Jews key to Aboriginal reconciliation
The unprecedented apology to Aborigines by Australia's
prime minister, which marked a national Yom Kippur of
sorts, was the culmination of a decades-long
reconciliation effort led in large part by Jews.
By Dan Goldberg
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
February 02, 2008
SYDNEY, Australia (JTA) -- In what could be described as
Australia's Yom Kippur, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd expressed
Wednesday the one word his predecessors refused to utter to
indigenous Australians: Sorry.
Rudd's Labor Party wrested power from John Howard's Liberals
last November on a platform that included apologizing to the
"Stolen Generations" -- up to 100,000 mostly mixed-blood
Aboriginal children who were forcibly removed from their
families between 1910 and 1970.
The text of the motion on the Stolen Generations, which won
bipartisan support, acknowledged the "profound grief,
suffering and loss" inflicted on Aborigines.
Australian Jews, some of whom have been at the forefront of
the decades-long reconciliation effort, applauded the
"To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the
sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we
say sorry," Rudd said. "And for the indignity and
degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud
culture, we say sorry."
In a historic speech that drew cheers and tears, Rudd said
he hoped the apology would remove "a great stain from the
Mark Leibler, the co-chair of Reconciliation Australia, a
national organization that promotes reconciliation, said
Rudd's apology marked a "watershed" in Australian history
but that this should be just the beginning of the
"The shame as far as this country is concerned will not be
cleared up until we bridge the 17-year gap in the life
expectancy between indigenous and non-indigenous
Australians," said Leibler, who attended the apology
ceremony in Canberra on Wednesday.
Leibler is also the chairman of the world board of trustees
of Keren Hayesod/United Israel Appeal and national chairman
of the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council.
"We've suffered 2,000 years of persecution, and we
understand what it is to be the underdog and to suffer from
disadvantage," he said.
Jews have been at the forefront of pushing for civil rights
In 1965, Jim Spigelman, a cousin of the Pulitzer
Prize-winning cartoonist Art Spiegelman and now chief
justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales, led 30
students on the first Australian Freedom Ride -- a journey
into Outback Australia to protest racial discrimination
against Aborigines, who were not entitled to vote and were
prohibited from swimming pools, pubs and other public
In the country town of Moree, a racist mob attacked the
students and, according to newspaper reports at the time,
Spigelman was smacked to the ground.
The man most Jews and Aborigines hail as having made the
greatest contribution to the cause of Aboriginal rights is
Ron Castan, a Jewish Australian dubbed by Aboriginal leaders
as the "great white warrior."
Castan, who died in 1999, was the lead counsel in the
landmark 1992 Australian High Court "Mabo judgment" -- named
for plaintiff Eddie Mabo -- which overturned the legal
fiction that Australia was "terra nullius," or an
uninhabited land, when white settlers first arrived in 1788.
Aborigines now own more than 10 percent of Australia's land
In a 1998 speech, Castan implored the government to say it
was sorry, citing Holocaust denial in his argument.
"The refusal to apologize for dispossession, for massacres
and for the theft of children is the Australian equivalent
of the Holocaust deniers -- those who say it never really
happened," Castan charged.
In 1999, Howard proposed a motion expressing "deep and
sincere regret" for the injustices suffered by Aborigines,
but the then-prime minister said Australians "should not be
required to accept guilt and blame" for the policies of
Aborigines number about 450,000 in an Australian population
of 21 million. They are the most disadvantaged group in
Australia, suffering high rates of infant mortality,
unemployment, alcohol abuse and domestic violence.
More than 100 members of the Stolen Generations were present
at Wednesday's ceremony, which was broadcast live on
national television and on giant screens across the country.
"Our faith teaches and emphasizes the universal principles
of coexistence and respect for human dignity and rights,"
Rabbi Mordechai Gutnick, the president of the Organization
of Rabbis of Australia, said in a statement. "It teaches the
need to recognize and rectify any failings we may display in
our interaction between our fellow man. To say 'sorry' in a
meaningful manner goes a long way in ensuring that mistakes
and discrimination will not be repeated."
In addition to their activism on Aboriginal issues, Jews
were instrumental in leading the crusade against the White
Australia Policy, a series of laws from 1901 to 1973 that
restricted non-white immigration to Australia.
The president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry,
Robert Goot, said he is proud of the Jewish community's
ongoing commitment to reconciliation.
Rudd's apology marked "the beginning in a new chapter in the
quest by indigenous Australians for complete equality with
their fellow Australians," Goot observed.
Rabbi Jeremy Lawrence of the Great Synagogue in Sydney said
in a speech on reconciliation last week that Jews must not
"deny nor stand by nor stand silent in the face of the pain
of the Stolen Generations. It is incumbent on us to
acknowledge the wrong, to apologize for the damage caused."
Noting the importance to Jews of the Yad Vashem Holocaust
Memorial in Jerusalem, the British-born rabbi said Australia
should have a similar institution for Aborigines.
"There ought to be a national place where people who have
suffered can come and identify with their past and
understand that the incursion of their culture and heritage
has been recognized and an apology has been made," he said.
Rudd's apology comes more than a decade after a 1997 inquiry
in Australia's parliament, called the "Bringing Them Home"
report, concluded that the Aborigines suffered "an act of
genocide aimed at wiping out indigenous families,
communities and cultures." The report urged the government
to apologize and offer compensation to the victims and their
The apology offers no recourse to compensation, although the
issue is now being hotly debated. It also reignited the
so-called "history wars" between those who believe the
Stolen Generations were kidnapped in a sinister attempt to
breed out their Aboriginality and others who say it was a
benevolent attempt to save half-caste children from the ills
of Aboriginal society.