jew on this

critical, progressive ideas from pondering jews

death sentence

by tobybee

so, this article from the other day from The Australian is pretty disgusting. It’s basically a press release from Transfield Services, who run the asylum seeker detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru, profiling the corporate lawyer – Kate Munnings – who has been newly placed in charge of running the centres.

In the article Munnings brings together two atrocities – the Holocaust and the AIDS crisis – in a twin movement of forgetting, to suggest that the lessons learned from these two moments is that it is one’s job to run detention centres. The article says

“I didn’t do well at high school,” she says in a conference room at Transfield’s North Sydney headquarters. She became a nurse, electing in the 80s to work with HIV and AIDS patients at Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital and the Albion Street AIDS Clinic.

AIDS sufferers at that time were regarded like medieval plague carriers, shunned and reviled.

“It was a death sentence back then,” Ms Munnings says. “Everyone was afraid of the disease. We would get people coming into the clinic from jail and they would be terrified to sit on the chair in the waiting room.

“Then you’d talk to them about their sexual history and it was mind-blowing. You’d be sitting there going, ‘You’re not going to get it off the chair, fellas’.”


“As a woman who comes from a very caring and compassionate profession originally, that is valuable … I have a lot of skills and a lot of background that can help with what Transfield does on both Manus and Nauru.”

A key figure in that background was her paternal grandfather, Kurt Bretal, an Austrian Jew who fled the Nazis.

“They came from Germany just before the Second World War,” Ms Munnings says of her grandparents. “My grandfather spent many nights riding trains trying to avoid capture, and ironically was saved by a Nazi soldier. He always reminded me you must never assume everyone is the same, no matter how affiliated they seem to be.”

Both of those statements seem to me to be a radical mis-use of the lives, histories and memories of those people she interacted with. And what slippery language to use: “no matter how affiliated they seem to be”. Such a statement attempts to remove responsibility and deny accountability for something she is both responsible and accountable for. As though that’s the job of members of the third generation after the Holocaust: to try to show how the Nazis weren’t so bad after all, and to suggest that we live out some sort of memory of the Holocaust by imprisoning and torturing people who are escaping atrocities. That’s the worst kind of use of Holocaust memory, the complete opposite of any sort of ethical memory (we can contrast it with the use of postmemories of the Holocaust I’ve talked about before). While there are structural forces which create the detention centres – the dominance of capitalism, the persistance of a virulent nationalism, the control of populations through racialisation – there are also individual people who embrace those structures and seek to knowingly profit from them.

(If that indeed was the lesson her grandfather intended to teach her by telling that anecdote – if that is the idea of responsibility and ethics that he wished to authorise – it reminds us that survivor speech is not sacred. Some people are, quite simply, not to be listened to.)

Moreover, that she mocks the people she worked with in the AIDS clinic – as she insinuates that they were stupid and ignorant for not wanting to sit on a chair, and hopelessly and recklessly promiscuous in their sex lives – demonstrates the respect she has for people who suffer under the mistreatment of the state. If this is what she is prepared to say in public, imagine how she characterises the people she works with in private.

In these quotes Munnings goes out of her way to demonstrate the humanity of the Nazi and to demonstrate the lack of humanity of people with AIDS and those potentially with AIDS. This emphasis, of course, is completely logical within the world in which she finds herself, where she has to justify her own decisions, and work to remove the humanity of – or to make exceptional – asylum seekers (or people with AIDS, or Holocaust victims).

It’s not surprising, really. One imagines that you don’t get to that kind of position without believing in the project and using the law to help some and destroy others. But I’m left wondering if her use of the Holocaust and the AIDS crisis is sincere or cynical: does she willfully abuse these memories, or is this a moment where the violence is forgotten? And does it matter?

