The unfolding story of Australian-Israeli Ben Zygier has reawakened an age-old prejudice that is a blight on the idea of Australia as a multicultural place – the lack of condemnation even more so.
ABC Religion and Ethics – 4 Mar 2013
Public debate in Australia has taken on a dark and worrying tone over the past few weeks. Recent revelations about the disturbing circumstances surrounding the death of Australian-Israeli Ben Zygier raised a spectre of racial hatred that most Jewish-Australians had hoped would have been left behind in the middle of the last century.
I have been watching Zygier’s story unfold during a brief trip to America. During this time, I was reminded of a particularly unpleasant experience that I had a few years ago as I ordered a sandwich in fast-food chain on New York’s Upper West side. I cannot recall precisely how the question of my ethnicity arose in conversation with the man asking me whether I wanted my bread toasted, although it probably had something to do with why I did not want to order the bacon. What I vividly remember was his response after he found out that I was Jewish: “So, where are you from?”
“Australia,” I replied. He then said, “No really, where? Tel Aviv? Haifa? Where are you from?” I responded by slowly and carefully enunciating each syllable: “I’m … from … Australia.” The conversation ended with an incredulous shake of his head as I moved down the sandwich line.
Though a minor exchange, but it was a moment that has stuck with me. The sandwich line in the most Jewish city in the world outside of Israel is the last place I would have expected my Australian identity to be questioned. The incident was a striking reminder that, sadly, even the bastion of Jewish culture that is Manhattan is not free from deeply-held racial prejudices.
The way that these prejudices are constructed is often confusing for those who are unfamiliar with the nature of anti-Jewish racism. Reading the work of Wilhelm Marr, the man who coined the term “anti-Semitism” and founded the League of Antisemites, it seems as though he is filled with a kind of grudging admiration and respect for the Jewish people. He sung the Jews’ praises, explaining how this “semitic race” was so superior to the “Occidental peoples” – such as the Germans – that it was only a matter of time before the “Jewish spirit” triumphed and the “German spirit” was extinguished.
It is only with some perspective that one can understand how the publication of The Victory of Judaism over Germanism made a substantial contribution to the extermination of six million Jews 60 years later. Those compliments were incidental to the underlying message:
“Jews are not like us Germans. They are a hostile race that is infiltrating our society, and destroying our people and our spirit. They pose a threat to our very way of being. They are not, and never will be, a part of us. Whether we realise it or not, we are in a struggle against them for our very existence.”
Theories such as this led to the ostracisation of Jews from European societies for all but what Hannah Arendt called “clearly distinguished exceptions from the Jewish masses” in her seminal analysis of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century anti-Semitism, The Origins of Totalitarianism. As she explained:
“Jews who heard the strange compliment that they were exceptions, exceptional Jews, knew quite well that it was this very ambiguity that they were Jews and yet presumably not like Jews which opened the doors of society to them. If they desired this kind of intercourse, they tried, therefore, ‘to be and yet not to be Jews’.”
There is nothing new or original about the idea that Jews cannot be loyal members of society. It was those sentiments that my sandwich-server was channelling when he questioned whether a Jew like me could possibly be Australian. And it is the same sentiments that have led prominent Australian journalists and academics to use Ben Zygier’s death as an excuse for a witch-hunt against Australia’s Jewish community in its entirety.
This was exemplified by Sydney University Professor Ben Saul’s proclamation in the Fairfax press that “There comes a point where a Jewish person cannot faithfully be both Australian and Israeli. One has to choose.” Saul’s statement harks straight back to Arendt’s contention. Jews in Australia must be exceptions in order to be Australian. We are not permitted to have ties to the Jewish homeland or the Jewish national movement. It is not enough that we have the same rights and obligations as other Australians, that we were born here, or that we chose to be Australian and proudly swore an oath of loyalty to our new nation.
Because of our Jewishness, our loyalty is in question. We must go above and beyond the other communities in Australia to prove that we really are part of society. We must “be and yet not be Jews.” One individual Australian working for an Israeli intelligence agency who may have actually been burned for remaining loyal to Australia means that our entire community is under suspicion – 120,000 Australians could well be working to undermine the fabric of Australian society.
The whole affair is sadly reminiscent of the viciously prejudiced accusations of disloyalty against Albert Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French military. It was the 1894 “Dreyfus affair” that prompted a young Theodore Herzl to found the Zionist movement. It is a bitter twist of irony that the same tropes are now being used to drive Jewish-Australians from that movement.
That these kinds of accusations continue are a blight on the idea of Australia as a tolerant and multicultural place – and the lack of condemnation even more so.
Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz is Policy Analyst and Social Media Coordinator at the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council.