The AJDS often hosts unique events and gatherings, attended by a diverse crowd that gathers to talk in ways otherwise unavailable. We cherish these moments and always try to keep a record of each as best we can – notes, pictures, and recordings. For this reason, we call upon our members and supporters to dig deep and if possible, spare a few dollars towards our camcorder fund. Whatever you can give will go a long way, guaranteeing that what we do is kept on record for posterity.
Founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, Joan Nestle, has said that “the AJDS archives inhabit a contested field of memory,” insisting that we must be able to properly record our organisation’s work, in order to contest the exile space dismissively allotted to us as a supposedly radical voice.
If you have some equipment you would like to donate to the AJDS, get in touch with us here.
If you have some wisdom in this area and wish to share it, please get in touch.
Every bit helps.
In April 1999 the Australian Jewish News pressured editor David Bernstein to resign, following remarks about the Balkans and Israel/Palestine, which were considered intolerable by the newspaper and powerful agents in the Jewish community.
The AJDS condemned the censorship. Our official statement read:
The Australian Jewish Democratic Society deplores the circumstances that led to the resignation of David Bernstein, acting editor of the Australian Jewish News (AGE report April 17, 1999).
The last minute decision by the owners of the Australian Jewish News (AJN) to remove an article written by Mr Bernstein from the April 16, 1999 edition of the paper, represents the censorship of legitimate views within the Jewish community on issues involving Israel. The full text of this article is [no longer] available at http://www.vicnet.net.au/~ajds.
The suppression of controversial views within the mainstream debate, whether to the right or left of the political spectrum, by the only newspaper within the Jewish community is unacceptable in a democratic, open and tolerant society.
In 1993 Sam Lipski, then Editor of the AJN (now Editorial Chairman) wrote, “Quite apart from being wrong in principle, the deliberate politics of exclusion of dissent from the organised community … reinforce(s) the perception of a monolithic lobby that stomp(s) heavily not only on any criticism of Israel in the mainstream of public opinion, but within its own community.”
Many often cry foul on the grounds of “freedom of speech” when editors of papers restrict their views. It is even more disturbing when the editors’ own view, well within the mainstream, is censored by publishers, to the point where he feels compelled to resign.
President, Australian Jewish Democratic Society
Norman Rothfield also disseminated the following letter, elaborating on the AJDS’ stance on this matter:
“Time to blow the whistle” by Norman Rothfield
The ability to criticise yourself, your own side, your own people, is part of the best traditions of religious and secular teaching, yet too often we seem incapable of saying “we were wrong and we are sorry”.
On Wednesday, 14 April, according to David Bernstein, he was forced to resign from his position as acting editor of the Australian Jewish News because its owner, pressured by members of the Jewish establishment, could not tolerate his writing a restrained but alternative interpretation of Israeli’s early history concerning Palestinian refugees. His article might have put in context the six letters of protest which the same editor published in that issue of the paper. Instead of an alternative view the paper was published with a section of a page completely blank, and all readers knew was that a cartoon from a previous issue had been condemned. Following a public demand made by the president of the State Zionist Council, who incidentally is a member of the Likud, the right wing in Israeli politics.
Another example of what is unfortunately a widespread problem is provided by leading activists f the Serb community in Australia which daily sees horrific examples of hundreds of thousands of refugees being driven from their homes often with violence and cruelty, yet media reports suggest that they confine their comments to protests at the Nato bombing campaign.
It is the notion of comparing the tragedy of ethnic Albanian refugees with the plight of Palestinian refugees which has exposed the difficulty of the Jewish community in coming to terms with history and the rights of another people.
Following the war of 1948-49 brought on by the attack of seven Arab states against Israel, 80% of the Palestinian population for reasons which are disputed, left their homes. What is not disputed is that these Palestinians (some 500,000 to 700,000) were refused the right to return to their homes and property and they have lived, often in squalid conditions, in refugee camps.
Although historians advance differing explanations for the flight of the refugees, they no longer exclude Israeli army pressure as a factor since Yitzhak Rabin himself testified to it. And who could deny the terrifying effects of Deir Yassin on the Arab population. If some Arab voices persuaded them to flee it is hardly surprising if they did.
