Judaism and Jewishness

Gen17: Monash university’s survey of the Jewish population of Australia and New Zealand

i Mar 2nd 2017

I just completed the Gen17 survey, which follows Gen08, Monash University’s first iteration of this survey of Jews in New Zealand and Australia. Let me say first off that I am a fan of surveys, not because I believe in their ability to translate lived experience into accurate data – since there’s always a compromise. But surveys remain an interesting experiment in capturing and representing information, always revealing as much about their author as about the respondents. This one took a long time to complete, but it made me think positively about different kinds of Jewishness and the changes taking place in Jewish communities worldwide.

A rather lengthy section on participation in Jewish schools is followed by more interesting one on identity. Some questions have complicated semantic issues. For instance, halfway through I was asked, In the LAST 12 MONTHS, have you personally witnessed any of the following types of antisemitic incidents in Australia? It made me acknowledge that the Left is often accused of being anti-Semitic for opposing Israeli actions. Does this count as an antisemitic incident? Probably not in the eyes of those who’ll analyse the data. Also, for someone who spent the first 15 years of her life in Israel, other questions seemed tricky to answer accurately. What kind of engagement have I had with Jewish youth movements? Well, for most Jewish kids growing up in Israel, every group engagement is exclusively Jewish.

Nonetheless, Gen17 is comprehensive and well put together in an easily accessible online form. Share the link around. Looking forward to the data analysis reports!


Sylvie Leber’s speech at the anti-Netanyahu protest in Melbourne, 19/2/17

i Feb 28th 2017

Sylvie Leber, having just returned from a study tour of the Middle East, spoke at the protest against Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Australia this month. Here is the full transcript, republished with her permission:

The reason I’m here speaking to you today is to let you know that as an Australian Jew, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, does not speak for me or in any way represent me. There are many Jews in Melbourne and elsewhere around the world who feel the same way.

I am an Ashkenazi Jew, born in France of French parents and East European grandparents, three of whom were murdered by the Nazis during World War II.

I’ve never felt or believed that as a Jew I should feel connected to Israel or need to visit it, live there or donate money to it. For me Judaism is not a nationality: it’s my ethnicity and culture. From what I’ve seen and learnt in life, nationalism has been a precursor to war and conflict. A favourite slogan of mine is:
“Nationalism teaches you to take pride in shit you haven’t done and hate people you you’ve never met” (excuse the language).

But recently I decided I must finally see for myself what is happening in a part of the world that has had one of the longest standing conflicts, and so this year I went on a study tour of Israel/Palestine, organised by the Australian Palestinian Advocacy Network (APAN).

We visited a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, then travelled to East Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Ramallah, Nazareth, Nablus and Jordan Valley. We couldn’t get permits to visit Gaza (surprise, surprise).

It was an interesting, powerful and at times a quite disturbing experience. We met many Palestinians. They were refugees, activists, business people, community workers, lawyers, teachers and of course tourism and hospitality workers. If I spent any length of time in conversation with a Palestinian I was eventually open about being Jewish. I was blown away that NOT ONCE did I ever feel a hint of hatred or racism towards myself or other Jews.

Other people we met included Australian consular staff, a young former Israeli army conscript turned anti-demolition activist, Bedouin activists and an acclaimed local British journalist.

We met a Christian Arabic family: they were shopkeepers that had previously run a guest house next door. They told of how they were frequently raided in the early hours of the morning during the time the Wall was being built just across the street from their home. The Wall immediately separated members of this family from each other. Common stories we heard were about army raids while people slept, and families and spouses separated by the Wall.

I saw countless destroyed Palestinian villages with piles of rubble left behind. It is said if you see cactus growing where there is nothing, it was probably the former location of Palestinian villages. We saw lots of tough cacti growing amid the rubble. Bulletholes were to be seen often. I saw empty tear gas canisters and other used weaponry near the Wall. I often felt I was in a war zone and finally understood why all my friends and family said “stay safe” before I left Australia.

Palestinian villages were distinguished from Jewish settlements by the black water tanks on the roof of their houses as there was constant uncertainty of water being cut off. Jewish settlements were well serviced and often had ‘Jewish people only’ roads leading to them not only for ‘security’ reasons but so that they could escape the traffic jams.

