haruth communications

Speech on the opening of the Centre for Intercultural Jewish Studies, Sydney
5 August 1997

Your Excellency the Governor, Honourable Minister, distinguished representatives of the Embassy of Israel, Macquarie University, the Universities of Sydney and New South Wales and the Jewish community, ladies and gentlemen:

I am delighted and honoured to welcome you all to the launch of the Centre for Intercultural Jewish Studies, Sydney, which has been established as a cooperative venture between Macquarie University, the University of New South Wales and the University of Sydney. Its primary aim is "to further understanding of Jewish existence in the Diaspora and the achievements and aspirations of citizens of Jewish extraction in the past and the present, with particular reference to Europe, Australia and North America".

After the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel, there was an understandable but distressing tendency in some quarters to "blame the victims" and to regard nearly two thousand years of Jewish history in exile, and especially the last two hundred years of attempted integration, as a tragic error.

Understandable, because the unfathomable horror of the Holocaust seemed to provide the most telling argument yet against the possibility of integration, following, as it did, so rapidly on the heels of the extraordinarily productive contribution of Jewish Germans to German and world culture and society. It seemed to provide the final proof that the higher the level of Jewish integration, the more brutal and absolute the rejection which would follow. Jewish history has more than its share of catastrophes, but it seemed, and still seems, impossible to relativise the Holocaust and fit it into any vision of history, even the bleak view of Walter Benjamin's angel of history who, looking backwards, sees only the mounting piles of rubble from ever greater catastrophes. For to imagine a greater catastrophe than the Holocaust awaiting Jewry and the world would leave no grounds for hope or even continuing to live. It seemed better to turn one's back on the past and hope for a new start in a new country. Alas, things are never that simple.

But it was, at the same time, a deeply distressing reaction, because with one stroke it cancelled out all the aspirations and achievements of tens of thousands of Jews whose only error was to believe in the humanity and tolerance of their neighbours, who believed in and valued the citizenship, civil rights and nationality which had been granted them, and which they had so manifestly earned. To reject their whole existence as based on "error" was to prove Hitler right all over again, to reject, with him, the Enlightenment's vision of a just, emancipated and tolerant society in which human beings could live together irrespective of race, colour or creed, a society which could accommodate and honour difference as well as similarity. To reject a role in realising this vision, against all the odds, in favour of becoming simply "a people like any other", a nation-state among nation-states, as so many argued, could only be a temporary evasion, a displacement of the problem onto another level. My Jewish students at UNSW often seem unaware that to deny the possibility of integration on the evidence of the German-Jewish experience is, by implication, to undermine their own existence in Australia and to deny any possibility of Jewish life outside an Israel whose own survival will depend on achieving internal and external peace. Emancipation and human rights are indivisible concepts; they belong to everybody or nobody. Ultimately, our only hope is to learn to live together, and the Enlightenment project, despite its inadequacies and its betrayal by the European societies within which it was constructed, remains our only real compass.

In another and deeper sense, to write off the years of exile as "historical error" is to betray the roots of Judaism itself. The codification of Jewish law and culture which preceded the expulsion from Palestine, the creation of a "portable Jerusalem" which could be carried to the four corners of the globe and which held the Jewish people together through two millennia of discrimination and persecution is one of the great triumphs of world history. The uniqueness of Judaism lies not in expulsion and eventual return, but in its survival; it is shaped and formed in the most intimate detail by the experience of the Diaspora and the concomitant hope in a redemption which would be a redemption not only of the Jews, but of the whole of humanity. As the years of exile stretched further and further away from a distant, all but forgotten point in the past, and Diaspora Jews learnt to know and participate in many diverse societies, the Messianic idea, which Lion Feuchtwanger so rightly termed the "strongest idea in Judaism", came to mean far more than the return of a dispossessed ethnic group or even religious community to its homeland; it became a peculiarly powerful image for the restitution of peace and justice for all humanity. In the words of an early Kabbalist:

And this is the key to the mystery, why Israel is condemned to enslavement by all the peoples of the world: its mission is to redeem those sparks [of the divine] which fell among them …. And thus it was necessary for Israel to be scattered to the four winds, so that it could raise all with it.

During the long and painful progress towards emancipation which followed, Diaspora Jews increasingly embraced a secularised version of this promise; their own struggle for acceptance and equality became a moral responsibility to support the struggle of other oppressed and disadvantaged groups in society. They became not only the agents and motor of modernisation, but the natural allies of all who supported democracy and social justice. Centuries later, in the darkest years of the Nazi madness, Martin Buber was to echo this doctrine in his concept of "Hebrew Humanism":

According to the ideas current among Zionists today, all that is needed is to establish the conditions for a normal national life, and everything will come of itself. This is a fatal error. We do, of course, need the conditions of normal national life, but these are not enough - not enough for us, at any rate. We cannot enthrone "normalcy" in place of the eternal premise of our survival. If we want to be nothing but normal, we shall soon cease to be at all.
Let us not forget we are as yet only striving to join the ranks of nations with a land and a law of their own. Tomorrow many little nations will be weighed and found wanting. But this will surely not be the fate of a people that brings great tidings to struggling mankind, and conveys them not only through the word, but through its own life, which realizes that word and represents such realization. We shall not, of course, be able to boast of possessing the Book if we betray its demand for righteousness.

Buber's warning has perhaps a special relevance to us all at this time, Jews and non-Jews alike. In Australia and elsewhere, values which we have cherished - the concept of a democratic, multicultural society and the indivisibility of human rights - are being challenged in the name of unreasoned prejudice and short-sighted economic strategies which will not gain us the respect of those they are designed to placate, and cannot serve our long term interests in the new global community. I should like to think that our new Centre, with its focus on cooperation - cooperation between Jews and non-Jews, between universities who are supposed to be competing for market share, but urgently need to further the shared discourse on which real scientific advance and quality depends, might play its part in erecting a bulwark against this rising tide. As Bernard Malamud has suggested, it may well be that all people of good will are now part of a universal twentieth century Diaspora, which shares and inherits the obligations Diaspora Jewry chose for itself and championed throughout the centuries. In the words of Leo Baeck, the revered teacher of German Jewry in its hour of greatest crisis:

In and through Judaism people have learnt to defend the value of their lives against all circumstances, the pressures of compulsion and the more subtle seductions of success, to prove their authenticity, as only sacrifice can do, through all the delusions of apparent triumph, and to demonstrate the indestructible core of humanity.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have much pleasure in asking His Excellency the Governor of New South Wales, the Honourable Gordon Samuels, to launch the Centre.

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