Anzac Day 2024

Remembering a Jewish “digger” and Holocaust survivor with an unusual story

‘There is a necessity to take sides. I choose survival of the Jews and the survival of Israel’

Rob Lehrer.
Rob Lehrer.

My late father grew up in Germany under the Nazis. In 1938 as a fifteen-year- old he got out of that place that was becoming hell for Jews, he left without his parents, sponsored through Woburn House in London and on to Australia. His parents later escaped to Shanghai where they spent ten years. Despite growing up in Germany he held Polish citizenship and in 1942 he volunteered and was able to join a combat unit of the Australian Army. He wanted to fight the Nazis, he ended up fighting the Japanese, he served in New Guinea and Borneo manning a Vickers machine gun. Japan intended to rule Asia including Australia in an oppressive and authoritarian manner. This would have been hell for Australians. 

Many people my father knew in Germany, many of his relatives in Poland and Galicia ended up in the camps. Most were murdered. He considered serving to be a privilege. After the war he continued to serve in Indonesia, he wore a sidearm, a Colt 45. My father never liked guns or militarism or wars but did what he believed needed to be done. From the day he shipped back to Australia in 1946, he never had to pick up a gun again. 

Australians and the allies paid a heavy price but achieved victory and peace. The Japanese paid a heavier price for their extreme aggression. There are moral questions about the final nuclear blows that were inflicted on them as a virtually defeated nation that refused to accept its fate and surrender, so ideologically driven that they used their own people as suicide weapons. Despite these moral questions, both America and Australia forged a new and positive relationship with Japan that endures to this day. 

It is often difficult for Jewish people to maintain optimism and think of an enduring peaceful existence. There are reasons why Jewish people talk about the Holocaust a great deal. The Holocaust left six million Jews and millions of other innocents dead. The word that is often used is genocide. It is out of the literal ashes of the Holocaust that the word and concept of genocide developed. It means an attempt to destroy an entire racial or religious group or a major component of one. In its aftermath the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was born, largely promoted by Australian, Doc Evatt. The sources of this language are the events and aftershock of the Holocaust, possibly the greatest crime in the history of humanity. 

Today these words are used a lot. By journalists, by law people, by rights groups, by politicians, by pro-Palestinian activists, by pro-Israel activists, by social media pundits. There is a terrible war happening in Gaza but not a genocide. The sometimes-heard comparison of Israel to Nazis is simply absurd and repellent but more critically it misrepresents the facts. It is Israel that is under siege and has been effectively for 75 years, if not perhaps on some views, for thousands of years. Israel is not trying to destroy an entire religious group or racial group or even a national group. Nor do the numbers of dead bear out such a concept even if the numbers are significant and deeply unpalatable. Wars are horrendous things, don’t start them. 

During the Holocaust 65 per cent of Jews in Europe who were characterised by an evil Nazi philosophy as a sub-human species were killed in a deliberate extermination campaign by the Germans and their many accomplices only because they were Jews. By contrast around 0.4 per cent of Palestinians have died in a war that the Palestinians in Gaza, led by Hamas violently instigated in a premeditated attack on Israel. Many of these dead are Hamas militants. It is they who through their philosophy, rhetoric and education dehumanise not just Israelis but the Jews, with October 7th reminding everyone that Hamas mean what they say. 

The Hamas organisation that controls Gaza had an army of an estimated 40,000 soldiers and many more personnel hiding in the guise of civilians. They possessed a large military infrastructure including tens of thousands of rockets and munitions. They have significant military allies assisting them from outside of their borders. Now Iran has definitively entered this war in its own right. It possesses a hatred towards Israel and an intention to destroy it that has absolutely nothing to do with being dispossessed of any of their land. It is ideological and extreme. 

Iran and Hamas and their other allies have explicit genocidal intentions towards Israel. They provoked this war and no hiding behind confected Palestinian national history or invoking the legacy of 1948 changes that. Israel is defending itself against this significant military enemy not engaging in genocidal actions, rather they are defending themselves against a plausible genocide. 

If anti-Israel commentators are going to invoke the term genocide, then we are going to have to take sides. As Hamas and their allies have made it clear that they have genocidal intentions towards Israel, then there need be no apologies for stopping it happening. I’m not sorry. I am sad, but not sorry. I am saddened that there are people want to kill Jews and destroy Israel. History presents us with little doubt of the certainty of the threat. The one time “Palestinian” Mufti of Jerusalem was a co-conspirator with Hitler before the State of Israel existed, a cold fact. 

