The AJDS and nearly twenty other Jewish organisations have signed onto the following communal Rosh Hashana statement against racism:
As Jewish organisations committed to social justice, egalitarianism and the values of liberal democracy, we are committed to an Australian community that is inclusive, tolerant and diverse.
The Jewish people are only too aware of the damage that can occur when religious or ethnic groups are targeted by hate speech. We understand that an Australia built on acceptance can empower and uplift the potential of diverse communities. Indeed, it is these values that has enabled the Jewish community to become a thriving and contributing part of the wider Australian community.
Therefore, the rise in Islamophobia and racism are of particular concern. Extremist voices that exploit dog whistle politics to target minority groups, such as Muslim Australians and refugees and people seeking asylum have no place in a multicultural and pluralist society like Australia.
However, discrimination against minority groups does not just damage our collective morality; it harms progress towards peace and security by creating a society that alienates and divides parts of our community, driving disaffected young people towards radicalisation.
We believe that bigoted views represent the worst in our society and weaken the fabric of our vibrant multicultural society. We therefore stand proudly, arm in arm, with our Muslim friends, and all victims of racism, in recognising that there is more that unites us than divides us.
As Rosh Hashana approaches, a time when our community gathers in all its diversity to reflect on our deeds over the past year and affirm our collective desire to be a more caring and charitable community, we hope and pray for a more tolerant and compassionate Australia that celebrates the dignity of difference.
In the coming year, may the voices of ignorance, stereotyping and racism be drowned out by those of love, compassion and pluralism.
By AJDS Executive
Dear AJDS members and supporters,
We would like to welcome you back to the AJDS newsletter, now named – Just Voices – after a year-long hiatus. We hope this platform can provide you with an informative space for intelligent writing and art on pertinent issues.
This edition of Just Voices comes at an important moment in both the Jewish and the Australian calendars. In both of these intertwining spaces, we stand on the edge of something new. In Jewish terms, we are close to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, a time when we can reflect on our behaviour and ways of interacting with our friends, communities, families and the broader world. We can renew our commitment to live in a way which is meaningful and that endeavours to bring about ethical change. What precisely this means for each of us is something that we will hopefully ponder over the coming weeks.
The AJDS decided this newsletter should focus on refugees for a number of reasons. Refugees’ lives are treated by many of those in Australian politics and the Australian public in despicable ways, as though they are a problem, or a waste product, to be dispensed with. Recognising this, and repudiating the racism inherent in such attitudes, the AJDS wants to be part of the movement, which changes that narrative and instead recognises the bravery of refugees who leave their homes to seek a fresh start. As we start a new year, we can embrace these stories of change and renewal, and stand alongside local refugee and asylum seeker organisations such as RISE and the ASRC, and work towards a new beginning.
Just Voices is intended as an open space and if you would like to contribute to future editions, we welcome you to contact us at: editor(at)ajds.org.au.
We wish you all a gut yontif and shana tova, and we hope that all our members and readers have a fulfilling, enriching, challenging, and renewing time in the coming days.
The Australian Jewish Democratic Society (AJDS)
By Dennis Martin
A hug, a laugh and so we greet each other. Me, a Jew using the Muslim greeting and Najaf Mazari, a Muslim using the Hebrew greeting. And so it has been on most Saturday afternoons for the past 4 years. We sit in Najaf’s rug shop in Prahran, drinking black Afghan tea and chewing the fat; family, health, religion and politics but as yet not sport. I don’t think Najaf knows who Sir Donald Bradman was or who Shane Warne is. We agree on many things, disagree on others, often strongly. But friends can argue and remain friends. And we talk rugs: hand knotted oriental rugs and particularly Afghan rugs. It is shared interest in rugs that bought us together. Many years ago I also traded in rugs (in a small way).
“I did not know that I could feel this much sorrow without a body to bury”.
