Michael Visontay
About Michael Visontay

Michael Visontay is Editor of Plus61J. He has worked as a journalist and editor for more than 30 years. Michael is the author of several books, including Who Gave You Permission? , co-authored with child sexual abuse advocate Manny Waks, and Welcome to Wanderland: Western Sydney Wanderers and the Pride of the West

“COLIN HAS SIMPLIFIED the crucial fact that state-sponsored genocide is a matter of fact for Australia. The question is: how are we going to deal with that fact?”

This was one of the many signal contributions Professor Colin Tatz has made to the study of genocide, according to historian Doug Booth, a contributor to the book, Genocide Perspectives V, that has been published in honour of Tatz’s long and distinguished career.

At the book’s launch last night at the Sydney Jewish Museum, Booth was one of several leading public figures and academics who paid tribute to Tatz’s work as a researcher, advocate, mentor and teacher. Other speakers included prominent human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, NSW Crown Prosecutor Mark Tedeschi and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Tanya Plibersek.

Tatz has made significant contributions to genocide studies and sport studies … and gone out into the communities, done the hard work and gone to speak with them, added Booth, from the University of Otago in New Zealand. “He has also helped give the victims of crimes an important voice and a narrative for wider society.”

Australia’s responsibility for facing up to the state-sponsored genocide in its own history was a recurring theme among the speakers. “We have learned from Colin that we have a responsibility to engage, that holocausts are live subjects,” said Jennifer Balint, from the University of Melbourne.

“In Australia we have a reluctance to name and prosecute genocide. It’s either too near (Indigenous people) or too far (allowing war criminals from the former Yugoslavia to go unpunished). We are a poorer society for it,” Balint said.

Delivering the keynote address, Mark Tedeschi reflected on the 1838 Myall Creek massacres of 28 Aboriginal people by 11 white men. In the two trials that ensued, seven were convicted. These were not just murder trials, Tedeschi suggested, but rather, war crimes trials, even though we did not formally have the concept and practice until 100 years later.

The reason for categorising them in this way was because they took place in the context of a frontier war that was being fought at the time. The perpetrators’ intent was genocidal, nothing less than ethnic cleansing, according to Tedeschi.

Every child at school studies the famous explorers, Burke and Wills, Hume and Hovel, he said. “Our children should also study these crimes along with the explorers, because they were part of the same frontier experience.”

Tanya Plibersek echoed Tedeschi’s call.  “As Mark said, why has Australia found it so hard to acknowledge the genocide in its own history? We can acknowledge other holocausts: the Nazis, Rwanda, Armenia, the Yazidis and now Rohinga. But until we can teach our own genocide to our students and face the truth of our past, we will not be able to move on as a nation and help heal the pain.”

In relation to the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya that has occurred in Mynamar, Geoffrey Robertson told the audience that if the Nobel Prize committee had any integrity, it would withdraw the Peace Prize from from Aung San Suu Kyi over her unwillingness to acknowledge and act.

Several speakers referred to the powerful streak of social justice that underpinned Tatz’s research and advocacy. In reply, he pointed to his lived experience as the crucible for his awareness, from a young age, of injustice in the world.

“My social conscience came from growing up in South Africa. As a little boy, my mother said: ‘Colin, it’s time to stop kissing the black nanny. It’s not appropriate any more.’ You learn from experience,” he said quietly.

At the end of Tatz’s brief speech, the audience gave him a prolonged standing ovation.

Photos: Uri Windt

Professor Tatz has been a passionate supporter and contributor to Plus61J since it was founded. Here we publish his latest article


Whatever happened to history, that is, the era before genes were deemed to be, for the most part, the determiners of our identity and being? When did genes become the key? Where and when do we point to the conscious self and to our society as the responsible agents of behaviours like suicide and obesity? If genes are the antecedents and the propellants of behaviours and diseases, why have they been dormant for the millennia?

Public affairs programs — like the recent SBS television series on the work of Professor Joe Proietto at Melbourne University — now present obesity as a disease of genetic origin rather than an outcome of a dysfunctional over-fondness for vast quantities of bad food. The obese ones, we are told, aren’t in any way to blame for their misfortune. Hence hunger-suppressant drugs, radical diets, and gastric sleeve surgery are in vogue to treat the diseased patients.