The lies being told about Israel, about Zionism and consequently about Jews right now are part of intense racist dehumanising campaign. If you support the existence of Israel or call yourself a Zionist you are labelled genocidal, a Zio- Nazi, it’s gratuitous hateful rhetoric. When anything and everything you do as a Jew is potentially twisted into a crime or self-serving act or alternatively you are labelled a good Jew for opposing Israel then either way, we are witnessing blatant antisemitism in plain sight. 

Those people, especially within the Jewish world who fool themselves that it isn’t about Jews but simply about Zionism are delusional. Yes, it is about Jews, it’s always been about Jews, unfortunately amongst many it always will be about Jews. We are the despised people of the despised religion. 

The Jews stand in opposition to the other so called Abrahamic faiths and reject their messiah and prophets. The Jews do not accept their holy books and teachings. The Jews stand on their right to be themselves and remain as themselves. Israel and Zionism is another symbol of the Jews, a very powerful and emotive one. Israel is a symbol of rightful defiance that infuriates much of the world. My father once made a comment that on the face of it didn’t quite make sense and yet somehow it still did. I understand his sentiment, he said; As long as people keep trying to destroy us, I will continue to be a Jew. When the rest of the world lets go of its religious and political dogma, I will let go of mine. 

To paraphrase the famous words of Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu, there is an art of war, but it’s far from being a perfect science. There are many accusations against Israel such that it has committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in this conflict. The awful truth is that probably every army does commit crimes in every war, but the Israeli army and the Israeli people would not be supportive of any such crimes and accusations of crimes are investigated both internally and through Israel’s justice system. In democratic Israel both the law, as well as civil society organisations exist that examine these issues. Israel has few greater genuine critics than its own people. 

Hamas and their allies on the other hand are unquestionably guilty of appalling crimes against humanity and war crimes and they are proud of it. They commit them intentionally and with malice. They commit them both against Israelis and their own people. There is also no real investigative body who will look at those Hamas crimes and anyone who questions them internally is likely to be punished or killed. 

How have we Jews developed after suffering thousands of years of institutional racism, oppression, segregation, persecution, expulsions, mass murder and genocide. In the face of profiling and mockery over our skin colour, hair and physical appearance. Jews are now being gaslit by actual colonisers and even by so called progressives as “white” and “colonialists” in our historical ancestral Jewish homeland. Have we grown cold and indifferent to the pain of others and have many Jews lost a measure of compassion. More simply after all these generations of injustice and attacks Jews and especially Israelis have become very sensitive when it comes to the concept of being wiped off the map. October 7th unquestionably drove tolerance to a new low. 

I have heard many people who are living in actual post-colonial settler States like Australia, or the United States falsely criticise Israel as being a coloniser State which defies historical reality. Equally absurd are those in Britain and Europe who make such accusations when they ran many of the world’s settler colonies and built their wealth, power and privilege for centuries by exploiting those colonies and their inhabitants. Colonies which they have only recently relinquished or given up, yet they are wagging the moral finger over colonialism. It is also worth observing the colonialism of the Arab culture and their religion which has conquered and subsumed the indigenous cultures of one third of the world and proudly continues its colonial expansion. 

Even if you don’t believe in religion, the rights to the land of Israel that is given to the Jews in the Torah is one of the oldest and most powerful pieces of historical documented traditional legal titles to land in existence. If you do follow or believe in one of the three Abrahamic faiths, then it is even more profound. On any level it is a testament to the historical claim of possession and right of the Jewish people to those lands and is no less real or significant than any other piece of native title, traditional title or even modern title. 

Arabs first came to Israel on a colonial conquest in the 7th century and over the centuries this continued. Some Palestinian advocates in Australia engage in an attractive sounding deception, a kind of utopia solution, or the vision of Palestine as a democratic and secular state for all its citizens, Muslims, Christians and Jews. This is a nonsense, that in no way reflects the true Palestinian aims or national ambition, especially when we speak of groups like Hamas it is ridiculous. 

Jews are punished and vilified for aspiring to their national homeland and to live in safety. The existence of that aspiration is being used to justify antisemitism. Anti-Zionism must be viewed as the appalling racism and hate speech that it is. 

Should we pray for peace and see what happens? Unlikely. In wartime people become atheists as much as they become religious. They very often lose religion. Israel was founded largely by non-observant and atheist Jews both left and right who doubted that they would receive any assistance from God in defending themselves. A harsh series of historical lessons learned. 

