jew on this

critical, progressive ideas from pondering jews

Category: holocaust


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.)


pieces of the past

by tobybee

I think a lot about how to create social change, or how to engage with people in effective ways, or when to scrap strategy and just stand in solidarity. I have no idea how effective Szmul Zygielbojm thought he was being when he killed himself 70 years ago, on May 12, 1943 – he gassed himself and asked to be cremated – or when he sent this letter explaining why. But it is clear that his actions are affecting and that they ask us to consider what we are willing to do in solidarity with others.

Szmul Zygielbojm letter

Zygielbojm – a Bundist – wrote this letter, Yiddishkeyt explains, “in utter despair upon receiving the news of the complete destruction of the Warsaw ghetto, in protest at the passivity with which the world was reacting in the face of the ongoing genocide, and in an act of unimaginable solidarity — killed himself by gas in his London apartment. In his note he wrote: ‘I cannot remain silent. I cannot live while the remnants of the Jewish people in Poland whose representative I am are being exterminated.'”


by tobybee

Why are historical comparisons, at times, useful? As a historian who writes comparative history, it’s a question I am forced to address in my work. I find—as do many other historians—that by placing two different scenarios, or events, or examples, alongside each other, something is illuminated in both. We have the potential to learn something new by considering matters in comparison.

This is a vital difference between comparison and competition. As I learnt when I studied Comparative Genocide Studies at high school, it is useful to think about different genocides in comparison because then we can grasp more fully the complexity of genocide, and the many different ways in which it can be practiced. It is never useful, however, to play competitive genocide studies: to allege that one genocide is worse than another—or that one event is not a genocide—because of the number of people who were murdered, or the ways in which they were murdered. Every murder, we learnt through CGS, is tragic; every genocide looks different, and yet remains tragic. Every genocide, at times, does not look like genocide and at other times appears to be genocide par excellence.

In the past couple of weeks we’ve seen an explosion of writing regarding a Michael Leunig cartoon that was printed in the Age and which received in response allegations of antisemitism from many in the Melbourne Jewish community. The cartoon repeats Pastor Niemoller’s famous statement:
“First they came for the socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.”

but turns it instead into:

And a series of men have written their responses in various newspapers: Harold Zwier, Leunig himself, Dvir Abramovich, and finally today Nick Dyrenfurth. (aside pro-tip: if you want to access an article that’s behind a paywall, you just need to google the title of the article. The whole thing then turns up)

The argument, somewhere along the line, has turned into the utility of comparisons between Nazi Germany and Israel: such comparisons have been called intellectually lazy or offensive, amongst other things. But what is missing in such criticisms is, seemingly, an awareness of what constituted the Holocaust. The Holocaust, surely, is not just Auschwitz. It is not just industrial murder. It is also a denial of citizenship, the killing of random people on the street, the gathering of people into particular areas of town, the creation of refugees, the hate speech, the ignorance, the discriminatory legislation, the countless number of other small (and not so small) acts of brutality that together constitute what we now gather together under the name of the Holocaust. And this is, I would suggest, a problem for Holocaust historiography: what do we forget, what do we leave out, when we gather it all together under this one rubric? For if people suggest that the Holocaust stands always and only for the death camps, then whose experiences are they denying, whose stories are they silencing?

Leunig’s cartoon, it seems to me, is not about—or not just about—the Holocaust. It is a call to action, a reminder that the Holocaust is one moment when action was lacking. What are others? When do we silence ourselves because of disinterest, or fear of personal repercussions? How can we rethink our responsibilities to others?

For a comparison between the Holocaust and what Israel is doing to Palestinians is, yes, imperfect. As all comparisons are. But what it reminds us is that comparisons are useful. Is Israel undertaking industrial murder? No, not that I know of. Is Israel using the tools of modern industrial capitalism to persecute Palestinians? Absolutely: in the use of prisons, checkpoints, and drones. Is Israel stripping some Palestinians of their citizenship, making them stateless? Absolutely. That one’s a no-brainer. Are Palestinians forced to live in particular areas? Again, absolutely. Is genocide not happening because not all Palestinians are dead yet? Absolutely not. If one looks at the UN definition of genocide (and there are good reasons to turn to it, and good reasons not to, but regardless,) then we see that the measure of what constitutes genocide is not whether a group completely destroys another, but whether there is intent to destroy a particular form of group, in whole or in part, as such. There are numerous ways in which this can be carried out: cultural genocide is one, physical murder another. The physical destruction of the group need not happen for genocide to be occurring.

For after all, this is what has been missing in this discussion about the Leunig cartoon: an account of the various diverse experiences of Palestinians. Instead of taking the opportunity to look at the various different ways in which genocide can occur, taking a moment to consider genocides in historical perspective and in comparison with one another, to illuminate something about the nature of genocide and what people in the world will tolerate, support, or condemn, this ‘controversy’ has proved to have provided a way to make the discussion about Israelis, Zionism, and Jews, and their various neuroses.

