The occasion of the Parliamentary apology offered to Indigenous Australians gives cause for reflection.
When I attended the inaugural meeting of Faith Communities for Aboriginal Reconciliation on behalf of the Jewish community, I was overwhelmed by the high regard in which so many Indigenous leaders held Australian Jewry.
For some, it was the role of Ron Castan in the ground-breaking Mabo legal action; for others Jim Spigelman as a Freedom Rider; for yet another group Professor Colin Tatz’s research and advocacy. For still others, what had impressed them was contact with many other individuals such as Barry Cohen; who were proudly Jewish and in the vanguard of advocacy of justice for Indigenous Australians.
In a sense, I was unusual as a Jewish Australian of my generation in having worked with and known a number of Indigenous Australians since my school days. However, knowledge of individuals was not the same as knowledge of history and contemporary circumstances, and I was fortunate to be able to learn about fellow Australians in a way many in previous generations were not.
At the National Reconciliation Convention, I was flattered and honoured to be asked to present on behalf of Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Bahai, Hindu, Jewish and other faith communities.
When groups such as the Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation and the Sorry Day Committee were established, prominent community members, including a number of presidents of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, proudly identified themselves with the various campaigns.
In latter years, AIJAC National Chairman Mark Leibler was one of a handful of truly prominent figures working for justice for Indigenous Australians. Meanwhile, others, such as Amanda Gordon on the NSW Reconciliation Council, have maintained a vanguard role.
Motivations may have varied, but it appears clear that Jewish experience and Jewish teaching have inculcated a revulsion at racism and an innate understanding of the need to support victims of discrimination.
Another consistent feature which has united many of the Jewish individuals and organisations involved in this issue has been the belief in a better future, articulating a vision of a world more just than that in which we currently live. Assumptions that there was something natural or immutable about an unfair order were clearly rejected, replaced with a vision of a tolerant, diverse and fair society.
The apology was symbolic, but an essential part of the process of national reconciliation. It came after a period of self-reflection and consciousness-raising.
Governments have invested time, money and energy into addressing the concerns of the neediest and most vulnerable. Various churches have revolutionised the relationship with people they once saw as in need not just of religious but also cultural salvation.
Various educational and professional bodies have begun to explore ways of helping Indigenous Australians gain skills and qualifications.
When the Federal Government convenes its 2020 Summit, it is to be hoped that both visions and planning are developed towards an Australia which celebrates our history and our contemporary religious and cultural diversity, in which all segments of the community feel valued and value their country.
It is deeply disappointing that Jewish Australians who will be celebrating the Passover are precluded from accepting invitations to participate. The decision to convene over a weekend, rather than the mid-week days in which many major conferences are held, already raised issues for Sabbath-observing Jews and Christians, indicating that the planners were not sufficiently conscious of the religious, multi-faith nature of Australian society.
Religious communities are in the forefront of reconciliation. In every social justice endeavour in which I have been involved, committed Christians, Jews, Bahais and others have been vastly over-represented. Their religious belief helped them formulate a vision of a better Australia, an Australia which also understands religious diversity and maximises the ability of all Australians to contribute to our future. There is still much to be done before this vision is realised.