We were regularly stopped by soldiers and police while driving to different locations and then there were the checkpoints everywhere. Traffic was regularly held up. One day there were dozens of military buses and police vans with sirens and flashing lights which I later found out were heading towards a Palestinian village which was being demolished illegally by the authorities and where the residents were protesting and resisting.

Perhaps the most shocking thing I saw was in the most peaceful of places, Old Jerusalem, where a young Jewish couple (he was wearing a skull-cap or yarmulke) were wheeling their baby in a pram. The man, a civilian, was wearing a machine gun over his shoulder. I later found out Jewish settlers were easily able to get permits to carry weapons.

The very complicated political history and current administrative regime, walls and borders (with the A, B and C sections), demolitions programs, illegal settlements and permit systems of the region is complex, weird to the point of resembling futuristic science fiction beyond my grasp. I won’t attempt to analyse or comment on it except to say that it seems to be intentionally humiliating, oppressive and racist against Palestinians, Israeli Arabs and Bedouins, and is spiralling out of control. This intensification and escalation is being orchestrated by Netanyahu’s regime.

On a positive note, I was struck by the beauty and richness of the Palestinian culture, their dance, music, art and crafts, poetry and the strong focus on education. This was particularly highlighted in the refugee camps where people lived in the toughest of circumstances, severe overcrowding, electricity regularly cut off, no jobs and the lack of enough medical and education services which we take for granted here.
I was struck by how resilient most Palestinians were under the circumstances. The major problem for Palestinians though, from what I saw and heard, is that their political organisations are dis-organised and not united.

One Palestinian activist when asked if she held out any hope for a peaceful solution said that her hope was there, but that it was frozen for now.

My frozen hope melted a little this week when for the first time for the Australian Jewish community, the official body, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) criticised Netanyahu for the illegal demolitions and destruction of Palestinian-owned homes and agricultural land and the building of 4000 new settler homes. Saying it was ‘troubling’ and ‘counterproductive’ and hopefully that the legislation will be overturned in Israel’s supreme court to show that it’s democracy is still alive. This was reported in the Australian Jewish News, a pro-Zionist newspaper that rarely approves of any criticism of the Israeli government.

I think the only thing that will work eventually is a Binational Democracy where Israel is no longer a Jewish state but a multi-cultural one and which must include the displaced Palestinian refugees right of return to their former homes. You may say I’m idealistic but I think it’s the only way Justice and Peace will prevail.


Trump’s Muslim Immigration Ban

i Feb 1st 2017

It was on International Holocaust Memorial Day this year, after issuing a statement that made no mention of Jewish – nor any other – victims of the Holocaust, that Donald Trump signed an Executive Order banning people from 7 predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States. The effects were swift and brutal: people who were born in, or are citizens of, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen were immediately banned from entering, with the result being that numerous people were detained, deported, and refused permission to fly. Refugees and others, whether migrating or seeking temporary entrance, were refused entry. This was a closing of the borders in a way which is both a continuation of what has come before, but also something new. As a settler-colony and with a slave history, the United States was founded on such murderous violence: this action is the latest, brutal step in this chain.

Encouragingly, the response was also swift: people across the United States and across the world have stood up in opposition and actively campaigned to oppose this measure and act in solidarity with those detained and impacted by the order.

The AJDS stands alongside them. We seek to make clear that we stand in solidarity with Muslim communities, and others, across the world in our outrage and resistance to this new Executive Order. It is a deplorable, racist, attack on people’s abilities to live their lives: it is causing immense violence.

The AJDS also stands opposed to the response issued by the Australian government, and utterly refutes the idea that they should be working closely with Trump to punitively enforce borders, as Julie Bishop and Scott Morrison have said they will. We know well the racism and violence which already characterises Australia’s ongoing settler-colonialism and treatment of refugees. Rather than increasing border control, just as the United States must reverse this closure of its borders, and work beyond that to a fairer and more open migration system, so too must Australia vastly change its current conditions.