By placing different historical moments in comparison—and I’m not even sure that this is what Leunig’s cartoon actually did, it seems to me to be more of a critique of a sense in the world that there are certain types of speech which are not socially permissible, and a critique of those of us who silence ourselves out of fear of the social repercussions—we have the capacity to learn something about each of them. We can be reminded of complexity and nuance, and remember that the Holocaust didn’t begin with Auschwitz.

for a sweet year

by tobybee

please don’t spill over, dear tomatoes, i prayed. alas, to no avail…

gut yontif, dear readers. i’m finishing up cooking an eggplant and tomato bake for erev rosh hashana dinner tonight. and so, i wish you a nourishing, fulfilling, self-reflective year to come. a year filled with love, laughter, and friendships. with the strength to cope with adversity, and the strength to ask for help. and the strength and care to offer help. the determination to offer forgiveness, to others and to yourself. the desire to right the wrongs that you perpetrate, knowingly and unknowingly. the willingness to see what structures of oppression you fall victim to, and which ones you are complicit in. and to do what you can to not be complicit. the assurance that you will dance as you further the revolution.

my cooking playlist:
the wailing wall
the shondes
leonard cohen

“other sorts of values and political aspirations”

by tobybee

In a presentation upstairs in a bar in Melbourne a couple of weeks ago, Israeli activist Micha Kurz, when asked by an audience member what we in Melbourne could do to support anti-Occupation work in Israel/Palestine, said that we all needed to take care of what is happening on our own blocks. So, just as G4S (the “largest private militia in the world”) is running prisons in Israel, imprisoning Palestinians, so too are they running prisons and immigration detention centres in Australia. We live today, as is quite evident, in a global economy, and so targeting companies where we live will have an impact on these companies wherever they work.

In this way, it seems to me, Micha — who was on a speaking tour of Australia with Sahar Vardi, an activist and refusenik – was asking us to conceptualise of ourselves not just as people with shared interests, but people whose interests were intertwined or interlinked. I think here of the work of Michael Rothberg on multidirectional memory. Rothberg, in his 2009 book of the same name, argues for a form of memory that does not see the interactions between collective memories held by different groups as competitive – “as a zero-sum struggle over scarce resources” – but rather as “illustrat[ing] the productive, intercultural dynamic” of memory (3). Starting with memories of the Holocaust—as indeed so much of modern-day Jewish collective memory seems to—Rothberg brings together different memories of different events. He shows us that to remember persecutions ethically is to remember them as intertwined. And thus when discussing the fear that seems to characterise Israeli society today, Sahar, in her talks, would often point to the Holocaust as a motivating factor. It is, we know well, held up as a key reason why Israel, Israelis, and many Jews worldwide, feel that Jewish existence in the world should be characterized by fear. But, on the contrary, Sahar was suggesting, in a way reminiscent of Rothberg, that instead of Israeli collective memory of the Holocaust needing to produce fear, it could be redirected into a collaborative approach: into a sense that victims of persecution can stand, and remember, together. In this way, Rothberg, Micha and Sahar are pointing us to, I think, a form of thinking about world-wide collaboration and disruption which is diasporic. It calls on us to recognise the ways in which we are implicated in each others lives: we don’t exist in isolation from each other.

And indeed, thinking the implications of this implicatedness through is part of the project of Judith Butler’s new work, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism. In her introduction Butler asks us to ponder the nationalist/fascist idea that we can choose who we live with. This is the motivation behind the guarding of borders, the policing of migrants, the destruction of indigenous communities. It was the motivation, the belief, that structured the Holocaust: that the Nazis and their collaborators could decide next to whom they would live. It is, Butler argues, the structuring force of the way that Israeli treats the Palestinians: they can be pushed to the side because there is a belief that a choice can be made not to live next to, or with, another person. Butler writes at one point that “for those who extrapolated principles of justice from the historical experience of internment and dispossession”—and here we hear a ringing of Rothberg’s idea of the interlinking of memories which constructs a multidirectional memory—“the political aim is to extend equality regardless of cultural background or formation, across languages and religions, to those none of us ever chose (or did not recognize that we chose) and with whom we have an enduring obligation to find a way to live” (24). To put it another way: if our experience is of someone not wanting to live with us to extent that we would face total destruction and annihilation, then surely we have some sort of historical and ethical responsibility to figure out how to live with others whom we did not choose to live with. Just as we do not choose them, so we are not chosen, as Butler continues: “we are nevertheless unchosen together” (25). Instead of this being a limit on our lives, it could contain a “radical potential for new modes of sociality and politics” (24).

