Riding the Freedom Train

March 19, 2019 by Rabbi Moshe Gutnick
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Our hearts go out to our brothers and sisters across the Tasman.

Rabbi Moshe Gutnick

On Friday, I sent, on behalf of the Rabbinate of Australia and NZ, a message of solidarity and comfort to the Islamic community. We, the Jewish people, know more than any other people on Earth, what it is like to be singled out as a minority for persecution and murder. We feel the shock and we feel the outrage.

It is very easy to try to blame this act of terrorism on a few deranged individuals or to relegate them to being just a few crazy white supremacists. But that not only diminishes their culpability, but it also diminishes our culpability as a society and prevents us from learning the lessons that we must.

In 2001 at the height of the Tampa crisis, my father, who was a life long liberal voter and had served in the AIF during WW2, was the most senior Rabbi in Australia. He spoke publicly against the policy of the Government, a policy that the then leadership of the Jewish Community and much of the labour party had accepted. He said that as a Jew he could never accept a policy to turn away a boat filled with refugees. After what we the Jewish people had been through,  turning away boats could never be an option he could accept.

In 1938 Germany offered the Jews to the nations of the free world, but the doors were shut tight. Quotas were put in place in every western country limiting the number of refugees. Australia eventually allotted 15,000 visas to “victims of oppression” but only 7000 made the grade. 6,000,000 murdered versus 7000 immigrants. At the Evian conference in 1938, to our eternal shame , the representative for Australia , Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas W. White, DFC, VD, MP, Minister for Trade and Customs stated: “It will no doubt be appreciated also that as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one by encouraging any scheme of large-scale foreign migration”. The Jews of Europe were abandoned to total destruction. No, said my father, we could never agree with turning back boats.

Back then, I wasn’t sure if he was right. I knew all the arguments; secure borders, we decide who comes into our country, it’s not the same as back then, and on it went. But today I know better. I know he was right. We have created not just an anti-immigrant culture, but we have pandered to the xenophobia of the ignorant and racist. Elections can be won or lost just by stirring up the immigration debate. The excuse is we do not want them to drown in people smuggler boats. The truth is we do not want them at all.

The alleged illegal immigrant and refugee has become our enemy, instead of us recognising the enemy of prejudice within ourselves. Worse still, the immigrant who makes it through even legally is viewed as a usurper who really shouldn’t be here and is often treated with derision and contempt.

Words create images and images beget actions. Hitler turned an entire nation into murderous sadistic butchers by initially the power of his word. A litany of our anti-immigrant words has, albeit unintentionally, been turned into murder and mayhem.

Platitudes of shared grief with the Islamic community in New Zealand mean nothing unless we try as a community to grapple with our own prejudices. Do we as Australians, truly welcome and accept, not just as fellow Australians but as human beings created in the image of G-d, Jews? Moslems?  People of different race colour faith or creed? Who just want to live in peace and love their families? To serve their God in the best way they know how or perhaps to serve no God at all.

I learned only recently , that Sir Isaac Isaacs, High Court Justice and the first Australian born Governor-General , when on the train to Perth with his fellow justices to sittings of the High Court in Western Australia, used to have to eat in his own dining car because his fellow justices would not eat at the same table as the Jew.

Where are we today? Are we prepared to ride metaphorically in the same rail car with anyone else who is not like us, or do we still move to a different car? I know how difficult it is to change attitudes and prejudices, but unless we commit ourselves to doing so, we will have learned nothing from Christchurch. Without an attempt at change, any declaration of shock and sorrow is simply meaningless.

Rabbi Moshe Gutnick is the president of the Rabbinical Council of Australia and New Zealand




One Response to “Riding the Freedom Train”
  1. Liat Kirby says:

    What a beautifully articulated message, Rabbi Gutnick. Its truth resonates. Let us hope that this horrific event is a catalyst for real change.

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