This is the story of a people…

Israel and the global Jewish diaspora are proof that a nation of people can suffer the worst life can dish up and not only survive, but thrive.

by Nyunggai Warren Mundine, Executive Chairman. Yaabubiin Institute of Disruptive Thinking.

I’ve just returned from my fifth trip to Israel in the last decade. It prompted me to recall a conversation between two young Aboriginal friends of mine: ‘Why is Warren is so involved with the Jewish community?’ one asked. The other responded ‘Because they’ve been repeatedly smashed to the ground and each time they get up and keep going. You can’t keep them down.

It’s true I’ve found inspiration in peoples who’ve rebuilt themselves to thrive in modern society. The Jews are one such group. By Jewish people I don’t just mean observant followers of the religion. Jews can be atheist, agnostic or even members of other religions. The Jewish people are better described as a nation – a large group of people with common descent, history, culture, language and traditional lands.

Jewish tribes originated in the Middle East over 3,000 years ago. From around 1000 BC they combined under a single monarch as the Kingdom of Israel. This split a century later into two kingdoms which were conquered in around 700 and 600 BC respectively. Over the next thousand years, the Jewish nation, like many others, was subject to repeated conquest and occupation, including by the Persians, Byzantines, Romans, Arabs and Crusaders. The Holy Temple, the most important and sacred site in Judaism, was destroyed. Jewish people were forced off their lands, persecuted, exiled, even sent into slavery.

Many Jews settled across Europe, the Middle East and Northern Africa, known as the Jewish diaspora. In 1516 the region was conquered by the Ottoman Empire which controlled it until the Turkish defeat in World War I. From then Great Britain occupied the region as part of Mandatory Palestine. Throughout these occupations, there were some periods of reprieve where Jews lived in relative safety in their homelands, during which some of the diaspora even returned. Examples of this occurred during the Ottoman Empire and Mandatory Palestine.

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Permanent Exhibition – Beit Hatfutsot, Museum of the Jewish People (Tel Aviv, Israel)

Jews experienced hardship in the diaspora too, including religious persecution, destruction of sacred buildings and artefacts, ghettos, massacres, expulsions. In Spain, for example, the thousand-year-old Jewish community was decimated through massacres, forced conversions and expulsion. This pattern was repeated across Europe from the Middle Ages on. In the Russian Empire in the 1800s-1900s there were anti-Jewish pogroms – attacks against Jewish people comprising mob violence, rape, looting, property destruction and murder. Persecution of Jews in Europe culminated in one of the greatest horrors of the 20th century with six million Jews exterminated in the Holocaust, a third of the world’s Jewish population.

In 1947 the United Nations approved a plan to partition Mandatory Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The Jews accepted the Plan but the Arabs didn’t. The State of Israel was declared in 1948 and immediately invaded by neighbouring Arab states. In the next few decades around 850,000 Jews were expelled from countries in Northern Africa and the Middle East with little more than the clothes on their back. Conflict in that region continues today.

Jews still experience persecution. In the USA more than half of all religious hate crimes are motivated by anti-Jewish bias, twice as many as for any other religion. In Australia, students at Jewish schools are under constant armed guard for their protection.

It’s hard to think of a people who’ve suffered more than the Jews. Yet today they stand amongst the most thriving and successful of peoples. The modern state of Israel started as a poor country with few natural resources surrounded by countries determined to drive it off the map. Today it’s a modern, vibrant and affluent nation with a liberal democracy, a free market economy and the rule of law. It’s part of the global marketplace, home to multiple cultures and faiths, who can worship as they please, and the only country in the Middle East to host a gay pride parade. Israel has combined traditional culture with modern Western institutions and values. The Hebrew language has been revived. Jews are among some of the world’s top scientists, philosophers, writers, artists, musicians, philanthropists and entrepreneurs in history. In every country they live in, Jews contribute in politics, business, charity, community, education and public life.

There are other peoples who inspire me that nations can thrive in modern society, despite history, and can make traditional culture a force of strength in the modern world instead of something that holds them frozen in time. I’ve written about Korea and the Cherokee peoples of North America. Singapore, Japan, China and the Turks are others who’ve achieved this in history. These kinds of transformations give me hope that Australia’s Indigenous nations, too, can prosper.

Israel and the global Jewish diaspora are also proof that a nation of people can suffer persecution, segregation, discrimination, loss of language and sacred sites, even genocide, and not only survive, but thrive; that people don’t need to be held back by the past.