(hattip to Alana Lentin for the article link)

Stuart Hall, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora”, p. 235.

by tobybee

1911817_595743927163161_1403035761_n“I use this term [diaspora] metaphorically, not literally: diaspora does not refer us to those scattered tribes whose identity can only be secured in relation to some sacred homeland to which they must at all costs return, even if it means pushing other people into the sea. This is the old, the imperialising, the hegemonising, form of ‘ethnicity’. We have seen the fate of the people of Palestine at the hands of this backward-looking conception of diaspora – and the complicity of the West with it. The diaspora experience as I intend it here is defined, not by essence or purity, but by the recognition of a necessary heterogeneity and diversity; by a conception of ‘identity’ which lives with and through, not despite, differ. Diaspora identities are those which are constantly producing and reproducing themselves anew, through transformation and difference.”

(image of “Stuart Hall manning daycare at 1st Women’s conference, Ruskin College, Oxford, 1970” via Africa is a Country)

Jew Dating (and no, this is not a Valentine’s Day post)

by tobybee

I’m currently working on writing up a big grant application for a project that will look at a history of sexuality of Jews in Australia from 1945 to 2015 (which is when the project would start – i’m not claiming to be a soothsayer). 

and while i’m looking at Jews in Australia, pretty much no work has been done that looks at issues of sexuality (there has been work on assimilation, intermarriage, and continuity, but mostly from a sociological or demographic perspective, rather than a histories of sexuality perspective) so I need to keep an eye on what’s going on in other countries, to see if there’s anything of relevance that I can use to help me understand the histories in Australia. 

In the last few days there has been a truly remarkable number of articles in the New York Jewish press about Jewish dating, all of them interesting in their own ways (this one was pretty great (and by great, I obviously mean slimy and awful)). 

But to focus two that I’ve seen this morning. The first is an article about JDate’s new ad campaign, run on the theme of ‘Get Chosen’, and this is one of their ads (this image is taken from that linked Tablet magazine article, and it’s a billboard in Times Square):


I’ve written elsewhere previously about the role of Holocaust postmemory in teaching young Ashkenazi Jews that they should get married to a Jew and have Jewish babies in order to ensure that Hitler didn’t win (a trope that I assume most readers would be familiar with), but this is on a bigger level. It’s interesting, I think, the way they use humour: it seems like it helps to cover over the disciplining control of such statements. It makes it seem cutesy, rather than productive of a certain kind of Jewishness. (and what’s with the image? Moses with the 10 commandments is a signification of persecution? or do they think that one of the 10 commandments is to marry a Jew? choose your signifiers a bit better next time, JDate.)

And so what is this certain kind of Jewishness? Another article I read this morning introduced me to a book called How to Woo a Jew, written by Tamar Caspi, the relationship advice-giver on JDate, and which I will of course be ordering immediately. My favourite part of the article was this advice that it took from the book:

Caspi suggests dropping Yiddish words into casual conversation with a prospective date. “If you’re at a bar and a guy is talking to you and you just can’t seem to pick up on his religion, then slip in an ‘oy vey’ when two waitresses nearly collide,” she writes. “Add a ‘la’breut’ when someone sneezes. Even a flirty ‘that’s mishegas,’ will work. If he looks at you helplessly, then you have your answer. If he adds his own Yiddish phrase to the mix, then you can breathe a sigh of relief and continue getting to know him.” This probably won’t work if you are Sephardic or didn’t grow up with Yiddish. In fact, most of the Jewish dating advice is geared toward heterosexual Ashkenazi women”.

Amazing on so many levels.

If you go to the website for How to Woo a Jew you can read an excerpt from one of the chapters, and it starts by providing “a few hypothetical situations in which to imagine yourself in order to figure out how ready you are for a relationship.” One of these situations is “Are you willing to dedicate both your Friday and Saturday nights to quality dates rather than partying with your friends?”. And this is what kills me: apparently these Jews, who are searching for their Jewish partner, and who are betraying a history of persecution if they date a non-Jew, could not be imagined to be spending Friday night on shabbes events. Their obvious options would be to be either partying with friends, or going on quality dates. 

It’s incredibly revealing that the Jewishnesses being created are conceptualised primarily around notions of romantic love and heterosexual reproduction (or what Lee Edelman has termed ‘reproductive futurity’, wherein the future can only be imagined through heterosexual biological reproduction).  


the languages of essays

by tobybee

it’s been a while(!!) but hopefully in the coming days/weeks/months I’ll get back into posting some more on this little blog we have here…in any case:

I’m currently teaching an online university subject, and just finished a big lot of marking. The subject is an Open Universities Australia course, so the only contact I have with students is through email and group discussions. I’ve never met the students, and never spoken to them.

When I’m marking, in any subject, expression is often an issue. There are lots of students who don’t write sentences which meet what I’ve been taught are university standards. There are, of course, students who write phrases that inspire, or are as clear as crystal, and which make me want to read more. But there are plenty of students who don’t use the spell check, don’t proofread, and whose essays are a real slog to get through. (that is, of course, how sites like this come to exist. (and actually, I really hate that site, and I hate the practice that many university teachers have of quoting their students on facebook in order to make fun of them. that stuff shouldn’t be made public. public shaming is never good, even when it’s fuelled by exhaustion and frustration))

So I correct my students’ writing – I point out sentence structure, or word choice, that could be improved. When I’m teaching in a face-to-face setting, if I know English isn’t the first language for the student, instead of suggesting they proofread more carefully, I’m more inclined to point them to the language and learning skills unit. If I think English is the students’ first language, I’m much less likely to point them to institutional help (unless the writing is particularly ‘bad’). Which, I now realise, is an interesting division – and one that maybe this semester I’ll change – between students I seem to (unconsciously) think should get English ‘naturally’, and those I think need to put work into it. For most students I’ll suggest that they get someone else to read over their essay, or that they try reading it aloud: these are both strategies that help pick up troublesome expression.

But when I don’t know the student, I have no way of knowing if English is their first language or not. (And even more than that – one of my students today quoted from youtube clips, and I don’t know if that’s because they don’t know how to do academic research or they have vision issues and want to avoid reading as much as possible.) In this situation of online learning, I don’t know which strategy to take in my feedback, and how much to take the writing into consideration when deciding on a mark. I don’t want to look at the student’s name to check what I think might be their ethnicity/national background, because that’s just an imaginary and doesn’t really tell me anything. But I do find myself looking at their name, and thinking about it.

So at the end of a day of marking, I read this post by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and remembered that language means different things in different contexts. And in the context of living in an Australia that seems hell-bent on the exclusion of Others and the encouragement of assimilatory processes for those who are here, and when we today face a world that needs to be inspired by memories of Stuart Hall, I wonder if there are ways to make all sites of our lives resistant to this exclusion and assimilation. And I wonder if how we mark university assignments – how we interpret the languages of our students – could be informed by that.

NAA: Jewish Council to Combat Fascism and Anti-Semitism

by R.S.

The National Archives of Australia have published (and have for some time) files on the Jewish Council to Combat Fascism and Anti-Semitism. The folder is marked ‘Secret’, the ‘Department of Immigration’ and ‘To be passed on by hand’ which (obviously) is pretty tantalizing. This is an important part of Australian left wing diaspora history.

From the files I have looked at it looks like the Council was interested in speaking to Immigration about their concerns for former Nazis, war criminals, and other assorted fascists entering the country and already living in the community. Time and again they bring up examples of fascists and other involved in violence entering the country, and time and again Immigration brushes  off the concerns. At the same time the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and others were keen on ensuring that everyone knew (believed) that the JCCFAS were a communist front that wasn’t really interested in antisemitism.

The Secretary Ernest Platz – reffo, journo, commo – is a central figure in these communications.

The files include claims that the JCCFAS were supportive of the Soviets persecution of Jews (with my superficial understanding this seems ridiculous given the context of the rest of the files, but it might need further scrutiny given the blind eye segments of the left turned to Stalinism).

