When I read The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir in 1965 at just 15 years of age, I was immediately aware of some of the similarities between religious discrimination, albeit persecution, and that of the female gender. As a teenage Jewish female, I was very cognisant of the anti-Semitic reality of my parents’ experience in Eastern Europe in the 1920s, and tragically, too, of the extermination of six million Jews by the Nazis in concentration camps and on the streets of many countries even before Nazi control. For many years, I wrestled with the analogy between the two, trying to understand if there were any differences and if so, what were they? As the Women’s Liberation Movement established itself as a force for change in the late 60s and early 70s, detailing the oppression of women, the rhetoric of championing the cause for equality and justice for women resounded with the same demands as the calls for Jewish equality and an end to persecution. My commitment to the liberation of women was no less than a logical and rational analysis of their social, almost internationally universal, gender inferiority and second-class status, as I similarly realised about the Jews on acquiring some knowledge about our history. Growing up in quasi-orthodox religious environs, the Jews’ flight from Egypt to escape oppression under the Pharaohs was an annual celebration, marked by the festival in the Judaic calendar known as The Passover. The two distinct realities had at their basis, much in common, even if the so-called perpetrators of their oppression manifested these realities as different. And of course, the Nazis’ oppression was fanatical and evil in its extreme. Was female oppression that much different?
When I visited Dachau concentration camp in 1975 as a 25-year-old, I walked around with an acute awareness about difference and the consequent oppression for millions who defied the stereotype, Ayran version of perfection. It was not just The Jews of course, but hundreds of thousands of others who, for whatever myriad of reasons, did NOT conform to the image of being perfect; albeit normal, as the Nazis perceived this to be. What was the difference for me as a Jew and/or as a female in my life when I, too, had experienced rampant discrimination, call it oppression and/or persecution, simply for wanting to do things in my life that were deemed to be male-only? I did not want to settle for marital bliss in suburbia, nor be a mother at home caring only for her husband and children, and furthermore, was not a passive or submissive female who was prepared to kow tow to NOT just men, but women, too, who tried to circumscribe my desires and ambitions. I was very well aware of how confused, even depressed at times, I’d been emotionally and intellectually by these stereotypes of female subordination and subservience in my late teens, trying to understand the subtle, even covert, assault on my senses to be another kind of female: one who didn’t argue, get angry and was always a “lady”- feminine, quiet, and genteel, when naturally, I was almost the opposite; too loud, too outspoken, too argumentative and altogether, too unladylike. Moreover, I loved male-only pursuits such as Australian Rules football, politics and sex. I’ve written in other blogs about all of this, and it took many years to clarify and unravel just what a threat to the status quo my individual and particular femaleness was. Not just to men, but sadly for me, many women, too.
The Jews of course were caricatured by Nazi propaganda, borrowed sadly from centuries of stereotypes as miserly, mean, murderers, and of course more infamously, as the Christ killer. I grew up hearing and reading about it all; and as the Jews were pilloried for their religious faith and beliefs, so too, were millions of women throughout history as witches in Salem, evil purveyors of sex (read The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne) and sadly today, are still raped, murdered and tortured for no other reason than being female. For no other reason than being Jewish. What’s the difference?
Today in the newspaper were articles about threats to Jewish community organisations in a Jewish community building in suburban Melbourne by terrorists (as they’re now called) and on the same page, an article about controversy involving a civil court case about whether to build a mosque for Muslims in a regional town in Victoria. The juxtaposition was brilliant as the stories were published alongside each other and partly on the same page, but while many people living in the regional town in Victoria are opposed to building a mosque there as it might lead to an influx of Muslims into the town (I don’t know if there is a Jewish synagogue in the town), the State Government in Victoria has given the Jewish community in Melbourne $500,000 to fortify their community building to make it secure and safe. What, I have pondered is the difference? Both situations are indeed tragic; the Jews having to spend millions on protecting themselves and the Muslims unable to secure the right to build their own house of worship because of religious bigotry and fear. What’s the difference when fear appears to be the common denominator albeit slightly differently, in both cases? I’m not suggesting for one second that The Jews don’t need to take action, but why is there no outcry supporting the Muslims’ right to worship? Moreover, the government is giving the Jewish community much money when many women in our community feel unsafe and insecure walking the streets of Melbourne for fear of being raped and assaulted because there are not enough police to go around (not enough taxpayers’ money to pay them). Moreover, hundreds of thousands of women, children and men, too, have few secure and safe places to live to escape family violence in the community. And what about the homeless, often teenage people escaping family violence, too, who sleep under bridges and the poor who cannot feed not just themselves, but their children? You can draw your own conclusions about what I’m writing about; needless to say, exactly where do our Government’s priorities lie when taxpayers’ money is funding the Jewish community but women have to endure and live in fear, too? What are we doing in our society? I am Jewish too, and have been assaulted in the street for being Jewish, as I’ve penned previously, but I’ve also detailed the psychological violence by my sister and the fear I live with from her among others. Not for being Jewish, but for being the kind of female I am, no more or less.
There are many people in this country experiencing oppression (and the dictionary defines this as persecution) for all sorts of ugly, irrational and illogical reasons (so-called) – so many isms I could go on and on; be it racism, sexism, religion, ageism etc but for me, the reality is that there’s no difference to the assault on my person as a Jew and/or as a female. Neither is there any difference to the assault on Muslims in the regional town, or our aborigines, black immigrants etc The list of those oppressed and persecuted is sadly, almost endless. Both the Jews, women and so many millions of others still fight against oppression, discrimination and humiliation, at work, at home and at play, and I write this just to make the point clear as to what INDEED, IS the difference? My own history tells me there isn’t one that’s credible, authentic and realistic!