The Australian Jewish Left and Indigenous Rights by Philip Mendes

First published in Australian Jewish Historical Society Journal, Vol.20, Part 3, November 2011, pp.430-443.
Please see attached for footnoted version.
There are two principal historical perspectives concerning Australian Jewry’s engagement with Indigenous concerns.
One perspective, which is often cited in the Jewish media, holds that Jews have been prominent in the struggle for Indigenous rights. This perspective typically cites a number of examples of this support. They include:
1) The involvement of a small number of left-wing Jews such as Emil and Hannah Wilton, Hans Bandler, Rosine Guiterman, Irene McIlwraith and Len Fox in early Indigenous political struggles of the 1950s and 1960s;
2) The involvement of Jewish student Jim Spigelman from Student Action for Aborigines plus six other Jewish students in the famous 1965 Freedom Ride that exposed prejudice against Indigenous Australians in New South Wales country towns;
3) The prominence of Ron Castan and other Jewish legal figures such as Irving Wallach, Peter Tobin and Eddie Neumann in assisting Indigenous legal services and campaigns from the 1970s onwards including the famous 1993 High Court Mabo judgement.
The second perspective, which is mainly articulated by Jewish academic and long-time advocate for Indigenous rights Professor Colin Tatz, contends that there is little or no tradition of significant Jewish support for Indigenous concerns. Tatz argues that Jewish involvement in Indigenous struggles has been extremely low compared to Jewish support for Black rights in the USA and South Africa. He suggests that the examples of outstanding Jewish advocacy cited above are merely exceptions to the rule. Tatz found few historical examples of prominent Jewish voices of support in the media, politics or assorted Indigenous advocacy groups. He claims that this Jewish inaction extended even to organized Jewish Left groups who passed resolutions of support for Indigenous rights, but in practice failed to provide any serious funding or other measurable resources to the Indigenous community.
Tatz provides a number of explanations for the lack of Jewish engagement with Indigenous affairs. His principal argument is that Jews were mainly city dwellers and had little direct contact with Indigenous Australians who generally resided in the country. Another factor was that Indigenous rights did not become a major source of social and political conflict in Australia compared to say Black rights in the USA and South Africa. And Tatz also notes that there were few prominent Jewish social scientists in Australia in the immediate post-World War Two decades who might have studied and exposed the racist denigration of Indigenous people.
Another important factor which Tatz hints at , but unfortunately doesn’t pursue in detail, is the historical absence of social justice activism emanating from the progressive Australian Jewish congregations. In the USA, reform Jewish movements such as the Union of American Hebrew Organisations and the Central Conference of American Rabbis were at the forefront of civil rights and anti-Vietnam War activism. There was no such progressive Jewish activism in Australia, and it was not until the late 1990s that progressive Jewish congregations began to actively support Indigenous rights.
Regardless of causes, Tatz seems to be basically correct in lamenting the lack of organized and sustained Jewish advocacy for Indigenous Australians at least until the late 1980s. The definitive histories of Australian Jewry by authors such as Suzanne Rutland and Bill Rubinstein make little or no reference to engagement with indigenous issues. To be sure, there is some evidence of early mainstream Jewish support for Indigenous rights that Tatz doesn’t document. For example, the Victorian Jewish Board of Deputies passed motions of support for the Aboriginal Advancement League and Indigenous rights in 1965 and 1966, and later condemned discrimination against Indigenous Australians in the mid 1970s.
It has also been suggested anecdotally that as many as ten per cent of the hundreds of members of the Victorian-based Action for Aboriginal Rights from the early 1970s onwards were Jewish. Albeit many or most of these Jews may have participated on universalistic rather than specifically Jewish grounds. It would appear that these examples of support do not in themselves rebut Tatz’s core argument concerning the lack of institutional Jewish advocacy for Indigenous concerns.
However, a question mark remains concerning the contribution of Australian Jewish Left groups to Indigenous struggles. We do know that Australian Left groups per se were prominently involved in early pro-Indigenous activism. For example, the Communist Party was supportive of the Indigenous land rights struggle and critical of assimilationist policies from at least the early 1950s. The Party was involved in a number of key campaigns including the 1965 Freedom Ride and the 1966 Wave Hill dispute concerning the Gurdindji stockmen.