Like many Jews around the world – many of whom are uniting under the banner of #JewishResistance – we remember the lessons of the Holocaust vastly differently to the meanings that Trump, Steve Bannon and their Nazi and white supremacist allies have sought to give it this year. We remember the devastating violence and loss caused by genocide, and we commit to acting in that memory, and in the knowledge of that history, for a more just world. Some of us carry family histories of being refugees, and we all carry that historical knowledge, and so we stand alongside the world’s current refugees in calling for them to be granted access to safety wherever they seek it.

The executive of the AJDS calls on members, supporters, and all Jews who seek justice to actively take a stand against both our government and the US government, and the ways in which they treat racialised minorities, including refugee, migrant, Muslim, and Indigenous communities. Sign a petition, call a politician, attend a rally, have a conversation, donate money, sign up to an organisation’s email list, read new stories, write new narratives: the list of things that each of us can do is endless. If everyone commits to doing one thing everyday, in partnership and solidarity with others around the world, then we can affect serious change. We can only do it together though, acting in solidarity and for justice.

This statement was released by the AJDS 31/1/17


We too were strangers

i Oct 7th 2016

By Robin Rothfield

(originally published in the Jewish News, 30/9/16)

AS we approach the High Holy Days, how should we in the Jewish community respond to Pauline Hanson’s call for an end to Muslim migration?

Yes, a high proportion of Australians support this call but consider that in 1947 an opinion poll indicated that 58 per cent of Australians were opposed to the resettlement of Jewish refugees from Europe.

But, you may argue, Jews did not take part in acts of terror. Really! In 1946, the Jewish terrorist group Irgun blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, killing 91 people.

And remember that Muslims are themselves victims of terror and need sanctuary, just as non-Muslims do when under attack.

Consider the Kurdish Muslim woman, Henekal, suffering from hip dysplasia, who fled IS in Syria with her daughter who was suffering from cataracts and going blind. She managed to get to Lebanon where, after months of unsuccessfully trying to find assistance, and distraught that her daughter could lose her sight, she became hysterical.

Luciano Calestini, an Australian working for UNICEF, happened upon her in the street and the end result was that Henekal and her daughter became part of the government’s one-off humanitarian intake of 12,000 refugees.

Ethnic Syrians protesting refugee and asylum seeker rights in Sydney

Australia has resettled only a sixth of its promised 12,000 Syrian refugees. Read more and see original image source here.

We Jews, having suffered so much over the centuries, know how important it is to avoid xenophobia. As Rabbi Ralph Genede, of Caulfield Hebrew Congregation, has pointed out: “One of the most popular laws, mentioned more than any other in the Torah, repeated 36 times, is that you shall not taunt or oppress the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

He goes on to say, “And the asylum seeker/refugee is surely the stranger, the outsider – entitled to that special practical measure that is offered by Jewish law and underpinned by the commandment ‘ve’ahavta l’ray’acha ka’mocha’ – love your neighbour as yourself.”

And Rabbi Genede in his 2014 address to Limmud Oz continues, “Rabbi Berel Wein opines that the greatness of the Jewish people is founded on acts of compassion – Ruth to Naomi; Naomi to Ruth; Boaz to Ruth etc. It’s a little book that’s a pointed reminder of the harmfulness of xenophobia and in many ways about the triumph of the stranger. Ruth overcomes the racial and xenophobic attitudes towards the Moabite woman to become the mother of Israel; the matriarch of royalty.”

“What I saw last Friday in Hebron”

i Jul 21st 2016

By Peter Beinart. Published in Haaretz 19/7/16.

Peace activists clean around Palestinian houses as Israeli army soldiers stand guard in Tal Rumaida, Hebron, West Bank, July 15, 2016. Credit: Mussa Qawasma, Reuters. Found here.

