The prospect of some Indigenous activists hijacking January 26 to campaign for Palestinians is deeply disappointing.
The Australian Jewish community is widely supportive of Indigenous Australian causes. Jewish leaders, most prominently Mark Leibler, have been instrumental in working for reconciliation; Jewish lawyers led the Mabo case; the Jewish community campaigned strongly in favour of the Voice to parliament, and Jewish initiatives such as the Shalom Gamarada Scholarship Program offer opportunities aimed at closing the educational gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
The support of the Aboriginal community comes in part from a strong Jewish tradition of fighting for justice, and in part from a sense of commonality, as a minority people with deep attachments to land, memory and culture.
Jewish people see parallels between the racism experienced by Indigenous Australians and the antisemitism experienced by Jews. We feel that we understand the Aboriginal attachment to land because it echoes our attachment to Israel. In both cases, land is a thread which runs through our history, our stories, and our experience of cultural connection. Both peoples know what it is to fight for the right to retain our culture, to honour the experience of our ancestors, and to be determined to pass on our identity to our children.
Some prominent Aboriginal leaders have recognised the commonalities of the two communities. Noel Pearson has compared Aboriginal history to the Jewish experience of trauma and spoken about how the two peoples share a land-based spiritual identity. Nova Peris has acknowledged the important Jewish contribution to overturning terra nullius and fighting for the Voice, observing that Jews understand what it means to be connected to country even if they do not live on it.
But a more widespread and growing narrative in the Aboriginal community identifies with Palestinians and regards Israel, and sometimes all Jews, as “White colonisers” oppressing “Indigenous” Palestinians. According to this lens, Palestinians are the true people of the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Jews are characterised as European imports who have no place in the Middle East and as Whites who cannot understand the Black experience of oppression.
To suggest that Jews have no indigeneity in Israel is blatantly unhistorical. To characterise all Jews as White or European is insulting to Sephardim and Mizrahim. To suggest that Jews cannot understand racism or generational trauma is almost unbelievable. There are few histories better documented anywhere in the world than the experience of the Jewish people in Israel since Biblical times, the dispersion and persecution of Jews, and the sustained yearning for a return to Zion for 2,000 years.
“Blak sovereignty advocates have entwined two extraordinary propositions – one that is simply untrue and one that is a moral outrage.”Indigenous leader Marcia Langton
That is not to deny Palestinian indigeneity to the same area. Jewish and Palestinian claims to the land are complex and overlapping. Anyone who thinks they can summarise the history or the right to the land with a simple slogan betrays their own ignorance.
Unfortunately, the tragedy of the current Israel-Hamas War has accelerated an increasing tendency to wave Aboriginal and Palestinian flags together, as if the causes were the same and the complexities of history could be reduced, literally, to Black and White.
Some Indigenous leaders plan to use upcoming protests on Australia Day to support this simple and inaccurate view of the Palestinian cause. Aboriginal senator Lidia Thorpe and Tasmanian Indigenous leader Michael Mansell have said Palestine will form a key part of their messages for January 26, which many Australians now call Invasion Day.
These leaders of the Blak sovereignty movement see the Indigenous Australian battle for recognition and the battle of Palestinians for statehood as “collective liberations intrinsically linked”.
Their view has been well-countered by another thoughtful Aboriginal leader, Marcia Langton, who wrote, “Blak sovereignty’ advocates have entwined two extraordinary propositions – one that is simply untrue and one that is a moral outrage.
“First, they claim that ‘Indigenous Australians feel solidarity with Palestinians’. This is false; it is the view of a tiny few, if put in those words. Most of us are aware of the complexity and that there is very little comparable in our respective situations, other than our humanity.
“Second, they refuse to condemn Hamas. I am aghast and embarrassed. They do not speak for me …No legitimate Aboriginal leader will permit our movement to be associated with terrorists.”
Those who are prepared to acknowledge the complex and contradictory histories which have led to the Hamas-Israel War in Gaza see it not as a war in which one side is right and the other wrong, but as a tragic conflict with terrible losses on both sides. They understand it is possible to grieve for both the Israelis who were murdered, raped or kidnapped in the Hamas massacre of October 7 and for the Palestinians who have been killed, displaced and starved of basic goods and services in the subsequent Israeli attacks on Gaza.
They support the Palestinian right to self-determination but not “from the river to the sea”, that is not at the expense of the Jewish right to self-determination in Israel. They also understand Israel’s need to disable Hamas, an organisation whose genocidal intentions are written into its covenant and reiterated frequently.
January 26 demands important conversations about Australia’s history and the continuing injustice faced by the first Australians. It will help nobody to be confused and diverted by misunderstanding the Middle East.