When I read these words, the opening lines of Najaf Mazari’s acclaimed biography “The Rug Maker of Mazar-E-Sharif” (co-written with Robert Hillman) I was moved by this simple statement of despair experienced by a “boat person” being held in the Woomera Detention Centre. How did it come to this? A simple village boy, shepherd and master rug maker behind barbed wire, thousands of kilometres from his home, family, culture and familiar landscape.
As one of the many victims of Taliban atrocities Najaf was forced to flee for his life. Members of his immediate family had been killed and he himself was detained and beaten. A long difficult journey through Iran, Pakistan and Indonesia and finally to Australia on a flimsy Indonesian fishing boat leaving behind his wife Hakeema and a baby daughter Maria in a refugee camp in Pakistan. A separation that lasted over five years before a final reunion in Australia with his loved wife, and a child who did not even recognize her father.
Since first meeting Najaf at the launch of his book “The Rug Maker of Mazar-E-Sharif,” I have come to know his family well, eating in their home and having them as guests in mine. I have watched Maria grow from a child into a young woman, an Australian young woman, proud and secure in her Hazara identity. And I have constantly been struck by Hakeema’s infectious sense of joy and her hospitality.
I have also watched as Najaf carved out a niche in Australia for himself and his family. As a businessman, frequent speaker at schools, conferences and writers’ festivals, an advocate for the Australian Hazara community and an unofficial social worker helping newly arrived refugees find their feet in a foreign environment. Finally, Najaf is also a charity worker that raises funds for health and education services for both boys and girls in his home village. Hopefully, it is through support like this from the diaspora that change will come slowly to Afghanistan in a way that military intervention has failed to achieve.
Whenever I hear the anti-refugee outpourings of the opportunistic, the fearful, the ignorant, the resentful and the unabashedly racist, I think of Najaf and his family. I hear more of these poisonous words with every passing day as politicians try to glean a few extra votes by playing the refugee card in the up-coming elections willingly abetted by the Islamophobes, white Australians and other hatemongers. I also think how lucky is Australia to have gained Najaf and his family as citizens of this country and how lucky I am to have acquired such a friend.
By Arnold Zable
This article first appeared in The Well.
The suffering of asylum seekers currently in detention on Nauru and Manus Island is unbearable. Imagine it, to be living in tents, in the heat and rain, on isolated islands, with years of waiting ahead, in limbo, and with the knowledge that for many Australians out of sight means out of mind. How has it come to this? There are reasons, but first, before the politics, a few stories – stories that indicate what our political leaders should be saying; stories that provide inclusive vision of who we are.
In February 1847, a journalist travelling through Ireland noticed that some of the people’s lips were green. Their lips were green because there they were eating grass. And they were eating grass because there was little else to eat. It was a time of mass starvation that became known as the Great Famine.
Out of a population of 8 million, one million died. And out of the remaining seven million, one and a half million took to boats. Some fetched up on the shores of America, and others found their way to distant Australia. In all, over three million people left Ireland between 1845 and 1870.
The largest Diaspora in modern history comprised the 15 million people who forsook the British Isles in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Many left due to ruthless land clearances and an agrarian revolution that saw millions driven from their farmlands. Then, as now, there were some who perished when their boats sank on the high seas. Then, as now, such tragedies did not deter people from risking the voyage. Quite a number came to Australia. In other words, we are, except for indigenous peoples, a nation of boat people. That is the inclusive tale of who we are.
Voyage of the Damned
In 1946, the Melbourne publishing house, Dolphin Books, produced an English translation, of the novel Between Sky and Sea, originally written in Yiddish by Herz Bergner. The novel depicts the voyage of a group of traumatised Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler’s terror. The Greek freighter has been at sea for weeks, drifting helplessly, en route to Australia.
Born in the Polish town of Radimno in 1907, Bergner’s family settled in Vienna during World War I before returning to Poland. During the inter-war years, Bergner lived in Warsaw, the hub of Yiddish cultural life in Eastern Europe. His first collection of short stories Houses and Streets was published in 1935. The young Bergner served his writing apprenticeship when Yiddish literature was at its creative zenith.
