Grapevine: Parallels of persecution

Hungarian president lauds Jewish contributions to his country, Torah scroll in memory of NJ cantor Goldstein presented to Szold Youth Village.

Laszlo Solyom 88 (photo credit: )
Laszlo Solyom 88
(photo credit: )
WHEN HE received a call from the Australian prime minister's office eight years ago asking him to serve on the board of the newly-created independent, not-for-profit organization, Reconciliation Australia, prominent Melbourne-based lawyer and Jewish community leader Mark Leibler never imagined that one of the most important steps toward reconciliation between the indigenous population and those whose forebears migrated to the island continent would come within less than a decade. The law firm of which he is the senior partner, Arnold Bloch Leibler, had for several years been the representative for the indigenous Yorta Yorta community in a native title claim that had been lost in court but subsequently negotiated satisfactorily with the State of Victoria. The firm continues to represent Yorta Yorta and other indigenous groups on a pro bono basis, and Leibler's personal involvement with their aspirations is well known. Leibler, who was in Jerusalem last week to attend meetings of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors and Keren Hayesod, of which he is chairman of the World Board of Trustees, spoke to The Jerusalem Post about Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's widely-covered apology last month to the indigenous people of Australia, its implications and the manner in which it has resonated around the globe. "The apology was always on the back burner for a future government," said Leibler, referring to Rudd's immediate predecessor, John Howard, who would not apologize for injustices perpetrated against the aborigines by earlier generations, because in his view the sons were not responsible for the sins of the fathers. In fact, Howard was the only living former prime minister of Australia who did not attend the apology ceremony in Canberra in the second week of February, where Rudd apologized to all aborigines, particularly to the stolen generation? for their "profound grief, suffering and loss." Nonetheless, it is thanks to Howard that Reconciliation Australia exists, said Leibler, who was appreciative that the apology was bipartisan and tendered on behalf of past parliaments and governments. Established by the former Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, Reconciliation Australia has invited Canadian experts to come to Australia to share their experiences in working for the rights of the Canadian indigenous people, and has sent its own representatives abroad to study what was being done elsewhere. As a result of these connections, Leibler found himself sitting next to an Indian chief representing the Canadian First Nations who had specially come to Australia to attend the apology ceremony. Working with and for the indigenous people has been "a steep learning curve" for Leibler, who comes from a religiously observant family that is not only deeply committed to Jewish community life and to Israel, but has also served in top leadership roles. He discovered that like the Jews of Australia, the aborigines wanted to achieve integration without assimilation, to enjoy their own culture and to practice their own traditions, while being accepted as full members of Australian society. Yet unless one works closely with the aboriginal people, it is difficult to grasp what needs to be done to improve their lot, said Leibler. Reviewing different stages of history in the lives of Australian Aborigines following the arrival of the first white settlers in January, 1788, Leibler said: "There was one stage where we literally killed and murdered indigenous people. There was another stage in which we damaged them with kindness, and there was a stage in which we took them from their parents because we thought they were inferior and needed to be assimilated." What requires deep-seated attention vis-à-vis Aborigines is improvement in health, educational and living standards, "but not by imposing things on indigenous communities," Leibler stipulated. "They have to have ownership of the solutions." He also emphasized that passive welfare was not a solution. "We have to involve them in productive work for the community and in finding jobs for themselves." One of Reconciliation Australia's major areas of focus is closing the life-expectancy gap. Because aborigines have been prone to alcohol and drug abuse - and to resultant rape and violence - due to their mistreatment, their life expectancy is 17 years fewer than that of other Australians. The work to close that gap is just beginning, said Leibler, noting that it would be easier to implement in the Northern Territory, which is under federal jurisdiction. It will be more difficult in Queensland, which is governed by state law, not only because Queensland has a larger aboriginal population than most other places, but also because Queensland has an unfortunate history of racism. Although the apology was not accompanied by much in the way of a compensation