These examples suggest that Jewish Left groups may have been more likely than other non-Left Jewish groups to be involved in the Indigenous struggle. Consequently the aim of this research is to examine what a number of Jewish Left groups – the Melbourne Jewish Council to Combat Fascism and Anti-Semitism, the Jewish Radical Association, the Sydney Jewish Left and the still existing Australian Jewish Democratic Society – said and did about Indigenous rights. We are also interested to explore whether their support for Indigenous concerns reflected mainly universalistic left-wing beliefs, or alternatively incorporated specific Jewish religious or secular teachings and values. I have used Indigenous as the overriding descriptive term in this paper, but have also cited other terms of similar meaning that were used by various commentators at the time they wrote.
The Melbourne Jewish Council to Combat Fascism and Anti-Semitism, 1942-1970
The pre-eminent Australian Jewish Left organisation, the Jewish Council to Combat Fascism and Anti-Semitism (JCCFAS), was formed in May 1942 by a group of activist (mainly established Eastern European) Jews concerned about increasing anti-Semitism, both local and international. The JCCFAS was always influenced by the Communist Party and its sympathizers, but in its early years enjoyed broad communal support. It campaigned in favour of the creation of the State of Israel, and against the immigration of former Nazis to Australia. By 1948 the JCCFAS had become the official public relations representative of the Victorian Jewish community.
During the Cold War the JCCFAS lost community support due to its perceived pro-Soviet bias. Its apparent denial of Soviet anti-Semitism appalled many Jews. Equally, the impact of McCarthyism narrowed the boundaries of acceptable Jewish political behaviour, with communal leaders concerned to avoid any popular identification of Jews with Communism.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s the JCCFAS enjoyed a minor revival due to its close association with the left-dominated Victorian branch of the Australian Labor Party. JCCFAS President Sam Cohen was successful in securing ALP preselection for the Federal Senate, but subsequently offended many Jews by appearing to excuse the Soviet Union’s anti-Jewish policies in a parliamentary debate. Due to an ageing membership and declining support, the JCCFAS ceased to exist in 1970.
The JCCFAS was a consistent supporter of Indigenous rights. JCCFAS Secretary Ernest Platz was involved in some of the discussions that lead to the formation of the left-wing Council for Aboriginal Rights in March 1951. The JCCFAS joined the Council, and sent a number of representatives including Ernest Platz, Jules Meltzer, Alexandra Anders and Mrs Graf to Council meetings. JCCFAS representatives attended a dinner in honour of the Indigenous painter, Albert Namatjira, held during his visit to Melbourne in 1954.
In 1957, the Council passed a motion re-affirming its ‘position of support and assistance in any way possible for the Council of Aboriginal Rights’. Later, the JCCFAS sent a letter to the Minister for National Affairs protesting the alleged poisoning of water in Aboriginal areas. The JCCFAS also forwarded a letter of support to the 1961 Council for Aboriginal Rights conference, but do not seem to have sent a representative.
JCCFAS engagement with Indigenous rights seems to have declined in its later years. There was no further reference till 1965 when the JCCFAS congratulated Jewish student Jim Spigelman for his leading role in the Freedom Ride, and opined that ‘the Jewish community as a whole should take much more interest in the matter of discrimination against Aborigines’. A year later the JCCFAS invited Pastor Doug Nicholls from the Aborigine League to address a monthly luncheon. In 1967, the JCCFAS attacked the far Right anti-Semitic League of Rights for opposing the constitutional referendum in favour of Indigenous citizenship rights.
In summary, the JCCFAS was a principled supporter of Indigenous rights, and a financial affiliate of the Council for Aboriginal Rights. It appears to have been more active than most other Jewish organisations of that time in advocating for Indigenous concerns, but does not seem to have developed a specifically Jewish (rather than left-wing universalistic) rationale for its association with the Indigenous community.
Jewish Radical Association, 1971-1973
The JCCFAS was succeeded in Melbourne by the Jewish Radical Association (JRA). The JRA had three key objectives: to support the existence of Israel and peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians; to oppose anti-semitism and all forms of racism whether the offending regime be capitalist or communist; and to demand justice for Aborigines.