Attending an event to mark an anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I listened as one speaker observed that after World War II their parents and grandparents gave them permission to move forward with life and succeed; not forgetting the past but not allowing it to impede their future either. This outlook resonates with me. It’s a message that I hope Indigenous people can impart to our children and grandchildren too.

Versions of this article were published in The Koori Mail on 11 January 2017 and The Spectator Australia on 12 January 2017.

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  1. Buttfield Andy says:

    Dear Warren, I am most interested in your frequent trips to Israel and the lessons you learnt. What lessons did you come away with from your visits that would be applicable for the advancement of Australia’s indigenous peoples?
    I have visited Israel twice. My first trip was during the election campaign of Ehud Barak in 1999 and the second in 2011. I too was greatly impressed by their strength and resilience.
    In late 2013 I visited several nations in southern Africa. I was struck by the respect of the citizens of Botswana (known as Batswana) for the well-managed administration of their nation. Particularly so when compared with their neighbours in Namibia, Zimbabwe, Angola and South Africa! In response to an email I sent you at that time you noted: “Botswana is seen as a success case in Africa.”
    Has there been any follow up by our bureaucracy to establish the reasons for their apparent success? I believe the many challenges in Botswana are so similar to those that face remote Australian communities.
    I undertook my travels as a privately funded individual and have sought to apply that knowledge to my volunteer work with our foundation, the ICBF. From your past involvement with the CIS, Helen and Mark Hughes, me and the ICBF, I believe we both seek to share the benefits of applying lessons learned so as to improve and advance Australia’s most disadvantaged societies.

  2. Andrew Clarke says:

    I think this is a valid comparison to make. The Jewish people have suffered appallingly, are still victimized by survive and remain robust. It’s evidence to me of the hand of God. I also hope that Australia’s Aboriginal people continue to survive and remain part of the world’s profile of cultures.

  3. Rather than take an antagonistic position to the writer of this article, I would rather suggest that Mr Mundine could take another look at this subject. I think there is a need for some serious rethinking.

    When we talk in terms of Jewish success as a surviving people, we are largely talking about the Zionist model and Zionist thinking. It seems to me that this model – largely for reasons I have no need to name to Mr Mundine, has been very influential in indigenous strategical thinking. The most obvious example is the process of increasing numbers by validating “self identification”, which identification – often very weakly based in reality – is enhanced by encouraging the adoption of what in reality to the subject is a largely alien culture, as if it were some kind of inherent spiritual or racial memory – the superstitious concept of the land calling back its own.

    Israel was built on the backs of hard work from immigrants who were encouraged to adopt a newly modernised common language and a Zionist – very disputable – pseudo history. It is this largely fabricated history that I find Mr Mundine quoting as fact here

    The academic that I think should be carefully considered is the former Tel Aviv University professor Shlomo Sand, who wrote two best selling works “The Invention of the Jewish People” and its sequel “The Invention of the Land of Israel”

    Zionism was largely the construct of Theodor Herzl – “The Jewish State”. He died in 1904. Zionism sought to create an idea of the Jews, past, present, and future, based on the European concept of Nationhood. It’s aim was to deal with appalling ongoing murderous persecution, particularly in Eastern Europe. It was a largely rejected view being treated as “eccentric” by many leading Rabbis. A core objection was that it was considered potentially disastrous to tie Judaism, as a religious faith, to territory. Where – for example was this Jewish State – if a country – to be? In fact Zionism for territory came eventually to rely on a doctrine not dissimilar to Terra Nullius – rather concealed in such ideas as local land purchase using exterior collected funds.

    In fact I would argue that “Judaism itself is a religion with a myth of unique common origin for its adherents”. But this myth is historically inaccurate. Increasingly we realise that almost none of the Biblical events have a factual base – In the Bible we are dealing with a book much like Homer. It was assembled from a cluster of legends, and stories, drawn from a wide variety of sources – especially Mesopotamian and Egyptian. The core of the Old Testament probably was assembled long after the supposed events, during the formation of an alliance between local clans and exiles. Even a credible discovery of the “Kingdom of David” has yet to occur – despite Zionist attempts to claim one in a archeological site in Jerusalem that is probably of an ancient Palestinian village – let alone the Torah events

    This fabrication of history matters, because within it lies the core concept of the Jews as a separate people, preserved through defence of their common faith. Through this artefact we derive an idea of the lands of Palestine’s region being really “Jewish Territory” that has been invaded and occupied by foreigners. In this concept no one else who ever lived there, loved there, farmed there or had political structures, had any “right” to be there. That is just not true. The Land had been Hittite, an Egyptian Province, a Roman province, Byzantine territory, an Arab territory, an Ottoman region that was part of the Turkish Empire dismantled after 1918 ,to name but a few. The Judaic phase was but one in a long history of changes, and no more valid in terms of modern land claim than any other. It is the common Bible – with traditionalist, Fundamentalist , and literalist interpretations that misinforms us. I fear Mr Mundine has momentarily fallen into this trap

