Israel could learn from Sorry Day

Yakov Rabkin
May 2009

Published in The Age (Australia) on May 29, 2009

Israel could learn from Sorry Day


THE Sorry Day marks an important change in public and official attitudes to the indigenous population in Australia. Years of activism have finally borne fruit. On a visit to the Australian Museum in Sydney I learned about an anti-discrimination bus ride to the north organised by Charles Perkins, an Aborigine, and Jim Spigelman, a Jew.

There was a picture and a biography of Perkins in the museum but nothing, except the name, about Spigelman. Nor could museum staff tell me who he was. A Google search revealed he has become the Chief Justice and Lieutenant-Governor of NSW. This fact alone represents for me, a visitor from Canada, the acceptance and respect that struggle for equality has gained in Australia.

It also confirms that Jews have taken active part in this kind of struggle all over the world, working for desegregation in the US or opposing apartheid in South Africa. They do so fighting for the rights of others while they themselves could have stayed in the comfort of their homes, quietly enjoying these rights that are no longer denied to them.

This activism reflects the values of social justice that permeate the Jewish tradition. I was not surprised when, on a recent visit to the Koorie Heritage Trust in Melbourne, I was told that the main private supporter of the centre is a Jew. The Hebrew Bible mentions the prohibition to oppress a stranger 36 times, more than any other injunction, and often adds, “because you were slaves in the land of Egypt”.

On Sorry Day 2009, I shared the podium with Henry Reynolds, eminent scholar of Australia’s colonial history, in a one-day symposium about the Promised Lands, organised at La Trobe University. There are interesting similarities between the British images of this country and the Zionist perceptions of Palestine during the respective periods of active colonisation.

These similarities contrast with striking differences that characterise today’s attitudes to this recent history in Australia and Israel.

While this country, by instituting the Sorry Day, has acknowledged the many injustices inflicted on local inhabitants, the state of Israel and its society continue to deny any wrongdoing with respect to the Palestinians.

Moreover, while Australians commemorated Sorry Day 2009, the Israeli parliament was debating a bill, proposed by the party of Israel’s Foreign Minister, that would make it punishable by three years in prison to commemorate Nakba, the dispossession and expulsion of the local population that lie at the root of the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.

The proposed bill would also oblige those Palestinians who remained in their country and are now citizens of Israel to swear allegiance to the state of Israel as “the state of the Jewish people”. This would compare with threatening the Aborigines with forfeiting Australian citizenship unless they recognised the principle of “White Australia”.

Israel’s treatment of the country’s Arab citizens has embarrassed Jews in Israel and other countries for many decades. Since Israel promotes itself as the representative of the Jews, and most Jewish leaders enthusiastically support this claim, the state of Israel is often associated with Jews everywhere. Some Jews outside Israel are thus put in a difficult situation of defending the morally indefensible, of bending their ethical standards to justify Israel’s actions.

Conceptual disparities between Israel and the Jewish communities around the world become more pronounced since the countries with sizeable Jewish communities have all adopted a liberal system of social and political values.

It is quite common in Israel to talk in anti-liberal, anti-democratic terms; for example, there are open discussions about building Jewish neighbourhoods so Arab citizens do not outnumber their Jewish compatriots in Jerusalem or Galilee. Israeli official documents routinely identify the bearer as a Jew or a non-Jew. The principle of separate development of Jews is deeply ingrained in the Zionist structure of Israel. So is occupational discrimination, all of which is justified by the denomination of Israel as a state for the Jews.

However, in the context of Western societies it would be inconceivable to practise ethnic or religious discrimination in such a manner. One could imagine an outcry a project of a public housing development designated solely for white Australians would cause.

Israel’s discriminatory practices, while often opposed by the country’s Supreme Court, conflict with the liberal values that underpin the stability and welfare of Jewish communities around the world. It is only a matter of time before Jewish leaders, at least those who overtly identify with the state of Israel, will face the challenge of explaining their obvious double standard.

Unconditional support for any state is a dangerous belief to hold. A few decades after the genocide Jews remember what happens when the raison d’etat becomes a transcendental principle that supersedes individual morality. It may be illusory and even dangerous to confuse the profane centrality of Israel with the sacred centrality of the land.

It is also important to realise that the paths of Australia and Israel radically diverge when it comes to recognition of injustices that colonisation has brought to the indigenous population. The fact that there is no Sorry Day in Israel also explains the violence that continues to plague the Holy Land to this day.

Yakov Rabkin, professor of history at the University of Montreal, is a visiting scholar at La Trobe University. His recent book is A Threat from Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism.

A respnse to this article

Dear Professor Rabkin,

A simple note to thank you for your clear and direct opinion piece in today Age newspaper.  I am a child of holocaust survivors (Poland) and  I’ve been horrified over the years and never more than recently by some of Israel’s actions and policies.  I could go on – about equating  criticism of Israel with anti-semitism (as many high profile academics   and community leaders do)… not looking at Israel’s responsibility in feeding Arab anger that in turn feeds anti-semitism around the  world… how it behoves us as Jews to be humanists first and foremost because of our history…

Warm regards,

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