Yet it was also a time of mass poverty and political turmoil. The storm clouds of war were gathering. Bergner seized the opportunity to emigrate. He settled in Melbourne in 1938 where there was an active community of Jews who maintained Yiddish as their mother tongue. As it turned out, he was one of the fortunate ones, able to get out just in time. In 1941 he published The New House, a collection of short stories reflecting Bergner’s experiences and those of his immigrant readers, their recent journeys and the challenges of adapting to a new life.
Between Sky and Sea was one of the earliest responses to the dire fate facing Jewish communities in Europe. The writing is propelled by a sense of urgency. He wrote it while news was filtering through that a catastrophe was taking place. His people were being enslaved and murdered, or forced into flight. In January 1942, Bergner had published an essay pleading the case for increased European migration to Australia. Once flourishing Jewish communities, he wrote, were being wiped from the face of the earth.
Bergner would have known of the ill-fated voyage of the St Louis, the ocean liner that left Germany in May 1939 with over 900 Jewish asylum seekers on board fleeing the Third Reich. The ship was turned back from Cuba and not permitted to land in the USA and Canada. The refusals prompted several passengers to attempt suicide. As the ship sailed back to Europe, a group of passengers took over the bridge and occupied it until their rebellion was put down. Through intense negotiation and the support of the empathetic captain, Gustav Schroeder, the passengers were able to disembark in Antwerp before the ship returned to Germany. Nevertheless, 254 of the passengers perished in the Holocaust.
The refugees on Bergner’s fictional Greek freighter undertake their voyage several years later while the war rages. They are trapped between sky and sea, and within the terrors of their recent past. They have lost entire families and witnessed the destruction of their communities. They have wandered through many lands and are tortured with guilt at having been spared the fate of those left behind.
With each day at sea they edge closer to despair. Their meagre rations of food decrease. Those who succumb to disease are buried at sea. The passengers no longer know where they are. They are an unwanted people and endure racist taunts from some of the crew. When typhus breaks out on board, a seaman hisses: ‘Human beings? Important people? You have been thrown out of everywhere and no one will take you in. All doors and gates are closed to you. We can’t put in at any port because of you. Everybody is afraid you’ll get your feet in and never go away.’ The sea is a malevolent force, the sun an inferno, the boat a mobile internment camp. It is a voyage of the damned.
Life in Limbo
Between Sky and Sea remains as relevant today as it was when it was first published. There are millions on the move in search of refuge from oppression. Many languish in camps for years on end, while others are en route, prepared to risk all to gain landfall on firmer shores. Theirs are perilous journeys enacted anew in each age. Some make it and some don’t.
Fast forward to 19 October 2001, when a leaky fishing boat sank at 3.10 in the afternoon, en route to Australia. The exact time is known because watches stopped. 353 men, women and children fleeing Iraq and Afghanistan drowned. There were forty-five survivors. Bergner’s account of the fate of the passengers on board the Greek freighter is chillingly similar to survivors’ descriptions of the SIEVX sinking. The two disasters, sixty years apart, one imagined, the other real, encapsulate the universal plight of asylum seekers. They highlight the fraught nature of the journey, and the desperate measures that people take to escape oppression.
The sinking of the SIEVX was the biggest post-war maritime disaster off Australian waters. At the time of the sinking the Howard Government was advising its navy personnel to force asylum seeker boats back out to sea. Like Bergner’s characters they were consigned to live in limbo, their goal so tantalisingly close, yet agonisingly out of reach.
I came to know the three survivors that settled in Melbourne. Iraqi asylum seeker, Amal Basry survived by clinging to a corpse for over twenty hours. She became much loved as a passionate witness to the event. When she finally received her permanent resident’s visa she said ‘I am a free woman in a free country.’ In a cruel irony she died of cancer in 2006, but her story and the impact of her courage lives on.
