Australian Jewish groups and Indigenous politics: “thin and more of a veneer without depth”

February 24, 2022 by Features Desk
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The annual Earle Hoffman Oration was delivered in Canberra by one of the late founders of the city’s Jewish community family, human rights lawyer George Newhouse.

George Newhouse

He spoke about the relationship between the Jewish community and the First Nations peoples of this land as it stands today.

Ahead of the oration, George Newhouse said: “My great uncle Earle was an inspirational founder of the ACT Jewish Community, the president of the local community for a record seven terms and a board member for 25 years.”

He added: “I am honoured to deliver this oration today, a topic which I am sure speaks to Earle’s values and beliefs as a leader of this community. I acknowledge him and stand in his shadow.”

The oration.

Why do we acknowledge First Nations traditional owners and their Country?

The welcome to country is 45 years old and by now we have all heard it dozens if not 100’s of times. After so many decades it is easy to take an acknowledgement or welcome to Country for granted. I don’t know if you can remember the first time you heard those words but I remember it was one of the first times I thought about the sacred ongoing connection between Country and its First Peoples. That connection reminded me how my people, the Jewish people, recall our own connection to a homeland from which we were exiled two millennia ago. We remember it through our religious practice. For example, we always end the Passover meal with the words that we will all meet “Next Year in Jerusalem”.

When we acknowledge Country or are welcomed to Country, I am reminded that we, as a nation, have come a long way from the days before the 1967 referendum when First Nations Peoples were either invisible or written off as a dying race.

The Uluru statement explains it this way, ‘In 1967 we were counted, [now] we seek to be heard [and] we invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future’.

Acknowledging Country is a very small step forward and after nearly half a century of the practice, it also reminds me that progress is agonisingly slow, it requires more heavy lifting and that all Australians can and should do better.

An example of that heavy lifting is the work of renowned Jewish lawyer, Ron Castan, who together with Eddie Mabo changed the face of Australian history through the Eddie Mabo’s land rights case. That case overturned the legal fiction that, what we now call Australia, was a vacant or empty land or a “Terra Nullius” when the British claimed it. For the first time, the Mabo case recognised prior First Nations ownership and Ron Castan hoped for a better Australia after this breakthrough. In 1993 he said:

“Australia will grow as a nation, as it comes to terms with the reality of its own Aboriginal and Islander origins. The cathartic experience of Mabo will eventually be seen as the foundation upon which a new and stronger and uniquely Australian national identity will be forged.”

This Oration

Ron Castan [2nd left and Eddie Mabo 2nd rt]

Ron’s work is a useful introduction to the subject of this oration, which is a history of the relationship between the Jewish community and First Nations peoples. I want to suggest that the nature of the relationship has been defined by three separate waves of Jewish Immigration: the first by Anglo Jews, the second by Russian and European Jews and more recently by South African and Soviet Jewish immigrants.

The narrative that many Australian Jews use to describe the relationship between First Nations peoples and the Jewish community goes like this:

First, in the 1930s our peoples were united against fascism, then later came the Civil Rights movement, where the two groups got along great. In the mid-60s, Jewish students like Jim Spigelman joined Charlie Perkins on a bus trip around Western NSW to challenge the racist treatment of Indigenous people. In the 1990’s we worked to expunge the terra nullius myth in the Mabo case.

Today the narrative continues… we walk “hand in hand” with First Nations Peoples in reconciliation, our community has pledged to support the Uluru Statement and we work with First Nations peoples to move together towards a shared future.1

What a beautiful image, except that is not the full story.

I want to question whether Jews and First Nations peoples have had, or still have, a close relationship at all ….and to suggest that, except for a period, pre and post WWII, where our interests actually aligned, the relationship is more like two ships passing in the night.

I would like to share a different narrative with you. One of distance and a lack of meaningful engagement, and of unfamiliarity – which is something that concerns me deeply as a Jew… as an Australian… and as a human rights lawyer trying to address, quite frankly, harrowing experiences of racism and discrimination that continue today.

