Australian soldiers marching on Ben Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv.
Australian soldiers marching on Ben Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv. Photo by GPO
Text size

A dozen or so Australian children crowded last week in front of an interactive screen at the Immigration Museum in Melbourne, and determined - by pressing on colorful buttons - which of the people appearing before them on the screen would or would not get immigrant visas.

In reality, applicants for immigrant visas Down Under have to report for interviews before government selection committees, among other things. But the children, first-graders, approached their task with the utmost seriousness. As soon as they pressed a button to record their decision, they saw on the screen what the actual committee had decided.

The youngsters were far more magnanimous than the authorities: Yes, yes, they cried when called upon to decide on the application of a man from Ukraine: Let him come in! So what if he was convicted once for breaking and entering - it was a long time ago. And so what if he didn't pass the English test, he'll learn.

In reality the committee had denied that applicant's request for a visa. Upon learning this, the children sounded disappointed. Most of them were white, a few were Asian, one girl was black. Presumably their eagerness to open up their country to immigrants reflects what they hear at home.

Opinion polls actually reflect broad public support for the so-called Pacific Solution policy that the Australian government has just reinstated, whereby refugees who attempt to enter the country illegally from the sea are deported to detention centers on Nauru, an island country in the Pacific region of Micronesia. But immigration constitutes a central component of Australian identity; one out of every four people of the 22 million living in the country was not born there.

The immigration museum teaches visitors that millions of human beings from 200 countries have found a good life in Australia. Until 1978 local residents still opposed the influx of non-white immigrants, but Australia's children will not generally be confronted with that policy at the museum or elsewhere: Indeed, in school they will be guided to internalize the values of multiculturalism that Australia respects today - values that are also supposedly now among the components of its national identity.

In a television broadcast last week, Sydney's Lord Mayor Clover Moore talked about her success in respecting 200 different identity groups. But her comments sounded more like they were describing a pragmatic policy that she had been called upon to implement as part of her role in running the city, than an expression of her liberal ideology.

Australians do not have a binding existential ideology. There is something very soothing about that, almost cleansing. They left every country in the world, usually for good reasons; they want life Down Under to be different, and better. Without a national ideology, they spend a lot of time debating how to define their identity and have a hard time doing so. To that end, they use terms like "civility," "mateship," "equableness." It's hard to be an Australian patriot; local history does not offer them much in the way of glory either.

In the center of Melbourne stands a large stone structure that is called the Shrine of Remembrance. A quasi-Greek temple-cum-Byzantine church, the structure honors primarily the Australian soldiers who fought in World War I, as part of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. In the general history of that war, including the conquest of Palestine, ANZAC usually gets no more than a footnote, although back home the memory of the corps helps perpetuate a national myth.

The conquest of Be'er Sheva, in October 1917, is described as a glorious victory; there are several books about that battle. Australians also pride themselves on their role in the battle for the Gallipoli peninsula, which began in April 1915, even though it was a major fiasco that cost them 8,000 lives. The lesson of that defeat is engraved on one of the walls of the Shrine of Remembrance: "ANZAC is not merely about loss. It is about courage, and endurance, and duty, and love of country, and mateship, and good humor and the survival of a sense of self-worth and decency in the face of dreadful odds."

It sounds very Israeli, as does the moral cloud that hangs over Australia's history. The British who settled in Australia at the end of the 18th century committed genocide against the Aborigines, who had settled in that land almost 50,000 years earlier. In Australia they do not speak in terms of genocide - just as in Israel they usually do not speak about expulsion. The annihilation of the Aboriginal population was accompanied by racist perceptions, according to which the natives were subhuman; not infrequently they were even hunted as animals. Tens of thousands of children who were the product of mixed marriages were forcibly taken from their parents to "rescue" them from their aboriginal culture. "Mixed" children even had to wear dog collars, marked with their degree of "mixture."

All that ended in February 2008, with a controversial national apology and the introduction of a memorial day that was initially called National Sorry Day; later its name was changed to National Day of Healing. In a few cases, lands stolen from aborigines were restored to them. Official Australia is trying to apply the principles of multiculturalism to the aborigines. As such, their tradition is accorded respect. At the Melbourne Museum there is an entire wall describing the construction of an aboriginal canoe. There is nothing to hint at their annihilation. A new aboriginal exhibition is in the process of being created at the museum.

Many aborigines are in terrible shape economically and socially; decades will go by before they come out of it, but for the first time in Australia's history it has ostensibly become a country of all its citizens. Sydney's Lord Mayor said on television this week that she identifies the fate of the aborigines with the fate of the Palestinians. Apparently, she intended to say something optimistic.

A novel by Aussie writer Alex Miller, "Journey to the Stone Country," depicts a love story between a white woman whose grandfather massacred aborigines and the grandson of one of the survivors of that massacre. It isn't easy for them to be together, but in the end love wins out. In a country bereft of ideology that is possible.