    But it isn’t true, and we can add more to that – There is no Jewish Gene – and there is no unique ancestry. In fact every person of European or Middle Eastern extraction is likely to carry the blood of the ancient Hebrews, and their patriarchs – supposing persons such as Abraham, Joseph, and Moses to have actually existed. For Europeans like myself those people loaded into cattle trucks and shipped off to be gassed in camps like Auschwitz really were people like us – with the same genetic heritage. It is the religion that has survived, Mr Mundine, not the people. They assimilated and were “diluted” by conversion long ago. The real tragedy of the Israel /Palestinian peoples is that they are the same people divided by inaccurate Histories and antagonistic religions. Meanwhile the sane and secular tear their hair, through being confronted with an appalling mess based on archaic misconceptions that hurts everyone.

    What has this to do with the Australian Indigenous situation? The answer to my mind is that Zionism was WRONG, and to apply a pseudo Zionist model to create a modern “indigenous nation”, with a similarly concocted pseudo history is to make the same potentially disastrous mistakes. My fear is that in time this Weltanschauung will inevitably create a valid backlash. “Constitutional recognition” campaigning, and Treaty campaigning, based on the proto-Zionist model could become the triggers for this backlash. Even I ask who on Earth is this Treaty supposed to be between – on which side is a person of mixed ancestry? – and what has this to do with me? – I arrived in 1977

    Antisemitism is appalling. As a child brought up in the London of seventy years ago it was the first racism I encountered, when a Jewish best friend came under attack from a group of fellow school children – I was about ten then, and held him as he sobbed and tried to fit back on his face his broken glasses. I have never been more outraged and angered. For a moment I felt what others suffer day after day

    I think indigenous Australia needs a new model – and to my mind it is the very one that Mr Mundine suggests in other writings – It is the role of a progressive, educated, future, of economic participation both in Aboriginal communities and within urban society. If this leads to assimilation for many, so be it, so long as that is a matter of free choice. Australia will be a vastly better nation with the participation of people with the particular insight of a continuous culture that extends into prehistory. These educated and advanced people are a treasure from whom we can all benefit. Who knows their insight may bring us Nobel Prizes and the acclaim of the world in one field after another – We need them. We need you. To do that we need to look forward not back

    But to get there I believe this antiquated proto-Zionist model needs to be abandoned. To speak in terms of an invaded Aboriginal “nation” – invaded by the White man, is to create an entirely false picture that places the Aboriginal in the role of permanent victim, and the person of European descent in the role of permanent perpetrator, even I he did not arrive until well over a century after the events of early “settlement”. Zionism in fact is itself inherently racist – even if it is “defensively” so.

    Intergenerational guilt is not “acceptable” to half of Australia’s present population, for reason of late arrival. Indeed when we look at a half Aboriginal person with European forebears many of us see a descendant of Europeans vastly more guilty of early Australian Crimes than our ancestors are. Some of mine were sixteenth century dispossessed refugees from Belgium. What is more, if we are recent arrivals, or visitors, an “indigenous Australian” is likely to be ANYONE born here whatever his origin.

    Europeans originally arrived here as persons under military law sent to accompany British convicts. They were not an “invasion” force. Both military personnel and their charges had very little freedom. Government was authoritarian and class based. Britons as a whole could not even vote for their Governments until after the flapper vote was allowed in 1928. My British ancestors were oppressed too – It was a rigid class system and a totally class-Governed Parliament. My ancestors too were oppressed by Enclosures and Clearances – and by a class driven History that dates back over a thousand years, to de facto slavery under the Feudal system. We were NEVER free!

    Forget the Zionist model – It was an idea introduced to indigenous visualisation and strategy in the nineteen sixties, so far as I can make out – and it doesn’t fit, it is a dead end that has almost been reached.

    The sad reality of the Jewish people is that their persecution has in part been caused by religious fantasies that blocked assimilation – not for everyone, but for a core group of mixed origins, in every generation. It is from the late nineteenth century core that an inaccurate Zionism sprang, For the whole Israeli Palestinian region the best long term hopes lie in secularisation, forward thinking ,and the establishment of a rational and accurate history of the various peoples and of the region – But there will be much misery yet I fear before that inevitable happens and the walls can come down.

    Don’t make the same mistake here. It is time to think again – Regards.

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