Renowned Australian author Peter Carey has said “All white Australians know that every day [they] are the beneficiaries of genocide” but are we, as Jews, conscious of this fact? And are we, who know in our bones how racism and prejudice feel, doing enough to speak up about the ongoing discrimination and oppression that is happening around us?


Are any of us doing enough for First Nations children are still being removed from their families into the out-of-home care system at rates that are higher than during the Stolen Generations.

A staggering 21,000 First Nations children were in out-of-home care in June 2020. If no action is taken, that devastating number will double by 2029. And that number does not include children on permanent care orders or who have been adopted so the real figure is much higher.2

How many of us are aware that:

  • Aboriginal women are the fastest-growing cohort in prisons around Australia
  • Aboriginal children as young as 10 are being locked up in youth detention.
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples die, on average, around nine years earlier than others in this country.
  • Last year was the 30th anniversary of RCIADIC and to our nation’s enduring shame the deaths in custody continue.

We cannot deny the violence and injustice perpetrated against First Nations Peoples since colonisation and we cannot stand by while it is happening today.

These injustices have led me and the team at the National Justice Project, to work with many families of those whose children have been unfairly taken into state care or those who have died in custody or from prejudice in health care or those who have been harmed by government policies and who desperately want to see change.

Just this week our team were consoling the parents of a Kamilaroi/Dunghutti father of 8 children who died as a result of racial prejudice in his medical treatment. He attended a hospital emergency department in extreme pain, and told staff he felt a tearing or popping sound in his stomach, the man begged for help but instead of treating his ruptured stomach ulcers he was stereotyped as a drug user and sent home where he died some hours later of a completely treatable ailment.

But these tragedies aren’t the result of the acts of fascists or Nazis, they are the outcome of government policies and of racist cultures and assumptions that come from within state authorities. These cultures can corrupt our institutions and they can harm or even kill people.

First Nations organisations are working tirelessly to fight for social justice, equity and accountability in the delivery of health, policing, education, the NDIS, the delivery of justice and other government services but they need allies like you – in all communities – and they need political support for change. I know how important that support is through our work at the National Justice Project.

Why Should the Jewish Community be Concerned?

You might ask why the Jewish community should be concerned about the systemic racism that is leading to these tragic outcomes? For me it comes down to three things:

  1. My Jewish teachers and Rabbis who taught me to love others, to heal the world and seek justice as a basic tenet of my faith. In fact, the first line of my bar mitzvah portion (one of the most moving days in a Jewish boy’s life), begins with the words “Justice, Justice shall you seek”
  2. Secondly, I grew up in a community, surrounded by Holocaust survivors and I felt a deep anger about the injustice of their torment, so when I became aware of the discrimination, violence, harassment, abuse and mistreatment of First Nations peoples I could not turn away from their injustice and I was compelled to act; I think Ron Castan says it better than me, when he wrote“My determination not to stand by and see the Jewish people downtrodden and persecuted was meaningless if I was standing by and seeing another oppressed people downtrodden and persecuted within my own country.”
  3. Finally, at a deeper level, I recognised that I, like many other Australians, had benefitted from the colonial system, from theft of another people’s land, from genocide, violence and murder and from the destruction of First Nation’s cultures and families.

Those are the triggers that motivate me as an individual but what about our communal responsibility. When William Cooper and the Australian Aborigines League marched on the German embassy in Melbourne in 1938 to protest about Kristallnacht, Cooper and his supporters saw the moral imperative to fight against racism at home and abroad. Isn’t this the time to reciprocate the brave stance of the Australian Aborigines’ League?

The Australian Jewish community has persuasive power to help make societal change. Jewish institutions and media are extremely effective in attacking antisemitism wherever it raises its ugly head – and we should commend them for this – but unless there is a swastika involved, they too often seem strangely silent when First Nations peoples are victims of systemic prejudice, racist attacks and vilification almost daily.

Following in Cooper’s footsteps, the Black Lives Matter marches globally have focused attention on the prejudicial treatment of Indigenous peoples and other people of colour, yet in Australia, Jewish communal organisations and the Jewish press have seemingly not engaged with this aspect of First Nation’s struggles. And I can’t understand why they haven’t? We live and work on First Nations land. We know what prejudice and discrimination looks like. We know, understand and have experienced the pain of racial hatred and the generational trauma that goes with it.

