This opinion piece was first published by the Australian Financial Review and is reposted here with permission. Read the original here.
As a Jewish Australian, whose professional and personal life focusses on protecting the rights of individuals in Australia and abroad, it has been a devastating week. Having long advocated that our Constitution, drafted by a narrowly representative cohort of white men in the 1890s, was sorely in need of change, I was hoping we could begin with a constitutional amendment to finally recognise First Nations Australians in a meaningful way. It would have demonstrated that we have the power to update our Constitution as it was always envisaged and lighted a path to further renewal of a document in profound need of further change.
The sadness associated with this lost opportunity for Australia and its First Nations’ people is mingled with the horror surrounding events in Israel that began a week before the Voice to Parliament referendum.
Many Jewish Australians were actively supporting the Voice to Parliament and the links between First Nations Australians activism and the Jewish community run deep. In December 1938 William Cooper, a Yorta Yorta man, on hearing the news of Kristallnacht wrote, “We protest wholeheartedly .. the cruel persecution of the Jewish people. Our people have suffered much cruelty, exploitation and misunderstanding as a minority at the hands of another people…the Nazi government has a consulate here on our land. Let us go there and make our protest known.’ And he did.
It is hard to imagine any Jewish person in the world, not being profoundly affected as the horrors of Saturday 7th October unfolded. It would not only have surfaced memories linked to the experiences William Cooper was protesting against, but of stories of earlier pogroms in Russia and Poland that led to immigration to Australia at the end of the 19th and early 20th century, including of one of my ancestors.
Events in Israel were also close to home for the non-Jewish Australian academics who joined me in January 2023 visiting Israel and the Palestinian territories. We have a photograph standing on the border of Israel and Gaza from Kibbutz Kfar Azza, the scene of such suffering on 7th October. A mother who showed us children’s classrooms built as bomb shelter protection, gazed through the barbed wire fences saying: ‘I am sure there are women in their homes over there who yearn for peace as much as I do.’
Indeed, many women are members of the 45,000 plus Women Wage Peace (WWP) movement. Founded in the aftermath of the Gaza War of 2014, WWP’s approach to the conflict, and its resolution, is through a gendered lens.
Non-partisan, the group works to empower women from diverse communities to build trust across divides, to achieve a unified demand for diplomatic negotiation, with full representation of women, to end the conflict.
It is hard to know where that trust now lies. Vivian Silver, a Canadian Israeli peace activist, one of the founders of WWP, is believed to have been taken captive on October 7th following the Hamas invasion of her Kibbutz. One of her colleagues wrote to me “knowing Vivian, I just know that if she is alive, she is providing reassurance and structure to her fellows in captivity.” Vivian’s son, in the spirit of his mother’s lifelong work is advocating —‘vengeance is not a strategy’.
No matter how one views the Palestinian Israel conflict, the response in Australia to the events in Israel leaves one uneasy. Calling out the brutality of Hamas has not been a given in all cases and critics of Israel have been quick to refocus away from the atrocities to Israel’s response — justifying hypothetically ex post facto unspeakable atrocities committed against innocents.
There are some issues, that must and should rise above party political ends. Constitutional referendums should not be partisan and, when it came to the Voice, so much effort was expended over many years to prevent it. So too, the reaction to outright terrorism, and the events on October 7th in Israel. These should be beyond politics. They demand rather a multi-partisan human response to the impact on ordinary human beings; those Israelis on the ground whose lives are forever changed, and those Palestinian families yearning for peace in Gaza and captive to Hamas control that strikes at Israeli citizens and exposes them to any retaliatory consequences.
I read last Saturday morning Marcia Langton’s response to outgoing race discrimination commissioner Chin Tan’s call for the need for a national anti-racism strategy following the referendum campaign. Acknowledging it as a rational response to the overwhelming surge in race hate and antisemitism during the referendum, including Neo Nazis spreading vile falsehoods in videos and memes, she stated ‘if he’s talking about bipartisanship in overcoming racial discrimination, he is dreaming.’ Shockingly, awareness of the existence of antisemitism in Australia has only grown since the recent events in Israel. As an advocate for citizenship rights, peaceful protests are key to our liberal democratic underpinnings, but not in a manner undermining the safety and well-being of others. Members of the Australian Jewish and Palestinian communities should try to stand in each other’s shoes, praying for a means to have the captives returned safely and for Palestinian civilians lives to be valued.
I have received so many messages of support from friends and colleagues over this past week. One that we should all remember is to ‘spare some time to do something nice every day that reminds you of what the world could be – the just and feminist world we’re working towards, despite these dark times.’ This we must do, continuing to work towards reconciliation at home and a speedy peace overseas, ‘where nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.’
Picture: Broken glass on the background of the explosion in the Israel city. Image created with generative AI. Picture: Adobe
Kim Rubenstein is a Professor in the Faculty of Business Government and Law at the University of Canberra, which has supported the production of the new podcast series It’s not just the vibe, It’s the Constitution. She is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Law and the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia.