Penny Wong’s decision not to visit Israel’s stricken south – scene of the October 7 Hamas massacres – has thrown a shadow over her Middle East tour.
However, during her visit, the first by a senior Australian official in the more than 100 days since October 7, the Foreign Minister met with people whose lives were changed forever, including family members of Louis Har, 70, abducted with his partner Clara Merman from Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak. “I’m really profoundly grateful that you are willing to speak with me,” Wong told the group. “Our nation stands in solidarity with Israel and with you.”
Arriving from Jordan, where she pledged $21 million in Australian humanitarian aid for Gazans, Wong met with Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who praised PM Anthony Albanese’s speech to Parliament in the immediate aftermath of the Hamas onslaught. Wong advocated for international humanitarian law, and Herzog spoke of Hamas using human shields. Wong did not meet PM Benjamin Netanyahu.
Meanwhile, her decision not to pay her respects in the south, where some 1200 Jews were slaughtered and hundreds of hostages taken, has been described by Jewish leadership as “insulting and deeply concerning”.
Contacted by The AJN before she left for the Middle East, Wong emphasised she would meet survivors. “It is a priority for me to hear firsthand their experience to understand the human toll wrought by this heinous act of violence.
“Australia has consistently and unequivocally condemned Hamas’s attacks on Israel, the appalling loss of life and the horrors perpetrated, including sexual violence.
“During my visit to Israel I am engaging with a number of senior Israeli officials in order to reinforce Australia’s longstanding friendship and our commitment to ensuring both Israelis and Palestinians can live in peace and security.”
However, the minister gave no insight as to why she will not be following in the footsteps of other foreign ministers, world leaders and two ALP federal MPs Josh Burns and Michelle Ananda-Rajah, who have visited the terror sites with survivors.
Wong’s decision not to take the one-hour drive from Jerusalem has been attributed by sources to a tight schedule prioritising the West Bank to meet with victims of settler violence, and visits to Jordan and the UAE.
At a media conference before her departure, Wong expressed “profound concern that there are increasingly few safe places for Gazans”.
Defending Wong’s absence from the killing fields of southern Israel, Albanese noted her visit is “not about an opportunity for a photo op”.
However, Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) co-CEOs Peter Wertheim and Alex Ryvchin stated Wong’s “decision to not travel to the scene of Hamas’s atrocities in southern Israel is insulting and deeply concerning”.
“We frequently hear about the depth of the alliance between the two countries and the long history of solidarity between Australian Labor and the people of Israel. This is the time to show that this is more than mere words.”
Describing the omission as “deeply disappointing”, Zionist Federation of Australia president Jeremy Leibler stated, “A visit to ground zero of the worst antisemitic attack since the Holocaust would have been an important show of solidarity with Israel and Jewish Australians.”
Expressing hope the minister will review her itinerary, Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council executive director Colin Rubenstein noted, “While we appreciate that Senator Wong is now visiting Israel, and will be speaking to October 7 victims, you need to see the sites of the October 7 pogrom to fully appreciate the appalling magnitude of these barbaric massacres.”
Jewish communal doyen Nina Bassat, a former ECAJ president and a Holocaust survivor, urged Wong to visit the south. “The message you are sending is not that you support both sides. The message is that when the Hamas terrorists loudly proclaimed their triumph at killing Jews – not Israelis, but Jews – they were perpetrating the ultimate act of antisemitism and that you, as the representative of the Australian government, have not grasped this fact.”
Calling Wong’s Middle East visit “half-hearted”, Liberal Shadow Foreign Minister Simon Birmingham told The AJN, “The failure to visit any of the sites of the October 7 Hamas attacks will disappoint many and deprive Senator Wong of a full appreciation of the atrocities committed.”
Dave Sharma, a Liberal senator and former Australian ambassador to Israel, described Wong’s decision as “deeply insulting and insensitive”.
“But it’s also profoundly mistaken,” he said.
“If Wong wants to help support efforts towards peace, as she claims, then she needs to have some firsthand appreciation of the trauma Israel has experienced, and which continues to inform its military strategy.”
Federal Member for Fisher Andrew Wallace, the deputy chair of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence & Security and chair of the Israel Allies Caucus in Australia, wrote this week that Wong’s decision to “bypass the sites of the most tragic Jewish pogrom since WWII isn’t just a serious error of judgement” but “wilful blindness”.
“I’ve seen these sites … I’ve walked where children’s blood mingled with the sweat of first responders and the tears of loved ones left behind. I’ve smelt the death, decay and destruction in families’ homes. I’ve heard the bullets and bombs, and the grievous wails of heartbroken mothers,” he said.
“You can’t begin to understand the gravity and evil which confronted Israel on October 7 without visiting, without a first-hand account.”
Additionally, the Foreign Minister this week declined to comment on Australia’s veiled stance regarding South Africa’s referral of Israel to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on genocide charges over its operation in Gaza.