Jawad Abu Aisha owns a cluttered yard in H2, the sector of Hebron that falls under direct Israeli control. He’d like to turn it into a cinema. Many local Palestinians — lacking recreational opportunities — would like to help him. But Abu Aisha says that Jewish settlers, and the Israeli military, prevent him from developing the space. In a democracy, if your neighbors impede construction on your property, you can appeal to local authorities. But for Palestinians in Hebron, Israel is not a democracy. They can’t vote for its government. They live under military law. So when settlers disrupt Palestinian construction on privately owned Palestinian land — as part of their effort to make Palestinian life in H2 so unbearable that Palestinians leave — the army and police do their bidding. The army and police, after all, are accountable to Israeli citizens. And in Hebron, as throughout the West Bank, Jewish settlers are citizens. Palestinians are subjects.
I saw this firsthand last Friday when I left a family vacation in Israel to join 52 Jewish activists, mostly from the Diaspora, on a trip to Hebron organized by the Center for Jewish Nonviolence and the anti-occupation collective, All That’s Left. We came at the request of a group called Youth Against Settlements. It’s burly, charismatic leader, a student of Gandhi and Martin Luther King named Issa Amro, asked Diaspora Jews to come and help clear Abu Aisha’s yard. He didn’t need American Jewish muscle. He needed American Jewish privilege, the privilege that gives American Jews protection from the Israeli state. Issa hoped that privilege would buy his group a few hours of uninterrupted yard work. He also hoped it would bring them publicity.
Think of Issa as a Palestinian Robert Moses. By 1964, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had been working for years to register African Americans in Mississippi to vote. But local whites brutalized them, often aided by the police. So Moses recruited northern white kids to come south for “Freedom Summer.” He hoped the media would follow, and that once white Americans saw segregation’s true face, they’d push their politicians to support civil rights. Among the more than 1,000 activists who heeded Moses’ call were Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, college students from New York whose murder, alongside African American James Chaney, has become American Jewish legend.
I’ll never know what it felt like to be in Mississippi in 1964. But last Friday, watching dozens of twenty-something American Jewish kids (and a few older activists) haul junk in Abu Aisha’s yard in Hebron, I felt an unusual sensation: hope.
I felt hope because American Jewish Millennials are different. My generation, which came of age in the 1990s, didn’t build a single organization that challenged the American Jewish establishment on Israel. That’s partly because, during the Oslo era, we thought American, Israeli and Palestinian leaders would create a two-state solution on their own. But it’s also because the 1990s were a lost decade for the American activist left, an “ice age,” in Cornel West’s words.
That ice age is now clearly over. From Occupy to Black Lives Matter to the immigrant “dreamers” whose protests forced U.S. President Barack Obama to change his policies on deportation, Millennials have brought street activism back to life. What happened last Friday in Hebron is part of that. Over the last few years, young American Jews have created three new organizations: Open Hillel, which challenges Hillel’s limitations on who can speak about Israel in Jewish spaces on campus, If Not Now, which protests American Jewish complicity with the occupation, and the Center for Jewish Nonviolence, which organizes peaceful resistance to it. Many of the young activists I met in Hebron were products of these groups and talking to them, I realized how formidable a challenge they’re likely to pose to the American Jewish establishment in the years to come.
They’re formidable because these kids don’t come from the margins of the American Jewish community. They come from its bosom. In Hebron, I met the son of a cantor, an alumna of the Orthodox youth movement Bnei Akiva, an Orthodox young woman who studied in a yeshiva not far where we were protesting, a Jewish day school graduate whose mother was connected to the yeshiva with Baruch Goldstein, a former activist in the century-old Zionist youth group Young Judaea, several former members of the socialist Zionist youth group Hashomer Hatzair, a young woman who grew up in Chabad, a young woman who taught Hebrew school at Chabad, a young woman whose right-wing Moroccan-Israeli parents immigrated to California, and a young man who until a few months ago worked at a prominent establishment American Jewish organization, until he couldn’t live with himself anymore.
