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The Jewish Week ( US) 3/10/03 

Befriending The Native Aussies, Steve Lipman

Jews have been among the most prominent advocates for the struggling Aborigines. Steve Lipman - Staff Writer Sydney -

A nearly capacity crowd filled the sanctuary of North Shore Temple Emanuel on a recent weeknight.

In the seats were Jews, Christians and "a few Aborigines," said Rabbi Allison Conyer.

As part of a forum, "The Aboriginal Challenge: Where To Now?" sponsored by the congregation's Social Action Group, a series of Aboriginal speakers discussed the native Australians' history and current social problems, and the event's Jewish moderator urged the Jewish community to get involved.

"The Jewish contribution to the Aboriginal struggle has been thin on the ground," said Professor Colin Tatz of the Australian Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Afterward, said Rabbi Conyer, several members of the Jewish community volunteered. "The question was asked, " 'What can we do to help?' " "There is interest" in the issue, the rabbi said.

Her temple plans to establish a program to help the Aborigines' civil rights campaign.

Despite the criticism by Tatz, Australia's Jews have numbered among the most prominent advocate of Aborigine causes, according to experts in the Jewish and Aborigine communities. "We've always enjoyed the support of the Jewish community," said Sen. Aden Ridgeway, the second Aborigine in a century elected to the national Legislature. "There have been very close relationships at the personal and professional level."

Jews come to the relationship with a clean slate, Ridgeway says. Unlike Australia's White Christians, they did not exploit the Aborigines economically or seek to convert them religiously. Ridgeway, who credits Jewish support for helping his election in 1998, says Australian Jews played a disproportionate role in the freedom rides (like the American effort against segregation in the South in the 1960s) for equality a generation ago; have provided scholarship help for many Aborigine students (a few dozen have studied medicine in Israel, helping to garner Aboriginal political support for Israel); and serve as leading spokesmen in the decade-old reconciliation campaign (its goals include return of usurped lands, monetary recompense and a formal government apology for white society's historical actions against the Aborigines).

The focus of the reconciliation effort is the so-called Stolen Generation, the estimated 100,000 Aborigines who were removed from their families for 60 years during the last century and given to white families.

Estimates of Australia's contemporary Aborigine population range from less than 100,000 to slightly above 400,000 (the country's total population is 20 million), all a great decrease from the 1 million who lived here when the land was first inhabited by Europeans in the late 18th century.

As among the Native Americans in the United States, the Aborigines - known as "indigenous Australians" in socially conscious circles, referred to colloquially as "the blacks" - tend to live on "reserves" isolated from the white majority and have high unemployment, alcoholism and imprisonment rates.

Paralleling the Jewish interaction with minority groups in the United States and South Africa, Jews and Aborigines have a shared history because of their common experience with discrimination. A plaque at the Jewish Holocaust Museum in Melbourne commemorates a resolution on behalf of Europe's endangered Jews that an Aboriginal delegation attempted to present to German and British representatives in 1938. The Germans and British refused to meet the delegation. The protest was one of the first public protests in Australia about conditions in Nazi Germany. "The Aborigines were well ahead of the rest of the world in the 1930s," said Rabbi Raymond Apple of The Great Synagogue in Sydney, who frequently speaks for reconciliation from his pulpit and at other public venues. "The Jewish community owes them a debt of gratitude."

Marcus Einfeld, a Sydney attorney who served as a justice on Australia's Federal Court for 15 years, served as foundation president of the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.

In the late 1980s he launched the initial national inquiry into discrimination against the Aborigines. His picture, he says, often appeared in the news, speaking against bias or wading up to his knees in the muck of an Aborigine town's unpaved roads. "I became the public face of major Aborigine public and social reform," Einfeld said. He is recognized whenever he travels to Aborigine communities, he says. "People say, 'Who else would you expect to be so sympathetic, except a Jew?' "


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