This Friday night marks 80 years since Kristallnacht in Germany. The night of Broken Glass, Jewish homes, shops, schools and hospitals were ransacked and windows smashed while the German authorities looked on without intervening or any consequence.
My grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, arrived in Australia in the aftermath of World War II. My childhood was shaped by the Jewish people’s history and the fact that my father was a second generation Holocaust survivor who had no first cousins, aunties or uncles on my grandfather’s side of the family, as they had all been killed in concentration camps.
Growing up as the eldest child in a large Jewish family my personal experiences with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were minimal. However, while I did not personally know any Aboriginal persons, as a Jewish grandchild of a Holocaust survivor I often felt kinship and a sense of connection with Aboriginal people and the traumas that they had endured.
It is well documented that the effects of the Stolen Generation have resulted in intergenerational trauma and disadvantage for the Aboriginal community. Likewise, amongst Jewish people, the intergenerational trauma from the Holocaust is also well-documented, as the atrocities that many survivors endured affected their children and their grandchildren.
In addition to my childhood being shaped by the Holocaust, the fact that both Jewish and Aboriginal persons were persecuted minorities in lands that did not recognise their existence and rights was also a very big influence on me.
I remember learning about the famous petition by Aboriginal Australians who heard about Kritallnacht in Europe and the oppression of Jewish people by the Nazis and decided to protest this gross miscarriage of justice outside the German Consulate in Melbourne. In 1938, Mr William Cooper, an Aboriginal man who was the head of the Australian Aboriginal League was the only known private protestor in the world following the Nazi destruction of Jewish Synagogues, shops and businesses in Europe.
When Mr Cooper arrived at Melbourne’s German consulate in Collins St, he had a petition in which he demanded an end to the “persecution of the Jewish people” in Germany. The Consulate refused to receive his petition and he was turned away.
Throughout my childhood this example of Mr Cooper, himself a person who was suffering from discrimination, having the guts and integrity to protest what he saw, to be a gross violation of rights, is something that helped me to viewed the Aboriginal community very favorably.
While both our communities suffered, and continue to suffer trauma from our past experiences as marginalised minorities, the fact that the Aboriginal community in Australia was the only community to protest on behalf of another oppressed minority is ingrained upon my conscious.
It is not for no reason that the Jewish people are called the people of the book. Our history and greater Jewish history are what grounds us. We don’t forget our traumas and our past, just as we do not forget our collective appreciation and thanks for people who have stood up for us or the names of the righteous who saved Jewish people throughout the millennia of Galut (exile).
During this week’s Parsha, Parshat Toldot, it recounts the story of the sale of the birthright from Esav to Yaakov.
The Torah says that one day, after Esav finishes hunting, he comes inside to find his brother Yaakov cooking red lentil stew. He demands to be fed and the Torah records the conversation as follows:
“Esau said to Jacob, ‘Pour … me … some of that red stuff for I am exhausted.’ Jacob said, ‘Sell … your birthright to me.’ ….Esau said, ‘…I am going to die, so of what use to me is a birthright?’ ” (Genesis 25:30-32)
The commentators ask why Esav would sell such a valuable commodity for soup?!
When looking at what kind of person Esav was, it makes more sense.
Esav’s personality was rooted in caring about instant gratification, activities where he could find immediate tangible results. He hunted because he had the immediate satisfaction of the kill. He swaps his birthright for soup because he doesn’t see any value in it when he is hungry right now.
His attitude and modus operandi represent a lifestyle in which there is no deep thought or consideration behind actions, rather the short term and immediate gain are his goal.
Yaakov, on the other hand, focuses on the opposite lifestyle. He carefully plans for his future to ensure that he is secure for the long-term and sacrifices immediate short term pleasures and gains for the sake of the bigger picture.
When comparing the events of Kristallnacht and the only private protest in the world against this atrocity, Mr William Cooper and his descendants are remembered by the Jewish and wider community for working towards a more just and fair world for all.
In 1938 it was certainly permissible and accepted to sit by and silently witness the atrocities being committed against Jews without fear of stigmatization or consequence. In fact, in many places, showing anti-Semitism was encouraged.
Yet, the Aboriginal community in Victoria was not silent and chose to take a stance that was principled and had a long-term plan to protest against the miscarriage of justice for people who were being oppressed.
Like the personality of Yaakov, the Aboriginal community saw that living for the now without considering the future lacked depth and foresight. While their position was not common nor popular, it is their community that is globally remembered for having the courage and strength to speak up.
In fact, in 2010 Mr William Cooper became the first Indigenous Australian to be honored by Yad Vashem, where a memorial was unveiled and an academic chair for the study of resistance during the Holocaust was endowed.
Our world has a system in which G-d requires us to constantly grow and develop. We can only do this if we fight temptations and do what is right. The lasting joy resulting from such a principled way of life, is far greater than the temporary and instant gratification that we may have passed up.
On the 6th of December, the 5th night of Channuka, Jews and indigenes people will together hold a commemorative walk in remembrance and appreciation of William Cooper and to replicate the march that he led on the German Consulate in Melbourne on the 6th December 1938. For more information see http://www.walkingtogether.org.au/
On Friday 7th December 2018 we welcome you to join us at ARK Centre where we will be commemorating Mr Cooper’s act of courage in conjunction with the William Cooper Legacy Project. Join us on Friday night, Shabbat Chanukah, for a special evening Kiddush with Mr William Cooper’s 90-year-old grandson, Uncle Boydie Turner, together with other Aboriginal leaders for a cross-communal commemoration, celebration and Chanukah party.
Wishing you and your families a restful Shabbat,