My father lost God. His maternal grandfather and ancestors before him were Rabbis from Krakow and Apt, a righteous family named Segal Landau. He told me that as a small boy in Berlin he went with his father, to receive blessings from the Belzer rebbe. But after the war, perhaps during it, he lost God and never got him back. Where was God for the Jewish people and all the other innocent people, he wasn’t alone in asking the question. Where was the Belzer rebbe, that’s another story. The Belzer rebbe had escaped Poland to Hungary, he told the Hungarian Jews that they would be safe and to stay put. 500,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered by the Nazis in the final year of the war including many of my mother’s relatives. The Belzer rebbe had been whisked to safety in Palestine by Hungarian Zionists of all people. In my father’s dying days, in his myeloma induced delirium he spoke for hours about synagogue, the prayer, the religious rituals, and even the Belzer rebbe. All those decades later he was still asking questions. I pray that in his final moments he found peace. 

Despite this I wasn’t denied God, he was mine to choose or not. My brother and I were sent to Orthodox cheder. Bar mitzvah, tefillin, the whole thing. My father said until 13 years old he wanted to give us this because it’s our heritage and our right. He did not possess the arrogance to deny it to us. We did candles and Seder and Rosh Hashanah because my mother insisted, she is the descendent of deeply Orthodox Hungarian Jews. My father went along. He read from the Haggadah every year. One year when his grandchildren were old enough to understand he put down the Haggadah and told them the story of his own Exodus from the oppression of Nazi Germany, of his happiness when his train crossed the Dutch border, a story too many people did not get to tell. 

My father could speak Yiddish but didn’t like to, he rejected it as our language of oppression, Hebrew was both our ancient language and the language of the future. It was the language of Israel, it made sense. Yiddish represented the bad times. He wasn’t a leftist but rather a sensible social democrat which I believe many Jews are or would prefer to be. He quit the RSL because it was infested with racism, especially against Indigenous Australians. He was also a proud Australian who believed that whilst Jews shouldn’t assimilate, they also shouldn’t isolate, a difficult proposition at times but not inconsistent with either Mendelssohn or Hirsch. 

To him, anyone who spoke against the existence of Israel was inherently an antisemite, there was no grey area. He thought Israel to be our heritage and our right. It was our ancestral homeland, and it was an issue of historic dispossession, about persecution and discrimination. It was about returning to our ancient land perhaps even despite religion. It was about a very tiny piece of justice in a long history of injustice. 

What about justice for the Palestinians. Is their situation fair, have they got justice. No. They have been offered justice more than once but refused it. To them it is inadequate justice. But justice is always a balance. They might not ever accept any version of justice other than the abolition or destruction of Israel. We must hope that not all Palestinians feel that way because that is not a balance and that is not justice. 

Israel is not a perfect country, of course not. Which country is. Does Israel make mistakes, of course. No country doesn’t. Netanyahu and his government are such a mistake and in the past year Israelis have become acutely aware of that fact. Netanyahu’s coalition partners possess an esoterically driven view of Israel that is not supported by most Israelis or Zionists outside of Israel. My mother once recalled that she only saw my father weep on a few occasions, one time was on the day Rabin was murdered by a Jewish Israeli. Those who incited for the death of Rabin and still believe it was the correct thing, how thoroughly wrong they are. Now they are in the government of Israel. Democracies are imperfect and can sometimes get it very wrong. 

A renewed diplomatic road is the only way forward. Only a new Israeli government with a progressive leadership and outlook to the world and the future of Israel will be capable of advancing the essential shift that is required but there is no magic wand to wave in a complex society. Previous more enlightened and realistic Israeli leadership has known that peace will need to be forced onto the Palestinians through ongoing efforts and regional co-operation. 

Israel exists in the global community and most Israelis want to exist in that global community. Both Israelis and their allies have lost faith in the Israeli Prime Minister and this government, it is a situation which is beyond redemption. It is a Prime Minister and government beyond redemption. The current Israeli political right has run their course, they have had their chance for 15 years and have failed on too many fronts. Their security credentials and consequently Israel’s standing is also damaged. We must face this hard fact and that Start Up Nation and sloganeering is not a substitute for peace, security and respect. 

We must also realise that the road ahead can be a positive story. The Israelis are not going anywhere no matter how much people yell, from the river to the sea or make absurd allegations against Zionism. Israel must find a way out of the current quagmire but survive it must. It is perhaps now more than ever the author of its own destiny. Irrespective, Israel must continue to repel its military enemies who wish to destroy it. The blow of losing Israel and all that would entail would be an unthinkable tragedy in a long history of Jewish tragedies. That is why there is a necessity to take sides. I choose survival of the Jews and the survival of Israel. My father never liked guns or militarism or wars, but I know where my father would have stood. There simply isn’t a choice. 

Isaac Henry Lehrer A”H
1923 – 2017
2/1 Australian Machine Gun Battalion 

Melburnian Robert Lehrer sponsors a number of Israeli organisations and worked on the Mabo case.

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