The young people I met are also formidable because they’re learning things that American Jewish leaders don’t know. The dirty little secret of the American Jewish establishment is that its officials know little about Palestinian life under Israeli control. That’s by design. Mainstream American Jewish officials talk incessantly about Palestinians, but they rarely talk to them, in large measure because Hillel-style guidelines inhibit their interaction with people who cross their ideological red lines. Most American Jewish leaders have never met nonviolent Palestinian activists like Issa Amro. Nor have they personally experienced life under Israeli military law. The Jewish kids in Hebron have. On Friday, they got a tiny taste when the Israeli army declared Abu Aisha’s backyard a closed military zone, and then, after some activists retreated to Amro’s house, the army declared that a closed military zone too.
Finally, the young activists I met are formidable because they’re brave. Several said they hadn’t told their parents what they were doing because they’d be disowned. The officials who populate establishment American Jewish organizations are, in large measure, careerists. I’ve lost count of the number of staffers at mainstream Jewish groups who have told me they privately disagree with their organization’s stance on Israel. There are true believers on the American Jewish right, especially from the Orthodox world. But, today, the American Jewish establishment is composed of many people who know in their gut that they’re defending the indefensible. In a confrontation between them and the young activists I met on Friday, I’d bet on the latter.
To be clear, I don’t think protests like last Friday’s will have a direct impact on Israelis. The protests are too American. It’s hard to imagine Israelis interspersing religious songs like “Kol ha’olam kulo, gesher tzar me’od” (“All the world is a very narrow bridge,” from Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav) with civil rights anthems like “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.” But the protests aren’t meant to change Israeli opinion. They’re meant to change American Jewish opinion, which could in turn change American government policy. And curiously, it was the very Americanism of the protest that made it so Jewish.
Standing in Abu Aisha’s yard, the American-Israeli activist Moriel Rothman-Zecher explained it this way. The Israeli left, he argued, contains many people alienated by Judaism. They’re alienated because they identify Judaism with Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, which controls subjects like marriage, burial and divorce, and with right-wing hyper-nationalists like Naftali Bennett. By contrast, American Jews, who live in a country where Judaism is not intertwined with the state, lack that hostility. As a result, they are more likely to see their activism as an outgrowth of their Jewish identity rather than as an attempt to overcome it.
That was certainly the case last Friday. The activists I met weren’t speaking, and singing, about Judaism because they thought it was savvy public relations. They were doing so because Judaism is the language of their lives. At one point during the day, I heard several heatedly discussing whether the Talmud has anything meaningful to say about how to administer a Jewish state. At another, an activist told me about his experience studying Chayei Sarah, the Torah portion that describes Abraham’s burial of Sarah in Hebron.
Over the course of my life, I can remember several moments when contemporary events made me experience Jewish texts or tunes in a new way. I’ll never forget sitting in shul on the Shabbat after 9/11 and hearing the shaliach tzibbur sing Adon Olam to the tune of America the Beautiful. After last year’s terrorist attacks in Paris, I heard it sung to the tune of La Marseillaise. And I’ll never forget last Friday afternoon, when we stood outside the settlement that housed the prison where Rothman-Zecher and five other activists had been detained, and welcomed Shabbat by singing Shalom Aleichem and Lecha Dodi. The soldiers and settlers standing in front of us looked at us like we were mad. The Palestinians standing behind us looked confused too, but a Palestinian boy, smiling broadly, nonetheless ran over to us with cups of water.
Why were we performing Kabbalat Shabbat? I can’t speak for everyone, but for me, it was partly to remind myself of who I am. I had spent the day working alongside Palestinians and being protected by them. I had spent the day fearing Jewish soldiers and police. It was a jarring experience. The normal order of things, as I had learned them since childhood, had been turned upside down. Welcoming Shabbat was a way of centering myself. It was a reminder that no matter how many people tell me I hate Judaism, the Jewish people and the Jewish state — no matter how many people tell me I hate myself — I know who I am. I know when I’m living in truth. And nothing feels more Jewish than that.
I’m not an activist by nature. I couldn’t organize a protest to save my life. But leaving Hebron last Friday, I vowed to come back next year, for the fiftieth anniversary of Israel’s takeover of the West Bank. Instead of 50 Jews, I hope we bring 500. I hope you’re one of them.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said that when he marched for civil rights in Selma, Alabama, he was “praying with his feet.” I now know what he meant. And I know that, to be the Jew I want to be, I must pray that way again.

