My Catholic friends have a tradition, it’s called weekly confession.

It is of course an idea they borrowed from Judaism.

As we know mostly, confession frees the soul.

So let me make a confession.

I’ve been in many of the WhatsApp groups that so many of you have also been in.

I’ve scrolled on my phone, the horrors that have beset Jewish people since October 7.

I have seen the images of the terrors of October 7, as well as the vile behaviour of anti-semites here in this city and in so many other cities and places.

The images and videos grip you.

In a terrible way, they are compelling.

You can’t help but doom scroll.

These groups, these images, these posts – often sent with good intentions – they terrorise, they generate fear, and worse, make us all feel powerless. They strip you of agency.

It was again Rabbi Sacks who once said “despair is not a Jewish emotion. Our hope has never been destroyed.”

As he once said “our faith is not acceptance, but protest, against the world that is in the name of the world that is not yet – but ought to be. So we must protest”.

Some might ask what is the answer to the anti-Semitism of this time?

The answer is: it is found where it is always has been found, in the participation and actions of brave men and women who demonstrate strength, defiance and speaking up.

It is found in the actions of people today.

Courage and integrity found in the hearts of Jewish people and in so many of our friends.

We must focus on them and their example rather than the hatreds of the anti-semites.

We must draw strength from them.

In my own community, I’ve drawn strength from so many good people.

…the local Christian church who delivered flowers to my office after October 7.

…the people that checked-in on me and my family with texts and notes.

…the many strangers who walked up to me on Anzac Day, looked me in the eye and said words like “I stand with Israel too”.

That courage is found in the most extraordinary places.

Australia’s greatest pianist, Simon Tedeschi was doxxed with other Jewish artists.

He spoke up. He spoke out. He continues to say ‘not in my time, not in this hour’.

We see his strength behind a piano and through his writer’s pen.

And there’s the trade unionist Jeff Lapidos, a Secretary of the Australian Services Union.

He is a Jewish man and a union official who spoke out against the ACTU’s stand against Israel.

The ACTU through its actions shows that it does not stand with its Jewish members. Through their actions and statements we see they are incapable of saying or writing or acknowledging one word – the word is Hamas.

So we see a courageous man speaking out against what has become a shibboleth of the left.

I honour Jeff Lapidos for his courage.

And I also honour the small number on the political left – people like Josh Burns and Nick Dryenfurth who are playing their part in resisting the political tide driven by the Greens and the Australian Corbynites.

I also honour commentators like Erin Molan, Sharri Markson, Chris Kenny, Paul Kelly, Greg Sheridan and Peta Credlin who, along with many others, have been fearless in calling out anti-Semitism on our campuses, in trade unions and in too many places, across the Australian Government.

I also think of the courage of Australians like Daniel Smith.

Daniel grew up in my electorate of Berowra.  He is not Jewish.

He is the most famous Australian musician most Australians don’t know.

Daniel is a world renowned conductor.

Daniel has stood with the Jewish people and he did so by conducting the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in Tel Aviv just weeks ago. He is the first Australian to do so. He did so – knowing the dangers and risks – both physical and to his reputation. I honour Daniel.

Such strength is found in so many places we do not expect.

Like the small inner city Christian church led by Mark Leach who helped organise the rally against anti-Semitism at the Domain a few months ago.

And in many other places too.

It has been found on the bench of the High Court.

On October 5 last year, two days before the Hamas terrorist attacks, High Court Justice Jayne Jagot delivered the Sir Zelman Cowen Lecture.

Justice Jagot used the occasion to speak powerfully and eloquently against anti-Semitism. She reminded Australians that anti-Semitism is “the canary in the coalmine of global hatred”. More than a threat to Jewish people, anti-Semitisim is a broader symptom of an underlying loss of confidence in liberal, democratic ideals and practices.

So this is a defining time.

However, it is not a hopeless time, nor a time to lament or despair.

But it is a time for courage.

It is a time to stand up and participate like never before because this country is worth fighting for.

It is a time that requires us to speak again for our shared Australians values.

Values that are democratic.

Values that honour difference.

And above all, values we must stand for.

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