Of course, this is not by any means an exact parallel with the case of ethnic Albanians, but it is fair to challenge the right of cartoonists, who live by exaggeration, from making their point referring to the plight of two groups of refugees? The owners of the Australian Jewish News condemned the publication of the cartoon, and prevented the acting editor, who published the six letters critical of it, from publishing his own very mild explanation. This represents an act of discrimination and an infringement of free speech.
This event should not be taken in isolation, other events clarify it, Last year, an all party delegation of Australian Members of Parliament visited the Middle East and on its return published a report which was critical of Prime Minister Netanyahu and the harm his Government had done to the Peace Process. A flood of inspired letters and articles attacked the delegates implying that they were either ignoramuses or hostile to Israel. The reason for the inability to accept a view critical of Israel was provided in spectacular fashion at a meeting of the Australian Labor Party to which was invited a member of the Parliamentary delegation, and the Middle East specialist of the Australia/Israel Review, a magazine which claims to represent major Jewish opinion.
The Jewish Middle East “specialist” was forced to admit under intensive questioning that his magazine in principle defended the policy of the current government of Israel so that if and when the Netanyahu Government is replaced, the magazine and the speaker would if necessary perform a graceful somersault in order to explain and defend any changed policy of the new government. “My side right or wrong” is not conducive to a true statement of history or for promoting peace.
I cite one more revealing example of the failure to deal adequately with the problems “of your own side”. There is a significant Jewish organisation, entitled Anti Defamation Commission (ADC) of B’nai B’rith. Its job is to combat racism and discrimination of all kinds, and it has performed very valuable work. Its actions have not been limited to exposing anti0semitism but have included combatting some dangerous policies of Pauline Hanson and discrimination directed against the indigenous people of Australia. The Australian/Jewish community it can be said has taken a leading role in defence of the rights of the Aboriginal people.
However, the organisation has failed in recognising and dealing appropriately with racism which occurs within the Jewish community. As a member of B’nai B’rith I have held lengthy discussions and correspondence with members of the organisation.
Last year an article appeared in the Australian Jewish News written by a well known leader of the Revisionist Party. Their policy has been that only Jews have any rights in the whole of what was mandated Palestine which includes the territory where two million Palestinians have their homes. (They have even claimed Jordan as part of the biblical land of Israel and therefore part of Israeli territory). The article apart from its extreme politics was blatantly racist. The Arab people were defamed and their religion disparaged. Yet the ADC took no action. After several months of pressure from the Australian Jewish Democratic Society a mild almost apologetic letter was sent to the offending writer. No undertakings were asked from him and no apology was asked for or received.
Had similar racist language been used in an Arab paper or any paper about Jews the ADC action would have been, quite properly, immediate and substantial.
Discrimination in favour of your own people, here or overseas, or of your own religion, is no doubt common place, but Australia and in fact society in general would be better off without this sort of discrimination, dishonesty and injustice. These are the things that lead after all to hatred, conflict and war.
It would be to the advantage of all if other groups and communities were ready likewise to expose their weaknesses.
22 April 1999
Other members of the AJDS were vehemently opposed to the AJN’s move. You can read their comments and correspondence on this matter on the former AJDS’s Readers Forum, here. Those of you who participated in this discussion will also be aware that the AJN goes through editors at a fairly quick rate.
Back to our blog.
Below are links to the filmed footage from the July 25, 2015, ALP Fringe conference panel, featuring and organised by members of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network (APAN) and the Australian Jewish Democratic Society (AJDS). The topic for discussion was the demise of the process cemented by the Oslo Accords, and Australia’s possible role in the future of Israel/Palestine.
You can also watch footage of Dr. Hanan Ashrawi’s contribution to the panel here.
This is a shout-out to our members and supporters:
Do you know of a permanent space that can house no more than 15 archive boxes? This is the entirety of the AJDS archive, a precious collection of materials that needs a new home. It is currently temporarily situated at Joan Nestle’s home but not for long. Please let us know if you know of an appropriate alternative space.
Secondly, do you have a tripod that can be used with our video camera to record AJDS events?
Please contact the AJDS Community Organiser, Yael Winikoff.
