Being David Gonski

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David Gonski speaks candidly on education and Jewish values, his surprising celebrity, and Israel.

A few years ago, David Gonski walked into a reception in a Sydney office block and passed a sign saying I give a Gonski. The woman at the registration desk asked him for his name. When he told her, she said: “how do you spell it?”

Gonski smiles as he reflects on the experience. “This gave me two insights,” says the architect of the Federal Government education funding review. “I give a Gonski is not me; it’s a wider cause. Secondly, you can get caught up in your own bubble and you can be brought back to earth pretty quickly.”

While many forget that Gonski has headed five reviews for government during his distinguished career as a lawyer and corporate adviser, he admits with modest pride that “this is the first one where people stop me in the street and say: ‘good on you’. That’s been a bit of a change in my life because you’re known for something, and most people think it’s a good thing.”

It’s no accident that Gonski, now 63, became involved in big picture education. It is a cause that has been close to his heart, and head, ever since he was a boy in South Africa.

Gonski’s paternal grandfather came from Poland. He was “quite frumm; a clever man but uneducated. Yet he facilitated my father to be a brain surgeon. I believe in education. I have seen the difference between my grandfather and father. If our work helps somebody, like an immigrant, to have a new life or power on, it’s worthwhile.”

However, education also led to his father, Alexander – “like many medical people” – questioning religion. “My wife is a doctor, so is my daughter. So I know what he was talking about. Whether it’s that they see tragedy, or they see the unpredictability of life, death and illness…they do question religion.

“My father used to tease me; he was a very keen sailor. ‘I follow the cross’, he told me, referring to the stays on his boat. He never ever backed away from being called Jewish, he collected money during his time for the UIA, he believed very strongly in Jewish freedom, but he was always called to the hospital on Yom Kippur.”

Gonski’s mother, Helene, by contrast, had an Orthodox father, a well-known businessman originally from Lithuania, who laid tefillin every day. “My mother has a strong sense of family, she still goes to synagogue. She was the one who chose the Emmanuel Synagogue for us when we came here in 1961.”

She spoke up about synagogue, and also about the role of women within it. “My mother has a strong view that women and men should sit together. She cannot and will not accept that women have a subordinate role. I admire her for that.”

This crucible of role modelling nourished the Jewish values that Gonski believes have shaped his professional and personal life. “I have a driving importance in my mind that every day you have to build and establish yourself as a decent person. Every day. Therefore, your reputation is only as old as yesterday. That’s a very Jewish pursuit.”

Gonski, who established his own foundation among a raft of major philanthropic activities during his career, traces his passion for giving to his Jewish roots. “We like to be involved and philanthropic in the community and be good to people. We have to be involved, both in time, and if we have excess money, in money.  I think that these are real essential parts of the Jewish upbringing.”

He believes there is an imperative to help others, including other Jews. “It’s always a great honour to help somebody, whose need may not be comparatively that great; but they need opportunities. It’s what one does.”

UNTIL HE came to Australia, David Gonski had never met anybody who had been through the Holocaust. The eastern European Jewish influx to South Africa occurred decades before the war, and when it ended, the rise of apartheid deflected the survivors elsewhere. Gonski’s father-in-law was the first survivor that he really got to know, and became a prism for his understanding of what European Jewry experienced during the war.

One by-product of this background is that he shies away from drawing any conclusions about the impact of the collective Holocaust experience on Australia’s Jewish community. If there is a special sensitivity to antisemitism, he does not feel he can comment on it.

On a personal level, although he accepts that Australians see him as Jewish, he does not feel that this has ever been held against him.  “I have experienced petty antisemitism. For example, people saying ‘you’ve got a big nose’. By the way, it took me a long time to work out that my nose was no bigger than anyone else’s. But I didn’t see that as antisemitism.

“If you say there is antisemitism, how come I got so many opportunities in Australia? I still remember in my first job, our neighbour, who was not Jewish, saying to my dad: ‘be careful; he’s not of the religion of that firm’. (He didn’t say Jewish). ‘He won’t get anywhere.’