When George Floyd’s murderer was sentenced in Minneapolis last year, the Australian Jewish News covered the case from a US perspective but did not mention a Dunghutti man from Kempsey, David Dungay, who died in similar circumstances – crying out I can’t breathe – and they didn’t mention the colossal movement for change that grew in Australia following Floyd’s death. The Jewish media just doesn’t seem to cover the demands of the local Black Lives Matter families who are calling for the eradication systemic racism here in Australia.

In January this year neo-Nazis targeted Black Lives Matters activist Paddy Gibson had his home attacked by Neo Nazis and as far as I can tell from my searches, the Jewish community made no comment on this event. The story was covered extensively in the mainstream press but did not appear in the Jewish media. I don’t understand how our community leaders missed that attack but the extensive mainstream media reports spurred me to contact the victim and offer my support.

But was our relationship always like this? Jews have been fortunate to have been treated equally under the colonial laws of Australia since 1788 but First Nations people have not and I want to trace the history of our two communities from its colonial beginnings.

Anglo Jews

The relationship between Jewish and the First Nations people of this land begins with the first wave of Anglo Jews. There were Jewish convicts in the “First Fleet” and free settlers soon followed them. Like other immigrants to our nation, the Anglo Jewish community worked conscientiously to be loyal British subjects – which is understandable given the Jewish experience of dispossession and persecution – and at that time, there was no communal alliance with the First Peoples of the land.

While Jews were not the instigators of racist policies, there were exceptions. The prominent Jewish lawyer, jurist, and Governor-General Sir Isaac Issacs took an active role in designing the racist legal framework which is embedded in our Constitution to this day.

Through my social justice work, I had cause to delve into the Constitutional Convention debates to learn why Australia has a racist constitution bereft of human rights and to my consternation I found Sir Isaac Isaacs was a passionate supporter of the White Australia policy, or what he called ‘a white man’s war’. Shamefully he even fought against giving Aboriginal people voting rights. His advocacy contributed to Australia being the only modern nation to have a racist power included in its legal foundations, foundations that don’t include a bill of rights to protect us. That is a foundational systemic wrong that needs to be righted. It is a wrong that continues to offend and impact First Nations peoples.

We cannot blame Issacs alone, he was not the only architect of our constitution… and I am not suggesting, for a moment, that Jews as a group were the cause of, or the drivers of, racist policies but…. like Issacs, and most of the Anglo-Jewish community at Federation, many Jewish people today continue to unquestioningly accept the prevailing power structures and the privileges that go with them, and they fail to see or address the systemic harm that is still being done to First Nations peoples.

European/Russian Jewish Migration

From the 1890s the face of the Jewish Community was to change radically. The first change came as Russian and other European Jewish refugees began arriving in Australia fleeing antisemitism and violent pogroms and then later after the Holocaust as thousands of survivors came here to start new lives.

The new immigrants were influenced by their persecution and the rise of working-class movements in Europe and Russia, many Jewish migrants to Australia from the 1890s had a different understanding of social structures, class, and injustice from their Anglo-Jewish forbears. Over time those changing values led to the development of a better understanding and empathy for the “others” who were invisible to a colonial society.

But change didn’t come solely from within the Jewish community. Some First Nations groups saw the common interest between themselves – as the subject of state-sanctioned racism and violence – and the Jewish people – who were also being subjected to state-sanctioned antisemitism and violence in Europe.

I have already mentioned William Cooper’s efforts in 1938 but the arrival of Russian and European Jews saw new relationships develop between members of the Jewish community and First Nations peoples and groups. Gumbainggir activist and academic Gary Foley recalls the relief of the Jewish refugees who came to Australia after the war, and their appreciation for the warmth of the welcome when they arrived on safe shores. He said “[T]hey were eternally grateful that they had arrived in a land so free of the virulent strain of anti-Semitism that they had escaped in Europe. Some of them however were to soon realise the parallels between what was happening to the Aboriginal people and what had happened to them”.

This ugly dawning galvanised individuals and groups within the Jewish communities in Sydney and Melbourne to become prominent in the campaigns for Aboriginal civil rights from the 1940s to the late 1980s.