The JRA aimed to promote greater awareness of Indigenous concerns in the Jewish community, and hosted a public forum on ‘Racism in Australia’ in March 1972. The speaker, long-time Jewish Indigenous affairs activist Lorna Lippmann, specifically criticized what she called the under-representation of Jews in the Indigenous rights movement. She also referred at length to examples of Indigenous disadvantage, and urged reforms to grant Indigenous Australians employment, land rights, decent housing, education, and an end to legal injustice. On the election of the Labor Government in late 1972, the JRA promised to monitor the performance of Gordon Bryant as the new Minister for Aboriginal Affairs.
The JRA only had a short existence, but it does seem to have given significant priority to Indigenous affairs.
Sydney Jewish Left, 1986-1994
The Sydney Jewish Left/Tikkun Olam was established in November 1986 to promote Jewish involvement in progressive activities. The founding aims and objectives of the SJL included supporting peace and disarmament, promoting Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution via a two-state solution, endorsing social justice, opposing anti-Semitism and racism, and supporting land rights for Indigenous Australians.
A number of SJL members had a history of engagement with Indigenous Australians, and the SJL gave a high priority to facilitating greater awareness of Indigenous aspirations within the Jewish community. In November 1987, for example, the SJL hosted a public forum on the subject of Black Deaths in Custody and the Bicentennial. The SJL agreed at the forum to donate half the existing funds of the organisation to the Committee to Defend Black Rights, and to organize a public protest meeting against the conditions faced by Indigenous people in Australia and the concept of the bicentennary itself.
In addition, the SJL organized an advertisement calling for justice for Indigenous Australians that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian Jewish Times. The statement, which was signed by over 50 Jewish Australians, argued that Jewish traditions ‘require us to take a stand against racism’, and that ‘all people have a common origin and are therefore equal’. Reference was made to teachings from two biblical sources, Deuteronomy 16:20 (‘Justice shall you pursue’) and Sanhedrin 4:5(‘One person may not say to a neighbour, my ancestors are greater than yours’). The statement concluded that the Jewish tradition requires us to ‘recognize the prior ownership of Australia by Aboriginal people. We support justice and land rights for Black Australia in 1988’.
The advertisement was originally intended to be a joint project of the SJL and the Melbourne-based Australian Jewish Democratic Society (AJDS), but AJDS refused to endorse the proposed text. Instead, they alternatively suggested that the advertisement read: ‘We Australian Jews welcome the recognition by the Australian government of prior Aboriginal ownership of Australia. It is part of the best Jewish tradition to support justice for all peoples. Accordingly, we call for justice for Aborigines including land rights’.
The SJL did not accept the proposed amendments. I was a member of the AJDS Committee at the time, and my memory from talking to SJL members was that they felt the AJDS were politically aligned with the Australian Labor Party, and hence unwilling to support wording which could be interpreted as implicitly critical of the policies of the Commonwealth Labor Government.
The advertisement led to SJL President Irving Wallach being interviewed by Andrew Olle on ABC Radio. It also provoked some controversy in the Sydney Jewish community after the Australian Jewish Times published a cartoon suggesting that Indigenous Australians had no idea who or what Jews were. Irving Wallach replied by pointing out that many Jews had been actively involved in the Indigenous struggle for justice. He cited the Jewish Freedom Riders from 1965, the involvement of Jewish lawyers in Indigenous legal services, and the work of Justice Marcus Einfeld as head of the Australian Human Rights Commission. He suggested that Indigenous Australians understood that Jews had similarly suffered from racism.
The SJL held a number of other forums in support of Indigenous concerns. For example, Indigenous activists Kevin Tory and Cathy Craigie addressed a forum in July 1989 protesting the NSW State Government’s attack on Indigenous Land Rights. Concern was also expressed at the meeting regarding increasing police violence against Indigenous Australians, and the SJL agreed to donate $100 to a trust fund for the family of David Gundy who had been killed by police. Forum moderator Lea Loeve criticized the Jewish community for being ‘too cocooned’, and urged other Jewish groups to expand their understanding of Indigenous issues.
