By Rebecca Davis
Feature article in the Australian Jewish News
March 3, 2020


NSW Jewish Board of Deputies CEO | Husband | Father | Grandfather

Q: What was the last book you read?

With All Due Respect by former US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley. Three points struck me. First, she is an exceptionally articulate individual whose worldview is informed by the racism she endured as a Sikh child growing up in a part of the US where her skin colour was held against her. Second, she managed to navigate between representing her country in the toxic forum of the UN while at the same time distancing herself from her boss, the President, at critical moments. Finally, the book is an eloquent summation of her position on key issues and could well be the first shot in her campaign to run for the Oval Office in 2024. A worthwhile read by a forceful character.

Q: What is your ultimate holiday destination?

Rhodes Island. Apart from the fact that it is a magnificent island, it’s the epicentre of my family’s story. We were expelled from Spain by the Inquisition and lived on Rhodes for almost 500 years. The Jewish community was decimated in the Holocaust, when 1673 Jews were deported to Auschwitz, where the majority – including 151 Alhadeffs, including my paternal grandparents – were murdered. In a remarkable twist, my father was told his fiancée had perished and she believed he had perished. Fast-forward half-a-century; my father overheard his fiancée’s name; she had survived and was a grandmother living in Brussels and he a grand-father living in Johannesburg.

Vic Alhadeff running in the Sea of Galilee marathon, 1985.

Q: What is your ultimate Jewish comfort food?

Spanish rice, which is all about my Sephardic heritage. It’s what I grew up on as a young child in Zimbabwe – and it helps us survive Pesach.

Q: How do you wind down?

Watching Seinfeld – I know most episodes by heart. Watching rugby – although that is an extremely stressful pastime these days. Long-distance running and swimming. And spending time with our five precious grandchildren.

Q: What did you want to be when you grew up?

An international lawyer. I saw myself tackling all manner of contentious issues across multiple continents. Then I enrolled in a mind-numbing course called Comparative African Government And Law at the University of Cape Town and quickly concluded that journalism sounded far more attractive, far more relevant and far more within my skill-set.

Q: How do you reflect on your time as editor of The AJN?

I sought to make a virtue of two principles: to take positions on all manner of human rights issues and to broaden the debate on Israel. If a cause was a human rights issue, that made it a Jewish issue by definition. So I editorialised on the front page on the 2000 Walk For Reconciliation, for example, arguing that we should participate as Jews, as Australians and as members of the human race. And I went to the barricades on behalf of the right of Jewish gays to be gay – a cause which I feel the proudest of for championing, given the positive outcome regarding gay rights. As for broadening the debate on Israel, my position was that all voices had a home in The AJN, with the proviso that they did not advocate the destruction of the Jewish people, as advocated by Hamas, Holocaust deniers and Jews For Jesus.

Vic Alhadeff in a precious moment with his youngest granddaughter.

Q: You’ve run over 25 marathons. When you’re midway through and it gets tough, where do you go mentally that pushes you to the finish line?

As long as you have a basic level of fitness, long-distance running is ultimately a mental challenge. My toughest moment during a race occurred during the 90-kilometre Comrades Marathon in South Africa, when I started out way too fast and had nothing left in the tank with 40 kilometres of hills ahead of me. I mentally switched to second gear, worked out what speed I needed to maintain in order to finish within the prescribed 11 hours and just did it. Giving up is never an option.

Q: Beyond your involvement in the community, what makes you feel passionate?

Our grandchildren, currently aged 5, 4, 3, 2 and 1. Time with them, engaging with them, playing with them, is as special as it gets. Ultimately, they motivate me to continue doing what I do – combating antisemitism, working for social harmony, striving to make the world a better place. I don’t want them ever to experience the bigotry which I have witnessed throughout my life and sadly, continue to witness, whether that be my family’s Holocaust background, my editorship of an anti-apartheid daily newspaper in apartheid South Africa or the antisemitism to which we respond at the Board of Deputies on an alarmingly increasing basis.

Q: What is your signature dish when you cook?

The last time I tried my hand at cooking, the result was two fire-trucks turning up at our home and three firemen banging at the door, clad in red helmets and yellow fire-suits and carrying large axes. So discretion is now the better part of valour when it comes to dishes, signature or otherwise.

Q: On a Sunday, you’ll most likely be doing …

Undertaking a long walk with my wife Nadene, during which we inevitably have an unsatisfactory stab at solving the world’s current crop of problems, followed by brunch at a low-key outdoor restaurant, preferably somewhere on the coast.

Q: Your greatest fear is …

Drowning. This stems from a harrowing experience at Sydney’s Whale Beach on the day of the Bicentenary, when I was caught in a rip. I thought my life was over. I lost consciousness. A lifeguard miraculously appeared and somehow manoeuvred me back to shore, where I was pumped with fresh oxygen. I still enjoy bodysurfing – as long as the water is at manageable level. That sensation in the pit of your stomach never leaves you.

Vic Alhadeff with NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian.

Q: Is there a particularly poignant moment or experience which shaped your Jewish identity?

The outbreak of the Six-Day War. I was a 15-year-old at boarding-school in Zimbabwe. Every morning students would jostle around the only newspaper in the common-room and pepper me with questions. Where is Israel? Why are these guys attacking it? Who’s winning? I became the de facto spokesperson for Israel and for 12 million Jewish people. I draw a dotted-line from that memorable experience – supplemented by finding swastikas smeared on my locker – to my subsequent careers as editor of The AJN and currently CEO of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies. I later experienced a parallel moment at university when our English lecturer failed to turn up one morning; I had studied the text – Graham Greene’s The Comedians, which is all about commitment to a cause – so I went to the front of the class and took the lecture. Just stand up and do it.

Q: Without the accomplishments and titles, who are you at your core? How do you describe your truest and most authentic self?

I am driven by conflicting messages. I am profoundly aware that Anne Frank wrote that despite everything, she believed that people are good at heart; yet two weeks later, she was betrayed to the Nazis. I hold to Elie Wiesel’s dictum that we must always take sides because silence aids the perpetrator, never the victim. Ultimately, I am motivated by the injunction from Ethics of The Fathers – It is not up to us to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it. I believe firmly that we all can effect change, and ultimately I want a safer and happier world for our grandchildren.