the shameful racism of the AJN (or, a pathetic lack of compassion)

by tobybee

As Sol Salbe explained yesterday, the Australian Jewish ‘community’ is one in which “everyone has refugees in their family tree”. I’d probably modify that a bit, and say that if you’re in this community, then you either have refugees somewhere in your extended family or you’re close to people who do. That is, we’re a community—to the extent that we are a community—which has been built to a large degree by refugees and their descendents. Not that our personal and communal histories should be necessary to make us a compassionate people, who stand in solidarity with refugees today, but it perhaps goes some way towards that.

Indeed, something always grates on me when we make the claim that Jews should care, because we have been (and continue to be) refugees. As though anyone who doesn’t have refugees in their family can be excused from caring. And as though we shouldn’t care about the large number of ways in which people are vilified, repressed, attacked, destroyed, if we personally have not felt it. It buys into, I think, an extension of liberal individualism: if I don’t know of it personally, I can’t be expected to care.

This is all perhaps besides the point, except that in the 24 hours since the oped article entitled “Curb Your Compassion” by Robert Magid, publisher of the Australian Jewish News, was shared on facebook a large number of people I’m friends with have pointed to the fact that we are descendants of refugees, and that we have in our religious and cultural practices remembrances of that status as former slaves and exiles, as a key reason why we should speak out against Magid’s piece.

What then did Magid write of? He begins by asserting that Jews in Australia merely feign compassion for asylum seekers who attempt to come to this country by boat, so as to appear to the wider community as though we are good people. Which is in itself a ridiculous suggestion. He then writes that “this leads us to take positions of compassion over reason.” For Magid is, of course, the all-knowing, all-reasonable, White Man who will be able to tell the rest of us ill-informed emotional sorts what is best for us and the country in which we live. This separation between compassion and reason, or, to phrase it differently, emotion and knowledge, is a modernist ploy designed to denigrate those of us guided by both; those of us who see no need to separate the two to formulate a politics of community.

What we see here is, I think, pure ideology. Magid is interested in pursuing a deeply shameful political purpose of vilifying refugees (“Who can resist a photograph of a woman and child being taken off a sinking boat”), of denying the violence perpetrated against people (“I doubt whether there is a single boat person in that position [of fleeing ‘certain death’]”), and of creating a discourse of Jewish persecution (“We in the Jewish community, have to expend considerable funds to protect our institutions against, which it would be naïve not to acknowledge comes in many cases from the extremists in the Muslim community.”). He perpetuates the idea that seeking asylum is illegal, which is absolutely false. He suggests that immigrant communities form “ghettos” in other countries which lead to disruption, a suggestion which I always find hilarious coming from Jews in Melbourne, where we unselfconsciously describe the way many live as being in a ghetto, with all the alienation and segregation that that entails.

And it is these lines, “As an aside, it is unconscionable to bring the Holocaust into the discussion. The Jews who fled the Holocaust fled certain death. I doubt whether there is a single boat person in that position,” which seem to have stirred the greatest anger from people. Besides the fact that, as someone pointed out yesterday, he asserts that one shouldn’t bring the Holocaust into the discussion and then does precisely that, there is the obvious falseness of claiming that there is not one single boat person who faces death. It takes a wilful obliviousness and a certain lack of thought to conjure that up.

The whole piece, though, displays a lack of imagination and a political closeting. He advances no original, insightful, or interesting analysis. He (like most people offering ‘thoughts’ on asylum seekers in Australia and across the world) offers nothing to what could be a deeply important and serious conversation about the ways in which people and countries should interact with and support asylum seekers, other than a rehearsing of standard racist lines about the ‘kinds of people’ who make asylum claims. He instead furthers a great Australian tradition of demonising people of colour.

But then, and here’s where our collective memory can come into it, I think, I remember here Marianne Hirsch’s description of postmemory—the memories of the Holocaust which those of us who came after the event carry—as importantly including “an ethical relation to the oppressed or persecuted: as I can ‘remember’ my [grand]parents’ memories, I can also ‘remember’ the suffering of others”. It’s a deep shame that Magid carries no such ethical relationship to Jewish memory. And even more of a shame that he chose to use the AJN as his mouthpiece to publicise this outrageous politics.