“Something you can’t run away from”

Felix Donovan and Subeta Vimalarajah explore the complex nature of Jewish identity in contemporary Australia.

jewish synagogue

David

You took a different path into Moriah College. Moving away from your family’s strong ties to the Jewish community in Sydney, you attended Woollahra in years 5 and 6, one of just two Jewish kids in the year.

You were obviously bright and independent even then. When your parents let you choose which school you would go to, you picked Sydney Boys High School: a secular selective school near Moore Park. The social scene in which you found yourself was decidedly non-Jewish: public schools and soccer teams outside of the Jewish community.

After you enrolled at Sydney High, you visited Israel with your family for the first time. “Something clicked”, you said. Your brother’s bar mitzvah was held in Jerusalem – on a date not far from the 40th anniversary of the Six Day War, you added. You went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum, and stayed for half the day. You cried the whole way through it. 

And when you got back to Sydney, you decided that Sydney High was not the school for you. You starting learning Hebrew, and enrolled at Moriah College instead. 

***

A couple of months ago, amidst Max Brenner sit-ins and weekly pro-Palestine rallies, the usually quiet Australian Union of Jewish Students emerged with a response. Launching a campaign across Australia, AUJS paired images of rockets fired at universities with the question, “What would you do?” At the University of Sydney, we were asked to hypothesise “Imagine: UNSW terrorists fired thousands of rockets at USYD”. A press release billed this as “busting the myths and providing perspective on the current conflict”.

This isn’t the only recent AUJS initiative. In their “Letter to Universities”, all Vice-Chancellors and student representatives are called to “keep a watchful eye against any manner of anti-Semitic activity”, including “anti-Israel motions” that “make Jewish students feel alienated, uncomfortable and threatened”.

We saw these campaigns and wanted to know where the came from. We were used to SRC resolutions that condemn Israel and fiery media debate, but activism from pro-Israeli students at a university known for left wing politics was unexpected. Our first reaction was to think that the origins of AUJS lay in Jewish schools that – we presumed – presented blinkered ideas of the Israel-Palestine conflict. When we started talking to Jewish students we thought they would unanimously speak of propagandist tours of Israel and Zionist Jewish studies classes. That wasn’t the case. Instead of blind righteousness and devotion to the homeland, these campaigns reflect a sense of persecution, a close knit Sydney Jewish community that encourages feelings of suspicion rather than superiority.

***

Elliot

You took a critical approach to your Jewish identity from a young age. When you were nine your parents suggested you join a Jewish student movement. They suggested their own – but even then with a quick Google search, you rebuffed them. Instead, you joined Habonim Dror, a socialist Zionist group: the furthest left of the Jewish student movements. 

Your adolescence has the markers of the quintessential Sydney Jewish student. You went to Emanuel and you spent a year in Israel with Habonim Dror, which you “loved”. But you’ve always been remarkably critical – in Jewish studies you felt “Zionism was pushed down my throat”, you remark that St Ives is a “Jewish dome” in which alternate perspectives are rarely recognised. 

Despite being on the political fringes of the Jewish community, “one of the more critical” members, years out of school you are still heavily involved. You’ve dabbled in Young Labor, the Greens, you went up to Socialist Alternative when you began university, but ultimately Habonim Dror still consumes your time. You spend every Sunday and at planning meetings, hoping to help Jewish students understand their cultural identity, as the movement helped you to. 

***

The Jewish community in Sydney is a tight-knit one. Not only is it connected by Jewish schools, synagogues and community groups, but geographical closeness. Of the Sydney Jewish population, 63 per cent live in the Eastern suburbs, 22 per cent on the North Shore: the ‘bubble’ and the ‘dome’. Sydney’s three prominent Jewish schools, Moriah College, Masada and Emanuel, are all located in either this “bubble” or “dome”. As you’d expect, the links between the institutions are strong, cultivated primarily through Jewish cultural festivals.

Informal connections exist, but these are also encouraged by school administrations. Schools are the primary recruiting grounds for Jewish student movements, with university students allowed on school grounds during lunch to chat to high school students about joining their movements, or give presentations to that effect. Schools have also, on occasion, allowed the movements to replace teachers in Jewish Studies classes.