In the post-war years, there were many individual Jews who engaged with First Nations communities and organisations. The NSW Jewish Board of Deputies has documented many of them in the book Hand in Hand by Anne and Lisa Maria Sarzin, but those interactions were not coordinated, and the communal efforts tended to have focused on individual acts of anti-Semitism and discrimination. In his article The Australian Jewish Left and Indigenous Rights, Professor Philip Mendes documented the engagement of the Jewish left in advocating First Nations Rights and fighting racism.

In 1965, following in the footsteps of US Civil rights activists, Jewish law students like Jim Spigelman joined Charlie Perkins on the “Freedom Ride” to protest the segregation laws in country NSW, training his home movie camera on the hostile convoy of cars which followed the bus out of town at night and ran it off the road.

At the time of the Bicentennial of colonisation in 1988, Irving Wallach and the Sydney Jewish Left organised a statement, signed by over 50 Jewish Australians, arguing that “Jewish traditions ‘require us to take a stand against racism’, and that ‘all people have a common origin and are therefore equal’. The statement concluded that the Jewish tradition requires us to ‘recognize the prior ownership of Australia by Aboriginal people. We support justice and land rights for Black Australia in 1988’.

Hans Bandler, a Jewish refugee, and Holocaust survivor joined the civil rights activism of his South Sea Islander wife, Faith, culminating in the 1967 Referendum which changed the law to count First Nations peoples as citizens.

During the period from the late 1930s to the 1980s, there was cooperation between our communities, particularly through the work of Jewish students and the Jewish Left, including Lorna Lippman and Irving Wallach, but there were also lawyers Peter Tobin and Eddie Neumann, Rosine Guiterman, Emil and Hannah Witton as well as the Bandlers, Marcus Einfeld, Ron Castan, Linda Briskman, Jim Spigelman, Philip Mendes, Peter Wertheim, Mark Liebler and all those singled out in the book Hand in Hand and in Mendes academic work The Australian Jewish Left and Indigenous Rights, but they were still a small minority within a minority ethnoreligious group in Australia.

Notwithstanding those momentous individual efforts, the late genocide academic Colin Tatz described the engagement between Australian Jewish groups and Indigenous politics in his 2004 “Essay in Disappointment” as being thin and more of a veneer without depth.

He stated then: “Most of the many Jewish audiences I address still react in the manner of a non-Jewish audience. They are usually hostile as they question expenditure on Aborigines when they disparage all land rights claims when they blame the Aborigines alone for all the physical, social, health, and economic ills. I always hope that Jews will have moral insight and outlook; the fact that they don’t continue to disappoint.”


The social justice work of Jewish individuals continues today under the stewardship of Peter Wertheim, Steven and Melissa Castan, Ruth Barson, Sandra and Danny Hochberg, Nikki Marczak, Justice Stephen Rothman, Rabbi Kamins and other Progressive Rabbis, Ilona Lee, Irving Wallach, Abe Schwartz, Mark Liebler, Ron Merkel, Jeremy Jones, and Josie Lacey to name just a few and there are philanthropists and foundations that are working cooperatively with Aboriginal communities and organisations.

That work also continues with the cooperation between the Jewish and First Nations members of the National Justice Project’s Advisory Board including Eualyai and Kamillaroi lawyer Larissa Behrendt, Bunurong actor Tasma Walton, Muruwari academic Kirsten Gray, Gomeroi academic Alison Whittaker, and our Chairman Steve Castan, Rob Silberstein and me.

Third Wave

As the post-war Jewish immigrants settled into Australian society, a third wave of Jewish migration arrived from South Africa and the former Soviet Union, shifting the connection between the two communities yet again.

Although Jewish leadership and communal bodies participate in symbolic initiatives like “reconciliation” and “multiculturalism” and some have expressed support for the Uluru Statement, many Jewish leaders believe that articulation of these principles alone contributes to our relationship with First Nations peoples. But where is the Jewish-led advocacy to expose and end the systemic racism which is a cause of much disadvantage?