package, Leibler underscored that it should not be underrated. "It gave the indigenous people a sense of dignity and self-respect," he said. Leibler, who has received congratulatory e-mails from all over the world since the apology, said that when he joined Reconciliation Australia, he never expected to become co-chair. What prompted him more than anything else were the parallels of persecution in aboriginal and Jewish history. He was also bothered by the notion of families torn asunder when small children were taken away from their parents. Somehow it reminded him of the Holocaust, when Jewish children were snatched from their parents. One essential difference was that the Nazis wanted to physically eliminate people, whereas in Australia, "there was deliberate government policy towards assimilation and the destruction of the identity of a people." One of several Australian Jews who has championed the aboriginal cause, Leibler, who since childhood has been involved in many Jewish and non-Jewish projects, said of his work with Reconciliation Australia: "It's one of the most worthwhile things I've ever done." n AT THE State Dinner hosted by President Shimon Peres in honor of Hungarian President Laszlo Solyom, the two praised the Jewish contribution to Hungarian science and culture. Peres, of course, mentioned people such as world-renowned satirist Ephraim Kishon, and said that Hungary was well-known for producing good satirists. Solyom commented that the period prior to the First World War had been the Golden Age for Hungarian Jews, and the 1940s was a period "of which we can only be ashamed." He wanted the second, third and fourth generations ad infinitum to be aware of this stain on Hungary's human rights history, he said. Solyom said he was proud of the accomplishments of Hungarian Jewish scientists, and observed that during the Second World War and in the immediate post-war period, the common language among scientists in the United States was Hungarian. In fact, he said, there is a book published in the US called The Great Escape: Nine Jews who fled Hitler and changed the world. The book, by Hungarian-born Kati Marton (who is also Jewish), focuses on nine of her fellow countrymen physicists - Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, Edward Teller and John Van Neumann along with author Arthur Koestler, film producer Alex Korda, film director Michael Curtiz and photographers Robert Capa and Andre Kertesz. When translated into Hungarian, said Solyom, the title was changed slightly so that it refers to nine Hungarians rather than nine Jews. Another book, The Martians of Science: Five Physicists who changed the Twentieth Century, by Istvan Hargittai, refers to the above physicists as well as Theodore von Karman. In its Hungarian translation, it carries an additional word in the title, enabling the reader to know in advance that all five physicists were Hungarian. n CONGREGANTS OF the Neve Shalom Synagogue in Metuchen, New Jersey , recently presented a Torah scroll in memory of their late cantor, Mordecai Goldstein to the Ramat Hadassah Szold Youth Village. Although it is a secular facility, the Youth Village provides a non-coercive "Joy of Judaism" study program which gives students sufficient knowledge of their Jewish heritage to be in the position to make informed choices about the extent to which traditional Jewish observance will be part of their lifestyle. Mordi Goldstein, who was the cantor at Neve Shalom for 26 years prior to making aliya, was also "married" to Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America. His wife, Barbara, who has held a number of executive positions in Hadassah and is currently deputy executive director of Hadassah offices in Israel, failed to attend their engagement party because she was elsewhere on Hadassah business. Throughout their marriage, he participated in a semi-official capacity in countless Hadassah events, and she helped him run synagogue services. She knows the whole liturgy and all the Torah portions by heart. So when Neve Shalom decided to honor the memory of their long-serving cantor who passed away last year, it was not at all surprising that they chose a Hadassah institution. "We heard that students studying Torah at Ramat Hadassah Szold did not have their own Sefer Torah," said Neve Shalom President Jules Feinson. In a joyful ceremony attended by Jewish Agency Chairman Ze'ev Bielski, Avi Naor, head of the Ramat Hadassah Szold Directorate, and Barbara Spack, a Neve Shalom member, and the Hadassah National Chair of Youth Aliya. Representatives of Neve Shalom danced the Torah scroll into the youth village. "Nothing could be more meaningful for Mordi," said Barbara Goldstein. He had the same values as this program, 'Joy of Judaism.' As a hazan, Mordi wanted to teach Judaism in a non-coercive way. He wanted his students to feel a love and joy for Judaism." n ALTHOUGH IT'S generally accepted that national leaders should have a finger on the pulse of all matters of national importance to their respective countries, the truth of the matter is that it's impossible. No single human being could be that well-informed, which is why national leaders are surrounded with advisers on a broad range of subjects. Sometimes these advisers fail to tell their leaders what they ought to know, and then the leaders are blamed for something that isn't their fault. Case in point the ill-fated Munich Olympics at which eleven members of the Israeli team were murdered by Black September Palestinian terrorists. Dan Shilon, who was then the sports reporter for Israel Television, had been sent to Germany to cover the Games. Following the massacre, Shilon asked for an interview with Willy Brandt, who was then Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany. Brandt's people refused. Shilon, both as a newsman and an Israeli, was incensed. How could the Chancellor of Germany not have something to say to the Israeli media after such a horrendous desecration of the spirit of the Olympic Games on German soil? Shilon heard that Brandt was being interviewed by German television in the adjacent studio. Because he had credentials that allowed him access to anywhere in the media complex, Shilon went into the studio where Brandt was sitting and demanded an interview. Brandt, who had not been informed of his previous request, immediately agreed and said that he would talk to Shilon as soon as he finished his interview for German Television. Shilon insisted that interview be done in the studio allocated to the Israelis and shepherded Brandt and his bodyguards to the other studio. When they got there, something snapped, and Shilon started yelling at Brandt and blaming him for the tragedy. Interviewed by Yigal Ravid on his nostalgia program on Channel 1 that reviews 40 years of Israel Television, Shilon said that it was something he should never have done. Brandt, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who had fought the Nazis, was a great friend of Israel and did not deserve to be berated in such a fashion. Aside from anything else, said Shilon, it was not professional conduct, and it was one of his great regrets. n SEVERAL ISRAELIS well-known in cultural and media circles were in London over the past couple of weeks to attend Jewish Book Week. Among them was photojournalist Ricki Rosen, who was invited to speak about Transformations, the book she produced with Micha Odenheimer. It documents Operation Solomon and the transformation in the lives of Ethiopian immigrants as they left their villages and boarded a plane for Israel and a new life. The book project took more than 13 years, because that was the time lapse between photographing her subjects in their native Ethiopia and again in the Israeli environment which they had learned to call home. Rosen was so enamored with her subjects that she included two portraits of Ethiopians on her business card, which accompanied correspondence that she had with various people connected in one way or another with Jewish Book Week. When the London Jewish Chronicle asked her to send a portrait of herself to run with a promo interview, Rosen, after complying with the request, received the surprised reaction: "Oh, you're white." n ALTHOUGH SHE celebrated her 50th birthday on Valentine's Day, her family and friends thought that Ruthie Blum, Jerusalem Post editor, columnist and feature writer, deserved more than a spontaneous gathering of Post staff to wish her well. And so her children, her significant other - the IBA's Steve Leibowitz - and his sister and brother-in-law, Linda and Eli Amar, got together to give her a surprise party that she would never forget. Leibowitz wanted Blum's parents to come from New York to Jerusalem for the event, even though they had recently been in Israel as participants in the Herzliya Conference. Her father was unable to come and her mother, the well-known writer Midge Dechter, had jury duty, and the first available date on which she could fly to Israel was March 2. Blum had some e-mail correspondence with her father, Commentary editor-at-large Norman Podhoretz, earlier in the day, and he had informed her that her birthday gift was on its way to Israel. He didn't spell out what the gift was. Not all of Leibowitz's and Blum's children had met each other, and the pretext for getting her out to the Amar's residence was that all the children were waiting there, along with one or two of the Amar children who wanted to tag along. None of the invitees, several of whom had spoken to Blum at least once during the day or in the preceding week, had let the cat out of the bag. It was truly a well-kept secret and as the time approached for Blum and Leibowitz to enter the house, the party area was plunged into darkness. Blum was genuinely surprised, but never more so than when her mother stepped out of the crowd. The two fell into each other's arms, sobbing tears of joy. The emotion of their reunion was so contagious that several of the guests wiped tears from their own eyes. For Blum, who has no sense of direction, her mother's presence would have been present enough. But after they finished embracing, her mother brought out the gift - a GPS - a device that will no doubt help Blum in finding her way in her car to interviewing people all over the country.