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It might seem like we fought WW2 to stop it, but anti-jewish sentiment is alive and well in 2019. Defeating it, however, means looking to yesterday as well as tomorrow.
It is like the canary in the coal mine. In a way, that is a good thing. In some respects, history is predictable. And this is a prime example. Before any war, before any major upset in the world, there is always one group copping it before anybody else: Jews. But it only starts with them. After the Jews, there will be the gays, other Others, people speaking out and then you and me. So their story is a cautionary tale for all of us. The Old Testament started with God testing His people (which are Jews, in case you’ve forgotten your Bible classes) with all the plagues available. Then there were Egyptians and Romans and bigger churches, blaming them for killing baby Jesus or a local disaster or whatever else suited them. In the Middle Ages, it was the Black Death they were held responsible for, after which every minor king or lord used the Jews as convenient scapegoats for droughts, fires and to cover up political misdeeds. We know what happened during WWII, but regardless, only months later Australians thought that allowing Nazis into the country was a better idea than accepting Jews. As early as August of 1945, Minister of Immigration Arthur Calwell announced that 2,000 Jews would be granted landing permits on a humanitarian basis. They could only be close relatives of Jewish residents, their entry was conditional and they would only be allowed if they had spent the war in a concentration camp, had been deported or had survived in Europe in a clandestine way. They were also required to get sponsors, who had to guarantee their upkeep for five years. Regardless of the restrictions, there was a lot of push-back, from all sides. Members of Parliament, the RSL and many newspapers called it “preferential treatment”, that was “aggravating the housing shortage”. Ex-Labor NSW Premier Jack Lang even saw it as a “refugee racket”, because these “aliens” were, he thought, all “wealthy people” and shouldn’t be let in. The Liberal Member for Henty pitched in by saying that by allowing Jewish people into Australia the country would become “a dumping ground for people whom Europe has not been able to absorb for 2,000 years”.
In 1948, a survey revealed that Australians felt that Jews and “Negroes” should be kept outside and that it was better to let Germans, even Nazis, into the country. Inspired by what was happening in Palestine, it was now obvious to them that most Jews were “terrorists”. So Calwell responded, and cut the amount of Jewish people that were allowed in. Jewish welfare organisations were forbidden to advance fares for Jewish refugees or help them out in other ways and that year the humanitarian migration scheme was terminated. Now the only criterion would be Australia’s economic needs and the trade qualifications migrants could bring. Calwell did accept 4,000 European Displaced Persons, but Jews were excluded from this group. Even when the scheme was expanded and between 1947 and 1951 almost 170,000 migrants arrived under these rules. The estimation is that between only 250 and 500 Jews managed to make it into Australia during that time. The discriminatory policies only eased in 1957, when it became clear that most Jews had settled elsewhere, mainly in Israel and the US (Suzanne Rutland Edge of the Diaspora – Two Centuries of Jewish Settlement in Australia – New York and London, Holmes and Meier, 2001 (1997), pp. 229-244).
So we are back there now. Recent research showed that one in twenty Brits believe that the Holocaust never happened. In the last few weeks, papers like the NY Times and The Atlantic openly worried whether it would be wise for Jews to get out of Europe. Antisemitic incidents are up everywhere in the world. Given the above, you wonder where they could go? At the moment, our country isn’t necessarily known for its open door policy to people in need. The US has forgotten its promise (in an inscription on the Statue of Liberty, for crying out loud) to “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free; The wretched refuse of your teeming shore; Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me; I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” With all avenues closed, maybe the only thing left to do is think. How did we get here again? And can we do something about it, prevent history from repeating itself? Let me try.
You can’t blame all Jews for the actions of the state of Israel. That would be like making all of us personally responsible for Manus or the losses of the Australian cricket team.
First of all, there are some clichés that are attached to Jews. “They” are, the story goes, all rich and part of the elite. They run countries, are behind the banks, the financial system: they own “us”. Inspired by Shakespeare’s Shylock and with the long history of persecution embedded in our genes, we believe they are duplicitous, money-hungry and if not on the throne, then at least the power behind it. That is an interesting premise, of course. There are an estimated 14.5 million Jews in the world. If we take the entire population on the planet to be 7.53 billion, then Jews make up 0.19 percent. That is a very small group to be able to dominate everybody else. You also have to wonder: if Jews were this influential, then why have they been killed in their millions, always, everywhere? Surely, their power would have prevented the mass gassings, the being forced to dig your own grave, the babies slammed against walls in front of their mothers? So, let us try and succumb to logic here and scrap this argument from our list.
Next, we go to history, that force of both good and evil. When I was a little girl (yes, sorry, here we go again), the Holocaust was a recognised fact. We still had facts back then, and people who had experienced the Shoah were all around us, so it was a little difficult to deny their testimonies. Now, of course, the Goebbels who leads the US is telling us that there are no such things as facts and that everything that science says is wrong. That includes history. We like to hear that, because the persecution of the Jews has always been an inconvenient truth, to quote Al Gore. Now somebody gives us permission to relieve our guilt and we grab that chance with both hands. Goodie, we weren’t nasty people after all.
There are two other complicating factors: WWII and the Holocaust have always been part of Western education (although often piecemeal), but not necessarily as important in Asia, Africa and South America. Large groups from those continents now live in the West, and politicians (like Jeremy Corbin in the UK) are doing the maths: amount of Jewish voters negligible, amount of new Brits many, many times larger. So they make choices, which led to the walk-out of nine Labour parliamentarians (and more to come) last week. Of course, it would be better for politicians to lead and be examples of morality, but we can do something about that: elect the ones who do. And tell those with their noses in the bottom of the barrel to try harder. Lastly, there is Israel, that hot potato and source of a lot of new antisemitism. Granted, what happens in the tiny Middle Eastern state is not pretty. In fact, much of it is unacceptable. But you can’t blame all Jews everywhere, or even all Jews in Israel, for the actions of the state of Israel. That would be like making all of us personally responsible for Manus, or Scott Morrison or Rupert Murdoch or the losses of the Australian cricket team. That would clash with our famous Australian idea of fairness, wouldn’t it? Just saying: lest we forget. “They” might be first, but the rest of “us” will be next. Ask history. And then do something.