A prayer in solidarity | Law

A prayer in solidarity

OPINION: Senior Lecturer Fergal Davis, Australian Jewish News, 17 October 2014. 

I've been spending a lot of time in shul recently - two days of Yom Tov leading straight into Shabbat makes for a fair bit of prayer, a lot of eating and a some space to think. 

I've written previously about the Recognise campaign. Our Constitution still does not recognise the first Australians. And it still says in Section 25 that the states can ban people from voting based on their race. This needs to be fixed. There is bipartisan support for change and the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, speaks about the need to "complete the Constitution rather than significantly change it".

Yet the campaign is stalled. Despite the obvious need for a referendum, the precise wording and detailed proposals remain elusive. There is disagreement between those who seek something substantive and those who favour more "constitutional poetry".

The elephant in the room is the fear that a referendum might be defeated. It is difficult to change the Australian constitution due to the double majority requirement. To pass, a referendum must gain a majority of voters in at least four of the six states. But imagine the impact on Australia's image abroad if Australians voted to retain the racist section 25. Imagine the impact on race relations within Australia.

Over Yom Tov a friend gave me Noel Pearson's "A Rightful Place: Race, Recognition and a More Complete Commonwealth" from the recent Quarterly Essay. It is a cracker.

Pearson identifies three features which impact on the question of justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Firstly, there is the issue of race. As he puts it, when the colonial powers ranked races the indigenes of Australia ranked "the lowest of the low". Secondly, there is the fact of being indigenous to this country. And the third is that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are an extreme minority - 600,000 people, just three per cent of the population.

As Jews we can relate to two of these factors. We account for just 0.3 per cent of the Australian population. We also cannot rely on numbers to assert ourselves democratically. We have suffered discrimination in the Diaspora. We know what it means to be treated as an inferior race. We know all about the pseudo-science of eugenics. These common points allow us to empathise with those seeking justice and recognition for Australia's first peoples.

The successful campaign against the reform of 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act shows how the interests of minority groups align. The proposed reforms were a response to Andrew Bolt's conviction for vilifying Aboriginal Australians. Politicians sought to placate the Jewish community but we stood with other communities to oppose the so-called "right to be a bigot".

Empathising with the situations faced by Australia's first peoples and being able to find common cause with them over issues like 18C should extend to the Recognise campaign. I would encourage everyone to visit recognise.com.au and to read up-on the various proposals for reform. Don't allow our political representatives to dodge this issue. Ask your elected representatives what their position is and what they are doing to bring about reform. Sign up to recognise. Push this issue up the agenda.

And perhaps we as a community could do one more thing: a symbolic act, which would demonstrate that we do take this issue seriously. It is common practice to recite a prayer for the Royal Family and the heads of Australia's governments in shul. It would be appropriate to insert a brief acknowledgment of country prior to this prayer. 

Some will argue that the current prayer is derived in part from Pirkei Avot (the Ethics of the Fathers). There we are told: "Rabbi Chanina said, 'Pray for the welfare of the government for if not for its fear, a person would swallow his fellow live'". We pray for the government because it can impact upon us.

I accept that acknowledging Australia's first peoples is not the same as praying for our governments to be wise. But similarly, we do not pray for the health and well being of the monarch on the basis that she protects us. The monarchy today wields little or no actual power. Its power is cultural and symbolic. Acknowledging the traditional owners of the land would be similarly cultural and symbolic.

Such an act will have no real consequence. On its own it will result in no real change. It will add about two minutes to the service and delay the Kiddush a bit. But symbols matter. We need a referendum to remove section 25 from the Constitution. Until we recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution the best we can do is acknowledge them in shul.