Jewish student movements have been very successful recruiters. At schools like Moriah and Emmanuel some estimates put the number of students involved in a movement to be at about 20 per cent. It’s the equivalent of a three days a week part time job for the organisers. They have to recruit, teach and plan activities like camps. For most of the people involved the movements offer very similar things to other strong social groups: fun, something to do, people to hang out with, a place to feel comfortable. But most social groups don’t culminate in a year-long stay in Israel.

Although there is a significant degree of similarity in recruiting and organising methods, Jewish student movements vary in ideology greatly. They range from cultural movements populated by critics of Israeli defence policy to orthodox movements that assist in organizing pro-Israeli rallies.

***

Chris*

Being Jewish is raised as a challenge for you now. A rapper in the fringe music scene in Sydney, Jewish colleagues are rare. You are the one who is asked about Israel, to ‘justify this’, to ‘defend this’. You’ve left traditional Jewish communities – eschewing the Jewish student movements you signed up for in early high school to pursue your interest in skateboarding, graphic design and music – but you haven’t left your Jewish identity. “It’s something you can’t run away from”.

The only time interest is piqued in your identity – the only time your Jewishness is acknowledged – is when the conflict flares up. It’s telling that when we ask you about your politics, all three of us would have laughed if you’d said which party you voted for in the last election. Your politics is defined by the actions of the Israeli Defence Force. Sometimes it must feel like your Jewishness is too. 

You don’t like to rap about Jewishness or Israel because you don’t want to alienate people. Yet you say that you feel like a “messenger for your community”. It’s a role that is thrust upon you rather than chosen. 

***

Anthony

‘A dissident’. That was your self-assessment, crafted by years of being the secular critic of Israel at Emmanuel College. When Jewish studies was made mandatory for all year 11s just as you finished year 10, you staged what must have been a lonely sit-in in the principal’s office. You hated the aspects of “institutionalised religion”, resenting weekly prayers and even the certain cultural traditions of Judaism the school sought to uphold. Micro-protest was redefined when you ate bacon in class, knowing some of your peers were keeping kosher. Perhaps because of such things, your dissent was the subject of some eye-rolling from those who knew you in school. 

Yet you never renounced your Jewishness. Asked whether being Jewish was important to you, you were reflective and honest. “I’d like to say it isn’t, but I’d be being dishonest.” All your friends growing up were Jewish, and even now, at a university and in a degree known for its WASPiness, you can’t shake it. Your friends are almost all non-white, if not from Jewish backgrounds then from Syrian, Greek or Italian families. It’s a shared experience and knowledge of what it “feels like to be a minority” that binds you together. 

***

Reflections on Jewish Studies classes are varied, dependent on both student and school. The curriculum is largely set at the discretion of the school or teacher in question, and most schools opt for an education in Jewish history and culture. Although largely apolitical, it’s when Rabbis like Moriah’s Benji Levy are involved that the classes take on propagandist tone. At a large protest in early August, Levy was quoted by The Daily Telegraph defending recent Israeli actions in Gaza, saying ‘We are trying to create peace, they are trying to create terror.’

The ideological and cultural education offered by the schools is not limited by the curriculum. Last year, Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who spent five years imprisoned by Hamas, addressed the 1800 Jewish students from across Sydney in an event organised by Moriah College. In late July this year, year 4 students at a Jewish primary school in Melbourne were asked to write letters to IDF soldiers. In one letter decorated with illustrations of the Israeli flag, Abby of class 4D wrote, ‘Dear Israely Soldier, I admire the way you are fighting for Israel.’

Of course, most Jewish schools don’t ask nine-year olds to write letters to foreign armies. But foregrounding Jewish identity, and teaching Jewish history is one of the important functions of these schools. For many parents that hold fears the Jewish community may be eroding, or that Jewish culture and traditions are being forgotten, Jewish schools are the bulwark against secularisation.

