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Australian Aboriginal Activists Protested Against the Nazis. Time for Us Jews to Return the Favor

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A man and woman cross arms in front of an Aboriginal flag as thousands gather at a rally supporting the Black Lives Matter and Black Deaths in Custody movements in Sydney, Australia, July 5, 2020.
A man and woman cross arms in front of an Aboriginal flag as thousands gather at a rally supporting the Black Lives Matter and Black Deaths in Custody movements in Sydney, Australia, July 5, 2020. Credit: Rick Rycroft,AP

On November 9-10, Jews around the globe commemorate Kristallnacht, a day in 1938 when around 7,500 Jewish businesses and 191 synagogues were destroyed, and thousands of Jews were taken to concentration camps or murdered by the Nazis.

It is said that in the entire world at that time, only one group – the Australian Aborigines’ League led by Aboriginal activist William Cooper – protested that horrendous event by leading a march to Melbourne’s German consulate to object to the treatment of the Jews.

When William Cooper marched on the German embassy in Melbourne, he saw the moral imperative to fight against racism at home and abroad. Eighty years later, Black Lives Matter movements have focused attention on the prejudicial treatment of Indigenous peoples and other people of color, yet in Australia, Jewish communal organizations and the Jewish press have seemingly not engaged with their struggles. While the Jewish community is happy to applaud the actions of William Cooper in his fight against antisemitism, this heroic act of the Australian Aborigines’ League in 1938 has not been reciprocated in any significant way.

Whilst there are, and have been, individuals from the Jewish community who have made noteworthy contributions to racial justice in Australia, today we must ask, where are the Jewish-led protests against the current mass incarceration of Aboriginal peoples at disproportionate rates? Or against the number and nature of Aboriginal deaths in custody? Or opposing the discrimination against indigenous people in health care, child removals and policing?

Our Australian Jewish community has persuasive power to make societal change. Jewish institutions and media are extremely effective in attacking antisemitism wherever it raises its ugly head – and we should commend them for this – but they seem strangely silent when Indigenous peoples are victims of systemic prejudice, racist attacks and vilification almost daily. Their inaction is not new, it was observed by the late academic Colin Tatz when he described the engagement between Australian Jewish groups and Indigenous issues in his 2004 “Essay in Disappointment” as being thin and verging on anorexic. He stated then: “Most of the many Jewish audiences I address still react in the manner of non-Jewish audience. They are usually hostile as they question expenditure on Aborigines when they disparage all land rights claims, when they blame the Aborigines alone for all the physical, social, health, and economic ills that beset them. I always hope that Jews will have moral insight and outlook; the fact that they don’t continues to disappoint.” There is not much evidence that this attitude has changed based on the dearth of coordinated community action by Australian Jewry to support the BLM movement.

Perhaps the fear of broader engagement on this issue by Australian Jewry has been driven by news reports and opinions in the Australian Jewish media that some members of the U.S. Black Lives Matter movement are antagonistic to Jews or to Israel. It may be that concern is being used to deflect questions about our own communal and individual responsibility in the fight against discrimination and racism in Australia where no such links are evident.

Australian Aboriginal leader William Cooper.

There may be other reasons for this lack of engagement. Unlike African Americans and other peoples of color in the United States, Indigenous peoples make up a considerably smaller fraction of the Australian population. As Tatz noted, we also don’t have the same kind of interaction with Indigenous peoples in business, education and other circles as people do with African Americans. However, these reasons do not, and should not, relieve the Australian Jewish community of its duty to stand up for and fight discrimination wherever it may appear.

In one respect, fighting the mistreatment of Indigenous people is the responsibility of all non-Indigenous Australians. Renowned Australian author Peter Carey has said “All white Australians know that every day [they] are the beneficiaries of genocide” and it was the late lawyer and human rights advocate Ron Castan who said in 1993 at a B’nai B’rith oration “We now know, if we did not know it before, that blood has stained the wattle. We have all been participants in a long and cruel civil war. It is a vital part of who we are, as a people. All Australians will in due course face up to the realities of our history, and to the brutal realities of life today for so many of the displaced and dispossessed indigenous peoples of Australia.”

Indeed, we have all benefited from the colonization of this land, while Indigenous people bear the burdens of its legacy. However the point is not to hold contemporary Australians individually responsible for past atrocities, but to acknowledge that the racist attitudes that enabled these mindsets still remain within the fabric of our nation. Our Jewish religious teachings and our civic responsibility should drive us to acknowledge the truth of Australian colonial history and to fight the systemic prejudices that still exist against our Indigenous brothers and sisters.

In fact, the plight of Indigenous peoples should have special significance for Australian Jews. The Jewish historical experience means we should be attuned to the ways that persistent underlying racism, particularly when fused with nationalism, can and does result in untold trauma and suffering. As Castan said, “My determination not to stand by and see the Jewish people downtrodden and persecuted was meaningless if I was standing by and seeing another oppressed people downtrodden and persecuted within my own country.”

The NSW Upper House is currently holding an inquiry into the disproportionately high rate of First Nations people in custody, and a review of deaths in custody. That inquiry might provide the Jewish community with an opportunity to make a formal and public stand against the systemic racism Aboriginal people are facing every day.

When William Cooper marched on the German embassy in Melbourne, he saw the moral imperative to fight against racism at home and abroad. The Australian Black Lives Matter movement is an opportunity for us, as Jews and as Australians, to acknowledge their suffering and to repay our debt to William Cooper.

George Newhouse is an adjunct professor of law at Macquarie University and the CEO of the National Justice Project. Steven Castan is a barrister at the Victorian Bar and the chair of the National Justice Project. They have acted for a number of Aboriginal families whose family members have died in custody.

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