Jews, refugees and the (im)possibility of history

A few years ago I received a phone call from the current Energy and Resources minister, Josh Frydenberg. He called me in response to an email I had sent only hours earlier on behalf of Jews for Refugees (JFR), drawing his attention to the case of the MV Struma. The Struma was a ship carrying 781 Jewish refugees from Romania that, on 23 February 1942, was towed from the harbour in Istanbul to the Black Sea, leaving the ship adrift. The next day the Struma was torpedoed and sunk by a Russian submarine. There was only one survivor. When Frydenburg called, the story of the Struma was being referenced in synagogues and the Jewish media, a warning against the Liberals policy of ‘turning back the boats’.

The majority of Jews in Australia have a refugee background; usually, they, their parents or grandparents came in the late thirties from Germany or Austria, or as Holocaust survivors escaping a devastated Europe in the decade following the Second World War. In 2012, I was involved in restarting the then dormant activist group JFR. We tried to campaign within the Jewish community and to get young Jews along to pro-refugee rallies. Most people we talked to were sympathetic, but some were not. One time, we were run off Glen Eira Road by over-eager council workers acting on complaints they had received about postering.

We retreated to the western suburbs to re-assess our strategy. Why were we Jews for refugees? How did the struggles of our parents or grandparents inform who we were and how we wanted to shape the world? We were wary of calling on people morally, of arguing that because Jews have suffered in history we somehow had more of an obligation to speak out against injustice and suffering now.

In her book Landscapes of Memory: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered, Ruth Klüger recounts a discussion with some German PhD students:

One [student] reports how in Jerusalem he made the acquaintance of an old Hungarian Jew who was a survivor of Auschwitz, and yet this man cursed the Arabs and held them all in contempt. How can someone who comes from Auschwitz talk like that? the German asks. I get into the act and argue, perhaps more hotly than need be. What did he expect? Auschwitz was no instructional institution … You learned nothing there, and least of all humanity and tolerance. Absolutely nothing good came out of the concentration camps, I hear myself saying, with my voice rising, and he expects catharsis, purgation, the sort of thing you go to the theatre for? They were the most useless, pointless establishments imaginable.

I often think of something my friend Jem said at the time we were organising JFR: ‘I don’t see history as a series of discrete events from which we can learn moral lessons. It’s about seeing history not as something that is past. History is continuous.’

We can demystify the present by historicising it. In the case of Australia’s migration history, we can understand that in the thirties, and in some senses up until the early fifties when restrictions on Jewish migration were finally abolished, Jews were marked as unwanted others. Our current refugee policy is in line with a long history of violence at the borders of a putatively ‘White Australia’.

Walter Benjamin, in his Theses on the Philosophy of History, famously referred to the struggle for the ‘oppressed past’ – a concept with a double meaning. First, the history and memory of oppressed peoples; second, the fact that very past has been oppressed and suppressed. For Benjamin, history as it is currently constituted is the history of the dominant. ‘Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins,’ Benjamin wrote. ‘And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.’ How, then, do we go about fanning the spark?

In an interview on the recent accusations of anti-Semitism in the UK Labour party, Norman Finkelstein discussed the ethics of making comparisons to the Holocaust, referencing his mother who was a Holocaust survivor and a Communist:

When she saw the segregation of African-Americans, whether at a lunch counter or in the school system, that was, for her, like the prologue to the Nazi holocaust. Whereas many Jews now say, Never compare … my mother’s credo was, Always compare. She gladly and generously made the imaginative leap to those who were suffering, wrapping and shielding them in the embrace of her own suffering …When she saw Vietnamese being bombed during the Vietnam War, it was the Nazi holocaust. It was the bombing, the death, the horror, the terror, that she herself had passed through. When she saw the distended bellies of starving children in Biafra, it was also the Nazi holocaust, because she remembered her own pangs of hunger in the Warsaw Ghetto.

This is a paradigmatic case of what academic Michael Rothberg calls ‘multidirectional memory’, a concept for thinking collective memory against the framework of ‘competitive memory – as a zero-sum struggle over scarce resources’. Multidirectional memory is ‘subject to ongoing negotiation, cross-referencing, and borrowing; [it is] productive and not privative.’ In my own research on the history of the discourse of the Australian Jewish Left, I have found frequent comparisons of the Holocaust with struggles against colonialism, the dispossession of Indigenous peoples and the Vietnam War.

How then do we balance Klüger’s suggestion of the ultimate meaninglessness of the Holocaust and Finkelstein’s mother’s comparisons? Memory by itself can only take us so far. Surviving a genocide does not make you a better person, trauma does not make you more insightful or empathetic, experiencing oppression does not mean you should be held to a higher moral or ethical standard.

Political struggle, however, has the capacity to remake and redeem these pasts, to make them move, slip, and tussle, backward, forward and across, opening new lines of solidarity, and presaging Benjamin’s ‘revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past’.

My conversation with Frydenberg was fairly unremarkable. He repeated Liberal Party talking points on the need to ‘stop the boats’ and I disputed them. We agreed to disagree and I hung up. I have wondered since why he called so quickly after receiving the email. It seems to me he rang so as to try and arrest the moment – to not let the memory of the MV Struma slip any further; to dispute its multidirectional capacity; to make sure that the dead stayed dead.


Image actually of Jewish refugees aboard the St Louis (via Wikipedia).

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Max Kaiser

Max Kaiser is a PhD candidate at Melbourne University. He's currently researching histories of post-war Australian Jewish anti-fascism.

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  1. A very well constructed argument Max. I enjoyed the reflective nature of the piece and the references to the fact that the Vietnam war is just a continuation of the holocaust – just a similar tragedy in another part of the world.
    Keep up the good writing.

  2. An excellent piece that demonstrates how important our attitudes to history are, and the ways in which the past may be used to leverage social change in the present moment, or, conversely, how it might be mis-used to further entrench bigotry/facism/nationalism. Thank you, Max!

  3. Max, a fascinating article. I’d be interested to know if you have done any research/have any views on Jewish immigration pre 1930? My paternal Grandfather arrived in Australia around the turn of the 20th century as an “asylum seeker” from (Czarist Russian dominated) Poland via Switzerland. There was a considerable number of his extended family already in residence here, spread from Sydney and up into the Blue Mountains as far as Katoomba. I have always wondered just how large the Jewish contingent were in Australia pre Nazi Europe and how they related to and were treated by the Australian community. The only things I do know is that they were very successful in economic terms, not strongly religious, passionate about their Ashkenazi history, but not above mixed marriages between family members and the Christian community (mainly Roman Catholics). I myself am a product of a post WW2 marriage between a Jew (my Father) and a Scots Methodist (my Mother) …

  4. Thanks Andrew. That’s very interesting. Suzanne Rutland’s ‘Edge of the Diaspora’ is still probably the best general overview of Australian Jewish history, including covering European Jewish immigrants before the 30’s. You might be interested to read Judah Waten’s Alien Son and the short stories of Pinchas Goldhar for some very illuminating depictions of the relationship of these migrants with established Jewish communities and the Australian community more generally. Also the classic eighties ABC tv series ‘Palace of Dreams’.

    1. Thanks Max. I have read Alien Son a long time ago but had forgotten about it. Will have to drag it out again and re-read. The other suggestions sound good too. Be well. AS.

  5. I think of the writings of African-American James Baldwin and now Ta-Nehisi Coates, always living with the hughness of slavery as site of historical loss and necessity, no safe arrival possible because such histories travel in the bones. Memory is a haunted place–but a special kind of activism comes from such a harried ground. Thank you, Max, as always for the hard work you do in your thinking.

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