A few years ago when I was working in Washington, DC, the American Jewish Committee took me on a study tour of Israel. What I found most confronting during the trip was not the wall, the tensions, or even being presented with a Hamas rocket casing shot from Gaza. The most confronting part of the trip had to do with my own homeland: Australia.
If we communicate clearly and unambiguously that we want a nation that is compassionate . . . there is a chance this terrible stain on our national character can be removed.
During a visit to Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem (Holocaust Museum), I came across a display on the build up to the Holocaust; the period when European Jews could see the writing on the wall and were desperately attempting to escape the Nazis. To say the free world was indifferent to their plight is an understatement. A ship with 937 German Jews attempted to land in Florida, but the US Coast Guard chased them off shore. Eventually, unable to land, the boat returned to Europe where most of those on board perished in the Holocaust.
But the US was not the only nation turning away desperate Jews. At an international conference in 1938, the Australian Minister for Trade and Customs, T W White, explained his government’s insistence on retaining strict limits on Jewish asylum seekers with words that are now emblazoned in large letters on the wall at Yad Vashem:
“[W]e have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one . . .”
Fast-forward 55 years and Australian author Thomas Kaneally’s book is made into Steven Spielberg’s Oscar winning masterpiece Schindler’s List. And Australians, like people all over the world, flock to see the film, handkerchiefs in hand. But while Schindler saved around a thousand Jews destined for Hitler’s ovens, what remains unacknowledged is that Australia could have saved tens of thousands by simply allowing Jews a refuge in their hour of greatest need.
Of course, if a second Holocaust was to occur today, we would be a nation of Schindlers, not a nation of T W Whites. Or would we?
Today Australia faces a moral question for our age. This time it isn’t desperate European Jews searching for a sanctuary, it is desperate Iranians fleeing one of the world’s most repressive regimes. It is Iraqi Christians who have been murdered, bombed and beaten unmercifully since the invasion that we were a part of. It is shell-shocked Syrians caught between a despotic ruler on one side and jihadists on the other.
In the face of the most persecuted people on earth coming to our shores, Australia’s two major parties are vying to see who can be the most callous. They are acting so brutally because they believe we, the electorate, want them to. Hence, every Australian has an opportunity. If we communicate clearly and unambiguously that we want a nation that is compassionate, a nation that is generous, a nation that rejects the bullying policies of our two major parties, there is a chance this terrible stain on our national character can be removed.
Today every one of us can be Schindler. Simply look up your local MP and send a note letting him or her know that you do not want brutality perpetrated in your name. I hope you’ll join me in making a stand. In 55 years, I hope my children will remember that in this hour of desperate need, their father was on the side of Schindler, not on the side of T W White.
[Separate articles on the deplorable conditions at Manus Island and on the use of misleading language to stigmatise asylum seekers will be forthcoming].
James Standish is director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the South Pacific.