This is just one of countless stories I have heard in recent years. I have walked with distraught asylum seekers through sleepless nights, as they yearned for the day that they would be reunited with their loved ones. I have heard their tales in detention centres, at community centres, and in kitchens and living rooms throughout Melbourne.
Arm Yourself With Stories
There are saving graces. The most powerful I know is the work being done by the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre now based in West Melbourne. Since its foundation in 2002, by its CEO Kon Karapanagiotidis, the centre has welcomed over 8000 asylum seekers. It is currently helping over 1200 asylum seekers who have been released into community detention, on bridging visas. If it were not for the work of the Centre, its staff and 800 volunteers – with a range of many services including legal aid, medical aid, English lessons, and a community centre where they can spend time during the day – these asylum seekers would be isolated and destitute. And what is their ‘crime’? Doing for themselves and their families, what we would have done in their shoes, and what our own parents or grandparents did in the recent past.
So how has it come to this, to such heartless policies, and to the breaking of UN conventions that deem it a basic human right to seek asylum from persecution? I believe it can be traced back to mid 2001, to the Tampa affair, and to the Howard Government’s response to the boat people crisis. Howard broke the tradition of bi-partisanship on refugee issues fostered during the Fraser-Whitlam years, and used the boat people issue for political gain.
Asylum seekers became political footballs. The race to the bottom was set in motion. No matter how cruel you can be, I can be crueler became the name of the game, supported by polling that confirmed the political advantages. This is the current song being sung in Canberra.
What can we do? Contact the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, donate or volunteer. Better still, come to the centre and meet asylum seekers face to face – and you will see a mirror reflection of your forbears. And you will go away armed with stories that you can tell to your friends, spread through your networks, bring up at dinner parties, to counter the demonization of people who have done what millions have done before them – had the courage to seek a new life, free of persecution.
By Jemima Light
Since Kevin Rudd’s announcement of the so-called ‘Papua New Guinea solution’ to deter people seeking asylum by boat, I’ve had countless conversations (sometimes heated) with people from a wide range of the political spectrum. I noticed that many of these arguments are mostly committed to dissecting what the morally ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ thing is to do. It is commonly articulated that refugees should have a safe place to go, but not if it conflicts with Australia’s security needs. What these security concerns actually are remains largely unspecified. Therefore, the debate is framed by a desire to attain a ‘humanitarian’ solution with ‘pragmatic’ limitations.
Rarely in these conversations is there an acknowledgement of the high-up governmental figures and private companies who increasingly profit from the suffering and imprisonment of refugees. In fact, many of the solutions proposed rely on a business model of efficiency and profits. Therefore, though this moralistic rhetoric is consistent with ideas of ‘efficiency’- it fails to challenge mandatory detention or the role of the state in implementing policies that imprison people. Furthermore, this rhetoric fails to challenge the justifications for outsourcing detention contracts. The rational is that private companies deal more swiftly and precisely with refugees, relying on the theory that competition will push private companies to improve services to compete successfully in the market.
But in practice ‘efficiency’ translates as profit maximization, not care for people. The business model obscures the way that people are actually treated, and allows private companies to get away with the poor treatment of vulnerable people, often framing a lack of transparency and accountability as ‘client privacy.’ The government also refuses to supply details about companies breaching contracts, claiming these are ‘commercial-in-confidence.’
The main companies with billion dollar private contracts to run refugee detention centers in Australia are Serco (since 2009) and G4S (held contracts prior to Serco, currently run Manus Island). It isn’t hard to find evidence of countless atrocities committed by both of these corporations. They leave a bloody footprint all over the world. For example, G4S involvement in running prisons in Israel and the Occupied Territories, which are notorious for torturing Palestinian children or the murder of Jimmy Mubenga, an Angolan deportee, by three G4S guards. It is deeply flawed logic to rely on companies whose profits depend on perpetuating the conditions that lead to the successful bids for their contracts in the first place. Serco and G4S don’t benefit from losing ‘clients.’
