“It would get bogged down by others saying ‘but you haven’t mentioned this’ or ‘that’s not a good idea to mention that’ or ‘why did you put a comma there?’” – Tom Wolkenberg discussing the difficulties of collectively drafting letters to the editor, AJDS Oral History Project interview, 27 May 2014.
To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the AJDS, we’ve decided to record and publish online audio interviews with approximately a dozen people who have played an important role in the history of the AJDS.
As the AJDS Community Organiser I’ll be carrying out these interviews. So far I’ve only completed three but already my perception of the history of the AJDS and the people involved has deepened.
The project focuses not just on the ins and outs of the history and politics of the AJDS but also on the personal stories of the interview subjects. We’re interested in how people became part of the AJDS and what impact their involvement with the AJDS has had on their lives. We want to explore the historical context of people’s lives and what forces, events, political and social groupings led people to the AJDS.
Through looking at the written record – letters, editorials, statements, and newsletters – one can get a fair idea of the politics of the AJDS and its public positions on a range of issues throughout the past thirty years. But the oral history project aims to uncover something that can only be barely glimpsed in the written record.
That is the personal stories, the characters, the personalities and the importance of the organisation itself in the lives of AJDS members. Part of what we’re hoping to capture is the humour, the enjoyment of political involvement and the challenging of boundaries of Jewishness and identity.
What’s fascinating to me, a member of the younger AJDS generation, is the AJDS itself as a long running, participatory, membership-driven organisation. It’s very uncommon for my generation to become members of organisations such as the AJDS. This is not to say that we’re not politically involved or socially conscious but our organisational models and forms of expression are very different. The AJDS has had to deal with this issue itself. Right now half of the executive and both of the paid staff members are under forty years of age, while our membership is still overwhelmingly of a generation over fifty.
The AJDS at different stages of its life has utilised organisational infrastructure such as an office, an email list, paid staff, a monthly newsletter, an executive, a committee, various iterations of the website, and a membership database. This ongoing infrastructure maintains the durability, memory and sustainability of the AJDS’ unique political and social perspectives. The less obvious part of this organisational infrastructure is the long-lasting relationships and social field created through the organisation.
The epigraph which begins this article is meant not only to illicit a laugh of recognition from people who may be familiar with some of the internal difficulties plaguing the AJDS throughout its history but also to provoke some reflection on the pleasures, and necessary pains of collective organising and collaboration.
Endless debates about the precise wording of statements no doubt reflect a certain amount of vanity, grandstanding and pedantry – longstanding AJDS traditions. But as has so often been remarked there is also something of a special charge to these discussions: an intense pleasure in crafting words, disagreement, synthesis, and coming up with clever compromises.
In the interviews I’ve conducted already, two with older members, one with a younger counterpart, their political observations reflect a profound dissatisfaction with the current political situation, whether with regard to asylum seekers in Australia, or the ongoing Occupation in Israel/Palestine.
Often during the interviews I got the sense that the general rightward trend of Australian politics and the intractable situation in the Middle East meant that the AJDS’s efforts in the long term were perceived by the interviewees as slightly futile and quixotic. Often concrete wins were hard to point to. What is striking though is that despite this sense of pessimism and injustice, the interviewees have all found a sense of strength through their collective involvement.
If not in easily measurable and tangible outcomes, then in what sense can we speak of the durability, meaning and purpose of the AJDS?
Something we’re uncovering through the oral history project is the solidarity engendered through the AJDS, and the hidden pleasures of our histories, the friendships, the minor unofficial factions, the tensions, the joy of small victories and unexpected alliances, and the expanding of social fields. What’s also becoming clear from these interviews is the often uneven distribution of these pleasures. The AJDS started its life as a hierarchical organisation for good or ill, and has spent the past ten years or so wrestling with the messiness of doing away with formal hierarchies and struggling with informal ones, which are based on friendship groups, political perspectives, gender and generation.
The oral history project aims to explore these pleasures, frustrations and the messiness of the AJDS as a thirty-year-old organisation collectively struggling for social justice.
AJDS Oral History Project, Interview with Jemima Light (25/3/2014), Interview with Robin Rothfield (1/5/2014) and Interview with Tom Wolkenberg (27/06/2014).
Robin and David Rothfield’s account of the Jewish Left’s perspective on Israel-Palestine, with a personal note: https://www.ajds.org.au/the-jewish-left/