The SJL seems to have been unique among Australian Jewish Left groups in attempting to develop a specific link between traditional Jewish teachings and a concern for Indigenous justice. They also made some attempt to distribute supportive resources to specific Indigenous groups, albeit within the confines posed by their relatively small membership and support base.
The Australian Jewish Democratic Society, 1984-2011
The Australian Jewish Democratic Society (AJDS) was formed in November 1984 to present ‘a progressive voice among Jews’ and ‘a Jewish voice among progressives’. Four key political objectives were identified by AJDS. The first was to support activities for peace, and nuclear and general disarmament. The second was to oppose racism and anti-Semitism, and promote tolerance and harmony between ethnic communities. The third was to support peace in the Middle East based on justice and national rights for both Israelis and Palestinians. The fourth was to support the legitimate aims of Indigenous Australians including land rights.
The founding AJDS constitution explained why the organisation was supporting Indigenous rights: ‘Aborigines, the original Australians, have suffered fearfully as a direct result of white European settlement of this continent. Even their right to their own land has been, and in large measure continues to be, over-looked or denied. We believe that Australian life is tarnished and shamed by almost 200 years of expropriation of Aboriginal land, and the exploitation, neglect and censure of Aboriginal people. We support government efforts to provide appropriate and adequate resources to enable Aborigines to live their lives in peace, health and dignity. We oppose the thinly-veiled racism which denies Aborigines land rights’.
AJDS has been supportive of Indigenous rights throughout its history, and has utilized a number of advocacy strategies including public forums and statements, publishing regular articles in its magazine and newsletter, and providing resources to Indigenous groups.
ADJS’ first ever public forum in November 1984 featured three speakers on ‘Racism in Australia Today’ including Margaret Wirrpanda, Senior Vice President of the Aboriginal Advancement League and Secretary of the Aboriginal Land Council. A further forum in May 1986 on ‘Aboriginal health problems’ was addressed by Dr Bill Roberts, the Director of the Aboriginal Health Service.
Another forum on Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in late 1989 featured Justice Hal Wootten, Eastern States Commissioner of the Royal Commission on Black Deaths in Custody, and Dr Eve Fesl, Director of the Monash University Koorie Research Centre. Both speakers suggested that Jews could understand more than others the impact of Indigenous experiences of racism, and the need for effective legislation to prevent racial vilification.
An additional forum in December 1991 featured Wayne Atkinson and Margaret Gardiner speaking on ‘Victorian Koories: past, present and future’. The forum included a presentation of the film ‘Lousy Little Sixpence’ which exposed the past removal of Indigenous children to serve as servants to white families. And in July 1993, AJDS organized a theatre night to see the Indigenous musical, Bran Nue Dae, in order to mark the United Nations Year of Indigenous People. AJDS also wrote to the Jewish Community Council of Victoria urging the Council to organize a forum highlighting Indigenous experiences of racism.
The August 1993 AJDS Annual Dinner was addressed by Ron Castan, the Jewish barrister who had successfully attained the seminal Mabo land rights judgement in the High Court. Castan documented the structural racism directed against Indigenous Australians, and urged Jews to support their struggle for equal rights. AJDS subsequently called on its members to write to their Members of Parliament in support of the native title rights of Indigenous Australians.
A later forum on Aboriginal Reconciliation, which was co-organized by AJDS and a number of other Jewish organisations, featured the Chairman of the Cape York Land Council, Noel Pearson, and the Director of the Monash University Orientation Scheme for Aborigines, Helen Curzon-Siggers. Pearson spoke on the ‘Wik Judgement and the government response’, and Curzon-Siggers discussed the Stolen Generation of Aboriginal Children.
Both speakers appealed to the Jewish community to publicly support Indigenous rights. Pearson concluded his statement with the following: ‘No other group should better understand the tactics about which I have talked tonight. No other group knows how hard it is. No other group knows what its like to be hated by more people than have ever met your people. So I look forward to your support in the coming months’. The function chairperson, Lorna Lippman, urged Jews to sign a petition calling on the federal government to not extinguish native title on land subject to joint title. Over 200 people signed the petition on that night.
