There is no place in Judaism for intolerance

As far as being Jewish goes, I am no great role model: I don’t keep  kosher, I don’t observe the Sabbath, I don’t fast on Yom Kippur and I have married outside my religion.

But I consider myself Jewish in my upbringing, cultural connections, appreciation of Jewish food, jokes and more deeply a sense simply of always, no matter what, being a Jew.

Then of course there is just being a decent human being: fair, just, kind, compassionate, empathetic. These too I consider very Jewish values (and ones that I try to uphold), though they are also the values of good and decent Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and atheists.

For me they have always been more important than going to synagogue, observing the high holy days, not mixing milk and meat or wearing a kippah on my head.

Which is why I have always believed so strongly that intolerance has no place in Judaism or Jewish life and why I reacted so strongly when I read a letter, published  recently in the Australian Financial Review, written by a fellow Jew, Michael Burd of Toorak, Melbourne.

Written soon after the Australian government had agreed to take in an additional 12,000 Syrian refugees and amidst the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War, Mr Burd’s contribution to the debate was not to naturally as a Jew, identify with the persecuted, tortured, and frightened people fleeing genocide, but argue against compassion and call for the protection of the Jewish community in Australia – one of the most privileged minorities in one of the world’s most prosperous countries.

In his letter, Mr Burd wrote of the threats to Jewish schools from Muslim extremists (never mind that the greatest threat to Jewish kids comes from the paedophiles that work in these schools) and other Jewish institutions, ending his indignant letter by saying:

With 12,000 Syrian asylum seekers  coming to Australia our government is playing Russian roulette with Jewish community safety.

Jewish refugee children arriving in London from Nazi Germany in 1939

Jewish refugee children arriving in London from Nazi Germany in 1939

It appalls me that an educated Jewish man, who probably lost relatives in Europe during the Holocaust, and would well know the long history of Jewish flight from persecution to set up new lives as refugees in countries like South Africa and Australia, should hold such intolerant beliefs and paint modern day refugees in such a negative light, particularly given current events in Europe, and around the world.

But it does not surprise me at all.

So many of the memories of my very Jewish upbringing (I had a Bar Mitzvah, attended a Jewish Day School, went to synagogue on the Sabbath) in South Africa are darkened by intolerance.

Here’s a phrase I remember well: ” Shiksas are good for sleeping with, just so long as you don’t marry them.”

A Shiksa, for those who don’t know is a non-Jewish woman.  Another word used constantly for non-Jew was ‘Yok’.

Then there were the constant references to the ‘schvartze‘ – a derogatory Yiddish word referring to a black person.

When I was growing up in South Africa, the schvartze was the black domestic worker toiling silently in the kitchen or the garden ‘boy’ (in fact a grown man) raking up the leaves from the swimming pool.

Words like shiksa and schvartze was said all the time by the very people who should have been my role models: my peers, older relatives and even those observant, ultra-religous Jews with their disapproving judgements of non-religous Jewish life.

Of course there have been many heroic Jews around the world who have fought for human rights and justice, who would be equally appalled at Mr Burd’s letter.

In South Africa, people like anti-apartheid heros Joe Slovo and Albie Sachs  and war crimes prosecutor Richard Goldstone spring to mind. Indeed, there is my own cousin Henry Brown,  who represented Nelson Mandela as a young lawyer in the 1960s.

But it is the intolerance within the Jewish community that has seen me drift further and further away from my faith.

Instead, i see my Jewishness, purely through cultural references and reminscences: the comedy and witticism of Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, the mournful hymns we use to sing in the beautiful old Germiston Synagogue on Saturday mornings, the lavish meals of chopped liver, marrow bones on challah, mock crayfish, matzoh ball soup, roast meats, potato kugel and parve chocolate mousse served for dessert.

“Girt by sea” and yet we fear an invasion of the desperate

“Our home is girt by sea”

So rings out the fourth line of the Australian anthem, Advance Australia Fair.

visa policy

“Girt” that awkward, uncomfortable word meaning “surrounded”.

But now the line is firmly planted in my head as the national debate about our hardline approach to asylum seekers continues.

I flicked on the radio last weekend and found myself tuning into a conversation on ABC Radio National (3RN) about the new immigration policy announced by our prime minister Kevin Rudd, which will see genuine asylum seekers settled in Papau New Guinea (PNG), a place he says is “an emerging economy with a strong future; a robust democracy which is also a signatory to the United Nations Refugees Convention”.

Not so says the government’s own travel advisory website, Smart Traveller, which has an “Exercise a high degree of caution” warning about PNG and has a list of things to be careful of that includes “high levels of serious crime”, public gatherings that may turn violent, “heightened risk of armed robbery and attack at well-attended shopping centres in urban areas” and an “increase in reported incidents of sexual assault, including gang rape [where] foreigners have been targeted”.

The list goes on and on making me wonder if the South African government should not have stepped in and offered my old town of Johannesburg as an alternative off-shore centre. It actually seems a lot safer and certainly offers better opportunities for economic advancement than PNG.

This apparent government contradiction on the merits of travelling to and residing in PNG fits in just about perfectly with our feverish, illogical, national obsession with asylum seekers who arrive by boats.

Indeed I have blogged about this very issue before – on Crikey.

This point was put most eloquently by professor Michelle Foster, director of the International Refugee Law Research Programme at Melbourne University, who said on the same radio program on 3RN that we have this strange fear of being invaded when in reality – surrounded or “girt” by water – it should be low down on our list of national fears.

Perhaps we should also consider some of the other lines of the anthem:

For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share;
With courage let us all combine
To Advance Australia Fair.

Sadly, the spirit encompassed in these words seem to have been forgotten or discarded when it comes to the most desperate in society seeking a new life on Australian shores.

The prime minister says we are punishing the “scourge of people smugglers” by effectively making their illegal trade null and void, but it is refugees who are being punished – banished to a strange island, rife with social problems, and according to this opinion piece in the Fairfax papers, where they will be left to fight for survival in squalid urban conditions, with no rights to own land due to their foreign-born status.

None of this makes any sense and must surely confound human rights advocates looking in from overseas who can only wonder what we mean by a “fair go”.

Asylum seekers are a small problem made huge by something in the national psyche that’s turned it into an enormous political minefield.

For those Australians who say these people will take their jobs – this is apparently the burning issue in the key Western Sydney electorate – consider the facts and do some research.

Official Department of Immigration figures show that 6,004 refugees came to Australia in 2011-12, less than 5% of the 190,000 economic migrants who arrived courtesy of ‘official’ migration programs.

So if anyone is going to take their jobs and jump queues it’s skilled migrants and their families, not refugees arriving by boat or any other means.

Indeed if you have $5 million to invest in Australian bonds or managed investment schemes, the Australian government will give you a visa to stay, without even the requirement that you learn the national language. Just hand over the dosh and the government will throw out the welcome mat, complete with a jar of vegemite and a bowl of lamingtons.

But for those who are the most desperate, who risk their lives on rickety boats, they will be dumped on an inhospitable island, one deemed by our own government to be dangerous and rife with crime to be forgotten.

Shameful!

(For more on this debate, these are some excellent opinion pieces worth reading from former Howard-era immigration minister Amanda Vandstone and Victoria Stead is a researcher at RMIT University’s Globalism Research Centre.)