Click here to access the files (then click ‘view digital copy’). The Normal Rothfield Papers, held by the University of Melbourne, may also be of some interest to those interested in this history.


Young, Jewish, Left at Limmud Oz

by R.S.

Limmud Oz presentation ‘Young, Jewish, Left’ from members of the Australian Jewish Democratic Society.

Some wonderful reflections from Jem Light (Exec member) discussing the questions of Hilel; Max Kaiser (community organiser) the unofficial slogan of AJDS “a progressive voice amongst Jews, and a Jewish voice amongst progressives” and multiculturalism; and Jordy Silverstein (exec member) on the politicisation of Tikkun Olam and assimilation, internalised anti-semitism, and ashkenazi-centrism.

Judith Butler on Walter Benjamin’s ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’

by R.S.

Angelus Novus, described by Benjamin in his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’. Butler: “It’s kind of a freak of an angel. Oh Well”.

Here is Judith Butler speaking on Walter Benjamin’s ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’.

Click here for Benjamin’s paper

I converted the youtube video into an mp3 so I can listen to it and have uploaded it here. Wait. No. WordPress wont let me do that, but if this is something that interests you, you can go here, drop the youtube link in, and it will do it super quickly.

There is a really sweet spot around the 24 minute mark where the class shifts tone and Butler speaks of the day to day considerations of running a class room, and the kinds of containment that feels so familiar as someone who has worked in university classrooms. Brief and probably insignificant, but nice nonetheless.

Related beautiful essay:

Taussig, M, (200) ‘Walter Benjamin’s Grave: a profane illumination’

music break

by tobybee

this is getting me through my pre-shabbes hours:

(p.s. the shondes are currently on tour in the US – go if you can!)

this got me through my week:

“nothing adverse”

by tobybee

“Outside the government’s immigration planning, [Arthur] Calwell [the Australian Minister for Immigration] informed Parliament, in March 1946, that ‘as an act of humanity’ he had granted permission for 2000 landing permits to be issued to persons who had close relatives in Australia ‘provided that the Europeans who were to be admitted had been in such prison camps as Belsen and Buchenwald, in slave labour gangs, or were now in dispossessed family camps, or were otherwise homeless or destitute in Europe’. Calwell pointed out that none of these holders of landing permits would be able to obtain shipping until Australian service personnel had returned from Europe. Finally, he explained that the persons within this quota would have to satisfy four requirements (a) they had to be in good health; (b) they had to be of good character; (c) the British security service should know nothing adverse in relation to them; and (d) their sponsors had to undertake to ensure that these immigrants would not become a burden on the state for at least five years.”

Michael Blakeney, “The Australian Jewish community and postwar mass immigration from Europe,” 1987, p. 323-4.

In other words, Australian governments have always been suspicious of persecuted racial others on boats, have always tried their hardest to alienate them, and have never allowed any more in than they absolutely have to.


by tobybee

At a talk last night on Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique (this year is the 50th anniversary of its publication), both of the speakers mentioned Friedan’s anti-lesbian stances, and the problems that it caused. One of the speakers, when he mentioned it, said in an offhand way that it was probably a result of her Jewishness.

Friedan, who was born Bettye Naomi Goldstein, published under the surname of Friedan for the first time with the publication of this book. Prior to that she had been a writer for unions and in the communist presses, had been active in radical Jewish circles, and had published as Betty Goldstein.

In The Feminine Mystique Friedan referred to suburban homes as “comfortable concentration camps” and wrote that “”the women who ‘adjust’ as housewives, who grow up wanting to be ‘just a housewife,’ are in as much danger as the millions who walked to their own death in the concentration camps” (p. 294).

Both of those are actual, interesting, provocative, points about the impact of Friedan’s Jewishness on her writing in The Feminine Mystique. Tracing her homophobia to her Jewishness is lazy and antisemitic.

(And so I spent the rest of last night kicking myself for not saying anything during question time. If only I’d been quicker, and had more guts.)