In similar vein, a major thrust of those concerned about suicide are adamant that answers lie in finding that elusive ‘depression gene’, the even more reclusive and hiding ‘suicide gene’, and the secluded chemical in the brain that is out of balance.

There have long been fat people, ranging from Shakespeare’s Falstaff to Robin Hood’s Friar Tuck. The celebrated Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook berated Jeshuru not because he was born that way but because he ‘grew obese, thick and fat’. Nineteenth and early twentieth century fat men’s clubs proliferated in America, and in may societies fatness was (and is) commendable. History books also tell us that mankind has been replete with suicide since history found its written form, a behaviour both commonplace and normal, celebrated in several major cultures, encouraged in others.

But obesity and suicide, to name but two current social issues, have become statistically alarming and have consequences for public spending.

Obesity in the West has doubled in two decades and Australia now ranks third in adult obesity in the English-speaking world. Most ‘-ologists’ attribute this to poor eating habits and the handiness of fast, junky and addictive foods. Maybe. In my youth (a long, long time ago), there were ubiquitous tea houses serving scones and cream, cheap cafes with hamburgers and hot dogs, and fish and chips in sump oil on many a corner.  And remember that sugar is over a thousand years old, an item consumed in vast quantities across the ages — at least in the villainous form we ascribe to it today. Guilty salt has been around for a lot longer.

Suicide rates continue to escalate in the Western world, and so do suicide prevention agencies. Suicide is winning. In both phenomena we plunge into simplicity, intent on making concrete things that are intangible and imperceptible, producing slick one-line answers to hugely complex socio-political problems.

Leaving that aside for a moment, if both behaviours have their bases in some of our 20,000 to 25,000 genes, why have they lain dormant until relatively recently? For example, Aboriginal suicide was unknown before 1960 — despite efforts to find evidence of earlier manifestations. So what is it that awakened the ‘suicide gene’ at that time, and then kept it going at a frantic and drastic rate that elevated their suicide rate is now in the world’s ‘top ten’?

And if perchance suicide has a genetic basis, whose genes are we talking about in mixed-descent Aboriginal communities?

The omnipresence of McDonald’s, Rooster’s and Hungry Jacks may well be the ‘external factor’ in obesity. But if the ‘disease’ is genetic, how come it had such a late and dramatic presentation in the West? There is, indeed, an anthropology and a sociology of food. There is also a history of food, delightfully described by scholars like Margaret Visser (Much Depends on Dinner) and Mark Kurlansky (Cod: The Biography of a Fish, and Salt) for those who like what they eat. There was, historically, some pretty bad food.

Israel today has a serious obesity problem, with one in four women and one in six men rated as obese. And in that set of statistics, the ultra-orthodox, the haredi, are seven times more obese than the rest of Israeli society. They don’t eat Macburgers, so do we have here a case of orthodox genes?

There is also a history of suicide. Samson knowingly pulled the Philistine temple down upon himself; King Saul wittingly fell upon his sword rather than be run through by an uncircumcised enemy; and Cleopatra, with premeditation, clasped as asp to her bosom. Given their contexts, one has to be wary of those who proclaim that suicide can never be rational, that self-destruction is inexorably a “mental health issue” that derives from a genetic propensity.

The genetic model of explanation is novel and exciting for those engaged therein. But it either sweeps aside or abolishes historical contexts. In an age of genetic understanding, and of manipulation, we seem hell-bent on diagnosing the world’s ills and discovering the world’s solutions by men and women in white coats using spectacular laboratory equipment.

Let me say that science isn’t always the explanation and that scientific certitude comes and goes in the way that history does. One hundred and fifty years ago we were still bleeding, purging, leeching, blistering, cupping, and rinsing rectums with soapy suds as a way of “saving” the sick. No, 70 years ago my zaide was subjected to those very regimens.


Michael Visontay
Posted by Michael Visontay 1 month ago