“And I became the youngest partner in that firm …. I believe that many people see (my Jewishness) as different but I think my job is for them to see it as different in a positive sense.”

Take the South African Jewish influx, for example. “The Jewish immigration from South Africa in my opinion, probably saved Jewish education in Sydney at least, if not Melbourne. They achieved this by increasing the number of Jews in schools such as Reddam, Masada and Moriah, and also through their perspective of the importance of Jewish education.”

GONSKI WILL engage in his own meeting of cultures in October when he visits Israel with a group from the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce to celebrate the centenary of the Battle of Beersheba, in which the Australian Light Horse brigade led a heroic charge against the Turkish enemy in World War 1.

Although he has not travelled to Israel often, he is full of admiration for the country. “I think it is amazing what the Israelis have achieved. I take my hat off to them. I have seen the fragility of Israel’s location, of fragility of access to resources such as oil…and they solve problems. The Israelis have instinct and intellect; two things that I think are very important.”

As for Israel’s military conflicts, the region’s instability and the prospects for peace, he is more cautious.I am not going to transgress into an area that I am not expert in. The one thing I would say is that I would hope we’d see peace because I don’t believe multiple generations can be comfortable in a war zone. But I acknowledge it’s difficult.

“I absolutely believe in the state of Israel continuing. I don’t have a great want to go and live there myself. But I’ll fight for the right of people to do so.”

Does he have a view about the impact on Israeli society of so many years of the Palestinians living in the occupied territories? “I have a view but I’m not sure I want to get into that. It would be impertinent for me to do so.

“If you ask me about how does a university run, that’s an area I have had some expertise in. I have been a chancellor (of UNSW) for 12 years. But Israel and the occupation – that would be improper.”

However, it is not easy to keep middle-east politics out of university. Later this month, a conference will be held at the University of Sydney on the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement.

How would he feel about the conference if it was proposed at UNSW? “My answer to that is as follows: Firstly, I do believe in freedom of speech, I do not believe in any physical violence or any inappropriate action, and I would fight extremely hard to ensure that people can go their own way.

“In terms of people of different aspects getting together and talking about things, I don’t have a problem. But I do believe that the university should be open for everybody as well. Therefore, if a group got together, for example, to be against Asians, I do not think I would want them to be meeting generally.

“So I will have to blend my belief in open discussion with things that hurt others. I believe in the equality of human beings and I absolutely abhor racism.”

On the subject of equality, Gonski is particularly excited about the opportunities being opened up for Indigenous medical students at UNSW. “I love what Shalom College is doing with indigenous people and medicine (The Shalom Gamarada Indigenous Scholarship Program has had 30 graduates; 18 of them in medicine. In Shalom College, there are currently 24 Indigenous students, 13 of them studying medicine.) They are going to be great doctors. They have a real will to succeed.”

He attributes his own success to a couple of simple personal strengths. “I am a very good manager of time, and I am able to focus on things without being deviated by all the other problems on your mind.”

For all the hullaballoo about the debate and policies enacted under his name, Gonski does not, even now, see himself as a public figure. “I see myself as a very personal figure. I like going to work each day, enjoying the variety that life has allowed me. I am happiest in the evening when I am at home.

“I am very lucky with the family and home I’ve got. I have never chosen politics; I have designated views and I do like to participate but I see myself as a private individual. I don’t think that most people know that I’m Gonski.”

Before I can raise an eyebrow, he offers an eloquent analogy. “When a great doctor develops a remedy for a disease, it doesn’t mean he’s involved with everything. ‘Gonski’ has moved on. It originally relates to me, but it’s bigger than me.”

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Michael Visontay

Michael Visontay is Editor of plus61J. His most recent book, written with Manny Waks, was 'Who Gave You Permission? The memoir of a child sexual-abuse survivor who fought back' (Scribe).

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