What is Systemic Racism

I have referred to systemic racism throughout this oration but most Australians don’t see “systemic racism” or know what it means. We all understand colour bans like “no blacks or Jews permitted in this park or pub” – they are overtly racist prohibitions but systemic racism is insidious – it is a mix of rules or practices that may not seem discriminatory on their face, but together they result in discrimination.

Let’s look at how the health system discriminates against First Nations People:

If a First Nations man and a non-Indigenous man enter an emergency ward with a heart or vascular problem the First Nations’ patient is 40% less likely than non-Indigenous patient to receive angioplasty, a stent or angiography.

Indigenous patients need kidney donations desperately, but they are 10 times less likely than non-Indigenous patients to be added to the waiting list for a kidney donation transplant. According to Kidney Health Australia, to improve access to transplantation by First Nations renal patients, there needs to be a better understanding of how to address the barriers. There also needs to be improved support services for patients.

Another area of concern is Policing. Police use bicycle helmet laws to criminalise First Nations kids. Young kids are being crash tackled by police in country towns, and in suburbs with a large First Nations population, and violently restrained …. simply for not wearing a bicycle helmet while riding. These children can’t afford to pay the fines and are being criminalised as a result. If safety was the real issue we could save court time – and the taxpayer a whole lot of money – if police just gave away bicycle helmets to those kids. Instead, for Aboriginal kids, riding a bike has become a gateway into the criminal justice system.

There is extensive research that explains why, even if a rule or a law is not explicitly racist (like the Nuremberg laws), the over-application of a law against one particular group, the conscious or unconscious bias of police officers and the culture that allows that prejudice to persist, can be racist or discriminatory.

There is no doubt that the Jewish community understands overt acts of racism against individuals or communities, that is because Jews are subjected to individual acts of antisemitism all the time. But they are exactly that – individual acts – and not state-sanctioned acts that produce or sustain racial inequality.

Other immigrant groups that have fled persecution, like the Sudanese in Australia, have recognised that alliances with First Nations communities are vital in the fight against racism. This is an understandable relationship because they both have common experiences with police, the justice system, education, health care and child protection services. Experiences that are unknown to most Australian Jews.

Why No Engagement on critical race issues?

Perhaps the fear of broader engagement on systemic racism by Australian Jewry has been driven by news reports and opinions in the Australian Jewish media that some members of the U.S. Black Lives Matter movement are antagonistic to Jews or to Israel. It may be that concern is being used to deflect questions about our own communal and individual responsibility in the fight against discrimination and racism in Australia where no such links are evident.

There may be other reasons for this lack of engagement. First Nations peoples make up a small fraction of the Australian population. Jews don’t have much interaction with First Nations peoples in business, education, in their suburbs and in their social circles. However, these reasons do not, and should not, relieve the Australian Jewish community of its duty to stand up and fight discrimination wherever it may appear.

Indeed, we have all benefited from the colonisation of this land, while First Nations people bear the burdens of its legacy. However, the point is not to hold contemporary Australians individually responsible for past atrocities, but to acknowledge that the racist attitudes that enabled these mindsets still remain within the fabric of our nation. But unfortunately, these mindsets are hard to see.

Call to action

Today I have examined a relationship that spans 230 years and I believe that our two communities have come to a crossroads. One path is to ignore the problem of Systemic Racism and pretend that it doesn’t exist and the other is to create a Fourth Wave – for the Jewish community to face up to the realities and demand change. Ron Castan certainly hoped that all Australians would take the latter path, he said in 1993 at a B’nai B’rith oration:

“We now know, if we did not know it before, that blood has stained the wattle. We have all been participants in a long and cruel civil war. It is a vital part of who we are, as a people.

All Australians will in due course face up to the realities of our history, and to the brutal realities of life today for so many of the displaced and dispossessed indigenous peoples of Australia.”

Let’s confront those realities and take up the challenge of Noongar woman Claire G. Coleman when, just last month, she called on all Australians to support changing the date of the 26 Jan national holiday. She said – “It’s time for you to reflect. What do you stand for? Who would you stand with? Will you make a stand for Indigenous rights? Will you learn to listen? Will you stand up and be counted?”

