With changes to the Racial Discrimination Act dominating public discussion, and the eccentric diaries of former Foreign Minister Bob Carr going public this week, the politics and priorities of the Australian Jewish community have been thrust into the national spotlight.
Its reaction to the Federal Government’s proposed amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act has been one of condemnation. Jeremy Jones of the Australia-Israel Jewish Affairs Council cautioned that the draft legislation would countenance speech which espoused holocaust denial. Peter Wertheim of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry predicted Jewish donations to the Liberal party would diminish, as would non-financial campaign support such as letterboxing, if the amendments were enacted.
As an atheist Jew who is proud of my heritage, but for whom the views of the religious establishment are often anathema, it’s nice to see that we’re on the same page with respect to this issue. It’s also refreshing to see the community disagree with the Coalition, given that for religious Jews the question of political alignment often depends upon which party is more sympathetic towards Israel — a contest that the Coalition usually wins. The Carr diaries suggest much of the community's energy is currently directed to this question.
But the very impulse which is prompting Jewish leaders to oppose the RDA amendments should long ago have driven a wedge between Australian Jewry and the Coalition. Jews are sensitive to the relaxation of racial vilification laws because they know first hand how thin the line is between racist language and racist acts; how the semantic is wont to turn physical. If the memory of the holocaust is front of mind, however, then another Coalition policy should already have lost it the Jewish vote, namely Operation Sovereign Borders.
In 1939 the MS St Louis, an ocean liner carrying 937 Jews out of pre-war Nazi Germany, was turned away from each of Cuba, the US and Canada before returning to Europe, where it is estimated that a quarter of the ship’s passengers died in concentration camps. In 1947 the SS Exodus carried 4,500 holocaust survivors from Europe to Palestine, then under a British mandate. The ship was refused entry and its passengers were escorted to France. When they refused to disembark they were taken to Germany and interned in a displaced persons camp.
These episodes bring to mind the government’s current policy of intercepting and turning back vessels carrying asylum seekers (or transferring passengers into lifeboats and doing the same). Both involve a disenfranchised group being denied not only asylum but also the chance to have their claims for protection heard.
In expelling the SS Exodus, the British Secretary of State is reported to have said that "it will be most discouraging to the organisers of this traffic if the immigrants … end up by returning whence they came". One can’t help but recall the invocation of both major parties — "smashing the people smugglers’ business model" — used to justify seemingly any treatment of asylum seekers in the name of deterrence.
It is true that several Jewish bodies have expressed support for asylum seekers. The Australian Jewish Democratic Society, a left-wing organisation based in Victoria, supports a group called Jews for Refugees which campaigns for migrant rights in areas of Melbourne with large Jewish populations. A statement adopted by several prominent Jews including retired judge Ron Merkel QC recently appeared as an advertisement in the Jewish News, decrying Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers following the death of Reza Barati on Manus Island in February.
And the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies’ current statement on refugee policy notes that "unauthorised maritime arrivals … should be regarded as individual human beings who have hopes and aspirations", though it stops short of explicitly calling for an end to mandatory detention.
This simply isn’t enough. It surprises me that those Jews campaigning vociferously against George Brandis’ impending amendments aren’t also rallying against an immigration policy that would have so injured Jewish refugees only 60 years ago. When I hear of Jewish donations to the Liberal party drying up, my gut reaction is to question why Jews donate to the Coalition in the first place. To be sure, Labor’s immigration policy was almost the same as the Government’s, but at least it didn’t engage in boat turnarounds, use the term "illegals" to describe maritime arrivals, agitate for the return of temporary protection visas or attempt to discontinue legal support for asylum seekers.
Jews, more than most groups, should empathise with refugees. For that reason alone they should already have withdrawn support for the Coalition.
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