Recently our executive member Danya Jacobs has located the original document outlining the Australian Jewish Democratic Society’s Statement of Purposes, dated August 30, 1989, and signed by Philip Mendes. To a great extent, the wording originally adopted by the AJDS to describe the purpose of the association has withstood the last thirty-four years quite well:
You can view the entire document by pressing this link: AJDS Rules.
We will discuss our revised Statement of Purposes in the upcoming Special General Meeting.
By Joan Nestle
One afternoon in March of this year, Sivan Barak, Larry Stillman, Max Kaiser and Mark Jarvinen struggled through my front gate at 4 Fitzgibbon in West Brunswick, their arms straining with overflowing boxes of AJDS ‘stuff.’ Some of you may remember I volunteered to be the starting point of a formal AJDS archival collection at the last general meeting. Let me tell you a little about my connection to archives. In 1973, I joined with five other women to create the Lesbian Herstory Archives, the first archives dedicated to preserving the markings of lesbian lives so we were no longer the pathological objects of other national stories. This grassroots endeavour lived and grew in my large rent-controlled, Upper West Side apartment in New York City, from 1973 to 1992, when, after an international fund raising campaign, it moved into its own four storey brown stone in Park slope, Brooklyn, where it is still thriving today.
I must take you one step deeper into my history so you will have a better understanding of why I have a passion for this kind of undertaking. I came out as an 18 year old lesbian in 1958 in an America still shaped by Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist, anti- deviant campaigns. The bars I attended were regularly raided by the police, street bashings were common; to the courts we were illegal, to the medical profession we were sick, to the religious communities were not fit for God’s mercy. But I was young and often in love, and in the subcultures around me in Greenwich Village’s working class gay bars, I found thriving, brave communities of gay women and men, many of them Jewish, whose lives countered the prevailing national narratives of who we were.
As I watched with wonder how a despised group of people created so much joy, I knew that someday I would make sure that these, my people, would have a place where their lives would be transformed from a nation’s dirty joke into a complex community that lived in history. Together with Deborah Edel, my partner at the time, I trained as a grass roots archivist, touring places like the Library of Congress to learn correct procedures, but on a tiny budget. Influenced by my ongoing involvement in American liberation movements and my teaching in the first open enrolment program of the City University of New York, my understanding of the importance of archival collections for marginalized communities deepened. In 1967 I read The Colonizer and the Colonized by Albert Memmi, a Tunisian Jewish writer who knew both sides of exile, and who gave me one of the tropes of my public work: “The colonized are condemned to lose their memory.”
You have been patient if you are still reading this, thinking Sivan and the others have been standing at the front gate for a long time now. I just wanted you to demonstrate the manner in which my archival skills stem from my passionate belief that a people marked by what appears to some to be a problematic difference, a people further marked by dissent from a prevailing narrative, are the very ones who most come alive in the archives. They leave records touched by complexity, courage, struggle and commitment to change, the tracks of pioneer imaginings. Ever since my first contact with AJDS in 2001, I knew that I was in the midst of a group of people marked by conviction and tenacity, a group of people who knew what it was to be marked as deviant by a larger community that did not want to hear a dissenting view. My subsequent contact with AJDS only convinced me more deeply of the importance of the organization and its long history of social justice advocacy.
I welcomed the overflowing old food shipment boxes into our home and promised Larry, Sivan Max and Mark that I would work as quickly as I could to inventory the contents, get archival boxes and file folders and transform the thousands of pieces of paper into an ordered collection. Thus for the last months I have touched so much of AJDS – minutes of monthly meetings, newspaper clippings of the endless flow of letters, conference planning notes, newsletters, hand written letters, lists of organizational activities through the years, good-byes to good friends and hellos to new ones, internal discussion papers, supporting materials covering refugee concerns, racism, the Palestine/Israel conflict. I understood the towering presence of Norman Rothfield, his endless production of nuanced and yet passionate public thought, and in one of those precious archival moments, I found another side of Mr. Rothfield, a two page typed story of his first experience with the concept of “vulgar” behaviour.
Now the AJDS collection is housed in eleven archival boxes with hundreds of file folders marked by year and general category. Some of the rarer documents have been sleeved in acid free sheet protectors. How honoured I am to have had the opportunity to work with these papers, with these expressions of committed lives and how valuable the collection will prove to those who want to explore many kinds of histories, among them the history of Jewish dissent in twentieth century Australia. This collection is, however, just a beginning, both in terms of its scope and its future, for AJDS is a vital growing community of Jewish activists for social justice who do not take ‘no’ for an answer. The AJDS archives will never be a still place; they speak in a loud voice of those who dreamed, acted and stood strong.
Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized, 1958 (French), 1965 (English).
“It would get bogged down by others saying ‘but you haven’t mentioned this’ or ‘that’s not a good idea to mention that’ or ‘why did you put a comma there?’” – Tom Wolkenberg discussing the difficulties of collectively drafting letters to the editor, AJDS Oral History Project interview, 27 May 2014.
To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the AJDS, we’ve decided to record and publish online audio interviews with approximately a dozen people who have played an important role in the history of the AJDS.
As the AJDS Community Organiser I’ll be carrying out these interviews. So far I’ve only completed three but already my perception of the history of the AJDS and the people involved has deepened.
The project focuses not just on the ins and outs of the history and politics of the AJDS but also on the personal stories of the interview subjects. We’re interested in how people became part of the AJDS and what impact their involvement with the AJDS has had on their lives. We want to explore the historical context of people’s lives and what forces, events, political and social groupings led people to the AJDS.
Through looking at the written record – letters, editorials, statements, and newsletters – one can get a fair idea of the politics of the AJDS and its public positions on a range of issues throughout the past thirty years. But the oral history project aims to uncover something that can only be barely glimpsed in the written record.
That is the personal stories, the characters, the personalities and the importance of the organisation itself in the lives of AJDS members. Part of what we’re hoping to capture is the humour, the enjoyment of political involvement and the challenging of boundaries of Jewishness and identity.
What’s fascinating to me, a member of the younger AJDS generation, is the AJDS itself as a long running, participatory, membership-driven organisation. It’s very uncommon for my generation to become members of organisations such as the AJDS. This is not to say that we’re not politically involved or socially conscious but our organisational models and forms of expression are very different. The AJDS has had to deal with this issue itself. Right now half of the executive and both of the paid staff members are under forty years of age, while our membership is still overwhelmingly of a generation over fifty.
The AJDS at different stages of its life has utilised organisational infrastructure such as an office, an email list, paid staff, a monthly newsletter, an executive, a committee, various iterations of the website, and a membership database. This ongoing infrastructure maintains the durability, memory and sustainability of the AJDS’ unique political and social perspectives. The less obvious part of this organisational infrastructure is the long-lasting relationships and social field created through the organisation.
The epigraph which begins this article is meant not only to illicit a laugh of recognition from people who may be familiar with some of the internal difficulties plaguing the AJDS throughout its history but also to provoke some reflection on the pleasures, and necessary pains of collective organising and collaboration.
Endless debates about the precise wording of statements no doubt reflect a certain amount of vanity, grandstanding and pedantry – longstanding AJDS traditions. But as has so often been remarked there is also something of a special charge to these discussions: an intense pleasure in crafting words, disagreement, synthesis, and coming up with clever compromises.
In the interviews I’ve conducted already, two with older members, one with a younger counterpart, their political observations reflect a profound dissatisfaction with the current political situation, whether with regard to asylum seekers in Australia, or the ongoing Occupation in Israel/Palestine.
Often during the interviews I got the sense that the general rightward trend of Australian politics and the intractable situation in the Middle East meant that the AJDS’s efforts in the long term were perceived by the interviewees as slightly futile and quixotic. Often concrete wins were hard to point to. What is striking though is that despite this sense of pessimism and injustice, the interviewees have all found a sense of strength through their collective involvement.
If not in easily measurable and tangible outcomes, then in what sense can we speak of the durability, meaning and purpose of the AJDS?
Something we’re uncovering through the oral history project is the solidarity engendered through the AJDS, and the hidden pleasures of our histories, the friendships, the minor unofficial factions, the tensions, the joy of small victories and unexpected alliances, and the expanding of social fields. What’s also becoming clear from these interviews is the often uneven distribution of these pleasures. The AJDS started its life as a hierarchical organisation for good or ill, and has spent the past ten years or so wrestling with the messiness of doing away with formal hierarchies and struggling with informal ones, which are based on friendship groups, political perspectives, gender and generation.
