As a country, Australia is oft celebrated as a great testament of tolerance, where violent conflicts involving religious persecution, racial hatred and bigoted prejudice are no more than a whisper of white supremacy chanted by the few and silenced by the many. It was in this supposed harmonious environment that I grew up in Melbourne in the 1950s and 1960s as a Jew, where I could wander the streets of suburbia without fear of rancour or rage against me. Indeed at primary school, I never experienced anything remotely discriminatory or abusive, despite my foreign name, and was warmly accepted by all my Christian school friends as one of them. There was nothing to mark me as different except for not celebrating Christmas and Easter. And that was never anything I felt as awkward or uncomfortable. Certainly, I was aware of the White Australian Policy; there were no Asian classmates and no African children to play with. Furthermore, I never even saw an indigenous Australian walking around our streets or as fellow students at school. They were all too often regarded as people who lived in this country thousands of years ago and were now all too easily displaced somewhere else, somewhere I didn’t even know about. At high school however, there were a few Asian students in attendance as participants in the now defunct Colombo Plan, and as far as I was aware, we shared common educational aspirations. These students seemed to congregate in unison, while the rest of us, a motley mix of British and European descendants, became each others’ friends. On the surface at least, there appeared no discord. It was at the football, of the Australian Rules variety, that I first encountered an undercurrent of racism in our midst, with abuse hurled too often, and on several occasions, at the handful of indigenous footballers then playing in the league. And little was ever done about it with even less said about it. Moreover, I also heard for the first time, an anti-semitic remark directed at my male companion, called “a b.. Jew!” by an opposition supporter. My companion, then in his mid 20s, wanted to throw a punch at the culprit, but thankfully, the man’s mates pulled him away from us and we never saw him again. I never heard any more anti-semitic comments at the football and I’ve been attending games for more than 51 years. Of course, indigenous footballers, even an indigenous umpire, copped racial abuse for decades, but now, in the 21st century, racially abusive supporters are simply ejected from the grounds if reported by those around them. For the past few decades, federal laws prohibit racial and religious vilification. But does that stop it from happening?
Imagine my shock when just two years ago, I was walking obliviously down a suburban shopping street in Collingwood on a gloriously sunny, Sunday afternoon en route to my local supermarket, when I was suddenly confronted by an Australian woman, dressed shabbily with an emaciated visage and skeletal body, and aged somewhere in her late 30s, accusing me of persecuting HER religion. I’m Jewish, I replied, as if that meant she should have known better, to which she simply stated “Yes, I know”. Why I said what I said I’m not sure, it just came out of my mouth, believing I suppose, that I would be the last person to persecute anyone because of their religion, my own history residing somewhere, albeit unconsciously, in my psyche. I was visibly wearing a necklace of the Star of David and not wanting any further ado, I walked into the closest shop alongside us. She followed me in, slapped me hard across my back and yelled “You Jewish C….!” She departed quickly.
I was left standing in disbelief; the salesgirl (it was a clothes recycle shop) asked if I wanted to sit down, offering me a glass of water. Starting to shake, I left the shop and walked uncomfortably to the supermarket, simultaneously hiding my Star of David under my jumper. I felt scared; my mind going over the last couple of minutes in horror and amazement, buying my few items of shopping and hurriedly walking the ten minutes home. Inside my apartment, I poured myself a glass of wine, smoked a cigarette and wondered over and over again how this could have happened in 2011 in gorgeous Melbourne in broad daylight. The woman I believed was under the influence of drugs; she certainly looked like a heroin user as the street was renowned for, but such an outburst? I just couldn’t believe it.
I had grown up in a quasi-Orthodox Jewish family that kept kosher, attended synagogue on the High Holydays and talked often about the Holocaust. My parents had arrived in Australia from Eastern Europe in the late 1920s as young children and had fortunately escaped the brutal, sadistic slaughter of the Nazi regime; though many of their extended family members were sadly, not so lucky, too many perishing in concentration camps. Despite my religious upbringing, I questioned my parents’ blind faith in God as a young adolescent (as I perceived it at the time) and while I felt very Jewish, I just could not believe in the religious tenets of Judaism. I still don’t. Yes, I travelled to Israel at 19 and worked on a kibbutz for three months in some attempt to understand the meaning of being Jewish (among other things), but my restless quest for some sense of it all stayed unrequited in the Promised Land. In my late teens and early twenties, I had just a few Jewish friends, but these were soon replaced by gentiles, who had been raised as Christians but jettisoned their faith and were then avowed atheists. So as an unbeliever of Judaism, why was I wearing the Star of David on that Sunday afternoon? Indeed, one of my few Jewish friends often said to me when I started wearing it she would be too paranoid to don the Star in Melbourne and suffice to say I was aghast at her response. This was Australia, not Europe during the war, I told her. Moreover, there had been many times in my past I had worn such a Star, in Spain where I lived for five months during Franco’s rule in the mid-1970s and occasionally, in Britain where I worked for more than seven years. But why I wore the Star that Sunday afternoon in 2011 is simple; I may not be religious or indeed a practising Jew, but however inexplicable it is, I feel very Jewish. Maybe it’s my heritage and my history; the reason no longer matters to me, it’s just the way I feel and part of my identity. Initially, I purchased the Star of David for my mother when she was in her 80s. Over the years, we had had many difficult discussions about how I had, according to her perspective, abandoned my Jewishness. I always denied that was the case, and I suppose buying her the Star of David was my attempt, however much it was misunderstood, to let her know that I was still very Jewish, however much she failed to acknowledge it. Just before she passed away, she gave the Star of David back to me and said that I should wear it. That was more than six years previous to the day of the attack in the street. My mother had passed away shortly after giving me the necklace and I wore it day and night, never taking it off until that terrible Sunday.