If the Jewish Community is going to have a meaningful relationship with First Nations Peoples then our Jewish leadership needs to step up from, leadership development, community dinners, pledges, statements and from the principles of reconciliation to actively confronting systemic racism in partnership with First Nations Peoples;6 We all have to make the effort, we have to have the hard conversations with our politicians and policymakers and engage with grassroots First Nations organisations that are confronting this plague.

Engaging as an individual is an easy first step. Be curious and educate yourself, seek out First Nations voices and perspectives in film and television, books, galleries, the media. Read books written by First Nations Peoples. You might consider those written by two of my hugely talented Board members Larissa Behrendt’s “After Story” and “Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray” by Anita Heiss for a start.

Explore what it means to be an ally or to commit to a personal anti-racism journey and understand that might need having a few uncomfortable conversations… with yourself and others.

You can continue that journey into other ways with your family, it can begin with something as simple as watching the First Australians and the First Contact series on SBS and discussing them as a family. Read First Nations bedtime stories to your children and grandchildren. Amy McQuire has just written “Daybreak” a children’s book about a family returning to country on January 26. Have a copy of the Uluru statement on the fridge. You can find it at, its easy to find, you can get it on your phone right now. In our kids and grandkids, I see a future where we will come together to find our collective heart.

What can be done in our workplaces? Initiate or review an existing Reconciliation Action Plan or RAP. A RAP is like a work health and safety plan, you put it in place to achieve a purpose, and the purpose in this case to create a workplace free of racism and one that is safe and welcoming to First Nations people. In our workplace we undertake cultural safety and trauma-informed training, think about how you can amplify Indigenous voices in your work context. Our organisation, the NJP, works on January 26, we don’t take that day as a public holiday, instead, we celebrate Mabo Day as a holiday. We will not be ambassadors for a day grounded in genocide. Acknowledging this is a necessary step towards healing.

Ask yourselves what can be done in our schools, museums and places of worship? Our synagogues have a role to play too. I am often surprised that not all Synagogues and Jewish organisations fly the Aboriginal flag in solidarity with First Nations peoples?

As part of our services, we pray for the welfare of our colonial structures – for the Queen, the Governor-General, the Prime Minister, the State of Israel and its armed forces, it’s time for us to acknowledge the unceded sovereignty of the First Nations peoples of the land that we meet and pray on and honour, and pray for, their Elders in all Synagogues and not just a few progressive ones. If you are worried about that extending the length of the service then we could always cut out the prayer for the Queen.

Our community can join protests against deaths in custody and against racism or speak out in support of their aims. With First Nations children as young as 10 in youth detention, why haven’t mainstream Jewish organisations signed up to the Raise the Age coalition; Let’s meet with Indigenous organisations like SNAIC who are trying to reduce First Nations Child removals, the Coalition of Peaks and the Partnership for Justice in Health (P4JH) who are demanding health equity, the Aboriginal Legal Services in each state and the many other organisations who do amazing outreach work in their local communities.

The thought of where to start can be overwhelming and confusing, and it might feel too much for each of us, but throughout history, individuals have taken a stand and changed the course of people’s lives. We all know the names of righteous gentiles like Oskar Schindler who protected his Jewish workers from the death camps, of Chiune Sugihara and Raul Wallenberg – the diplomats who helped thousands of Jews to flee persecution. And in Australia, we acknowledge the bravery of First Nations man William Cooper – who wasn’t even counted as a citizen of our nation at the time he stood up for Jews in our darkest hour. Nearly 85 years later we still talk about his impact.

Like William Cooper, when the times demand it, each of us can find a way to make a stand and do better – not just for ourselves but for all Australians.
Thank you for attending this oration today and I can only hope that it inspires change in all of us.”

Editor’s note:  Colin Tatz described the engagement between Australian Jewish groups and Indigenous politics in his 2004 “Essay in Disappointment” as being thin and more of a veneer without depth. George Newhouse believes little has changed. He said: “We engage at a very shallow level apart from Shalom Gamarada and leadership training. Dinners and pledges aren’t the same as deep engagement.”

He acknowledges the work of Shalom Gamarada, NCJWA and Stand Up.

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