Background and a Jewish response
It’s a statement from the heart, but it’s also a cry from the heart, a cry in search of a voice, a plea born out of despair, an appeal nurtured by hope. It’s the Uluru Statement from the Heart. And it speaks directly to my Jewish heart in the spirit of the rabbinical statement that ‘words that come from the heart enter directly into the heart’. Words composed in the stillness of an aching heart connect instantly to the heart of another, especially another who has travelled the path of an anguished heart.
The Uluru Statement was developed through a comprehensive Indigenous-led consultation process. Twelve large regional meetings, or Dialogues, took place across Australia, culminating in a National Convention at Uluru, the sacred and iconic site in Central Australia (aka Ayers Rock) in May 2017, attended by over 250 community elected delegates.
The Uluru Statement from the Heart explains:
“We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny, our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.”
The Statement specifically requests:
- A constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament to advise on all matters concerning the wellbeing of First Nations peoples and their communities;
- The establishment of a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making (treaty) between governments and First Nations; and
- Truth-Telling about Aboriginal history. As in other countries, history written and taught in Australia has played down, distorted, patronised or expunged the Aboriginal story.
The statement is as brief as it is powerful. It’s a collective statement but does bear the imprint of one of Australia’s leading intellectuals, Noel Pearson, an Aboriginal activist who was actively supported when he did his practical legal training at ABL, a large and premier Jewish Australian legal firm. The senior partner of ABL, Mark Leibler, one of Australia’s most respected Jewish leaders, was present at Uluru for the historic signing. Speaking to a Jewish audience several years ago, Noel Pearson said, ‘It’s a vision for my mob to be as strong as your mob.’
Later this year, all Australians of voting age will be compelled to vote yes or no in a referendum on the principle of whether a First Nation’s advisory body (called the Voice) should be incorporated into Australia’s Constitution. It will provide independent advice to Parliament and government, but will not have the power to promulgate laws or veto government decisions.
Not all Aboriginal people are in favour of a yes vote. For some, like Senator Linda Thorpe and the Black Sovereignty movement, The Voice implies a threat to existing indigenous sovereignty. After all, they say they never consented to give up their country and live under colonialist or White government laws.
The Uluru Statement draws our attention to the inextricable bond between people and the land of their ancestors; it reminds us of the future that children nestle in their pristine hearts; it affirms the power of the past. As a people whose connection to land goes back some three thousand years, who maintained that link in their prayers and actions despite having been exiled from their homes or being placed in exile in their own homeland by foreign and often brutal oppressors, we know that connection to Country goes way beyond the emotional.
It drills down into an even deeper spiritual current. It links us to our ancestors, the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel and Leah. We identify with, and are filled with admiration for, the First Peoples’ commitment to the land of their ancestors. We are both peoples of long memory. Remembrance is also pivotal to Jewish identity, and the injunction to remember is a religious imperative to the entire people of Israel. As the historian Yosef Yerushalmi notes, the Hebrew word for remembrance appears no less than 169 times in the Bible! Such connection is spiritual, but also recognises the political process that is essential to maintaining that continuity. The heart needs hands to implement its yearning. So we join heart to heart, soul to soul, hand to hand with our First Nations families. The umbrella Executive Council of Australian Jewry and 22 other Jewish community organisations have already come out in support of the Uluru Statement. Jewish parliamentarian, Julian Leeson, recently resigned from the opposition shadow cabinet so that he could campaign in favour of it, despite his party’s opposition to it.
There are those who oppose the Voice in the Jewish community (like the Australian Jewish Association) as in the Aboriginal one but they are in the minority. They argue, for example, that the Voice is racially divisive and doesn’t acknowledge the wider contribution of different migrants to multicultural Australia. Incidentally, Noel and his colleagues have spoken strongly about the importance of recognising that Australia today is made up of three groups – First peoples, British settlers and their descendants, and the many multicultural and multifaith migrants. Even if there is merit in the contrary arguments, they are outweighed by the sheer moral force of the need to support a people dispossessed in their own land.
Our identification with those who have suffered discrimination and devastation is not merely emotional – it’s the axis of Jewish ethics. The pivotal experience that shapes Jewish morality is the enslavement in, and emancipation from, the ancient Egyptian empire. On numerous occasions, the foundational texts of those first five biblical books call on the nascent nation of Israel to never forget they had been slaves. To remember is to react with care and empathy to the vulnerable (the widow and orphan) and the stranger. You know the heart of the stranger and to know that heart is to reach out to all hurting hearts. The great Jewish thinker of the twentieth century, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, described the Egyptian experience as the fountainhead and moral inspiration for the Jewish teaching of compassion that pervades Jewish law. He noted, in reference to the Egyptian bondage: ‘Ours is a singularly ethical culture, which expresses itself through a heightened regard for human rights and dignity. Respect for human dignity and social justice are implicit [also] in the Biblical concept that man was created in God’s image.’
We, the Jewish people, stood at the base of a mountain rock in the Sinai desert some three and a half thousand years ago. There the Voice of God proclaimed a moral code that proudly asserted that freedom belongs to all humanity, that we have the right for our own different voices to be expressed. That we have a call and connection to a particular part of this earth, the land of Israel.
We now have the privilege of saying Yes to the referendum, it’s our moral duty! The Uluru Statement is a cry for recognition, a call for justice, a plea for compassion and a call to action. It is also a spiritual cri de coeur. It is an echo of the voice of God. The Uluru Statement is a spiritual call or invocation that we Jews, perhaps more than others – as a people intimate with powerlessness, endurance and the lure of ancestral land – can respond to with energy and empathy. It’s a space where we, the people of a long dream, meet the people of the enduring dreaming.