Originally published in Haaretz


Statement about the Greens withdrawal from candidates forum

i Jun 11th 2016
Greens VS Zionism Victoria

Stephanie Hodgins-May’s campaign poster. Image found here.

The Australian Jewish Democratic Society (AJDS) is disappointed that Greens candidate for Melbourne Ports, Stephanie Hodgins-May, has decided to withdraw from the candidates forum organised by the Australian Jewish News and Zionism Victoria (ZV). While Hodgins-May may disagree with the politics of these groups – she has specifically mentioned ZV’s attitude towards the United Nations as the basis for her withdrawal – we feel that it’s important that local candidates be prepared to address and engage with audiences in their electorate. Her decision to withdraw has the very real possibility of drawing attention away from the important local and national policies on which this election should be decided, which is a disservice to the electorate.

This statement was issued by the AJDS June 11, 2016


AJDS Statement about Limmud Oz

i Jun 5th 2016

The Australian Jewish Democratic Society (AJDS) is deeply disappointed that the organising committee of Limmud Oz 2016 has decided that the invitation extended to Bassam Dally – who was to speak with Sivan Barak (a member of the Executive of the AJDS) in a conversation entitled “Fighting for Coexistence” should be withdrawn. While the organisers claim that the programming policy enables them to ban Bassam from speaking, we believe that this decision represents a hopeless and shameful misstep and should be reversed.

Limmud Oz makes a claim to being a space for broad discussion, dialogue, and challenging conversations. Yet, in deciding that Bassam is not allowed to speak they have effectively applied a very specific and limited litmus test to one speaker. Indeed, this test demonstrates a deep disrespect for the intelligence of the attendees of Limmud Oz and the Jewish community, and shows the organisers to be out of step with where the community is headed. It beggars belief that the organisers truly believe that talking with a Palestinian who also supports the principles of BDS will harm the community. Indeed, a current poll in the right-leaning Australian Jewish News shows considerable support for hearing the views of BDS supporters at Jewish events. Jews of all ideological persuasions want the right to judge for themselves.

In any case, Bassam and Sivan’s session did not plan to touch on BDS in any way. Ironically, it was to be a session about dialogue and coexistence. The possibility of these seem distant when this session, and likely one of the sole Palestinian voices at the Conference, can be swiftly silenced by invoking the BDS bogeyman. At the same time, the organisers thought it appropriate to include in the program a talk with the antagonistic and loaded title, “ The BDS Movement and the Demonisation of Jewish Supporters of Israel.”

Barring people from a conference because they promote a strategy of non-violence as a response to decades of violence is extremely counter-productive. Such censorship limits the already miniscule number of Palestinian voices that mainstream Jews hear. It is also out of step with the increasing support at home and worldwide from Jews themselves.

Moreover, if the reports are accurate that Limmud Oz’s funding was threatened if Bassam had participated, then we worry about the place of donor funding in the community. Surely, as a community, we should be striving to make spaces for the most challenging and demanding conversations, not allowing financial imperatives to close them off.

The Jewish community in Melbourne, and throughout Australia, would benefit immeasurably from talking more, and more openly, with Palestinians. We have much to learn. Sadly, it would seem that the organisers of Limmud Oz are intent on ensuring that this will be made more difficult.

The AJDS calls on Limmud Oz to reverse their decision, and to ensure that future programs are not tainted by this restriction on the sharing of knowledge and open conversation. Our Jewish community will be richer for it.


This statement was written by the AJDS Executive Committee, June 5, 2016


Max Kaiser on Jews For Refugees

i May 26th 2016

Read “Jews, Refugees and the (im)possibility of history”, an insightful piece by Max Kaiser, about the formation and reformation of Jews For Refugees, published in Overland earlier this month:

A few years ago I received a phone call from the current Energy and Resources minister, Josh Frydenberg. He called me in response to an email I had sent only hours earlier on behalf of Jews for Refugees (JFR), drawing his attention to the case of the MV Struma. The Struma was a ship carrying 781 Jewish refugees from Romania that, on 23 February 1942, was towed from the harbour in Istanbul to the Black Sea, leaving the ship adrift. The next day the Struma was torpedoed and sunk by a Russian submarine. There was only one survivor. When Frydenburg called, the story of the Struma was being referenced in synagogues and the Jewish media, a warning against the Liberals policy of ‘turning back the boats’.

The majority of Jews in Australia have a refugee background; usually, they, their parents or grandparents came in the late thirties from Germany or Austria, or as Holocaust survivors escaping a devastated Europe in the decade following the Second World War. In 2012, I was involved in restarting the then dormant activist group JFR. We tried to campaign within the Jewish community and to get young Jews along to pro-refugee rallies. Most people we talked to were sympathetic, but some were not. One time, we were run off Glen Eira Road by over-eager council workers acting on complaints they had received about postering.