Over the years, I have had friends of different religious convictions; a male Catholic who adhered to the Pope’s dictum of decrying abortion, a black, Fijian girl who was a devout Christian and church goer and during my employment, was joined by a Muslim young woman who practised Islam. I had several conversations about religion with these friends, as well as others, always respecting their faith despite my intellectual reason dismissing the merits of their beliefs, at least for me. It was always an enriching experience to listen to their views and the whys and hows of their convictions; and I still enjoy listening to religious discussions by learned people. However much I appreciate that too many wars have been supposedly waged over matters of faith, with so much seemingly futile death and suffering, I still fervently support the human right to enjoy freedom of worship and belief. It is the extreme fundamentalists in too many religions who too often create havoc and heartache for millions of people around the world. While the Jewish people may express sorrow at the anti-semitism that still exists in the world today, and indeed, many still suffer because of it, since 9/11 in Australia, I believe it is the Muslims who must sadly countenance much hatred against them far more often than the Jews or even the Aborigines. In my job, I once talked to an adolescent Muslim girl who wore the hijab and was being banned from playing in a local soccer competition because of it. It was just after 9/11, and she told me in horrific detail about being spat on in the street as a Muslim in northern Melbourne and abused as a terrorist whenever she ventured outside her house. She became too frightened to leave the safety of her home environs. And hers is not an isolated case. Reading and listening to the constant media reports as well as being an incorrigible eavesdropper, I know only too well how many migrants and refugees in this country are still subjected to racist and religious abuse; be it on public transport, at a cafe sipping a latte or playing sport on a field in the city or country. I hear contemptuous, malicious and ignorant bigotry over and over again, whether it be slandering all Catholics because of the sexual abuse of some of the clergy, lambasting asylum seekers because of their colour or beliefs and sadly, still denigrating indigenous people wherever they may be. The laws we enshrined in this country may have been promulgated to establish a regime of tolerance and harmony, but beneath the surface of some people, there still exists layers of prejudice and hatred that flare in the most unlikely of settings as I discovered for myself.
After that Sunday afternoon attack, I didn’t wear my Star of David for about 18 months, putting it away in a drawer to be kept as an emotional talisman of my relationship with my mother. I didn’t want to be assaulted or receive any further abuse. Six months ago, I realised I was covertly acquiescing with defeat and subverting all efforts to eradicate racism by no longer wearing the Star. Indeed, I came to understand that by no longer parading the Star around my neck, I was surrendering to the abusive madness of hatred and bigotry, tacitly accepting the complacency of a tolerant belief system in this country. It was tantamount to letting the woman who abused me, and all the other religious vilifiers and racists, attain victory for their ugly diatribes, making a mockery of our laws and our tolerance. Most Australians, I contend, are probably tolerant and accepting of others, however different. But when Jews were forced by Nazi Law to wear a large, yellow cloth Star of David as a symbol of contempt, prejudice and pure hatred by the Nazis, for me now, wearing my silver star is an important way to proclaim the freedom we DO have in this country to believe in whatever religion we choose, providing it does no harm to others. It is a significant step in appreciating the diversity in Australia we should all be proud of, our identity as a homogenous and multicultural society that allows, even at times encourages, the expression of difference. Of course, as a nation, we are far from perfect as a tolerant democracy, but the benevolent manner in which most of us accept this diversity deserves to be applauded, even cherished. We must always fight to maintain this. Australia, as many said about America decades ago, is a melting pot of not just race and religion, but of innovation, ideas and imagination, no less because of our diversity. That’s not to say that the challenge to protest against all misguided prejudice is still not paramount; but by maintaining my silence and denying my heritage by not wearing the Star of David out of fear of abuse and attack, I was participating in a cover-up of an insidious religious hatred that is still extant in Australia, however disguised it may be. Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists et al can all be fair game for the perpetrators of hatred. I wear the necklace now to affirm my belief that most Australians are tolerant and welcoming to all people whatever their race or religion, but we MUST not allow our vigilance against abuse of any kind to waiver. That is the quest now; to ensure we fight for freedom for all and refuse to allow any form of pernicious tirade against anyone to run rampant unchecked in our midst!