The oral history project aims to explore these pleasures, frustrations and the messiness of the AJDS as a thirty-year-old organisation collectively struggling for social justice.
AJDS Oral History Project, Interview with Jemima Light (25/3/2014), Interview with Robin Rothfield (1/5/2014) and Interview with Tom Wolkenberg (27/06/2014).
Robin and David Rothfield’s account of the Jewish Left’s perspective on Israel-Palestine, with a personal note: http://www.ajds.org.au/the-jewish-left/
By AJDS Executive
As you read this newsletter, we find ourselves days away from a Federal election. For those of us that care deeply about asylum seekers and refugees, this is a very difficult ballot. With both the ALP and the Coalition demonising asylum seekers and refugees through harsh rhetoric and proposed policy changes.
These policies include the ALP’s pre-election plan, already enacted, to force all asylum seekers that arrive in Australia by boat to offshore detention centres in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, and to deny them the possibility of ever being granted asylum in Australia.
From the Coalition we have “Operation Sovereign Borders”, which brings a military response to the forefront with staunch vows of “send[ing] the boats back” to Indonesia.
From both parties we have heard disingenuous and incorrect declarations about “illegals” and “queue jumpers”. In response we say no person seeking asylum is illegal, and we remember that the idea of a queue is completely artificial and incorrect.
Australia has an obligation – both by law and morality – to help those that come to this country in need. By sending asylum seekers away we are breaching our responsibilities to the rest of the world, and particularly to those that need help most.
These approaches also ignore the role that Australia plays in creating conditions around the world that are unsafe for people – ‘push factors’ that force people to seek asylum – as well as the dangerous effects that building larger capacity detention centres in Papua New Guinea and Nauru will have on local communities there. It makes arbitrary distinctions between how people come to this country to seek asylum, and in doing so creates and reinforces the paranoia and fear of the worst, most racist, elements of Australian society.
We look forward to the day when the lives of people in need are no longer treated as political footballs. When Australia’s immigration policies are based on care and directed at protecting as well as helping people that come to us seeking asylum.
By Robin Rothfield
This article by AJDS Executive Committee member Robin Rothfield appears in the print version of the Australian Jewish News – July 26, 2013.
The debate at the plenum of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria held on 3 June 2013, concerning the activity of the Australian Jewish Democratic Society relating to the settlements, suggests that there may be a lack of information about the very real harm which the settlements and the occupation do to the prospects for a peaceful resolution of the Israel Palestine conflict.
In 2007 while attending the wedding in Israel of my niece, I took the opportunity to visit the West Bank accompanied by a volunteer from Machsom Watch.
Some of my observations were as follows:
a. The town of Kalkilya, with a population of 20,000, is almost completely enclosed by a concrete separation barrier 8 metres high. We stopped at the gate to a neighbouring village Ras Atiya which is also surrounded by the barrier, this time a barbed wire fence, with the villagers having limited access controlled by the army. The villagers have to go through 2 checkpoints to get to market at Kalkilya. And why is this? So that the residents of the Jewish settlement on the hill Alfei Menashe have unfettered access to Israel. The Supreme Court had handed down a ruling two years earlier to move the separation barrier so that it would lessen the disruption to the lives of Palestinians, but the ruling had been ignored and today nearly 6 years later the barrier has still not been moved.
b. The gate to the village closes in the evening and for emergency medical treatment the villagers have to shout to the soldiers who sometimes don’t come out. We saw a school age boy taking his donkey across rough ground, apparently going to fetch water for his family. Israel has taken control of all water supplies in the West Bank so that the settlers have water for their gardens and their swimming pools while many Palestinians have to travel to get water for their everyday needs.
c. A farmer, Al Rafiq was at the gate. He had brought 2000 week old chicks from the village and wanted to sell them elsewhere but the soldiers would not let his vehicle pass. He had been waiting for permission to cross with his chicks for two hours in the sun and likely to die from the heat..
d. We saw a school age child aged between 10 and 12 years waiting with some trepidation at a gate some 50 metres from the checkpoint for a signal from the soldier to proceed. Daphne, our tour guide, had words with the soldier who then allowed the child through. But Daphne explained that had she not been there the soldier would have made the child wait half an hour in the hot sun.