We retreated to the western suburbs to re-assess our strategy. Why were we Jews for refugees? How did the struggles of our parents or grandparents inform who we were and how we wanted to shape the world? We were wary of calling on people morally, of arguing that because Jews have suffered in history we somehow had more of an obligation to speak out against injustice and suffering now.

In her book Landscapes of Memory: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered, Ruth Klüger recounts a discussion with some German PhD students:

One [student] reports how in Jerusalem he made the acquaintance of an old Hungarian Jew who was a survivor of Auschwitz, and yet this man cursed the Arabs and held them all in contempt. How can someone who comes from Auschwitz talk like that? the German asks. I get into the act and argue, perhaps more hotly than need be. What did he expect? Auschwitz was no instructional institution … You learned nothing there, and least of all humanity and tolerance. Absolutely nothing good came out of the concentration camps, I hear myself saying, with my voice rising, and he expects catharsis, purgation, the sort of thing you go to the theatre for? They were the most useless, pointless establishments imaginable.

I often think of something my friend Jem said at the time we were organising JFR: ‘I don’t see history as a series of discrete events from which we can learn moral lessons. It’s about seeing history not as something that is past. History is continuous.’

We can demystify the present by historicising it. In the case of Australia’s migration history, we can understand that in the thirties, and in some senses up until the early fifties when restrictions on Jewish migration were finally abolished, Jews were marked as unwanted others. Our current refugee policy is in line with a long history of violence at the borders of a putatively ‘White Australia’.

Walter Benjamin, in his Theses on the Philosophy of History, famously referred to the struggle for the ‘oppressed past’ – a concept with a double meaning. First, the history and memory of oppressed peoples; second, the fact that very past has been oppressed and suppressed. For Benjamin, history as it is currently constituted is the history of the dominant. ‘Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins,’ Benjamin wrote. ‘And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.’ How, then, do we go about fanning the spark?

In an interview on the recent accusations of anti-Semitism in the UK Labour party, Norman Finkelstein discussed the ethics of making comparisons to the Holocaust, referencing his mother who was a Holocaust survivor and a Communist:

When she saw the segregation of African-Americans, whether at a lunch counter or in the school system, that was, for her, like the prologue to the Nazi holocaust. Whereas many Jews now say, Never compare … my mother’s credo was, Always compare. She gladly and generously made the imaginative leap to those who were suffering, wrapping and shielding them in the embrace of her own suffering …When she saw Vietnamese being bombed during the Vietnam War, it was the Nazi holocaust. It was the bombing, the death, the horror, the terror, that she herself had passed through. When she saw the distended bellies of starving children in Biafra, it was also the Nazi holocaust, because she remembered her own pangs of hunger in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Jewish refugees drowned at sea after the Struma was turned away

found on Wikipedia

This is a paradigmatic case of what academic Michael Rothberg calls ‘multidirectional memory’, a concept for thinking collective memory against the framework of ‘competitive memory – as a zero-sum struggle over scarce resources’. Multidirectional memory is ‘subject to ongoing negotiation, cross-referencing, and borrowing; [it is] productive and not privative.’ In my own research on the history of the discourse of the Australian Jewish Left, I have found frequent comparisons of the Holocaust with struggles against colonialism, the dispossession of Indigenous peoples and the Vietnam War.

How then do we balance Klüger’s suggestion of the ultimate meaninglessness of the Holocaust and Finkelstein’s mother’s compari

or empathetic, experiencing oppression does not mean you should be held to a higher moral or ethical standard.

Political struggle, however, has the capacity to remake and redeem these pasts, to make them move, slip, and tussle, backward, forward and across, opening new lines of solidarity, and presaging Benjamin’s ‘revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past’.

sons? Memory by itself can only take us so far. Surviving a genocide does not make you a better person, trauma does not make you more insightful Image

My conversation with Frydenberg was fairly unremarkable. He repeated Liberal Party talking points on the need to ‘stop the boats’ and I disputed them. We agreed to disagree and I hung up. I have wondered since why he called so quickly after receiving the email. It seems to me he rang so as to try and arrest the moment – to not let the memory of theMV Struma slip any further; to dispute its multidirectional capacity; to make sure that the dead stayed dead.

This article was originally published 25 May, 2016 in Overland.