Why are Jews uncomfortable in Australia? Two words: The left

October 7 has shown how Australia’s attitude towards us has changed


Protesters show their support for Palestinians during a rally in front of the Opera House in Sydney on October 9, 2023. (Photo by Izhar KHAN / AFP)

February 01, 2024 10:43

Gas the Jews!” That, of all the brutal chants in the immediate aftermath of the October 7 massacre — heard, not on the streets of Tehran or Damascus but the steps of Sydney Opera House — must have been the most disheartening for Jews in this country. OK, Harvard we’d expect. But the Sydney Opera House? Where, ten years ago, Lior performed Avinu Malkeinu with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, to rapturous acclaim?

So what’s going on out there? How good is Australia for the Jews right now? How safe is it for us to continue surfing on Bondi Beach in our yarmulkes? I have just been reading My Life as a Jew, by Michael Gawenda. He was editor of the Melbourne Age and knows the Australian left backwards — which, in my view, is the best way to know it. I recommend My Life as a Jew to you, but let me begin with a few reminiscences of my own.

“I like it here well enough, Ma,” I wrote from the balcony of my flat overlooking Sydney harbour in 1965, “but I’m homesick for Manchester.” I was lying. I’d been lecturing at Sydney University for several months, explaining to my students what Jane Austen meant by decorum, and wasn’t missing a thing about home. I loved the heat and the light and the sardonic sense of humour. They called me “bastard” and I knew that meant they loved me. I felt I could breathe more freely as a Jew in Australia. I felt accepted. I didn’t tell my mother this in case she worried I’d never return, but to friends I wrote: “Time will tell, but this could be one of the greatest places on earth to be a Jew.”

Time did tell. The first hint that October’s massacre of Israelis was going to be viewed as a crime by Jews, rather than a crime against them, was that call from the steps of Sydney Opera House to gas the lot of us.

So what happened? I have my own explanation. The left happened. Australia is a political country, by which I mean it wears its party allegiances openly. As a student at an English university, I hadn’t known or cared about my fellow-students’ politics. As a teacher at an Australian university, I knew how my students’ parents voted. Such overtness should not have surprised me, given how the country was settled. Hatred of the cruelties and condescension of colonialism still simmered close to the surface. So of course Jews, who had been pushed around and talked down to for centuries, felt at home here. We had a special understanding, too, of what Australians called the “cultural cringe”, that strange inferiority complex that was part envy of what you didn’t have, part rage that you didn’t have it, and part belief that what you did have was something better. We were in it together, Australians and Jews. We were equally thin-skinned, tried equally hard not to be, and shared edgy jokes. But then came the Six Day War.

I left Australia just as the conflict broke out. Every Australian I knew had been on the side of “brave little Israel”. By the time I got back to England, Israel had made the lethal mistake of winning. I heard nothing from my Australian left-wing friends. A few years later, I went back and discovered why. I had no left-wing friends. On the orders of the Soviet Union they had given up on Israel and, since I hadn’t, they had no choice but to give up on me. Those I had laughed with over a beer had stopped laughing and those I had talked literature to had stopped talking about literature. Post-colonialism, they called it now.

Before the Six Day War, Jews had been paradigmatic victims of colonialism. After the Six Day War, they were its paradigmatic proponents. Australia ceased to be the greatest place to be a Jew. Or a reader of Jane Austen, come to that, since she had been soft on slavery. Though as yet, the Australian left hasn’t called for her to be gassed.

As a highly regarded left-leaning journalist, Michael Gawenda is able to account for these changes to the moral climate of Australia from the inside. Full disclosure: My Life as Jew makes complimentary reference to me. You will have to take my word that I would have admired the book no less had it not mentioned me at all. It is a bracing, muscular, unflinching memoir, that begins, unconventionally, with a detailed account of a broiges with a one-time colleague; goes on to trace the author’s beginnings in a displaced persons’ camp after the War; and then returns to take up the question of what makes a Jew and why so many Jews, Australian and otherwise, find being Jewish such a problem for their politics. By interweaving the public and the personal in this way, Gawenda makes his life in Australia a sort of case study. The book asks how to live as a Jew in Australia, but more generally how to live as a Jew anywhere, how to love the Jewish people (as he is not afraid to put it) at a time when there is so much pressures not to do so.

In this way, it is both a memoir and a conversation, a passionate confrontation with the faint-hearted, whether they are distinguished Jewish thinkers of the past, such as Hannah Arendt, or friends and contemporaries on the left with whom he could once talk about a Jewish future but who now toe the party line on Zionism and expect him to do the same. Here, Gawenda admits to an understandable confusion of feelings, part anger, part grief, part grim humour. “It is a shocking thing,” he writes, that in the eyes of many leftists “I have journeyed to the dark side”.

Gawenda has plenty of fight in him but don’t suppose that My Life as a Jew is a Book of Broiges. If anything, it is an exemplary story of personal and philosophical survival, a struggle to hold on to what drew the author to the left originally while not letting its prevailing partisanship suck him down into its whirlpool of cant. It is also a promise to himself to find a meaning that vindicates the “rich and living Jewishness” his parents brought with them from Poland to Australia, allowing that just as they could not fully pass it on to him, so he cannot fully pass it on to his children.

“What Kind of a Jew am I?” Gawenda goes on asking and it his insistence on remaining a “Jew in full” that powers this invigorating book through what could have been a deep existential despondency. Instead, he keeps his wits about him and his options open. He is as engaged in Australian culture as ever, but Judaism goes on beckoning to him “in some mysterious, inexplicable way”. As the book ends, he is writing poems in Yiddish and his son is putting them to music. Looking back is also a way of looking forward.

Clarification: The day after this article was published, the New South Wales police issued a statement saying that forensic analysis had found no evidence the phrase "gas the Jews" was chanted in videos circulating online from a pro-Palestinian rally at the Sydney Opera House, despite witness statements saying it was. Instead the police said the independent analysis found the chant was "where's the Jews".  Slogans such as "f… the Jews", "free Palestine" and "shame Israel" were also quoted. The co-CEO of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry Alex Ryvchin said that multiple independent witnesses had verified and declared that the 'gas the Jews' phrase was used. "Where's the Jews, if that was indeed what was chanted, is in many ways far worse because it shows a desire to menace, threaten and find Jews and no doubt do some horrible things if they were able to find them," he told the ABC.

February 01, 2024 10:43

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive