The voice echoes across the land…
The voice echoes over the waters, over the mighty waters;
The voice is in the power; the voice is in the beauty
It breaks the grand gum trees
It creates flames of fire and makes the outback quake…
I have adapted these words from the majestic Psalm 29 from the Book of Psalms. We, the Jewish people, stood at the base of a sacred rock in the wilderness desert of Sinai some three thousand years ago. There the Voice of God proclaimed a moral code that proudly asserted that freedom belongs to us all, to all of humanity; but that we have our different voices, what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks called the dignity of our differences.
The Uluru Statement From The Heart speaks directly to my Jewish heart; as in the rabbinic and folkloristic statement that words that come from the heart enter directly into the heart. These aching words run in my bloodstream and connect me so naturally and intimately to the first nations of our land, of Australia. The Uluru Statement which impels the Yes vote is a masterful statement; it is as brief as it is powerful; it is a collective cry from the heart of our Aboriginal people. We Jews, as a people burdened by a history of exclusion and powerlessness, can identify so readily with that anguished and evocative phrase from the Uluru Statement – the torment of our powerlessness.
A Yes vote is a response to the call for recognition and representation, an obvious soprano voice in the choir of our country, a step of respect together with those who have walked and dreamt in this ancient continent for countless centuries. It is a call that we, as a Jewish community, should respond to and support with “all our heart, soul and strength”. It is a moral imperative, a restoration of justice, a recognition of the pain of the other. We Jews understand, possibly better than most, the intense power of symbols (think the flag of Israel, the swastika); we know in our guts how the hunger for recognition is one of the deepest of human aspirations and longings.
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 the 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 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 3000 years – maintaining that link in their prayers and actions despite being exiled from their homes or being persecuted by foreign and often brutal oppressors in their own land – we know that connection to country goes way beyond the emotional.
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.
There are those who oppose the Voice in the Jewish community, as in the Aboriginal one but they are both, in my reading, 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, that it favours one race above others. Noel Person 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. This is not about elevating the Aboriginal people above others but about including them in their own country.
Prof Marcia Langton, at a meeting in Melbourne in the Jewish community, addressed the scaremongering by the No case, including suggestions that The Voice will allow Aboriginal people to dominate society or economy, destroy the mining industry, or weigh in on general economic issues such as interest rates. She noted: “We are somewhere between three and four per cent of the population. We have barely survived the invasion and most of our population are living on the margins. Over a third of our population are the poorest of people in Australia. So how is it that we are a threat to Australia? How is it that by giving us recognition through an advisory body that we are a threat to democracy? It’s nonsense”. [The Voice] does not in any way take away your rights or anybody else’s rights. It doesn’t give us more rights than you, it doesn’t make our vote worth more than yours. It merely allows us to have a mechanism to give some advice through a representative body on matters that affect only us. “All of us who have been involved … want merely to be able to stop governments from causing us harm by imposing policies that exclude us, marginalise us and make our situation worse”.
Even if there is merit in the contrary arguments they are surely outweighed by the sheer moral force of the need to support a people dispossessed in their own land.
I know the subject is vexing for many and I would encourage you to buy the little booklet by Thomas Mayo and Kerry O Brien entitled The Voice To Parliament Handbook. It’s an easy read and very accessible.
Remembrance is pivotal to Jewish identity, the injunction to remember is a religious imperative to the entire people of Israel. As the historian Yosef Yerushalmi noted, the Hebrew word for remembrance appears 169 times in the Bible. It is a particular resonant command during both this period on the Jewish calendar and during NAIDOC Week. We are in the Three Weeks Of Jewish Memory, also known as Bein Hametzarim or between the narrow spaces. A period sandwiched between two fast days!! A time heavy with expulsion, destruction and devastation through Jewish history.
I have written before how our most evocative psalms are reminders of the longing for land and how the country has embodied the dreams of Jews for thousands of years. Psalm 137 recalls how we wept by the Rivers of Babylon, remembering Zion and that most poignant line: “If I forget you Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill”. Psalm 126 is the counterpoint: “When the Lord brought back the exiles of Zion, we were like people who dream. Then our mouths filled with laughter and our tongues with songs of joy”.
Both these psalms became part of the most basic ritual of Jewish life – they are prefaces to the grace after meals, to be said after eating bread.
The word for bread and the word for dream in Hebrew contain the same letters. We hunger not only for bread, we also yearn for dreams. In this sense, we are a dreaming people.
At this juncture in Australian history, the old dreamers of Zion meet the ancient people of the enduring dream time. Say No to the Nightmare. Say Yes to the Dream. May the power and vision that impels our dreams help us promote the dreams of the first people of this land so that their mouths may be filled with laughter and their tongues give voice to songs of joy.