In this vein, elsewhere Butler writes, “I’m trying to understand how the exilic—or more emphatically, the diasporic—is built into the idea of the Jewish (not analytically, but historically, that is, over time); in this sense, to ‘be’ a Jew is to be departing from oneself, cast out into a world of the non-Jew, bound to make one’s way ethically and politically precisely there within a world of irreversible heterogeneity” (15). We can take issue with her offering a precise definition of what it is to be a Jew—I don’t know how helpful it is to offer gatekeeper statements like that—but agree, as I do, with it as an aspirational comment, or a comment on the kinds of Jews that we want to be associated with. I like this idea, offered by Butler, writing in the shadow of many other diasporic Jewish writers, that to be Jewish is to live in collaboration, and to be implicated in others’ lives and identities, as they are implicated in mine.

This is, I think, one message that Sahar and Micha were offering to us in their talks. As they spoke of rebellion against a militarised state, as they talked about their work with different grassroots communities, as they offered a condemnation of the ‘facts on the ground’ that the Israeli government and the settler movement are pursuing, they were asking us all to think about how we choose to live: do we live in collaboration, or do we live in isolation?

bad time to be a refugee (as if there ever was a good time)

by tobybee

it’s a bad time to be an asylum seeker, trying to come to Australia. I suppose there’s never really been a good time, seeing as there has been an official White Australia policy, and there still continues an unofficial desire for a White Australia on the part of the various lawmakers and many members of the population. So last week a new report was released, commissioned in order to provide advice to the government on how to deal with those people who come to these shores by boat, seeking escape and safety. And instead the report recommended, and the government agreed, that offshore processing and indefinite detention should be embraced, to try to ensure that asylum seekers are not able to make it here, and that they are punished if they work with people smugglers to seek out freedom.

One thing is clear though, amongst all this demonising of people who do whatever they can, and pay whoever they can, to escape: if there had been more people smugglers working in Poland in the late 1930s and early 1940s, I’d potentially have more family alive.

And in the Jewish community, as I posted the other week, we’ve had to reckon with the unholy words of Robert Magid, who says that we shouldn’t show compassion, and that refugees are not refugees. So many, it turns out, in the community disagreed – there are now over 600 signatories to the open letter that was initiated by the AJDS. Quite an amazing thing, and quite an inspiring demonstration of the existence of a Jewish community that I’m happy to belong to.

Our friends over in Kingston who run the radio show radio613 interviewed me about the goings-on. You can listen to it, if you want. And you can come along to the next Jews for Refugees meeting, which is taking place at 4 pm, Sunday September 9th, Melbourne Multicultural Hub, White room. 506 Elizabeth St, opposite the Vic market.

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.

On museums and nationalism

by R.S.

On the weekend I took my mum to the Jewish Holocaust Museum in Elsternwick.

The place has the air of the sacred. Sacred because of the profound meaning given to it, the investitures of emotion, the kindred ties, the ritualistic invocations. It is a site of mourning, a way to deal with grief and trauma. I am interested in this interaction of memory and sacredness, but also of where the silences in memory are and the way the place is animated by more than its intention.

What stood out for me more was the things happening on the periphery: a group of children laughing; chatting adults; a bored daughter being taught a history lesson, whether she liked it or not; a tourist trotting quickly through; an Israeli security guard shuffling us out so he could finish his shift. I found myself looking forward to getting home to the TV series I’d been watching.  This ambivalence, of course, is not the kind of response the place elicits. It demands your attention and heart at every moment.

I wondered, walking through, to what extent memory of the Holocaust has been stunted by a fear of Holocaust deniers. Whether, that is, Holocaust deniers have created Holocaust memory, inasmuch as those involved in Holocaust memory have allowed deniers to dictate the terms. What makes me wonder this is the thorough lack of complexity to the narrative presented and to what extent fear and anxiety was the reason for this.

The narrative is clean cut. It’s precise and accurate: everything that is said happened, happened. The hyper-vigilance of it – the attempt to keep it comprehensible – loses something of the complexity. Historical empiricism can of course give complexity to the past, but we don’t need fidelity to sources and strict rules to follow in order to remember. It is OK to not be in control all the time.

What I am interested in is complexity, the invisibilities and silences in the memories, but also the ways in which these silences create a heaviness that hangs over the museum. Michael Taussig asks “what real monument can compare with invisibility?” This must surely be a central question in remembering trauma: nothing, surely, can represent it, but we must try.


I am a historian and my concern is memory and silence, and so seeking out silences, I found otherwise absent Sephardi holocaust narratives. I am interested in how Ladino speaking people may have made their lives viable under fascism, in the camps, in relating to Ashkenazi Jews who would have seemed so thoroughly foreign. The museum had little information on diaspora refugee communities such as Melbourne nor the level of diversity within those communities. Elsewhere is not hard to find stories of the vibrant Yiddish speaking culture of Warsaw or Carlton or the tensions between Yiddish speaking Jews and Anglo Jews in Australia. But what became of those Ladino speaking refugees in the camps or in these diaspora communities? How did they make their lives viable within a dominant community of western European Jewry, but also in an Australia still thoroughly preoccupied with the border patrols of whiteness? Nationalism, of course, has its limits.


