Photographer barred from Jewish sites

June 27, 2009 by Henry Benjamin
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A photographer chronicling synagogues and Jewish cemeteries throughout the world has been barred from including Australia in his project.

Jono David

Jono David

Jono David is an Osaka, Japan based photographer who requested permission to photograph inside synagogues in Australia.

Gavin Quait of the Community Security Group told J-Wire: “We were asked our opinion about the request and offered advice. The respective authorities in Sydney and Melbourne made their own decision. I understand why Mr David is upset but the decision was made by the the community umbrella groups and that’s that.”

He added: “We have also advised the community to remove the synagogues from Google Street Maps as it is now possible to do this. Some have, but many synagogues and other Jewish sites still remain clearly marked on the Internet.”

David, who is Jewish, sent emails seeking seeking permission to photograph in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Tasmania. He told J-Wire: “It seems the communities consulted with CSG who then sent out their own ‘advice’ email to every Jewish community. They confirmed as much to me.”

David, who was born in the UK but grew up in Washington and has lived in Israel, sent his portfolio to each community and to the CSG including links to his web site and several references.

His work is well documented on the Internet, including 11 videos on YouTube.

Vic Alhadeff, CEO of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies said: “I fully understand why he is upset, but we would be acting irresponsibly if we sought the the advice of our security experts and then acted against it.”

Jono David sent the following open letter to J-Wire:

To the Jewish Community of Australia —

RE: An Open Letter to the Jewish Community of Australia
June 2009

I am a freelance documentarian of Jewish communities worldwide (www.JewishPhotoLibrary.com). My mission is to contribute to the preservation of Jewish communities by documenting them photographically. I recently spent a month making arrangements for a photo tour of Australia’s Jewish Communities (AJC), the first of several visits to document every synagogue, Jewish cemetery, and aspects of Jewish life Down Under. My 80 or so query emails initially met with plaudits and approvals. Then responses turned to “no thank yous” and permission retractions (though not all). I was confounded. Then a few kind souls brought Community Security Group (CSG), an organization that oversees matters of security within the AJC, to my attention. In short, I was ultimately left with no choice but to cancel my project.

This letter has two aims: 1, to highlight CSG’s inflexible policies and underhanded procedures, and, 2, to encourage discussion by ordinary members of the AJC on matters of security, access, documentation, and community image.

“Whilst the CSG does not consider Mr. David himself to be a security concern,” emailed Gavin Queit of CSG Victoria to all Jewish communities, “the subsequent publishing of such photographs does pose a risk to the Jewish Community. As such, it is our recommendation that Jono David be denied permission to photograph Victorian Jewish institutions.” In a follow up email to me (after I had initiated contact), Mr. Queit stated that emails were “sent to all Jewish community institutions in Australia (by the CSG’s in each state) [sic].” A similar email had also been, unbeknown to me, sent by David Rothman, head of CSG Sydney.

There was no reason to inform anyone, much less everyone, that my work “poses a security risk” (Gavin Queit) because there is indisputably no such evidence. In fact, I challenge anyone to name a single incident — worldwide — where photographs played an integral part in an attack on a synagogue or a Jewish institution.

While I have on rare occasion been denied photo requests, I could never have imagined being blacklisted on an entire continent. CSGs emails at once sabotaged my project and, for all intents and purposes, maligned me, a fellow Jew, as a threat to the AJC. Their words are, in effect, defamatory. I am open to photo conditions. In the extreme, I am happy to document an institution and keep the images safeguarded for at least a generation. But, alas, I was deemed unworthy of even a courtesy email. I fail to understand such treatment.

I am a stranger in every community I document. Naturally, verifying and vetting outsiders is necessary. Jewish community security concerns worldwide are justified and do not need explaining. I do not “map out” synagogues or other Jewish institutions. Nor do I not make images available if an institution has issues with said images. No exceptions. I am aware of a recent rise in anti-Semitic sentiment in Australia. But documenting Jewish life is important even in times of adversity — perhaps more so. By restricting documentation, the AJC is going to wake up in a generation and realize there is no photographic, no film, and no video record available to them. That is a real shame. CSG’s blanket no-photo policy, therefore, is actually a detriment to the AJC. Moreover, a hyper-sensitive security measure is a victory for the terrorists. But by photographing a vibrant community, the Jewish people win.

Perhaps the AJC ought to ask itself just what CSG is aiming to achieve. Do they wish to see the AJC go underground? Do they desire shutting down community websites which, contrary to their own “advice”, display for the world vital community information such as addresses, names, maps, prayer times, events, even photographs similar to those I wish to take? Does CSG desire stopping the presses too? The Australian Jewish News, and publications like it, is a portal into the life and times of the AJC. It is replete with community news and affairs past, present, and future — information that can be employed by the savvy terrorist. What is the point of “securing” a Jewish community, particularly in a free nation, if it cannot thrive openly? With so much Jewish history destroyed over the millennia, why surrender now? Jewish communities of the world have always been resilient in times of adversity and always emerged stronger because of it.

I am not giving up on Jewish Australia. I hope the AJC is not giving up on itself. Isaiah 41:6 says, “Each helped their neighbor and everyone said to his brother, be strong and courageous.”

Jono David

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