***

Steph

You had no qualms in telling us that being Jewish was “like 100%” of your identity. Jewishness for you is not about religious observance. It’s defined by family tradition, a sense of solidarity and a close-knit community. You fit Israel into that picture, for although you’ve never been, you said you felt “a very strong call” to go. Your friends and family have all been, it was an experience expected of you by most and something you regretted to admit every time you returned from travelling elsewhere. 

Despite an insistence to stay away from politics, a question about AUJS prompted you on a topic you could “talk about for hours” – contemporary anti-Semitism. You kept clarifying that these were probably isolated incidents, that it was just people being stupid on Facebook and that you hadn’t necessarily experienced anything personally. But then you spoke of “senseless vitriol towards Jewish people”, the “very unsettling” comments of friends, the “anti-Semitic hate fuelled” abuse you
had perceived. 

You’re studying a history of the Holocaust this semester and it was this that led you to conclude the events of the present – break-ins in France, the bus attack in the Eastern suburbs, although isolated incidents were “reminiscent of pre-World War II”. 

***

Anti-Semitism in Sydney is real. On August 7, five men boarded a bus that was taking Jewish children to school and shouted “Heil Hitler!” and “Kill the Jews”. On August 26, flyers were distributed to Eastern suburbs homes that warned of a Jewish conspiracy and demanded that “white Australia” should “wake up”. This is following the furore that was sparked in July when the Sydney Morning Herald printed a cartoon of a hook-nosed Jew holding a remote detonator.

It is events like this that contribute to the idea that anti-Semitism doesn’t just exist on the fringes of society, but is part of the mainstream. Meanwhile, the left- which usually assumes responsibility for policing racist speech in Australia- seems to be tempered in its condemnation of anti-Semitism by an ideological alignment with Palestine, and a conflation of Australian Jews with the powerful state of Israel. This silence, in comparison with their vociferous denunciation of other forms of racism, seems to cement the impression that it is solely the Jewish community that seriously fights against anti-Semitism.

But there is something else at play here. The President of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria has said that recent events in Australia bear “overtones of 1930s Germany”. The Executive Council of Australian Jewry has accused the apolitical, humanitarian Save the Children of holding anti-Israel bias. Jewish schools bring in psychologists to prepare their students for the anti-Semitism that awaits them beyond the bubble.

Most of the people we talked to heard about the August 7 bus attack because news of it inundated their Facebook newsfeeds, and was then discussed at length with family and friends. “I used to catch that bus, it could have been me”, one person reflected. When a 60 Minutes special on Jews in Australia aired in late July, that too was disseminated and talked, with much of the Jewish community expressing outrage at the perceived anti-Semitism of the program. At times, this outrage seems to suggest that other racial minorities in Australia aren’t subjected to the volume of discrimination that Jewish people face.

We expect communities to offer people security. When people with similar backgrounds and identities come together, we expect them to take comfort and strength in their shared experiences. But in manufacturing emotional links with the state of Israel, by focusing on the anti-Semitic persecution that still exists, the Jewish community may instead be
offering a sense of insecurity.

***

Dave, continued

If there is a defining character, it is you. You’re academically talented, play football well enough to still be doing it and are socially comfortable with two strangers quizzing you about your identity. Everyone speaks highly of you. Even you – resolutely modest – have to admit that you’re well liked. School captains usually are. 

Even so, anti-Semitism has still stung you, is still something you haven’t been able to brush off. You said that the insults have rarely been obvious. Nobody ever said ‘you fucking Jew’. But once, in high school, you went to play a secular public school and the other team’s players were joking and laughing as they walked onto the field. This bothered you, as you told us, “Do I have any doubt that they’re on the bus beforehand laughing about Jews, making jokes? I have no doubt.”

We asked whether you had ever experienced anti-Semitism at this university. You hadn’t, but you added that one of your friends had been threatened by someone putting up anti-Israel posters on Eastern Avenue. Then, a day later, you sent one of us a picture of some graffiti you’d come across on campus with the message “I know I told you I haven’t experienced anti-Semitism in a while on campus – well that streak is over”. 

*Name has been changed.

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