In addition, Indigenous activist Gary Foley spoke emotionally from the floor about the connection between Indigenous and Jewish Australians. Foley also raised for the first time the courageous action of Yorta Yorta elder William Cooper in leading a delegation to the German Consulate in Melbourne in 1938 to protest the Kristallnacht pogrom, the Night of the Broken Glass.
Following this forum, AJDS successfully sponsored a motion at the Jewish Community Council of Victoria condemning the Native Title Amendment Bill 1997 as discriminating against Indigenous native title holders. The motion also requested the Executive Council of Australian Jewry to call on the Federal Government to accept and adhere to the directions of the Mabo and Wik High Court decisions. The motion submitted by AJDS delegate Harold Zwier and seconded by B’nai B’rith representative Tony Levy provoked considerable debate, and was preceded by competing addresses from Ron Castan who opposed the government’s 10 point Wik plan, and federal Liberal MP Sharman Stone, who defended it.
The editor of the Australian Jewish News subsequently praised the JCCV for supporting a motion so strongly critical of the Liberal Government which most Jews had voted for in the recent election. He noted the irony that the motion had been proposed by the AJDS which had so often been marginalized within the generally conservative Jewish community.
A further AJDS forum in March 1999 on the struggle against the Jabiluka uranium mine near Kakadu National Park featured prominent Indigenous activist Jacqui Katona. The forum passed a motion criticizing the federal government for the construction of the Jabiluka mine, and for failing to respect the rights and culture of Indigenous Australians. Forum Chairman David Zyngier suggested that Jews had a particular obligation whilst celebrating the festival of freedom (Pesach) to assist other peoples who had been wronged. Following the forum, a number of AJDS members participated in a public protest against the construction of the Jabiluka mine.
AJDS criticized the introduction by the Northern Territory Government of the Mandatory Sentencing of Juvenile Offenders Bill 1999 as an abuse of human rights. AJDS called for its immediate repeal given that it was applied disproportionately to Indigenous Australians. In early 2000, an AJDS contingent participated in a rally against the mandatory sentencing of Indigenous Australians.
AJDS participated in a number of other Indigenous events including the March for Reconciliation in December 2000, and the Sorry Day rally in June 2001. AJDS opposed the abolition of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission in 2004, arguing that as ‘a Jewish organisation our views are shaped both by the ethnic experience and the tragedy of the Holocaust’. A joint AJDS and Leo Baeck Centre forum in February 2005 featured university lecturer and Yorta Yorta elder Wayne Atkinson speaking on ‘Native Title and Land Rights’. Atkinson drew some analogies between the importance of specific land areas to Indigenous people, and the Jewish connection with the land of Israel. Following his talk, an AJDS member made a substantial donation to subsidise a conference held in October 2005 focused on Indigenous rights in redgum forests in the Murray-Darling basin.
Other AJDS forums in 2006 and 2008 respectively featured consultant Stephen Rothfield speaking on his varied experiences of working with Indigenous communities in Cape York and Shepparton, and medical practitioner Dr Howard Goldenberg speaking on Indigenous health.
Goldenberg stated that his interest in Indigenous affairs was related to his Jewish identity, and suggested some spiritual kinship between Jewish and Indigenous Australians. Goldenberg praised a number of Jewish lawyers such as Ron Castan and Mark Leibler who had devoted time and effort pro bono to Indigenous causes. As a result of this discussion, AJDS decided to send a representative to Canberra to witness Prime Minister Rudd’s formal apology for the Stolen Generation to Indigenous Australians.
More recently, AJDS members have raised over $12,000 to support a bursary for an Indigenous student at the University of Melbourne. A further fundraiser is planned for August 2011 which will be addressed by former Labor Party Minister Gareth Evans.
Indigenous issues were also highlighted in The Australian Jewish Democrat (AJD), a magazine published two or three times a year by AJDS from 1989-1994. The AJD published four powerful statements on the Jewish-Indigenous experience. The first by Jewish academic John Bradley reflected on his professional and personal engagement with Indigenous communities. Bradley argued that Jewish tradition required us to ‘take a stand against injustices in our community’, and to recognize prior ownership of Australia by Indigenous people.