However, I’m not arguing that private companies are worse than the state, exactly. Detention centers run by Department of Immigration and Citizenship are also cruel and untrustworthy. In fact, mandatory detention is inherently cruel and should not be implemented at all.
Rather I’m using the way in which private business operates to reflect on broad trends in governmental practice – of governments absolving themselves of responsibility for peoples’ wellbeing and offloading their obligations onto private corporations. These services become something to buy and sell. In doing so, the actions of these corporations are de-politicized. They are considered extra-statist, obscuring the deep links between the state and themselves. But it is, after all, governmental policies that provide the very conditions for these corporate interests to stake a claim on these services in the first place.
It is also telling to examine the past employment history of many G4S and Serco employees. Often they have been leading state security figures, usually ex-army or police force, frequently with shady pasts. Kerry McNamara, a sacked Victorian police detective is now the security boss in G4S firm on Manus Island. McNamara was sacked for assaulting and stealing drugs from drug dealers. He was also involved in the notorious Tasty nightclub raid conducted by the Victorian police force, during which a number of gay and transgender people were strip searched, assaulted and detained for several hours.
Refugees are being imprisoned, sent offshore, and deported to dangerous circumstances. It is not enough to ask what should be done in terms of right and wrong and thereby relying on the government to make the ‘right’ decisions. We must also demand to know who is profiting from refugees’ continual imprisonment. This includes the government, as well as private companies and their combined interests. Only then, can conversations shift away from the constant appeal to government to do what is ‘right,’ to a realization that perhaps it isn’t just rational argument that can radically change the current situation. Maybe it is time to disrupt business as usual.
By Larry Stillman
I’m amazed. I’m amazed because I wrote an article for Galus Australis in October, 2009 looking at the situation in South Africa by way of comparison to what happens to refugees in Australia. I thought I could update it significantly, in light of the current politics of boat refugees, but I find that it is still current as a way of contextualizing the problem in Australia. So I have rewritten this article relevant to the current situation and I find, more than ever, that the dog-whistle politics of Australia – at least broadcast to the swinging seats – are as powerful as ever. In the original article, I wrote about cutting down the razor wire, but now, we just want to dump people in a dangerous country. Those in the Jewish community who have fallen for the scare campaign should look at the real figures before engaging in what appears to be a perverse case of moral panic over security, religion and culture. This is particularly reflected in the opinions of the owner of the Australian Jewish News and other organisations who simply get facts wrong and reinforce the worst of prejudices.
The Joint Statement by Australian NGOs seems to have all the elements of a much more sane and moral outcome and a much better starting point for refugee policy. The statement speaks of effective offshore processing in the context of a regional solution and community release to keep people out of poverty whilst preserving their dignity and health.
However, we now need to deal with traffickers head on, which is a problem because it appears that gangsters are now on the take. From all accounts the problem is one of police corruption in Indonesia and the exploitation of poor sailors in particular. Preventing such rackets in the first place is a much better solution and would stop the boats (to use a hackneyed phrase) and deaths at sea. Accusations that the abolition of Temporary Protection Visas (now on the horizon again for the conservatives) caused a spike in boat numbers are also false, as established by the Parliamentary Research Service. The rest of their report is probably as objective a discussion as you will get of the whole issue. There will always be new groups looking at any means to flee danger (look at the current collapse of Syria), whatever the visa, and Australia will always need to deal with refugee flows, official or otherwise.
Asylum in Africa
So how does this compare with Africa, and South Africa in particular? Remember, it is not the wealthy countries that bear the brunt of refugee flows, but neighbouring poor countries or mid-level countries like South Africa with relatively porous borders.
According to the UNHCR, at the end of 2011, there were more than 200,000 registered refugees in South Africa and, “the country continues to be the recipient of the highest annual number of asylum applications worldwide, with 106,904 applications in 2011”. These of course are the official numbers with unofficial reports of at least one million refugees in South Africa. In total, there are at least 17 million refugees in Africa. Many of these countries are poor, and South Africa has one of the most unequal distributions of wealth in the world.