e. We drove along roads which only Israeli cars are permitted to use, and noted the sharp deterioration in the quality of roads which Palestinians are permitted to use. Israel does not maintain Palestinian roads.
f. Daphne told us the following disturbing anecdote. One day while driving she came across a stranded religious Jew and a Palestinian standing next to one another. The religious Jew had run out of petrol. The Palestinian, who had stopped to help the Jew, explained to Daphne that there was a settlement nearby which could sell petrol but that he, the Palestinian, would not be permitted entry. Therefore Daphne should go there and buy petrol on behalf of the religious Jew. She agreed to do this. When Daphne got to the settlement and bought the petrol, the settler who had sold it to her said, after realizing she was from Machsom Watch: “If it was for you, I wouldn’t help you even if you were dying.” Another settler said to Daphne: “A pity your family survived the Holocaust.”
g. At Elkanah we saw the house of a family of 8 Palestinians cut off from their village, Mas’ha, by the separation wall. The wall has been positioned for the convenience of the Jewish settlers below the offending house so as not to obstruct the settlers view from the hill over the valley. The family has a key to access the village through a yellow gate in the wall until 8 pm but none of the villagers are allowed to cross the wall and so the family cannot receive them as visitors. The positioning of the wall has thus made this family virtual prisoners in their own home.
h. At the Hawara checkpoint we saw the fear in the face of a 10 year old boy who had to leave his father’s car and raise his shirt to cross the checkpoint on foot.
I was spared the more gruesome episodes of settlers burning down olive trees and committing acts of violence against the villagers but saw enough to convince me that the settlements must go if there is to be any chance of a peaceful outcome of the Israel – Palestinian conflict.
Open discussion is an important aspect of any community. When the AJDS launched its ‘Don’t Buy from the Settlements’ Campaign in Pesach this year, we did so with the aim of being part of an ongoing, world-wide discussion about the ways that everyone who cares about Israel/Palestine can be a part of helping to shape a new future for that part of the world and its inhabitants. While many people from all sorts of communities have supported and taken part in the campaign, the campaign has been criticised by some. This is inevitable in any political campaign.
But there has also been a lot of confusion about what the campaign is and what it means. In particular, a lot of people have been confused about what distinguishes this campaign from BDS, and there are many within the Jewish communities in Melbourne who have criticised the campaign because of that.
The different members of the AJDS executive have had a range of experiences since the campaign was launched, and have many opinions regarding the different issues involved.
In particular, there are a variety of opinions within the AJDS Executive and former exec about the Palestinian-led ‘Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions’ movement – more commonly referred to as BDS. This coalesces around questions of what BDS is and what its relationship to the Zionist community and Israel is, as well as how this positions relations between Israelis and Palestinians. While we have these differences, AJDS’s ‘Don’t Buy from the Settlements’ Campaign emerged after several years of internal discussion which was informed by, but quite separate to, anything proposed by what is known as the BDS movement.
While we have these differences about how to consider the BDS movement, we believe it is important to share them. This is because we recognise that many of the issues raised by proponents of BDS are part of a progressive concern for justice, peace and reconciliation. However there are inevitably some differences that are felt by some of us, and these need to be explained. In fact, these various viewpoints also overlap. Thus, we also make it clear that there is no ‘split’ in AJDS; there are simply different opinions on a complex ‘movement’. This is a movement which is unfortunately often seen as monolithic and universally evil by some members of the Zionist Jewish community and its allies, but is recognised as quite heterogeneous by many of those outside of it. This difference in perceptions about the BDS, the volatile nature of the relationship between Israel and Palestine, and the existence of diverse political opinions are some of the reasons why it has been so difficult to develop any consensus position in AJDS, and why we recognise that consensus positions on this issue are not necessary.
There is nothing more important than being able to speak and talk openly about our differences, rather than be subject to the strident and dishonest criticism which comes from some quarters in the Jewish community. The recent condemnation of AJDS by affiliates of the JCCV is an unfortunate example of this problem.
We hope that you will read the pieces that come from four members of our executive – Jordy Silverstein, Larry Stillman, Dennis Martin and Jemima Light – in the open spirit in which they were intended: to tease out some of the difficulties and the ambivalences, as well as some of the certainties, in grappling with these issues.