Getting Over Noel Pearson: A Jewish Perspective


I am well aware that Noel Pearson is a controversial figure. Dubbed the ‘cane toad of Cape York’, it is apparent that he does not speak on behalf, nor represent the views, of a large proportion of his own community. To that I would like to respectfully add, Noel Pearson, you do not always speak for my community either.

In particular, I would like to address recent statements made by Pearson insisting that his ‘own mob’ would benefit from following the Jewish example and ‘getting over’ historical wrongs. My first response when reading his statements, published May 7, 2015 in The Australian was to laugh. I wondered which Jewish people he’d consulted when determining that we had, in fact, ‘gotten over’ our past traumas.

Like the majority of Australian Jews, I was raised in a family of survivors of the Shoah, the Jewish genocide of 20th Century Europe. The Shoah was not the Jewish peoples’ first experience of genocide, but rather one singularly horrific example in our long history of loss and survival. Exiles, massacres, pogroms, death camps – these are our bedtime stories. Of course we collectively suffer post traumatic stress disorder!

Jewish children are raised by parents and grandparents who survived the Shoah; people who had walked amongst the dead and had to learn again how to live amongst the living. Our children are raised with the knowledge that the world had turned its back on us as we were being wiped off the face of the planet. That is the weight of surviving genocide, and there is no other feeling like it.

Even with the abundance of freedom that I am afforded as a white-skinned Australian, I am sometimes choked by that weight.

Believe me, I don’t make these claims in an attempt to conjure your sympathies. The burden the Jewish people carry is one shared by many different communities across the world who also have suffered at the hands of the powers above them. But it is not for somebody outside of that community to determine whether or not they have ‘gotten over it’, as Pearson offered.

Yet this particular point is not what I find most offensive about Pearson’s assumptions.

Pearson’s nonsense goes far beyond making light of my community’s grief. By drawing his comparisons between the Jewish experience and the experience of the Aboriginal peoples of this land, Pearson ignores one singularly important distinction. Simply put, the Nazis have lost while the colonial Australian government remains in power. As a result of this, a government of colonisers and beneficiaries of colonisation, continue to hold power over and in Aboriginal lives.

In his address at the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists annual congress last month, Pearson stated: “The challenge we now face is 20 years of brutal trauma caused by an untrammelled alcohol binge.”

Cape York lawyer Noel Pearson, speaking at the Garma Festival last year.

Besides paying no respect to the circumstances of colonisation that begun the cycle of trauma in the first place – to assert that alcohol has been ‘untrammelled’ in Indigenous communities is misleading. Under various state and territory laws, there are currently 19 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across Queensland under alcohol restrictions, over 100 restricted sites in the Northern Territory where penalties for a first offence can include jail time, and dozens more sites in Western Australia.

Pearson continued, “I just see too much acquiescence and submission to history and the loss of agency in the present… I honestly believe people can rise above historical trauma, otherwise we’ll lose agency and we’re defeated by history.”

From the lie of terra nullius to widespread massacres; from forced labour to the abhorrence of Stolen Generations; from the propaganda-driven Northern Territory Intervention to the inhumane rates of incarceration of black men and women; and from the continued removal of children from Aboriginal and Islander families to the forced closure of remote communities – it is apparent to me that, just as sovereignty was never ceded by the first peoples of this land, the genocidal acts of white governments have also never ceded.

This sits at the heart of my objections to Noel Pearson’s rhetoric. Mr Pearson, any survivor of any trauma can tell you that healing cannot begin until there has been some recognition of the suffering inflicted upon them. The Australian Jewish community has, for the most part, seen this. We found peace in Australia and have begun to heal, albeit not ‘get over’ our multitude of collective and personal losses. And let me tell you, even with acknowledgment by the majority of Australians, every attempted denial of the horrors of the Shoah inflicts a fresh and very real wound upon my community.

But there has not been a singular moment in Australia’s denialist history that has afforded Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander peoples the same respect and peace that my community has been given. I do not count a symbolic apology for one particular part of Australia’s colonial history as acknowledgment of the magnitude of suffering this nation has caused.

Acknowledgment means recognising the devastating impact of 228 years of inflicting colonial rule against groups of people who did not ask to be colonised. Acknowledgment means beginning to make some sort of reparations for the widespread suffering that we as a nation have caused. Acknowledgment means not doing it again.

These recent statements are not the first made by Pearson referencing my community.  In February 2010, Pearson wrote an opinion piece for the Australian entitled, ‘Aborigines can learn from Jews how to preserve culture and prosper’, in which he stated, “…we have to find a way, just as the Jews have, to reconcile self-interest and individualism with our common identity with our fellow members of our tribe.” In one breath, Pearson is touting us Jews as a model of liberalism while backhandedly calling us selfish. At least it is refreshing to have this stereotype intended to compliment, rather than insult us.

I agree with Mr Pearson on his view that us Jews have maintained a strong cultural identity, despite the odds against us. I could not be prouder of my Jewish upbringing; my culture has given me the strength to stand up against the racism that I have witnessed against others, and have encountered personally as an ethnic woman living in post-multicultural Australia.

I am proud beyond words of the endurance of my culture’s languages and heritage. As a Kohenim, my last name has been carried in my family for thousands upon thousands of years; damn straight I am proud of this. But Pearson is not advocating for this in his own mob. He seems to equate success solely with economic development, and not of the survival of culture.

What Pearson is advocating for is not success but assimilation.

Where Noel Pearson may see Indigenous resistance to assimilation as a failure, I see it a display of strength and resilience. As an Australian, I am proud of the 228-year history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander resistance to colonial rule. And I am deeply offended by ‘leaders’ like Pearson using my community’s experience of genocide to tow the party line of assimilation.

Jude Kohn is a Narrm based musician and graduate of Monash University and ANU.