Uncle William Cooper, the Yorta Yorta man who led the protest at the German consulate against the treatment of Jews in Germany, is increasingly memorialised in both Australia and Israel. Cooper’s resistance was of a man experiencing the blunt end of colonialism,where emptiness was a central colonial fantasy: a land without a people, terra nullius. Next to the acknowledgement of Cooper was a brief explanation of the Freeland League for Jewish Territorial Colonization exploration of the Kimberly for a possible Jewish state: had the feeling such ironies were lost.


An American Christian Zionist with a Southern accent spoke to a young man, a museum staff member, about how God gave the children of Abraham the land of Israel. The Palestinians have never existed. It was awkward. The young man agreed, reluctant and polite, and spoke of how the Arabs even today don’t want the Jews to have a home. He went on with conviction: the Arabs, the Arabs, the Arabs.


Unique to the museum are the survivor volunteers who show guests around and are there for people to ask questions and to have a bit of a chat. What I think it was I liked most was the sudden and instant complexity and subjectivity they gave to the place: nothing was predictable when subjectivities of those who experienced fascism speak. Having real people does something profound and unexpected to the stage management of memory. Such wonderfully subjective experiences muddle up the strict, hyper-vigilant linear narrative – sealed glass cabinets, tangible history, pertinent quotes and art that tells you exactly what to think – of this kind of memory production. Anything could happen if you put real people out the front of something like this.


My mum has wanted to visit the museum for some time, ever since she saw the Maurice Sendak exhibition at the Jewish Museum of Australia.  It is not possible, it should be said, for us to separate this trip from exploring the multiple identities we have wound up with.

My family stopped practicing Judaism before the Holocaust and before anyone took Zionism seriously. Theresa, my mother’s great-grandmother, is still almost always referred to as a “Jewess” – which seems redundant now, but indicates something of a shift in language, yet a stasis in the oral histories of my family. Recently I’ve been writing on a history of colonialism and violence in my family in Central Australia. Theresa’s daughter would marry a man who was known for the violence and terror that he inflicted on Aboriginal people about 400 km north-east of Alice from the mid 1920s until his death in 1939.

Had they been born Europe, the lives of Theresa’s daughter and grandchildren would have been in grave danger. But they weren’t. They were in Australia, privileged in a settler pastoral aristocracy who dominated the lives of Aboriginal people thoroughly and whose impact today is immeasurable.

Going to the museum for us was about exploring the intersecting points of identity, memory, and the past: we were seeking out something of ourselves there. But this is not what I found: I keep returning to Taussig’s idea of “mimetic excess” and that my own identification with the Holocaust – as identity, rather than an understanding of what can happen to humanity – seems, in the end, excessive. The fear of many Australian Jews who also might fit such (if at times problematic) categories as white, middle class, hetero, cisgendered, male and what-have-you, who feel themselves victims – as though the barbarians are at the gates – seems to take on some of this mimetic excess.

The rules from the centre on fitting in seem pretty clear in terms of nationalism and the Holocaust. However what I think needs grappling with is how I might come to understand the pasts that I am connected with in all their multiple, connecting and mismatching parts. But most importantly I am interested in how this can be done with a critical eye: a panorama that takes in all the terrain.

…we wont stop til we free the refugees!

by R.S.

Jews for Refugees, World Refugee Day rally, Melbourne 2012

the devastation of love/murder

by tobybee


Charlotte “Delbo describes instances in which reading becomes a matter of life and death. For example, she describes a scene of reading in which the SS find a love note. Lily, a female inmate, had left it in a hiding place for her lover; he, unable to get to the spot because of a change in his work detail, had asked a fellow inmate to get it. The latter dropped it returning to camp, and it was found by the SS. With an obsessively single-minded hermeneutics, they decide that ‘this letter was obviously a coded message to communicate political information – because for the Gestapo everything was coded, and love letters must convey political instructions’. Unable to imagine the possibility of a love letter written from one camp inmate to another, the Gestapo read it through their myopic lens of political opposition. Lily’s poignant comment that ‘We are here like plants full of life and sap, like plants wanting to grow and live, and I cannot help thinking that these plants are not meant to live’ becomes a statement of political sabotage in the distorted hermeneutics of the SS. Lily, the recipient, and the man who dropped the letter are all executed as a result of this mode of reading.”

from Jennifer L. Geddes, “Towards an Ethics of Reading Survivor Testimonies,” Studies in the Literary Imagination 41, no. 2 (Fall 2008), 9.