A further contribution by young journalist Alexandra (Sasha) Shtargot presented an interview with prominent Indigenous activist Gary Foley. Foley praised the support of many Jews for the Indigenous struggle, and argued that Jewish opposition to racism was to be expected given the experience of Jews in the Holocaust. Foley admitted that he and other Indigenous activists had drawn parallels between the Indigenous and Palestinian experience, but denied that he was anti-Semitic. He recommended greater dialogue between Indigenous and Jewish Australians leading to a common stand against racism.
Another article presented Ron Castan’s speech to the 1993 AJDS dinner in which he reflected on the high court judgement regarding the Mabo land rights legislation. Finally, the Chairman of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies Social Justice Committee, Peter Wertheim, presented the Jewish case for supporting Indigenous rights. Wertheim argued that ‘the oppression of Australia’s Aborigines has, or ought to have, a special resonance for Australian Jewry’ given the similarities between Jewish and Indigenous experiences of racism. Wertheim argued that we have a ‘duty to educate and sensitise our own community concerning Aboriginal history’, and recommended that Indigenous spokespersons be invited to address Jewish leaders about their history and culture and their contemporary political aspirations.
The AJDS newsletter, which has generally been published monthly or bi-monthly, has regularly supported Indigenous aspirations. Some of the issues covered over the years include the details of the Wik native title decision, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission inquiry into the Stolen Generation, a celebration of NAIDOC week and the associated call for a treaty to recognize prior Indigenous sovereignty, a discussion of court decisions on native title rights, an overview of the activities of the Koorie Heritage Trust and its links with the Jewish community, the campaign to regain the stolen wages of Queensland and NSW Indigenous workers, support for Indigenous political representation to replace ATSIC, an exposure of police violence against Indigenous Australians, compensation for the stolen generations, a critique of the Howard Government’s Northern Territory Emergency Response, a reference to the pro-Indigenous activism of AJDS member Jenne Perlstein, the Prime Minister’s Stolen Generation apology to Indigenous Australians, the application of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, and the story of Indigenous leader William Cooper who condemned Nazi anti-Semitism in 1938.
In summary, AJDS has displayed a consistent solidarity with and commitment to Indigenous Australians. This pro-Indigenous advocacy has had various ebbs and flows, but has nevertheless been sustained over a 27 year period. It reflects both the generally sympathetic philosophical perspective of the Society, and the passionate pro-Indigenous activism of a number of its members.
In comparison to the Sydney Jewish Left, AJDS’ pro-Indigenous advocacy seems to have been based mainly on universalistic, rather than specifically Jewish motivations. To be sure, many AJDS members would argue that Jewish experiences of racism and particularly the Holocaust have influenced their empathy with Indigenous experiences. But AJDS has never overtly aligned Jewish cultural or secular teachings or values with its pro-Indigenous political position. Rather, its advocacy seems to primarily reflect a broad humanitarian, rather than particular Jewish rationale.
It is not surprising to find that the four key Australian Jewish Left organisations examined were consistent advocates of Indigenous rights. On key issues such as institutional racism, land rights, native title, deaths in custody, the stolen generation and the Northern Territory Emergency Response, they passed supportive motions, held public forums, published sympathetic commentary in internal and external publications, and in some cases, provided financial resources. On balance, they seem to have done more than most other Australian Jewish organisations particularly taking into account their relatively small support base, and may have had some influence on the more recent active engagement of mainstream Jewish organisations with Indigenous concerns.
Nevertheless, it would be an exaggeration to speak of a strong and organized Jewish Left presence in the Indigenous rights movement either historically or today. Some progressive Jews have been prominent in pro-Indigenous activism, but more so as universalistic individuals rather than as formal representatives of a progressive Jewish collective. To be sure, groups such as AJDS have identified Indigenous concerns as a key moral challenge for Jews given the common historical experiences of racism and the ongoing disadvantage of many Indigenous Australians today. But arguably more needs to be done to activate core progressive Jewish values in support of Indigenous concerns.


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