In my life, I can say with much relief that most forms of bigotry that worm their way into our society are foreign to me. I am not a woman, nor a member of the Queer community, so the prejudice felt against them is not one I have experienced. Even in regards to racism as a white-Anglo Australian (born in the UK), I will never know what it means to be a person of colour in this country. So in that context you may ask, what would a white, English guy know about racism?
Well, I was born into a family of deep Jewish roots and the heritage and virtue of such has made apparent to me the casual racism forever prevalent in Australia. While my immediate family are non-practicing, the religion has played an incredibly important role in defining me as a part of the culture I am from, and connecting me with the people I share it with. Like many Australians I know who can proudly trace back their ancestry to those who fought as ANZACs, or through the many cultures that now make up this multicultural nation, I too am proud to be defined by the history of my ancestors.
For me, it is the festivals we celebrate, whether it be Passover or Hanukkah, and the family gatherings that come with them that I value. It is reconnecting with cousins, uncles and grandparents, while listening to Hebrew prayers. It is also the time we spend learning about our ancestors, like my own – four brothers who travelled from Poland to the UK at the turn of the 20th century to seek a better life. But more than this, these actions and traditions are a part of me. Acknowledging where my family has come from, and the faith they kept for all that time, to be passed down from parent to child for generations.
It is hard, as I am sure it is for anyone, to hear something so powerful used as an insult, or treated with contempt – even more so when it is done in a carefree, casual manner. During my high school years, to be Jewish was to be considered ‘greedy’, ‘stingy’ or ‘possessive’. My friends would refer to someone as Jewish, in an attempt to insult or degrade them, after some decision involving money had been made. These statements were not some deliberate ruse to crush people of the faith from being considered equal, they were simply part of the vocabulary that had developed in high schools around Australia. Likely from the same sources that sought to make the term ‘gay’ an insult.
Now, to say that this is the same victimisation suffered by Indigenous Australians, or those of a non-Anglo background would be a misconstruction of the truth. I have never faced institutionalised racism, nor do I ever expect I have been judged unfit based on the colour of my skin. But to say I have not experienced racism would, I feel, be an unfair characterisation. When my friends in full knowledge of the ancestor I lost in Treblinka (a Nazi concentration camp) decide it is appropriate to make Nazi salutes, and sing the national anthem of Hitler’s Germany in order to elicit a reaction from me, it is clear that casual racism is still alive and well in Australia!
We live in a time where the Israel-Palestine conflict has claimed the lives of so many people that the causal element of the ongoing violence has been lost behind the blatant attacks of Jewish people. It is easy to understand why someone like me can see the still existent prejudice when adult men can walk onto school buses filled with Jewish children and scream at them, telling them they are going to suffer because of what happens on the other side of the world, as did just a few years ago. Or when the Socialist Alternative Group on the ANU campus receives a ban from campus for threatening the Jewish Students society with assault. Or even when a friend tells you, ‘you should apologise on behalf of all Jews to Palestine’.
My experience of racism is not grandiose, nor is it inhibiting to my ability to live my life as I wish. Still, racism is insidious – it is not a single large gesture but the collection of tiny attacks that grind us down. This is my collection, it is what I have seen, felt, heard and lived. We all draw borders; around what we consider ourselves, what we consider important to us and what we want to protect. For me that is my Jewish heritage, my family history and the freedom to live with it and not in spite of it.