I am familiar with the dreadful conditions of the shantytowns around Johannesburg and the beggars at traffic lights. Unfortunately, this is a picture repeated elsewhere. No wonder people will seize any opportunity they can to flee similar camps in Pakistan (now swamped by refugees) or from Iran or Sri Lanka.
We Can Do Better
According to the Refugee Council, a grand total of 48,856 people arrived by boat in Australia during the period 1976-2012. That’s right, not 486,000, but just fewer than 49,000. About 13,000 arrived in the first half of this year. If I am not wrong, about 15,000 other people were ‘legal’ refugees who arrived in Australia in the past year processed by UNHCR. That is no crisis for Australia. Our numbers are still tiny in comparison with the rest of the world and our comparative wealth gives us the capacity to absorb far more people.
Historically, we know that refugees are by and large ambitious and productive members of society. In fact, Australia received the vast figure of 2.5% of the world’s applications for asylum in the first half of 2011 according to the Department of Immigration. This percentage is below that of Turkey and above Norway, for all the talk of how high the numbers are in proportion to the population. That comparison ignores our comparative advantage.
We should share our wealth with those in need in the same way, as Peter Singer has argued, that we should give charity. It is imperfect, but we are morally obliged. That is a basic principle of social justice. What’s our ranking on indices for national wealth, employment and everything else? We are in the top ten, even the top 5 on every measure of national wealth. While such a big issue is made about “illegals”, what about those visitors who come into the country legally and then overstay their visas.
Guess who the biggest group of the 58,000 over-stayers are…Chinese? Indians? Indonesians? No. There are United States citizens, about 5,000 of them. But not a squeak from anyone, nor does there appear to be much concern about the deliberate policy of keeping people in poverty while their claims are assessed.
Nameless and Blameless
It is easy to forget how horrible life can be for people whose displacement is no fault of their own, just as it is easy to fall into cold governmental language that dehumanises these people. Just as the Nazis found good for use for bureaucratic language, Australians have a penchant for a similar characterization of supposed enemies, aided by venal politicians and enthusiastic bureaucrats and inevitably, the system engages in abuse. Don’t forget what has happened in the past – the order to not call detainees by name, Ruddock’s refusal to refer to a child other than “it”, the lies of the faked Children Overboard scandal, the housing of children in jails, the Cornelia Rau or Viviene Solon scandals. Who? Many people will now ask.
All were part of a deliberate attempt to separate people in desperation from other human beings (that is, us). In fact, as I submit this article, the UN Human Rights Committee has found Australia engaged in 150 violations of international law with respect to Tamil refugees due to indefinite detention policies. This is part for the course.
So we are dealing with one of the great beat-ups, akin to the old Yellow Peril that those who are old enough remember, and this also includes concerns about “security” caused by “illegals”. Of course, such a statement pretends that the billions now spent on ASIO and other agencies are incapable of defending Australia. Of course, the major threat appears to come from radicalized locals, not immigrants.
Australians, and that includes Australian Jews, should make every effort include those who make it here, and help such people who “choose life for themselves and their descendants” (Devarim 30.19), instead of a miserable existence brought about by bureaucratic cruelty and people dumping.
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 Ilan Lior
(This article and photo appear in Haaretz Online, August 28, 2013.)
Israel is preparing to start a large-scale campaign to pressure immigrants from Sudan and Eritrea to voluntarily leave the country after the September holidays, Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar announced on Wednesday [August 28, 2013].
According to Sa’ar, the measure comes in the wake of a third country’s agreement to take in the immigrants or serve as a transit point on the way back to their countries of origin. Sa’ar said that Hagai Hadas, the prime minister’s special envoy, had obtained the third country’s consent, which was approved recently by Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein.
The minister made the announcement during a meeting of the Internal Affairs and Environment Committee.
Read the full article on Haaretz – here.