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Australians love hearing about writers’ roots – unless they’re Israeli

My Russian-Israeli-Australian identity used to feel exotic. Now it's a barrier because no one wants to hear an Israeli voice, even when its critical of Israel.
Lee Kofman
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open book with map of Australia, open book with globe of world, closed book with Israeli flag

Illustration: TJI

Published: 4 June 2024

Last updated: 12 June 2024

Several years ago, I was having lunch with colleagues from the writing and publishing universe. We were talking religion when one of them said, laughing, ‘My kids believe in all Gods! And I tell them, I don’t care what you believe in. Allah, Jesus, Buddha…’ He named more divinities, yet someone conspicuous was missing. I had to ask: ‘And what about the Jewish god, isn’t he invited to the party?’

Silence spread around our table until the liberal father gathered his wits and told me he doesn’t like what religious West Bank settlers do to Palestinians. I don’t like it either. I also don’t like Catholics sexually abusing children nor ISIS burning people alive nor other atrocities perpetrated by various godly representatives on earth. Nobody comes out clean if you look into it; yet the only god excluded from that family’s festivities was mine.

Which was kind of reflective of how I’ve come to feel amidst the increasing celebrations of diversity in Australia, particularly within my tribe – the literati. The tribe in whose gatherings I’m often the only Jew and always the sole Israeli. To my knowledge, I am the only Israeli-Australian author with some sort of a public profile.

For years I’d thought Australia, where I moved to 25 years ago, was my salvation. Not only a political haven, but a Mount Helicon teeming with muses. My first three books were in Hebrew and published in Israel, but in English I developed a stronger writer’s voice. Here I was also exotic enough to stand out. My accented public readings were exotic.

My stories were exotic. Some of them were about another part of my twice hyphenated identity – my childhood in the Soviet Union. I felt ambivalent about those works, thinking how risk-free and irrelevant it was to write about Russian antisemitism in Australia where such vile behaviour would not have been tolerated… I miss that naiveté!

Cracks began to appear way before that fated lunch brought to light dark, slimy things I’d been suppressing. Like at a literary event where I remarked to another writer that her Egyptian name reminded me of the Hebrew word for “lake”. Her pleasant demeanour changed and she said she wanted nothing to do with Israel. That incident disturbed me more than it possibly should have, as in Israel I often holidayed in the Sinai Peninsula, sharing joints with Egyptian tourists.

It took many more similar incidents, what we now call micro-aggressions, for my barometer to become attuned to antisemitic undercurrents humming in my tribe’s depths. Like when I met an internationally renowned author, who immediately informed me, unprompted, that he wouldn’t travel to Israel until the occupation ends. Later in conversation it came to light that his political principles didn’t stop him, in a variation of the uninvited Jewish God, visiting countries with questionable regimes, including Russia.

And that was the thing about which I was particularly wrong. Apparently, my salvation was not Australia. It was Russia. My Russian origins.

I can attend the literary party but just as long as I don’t discuss Israel.

In the Australian literary world, where Israel is viewed as the epicentre of humanity’s most demonic elements, I present a problem to my peers. I am from Israel but not particularly demonic. I even share their progressive views. The cognitive dissonance is profound, but here is that other part of me that saves the day. Forget gulags, murdered journalists, annexed satellite states.

As my books began being published in Australia, the romance of Chekhov and Siberian tigers came to surround me publicly and in private conversations. I remember one time an ABC radio interviewer repeatedly asking about my change of writing languages from Russian to English, even though I stated clearly that my writing life began in Hebrew.

There must be more to this, however, than cognitive dissonance. To allow a writer with a powerful (albeit complicated) connection to Israel to speak about it hasn’t been the thing to do since way before October 7.

Occasionally I even feel like the unwanted reminder of “the Israel problem” to some of my Jewish peers.

No matter that I support Palestinian rights and a two-state solution and am critical of many of Israel’s policies, still, because I also know how much there is to love about this country, I pose a risk to my tribe’s cozy consensus that everything about Israel is beyond the pale.

The one short story I wrote in English that engages with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, without demonising either side, was also the story that I found the hardest to find a home for in Australia. It got rejected by most literary magazines (eventually it was published in the Griffith Review, one of the few journals to genuinely foster a diverse conversation).

And although I was only 12 when I left Russia, when the scandal erupted around Elizabeth Gilbert’s recent novel, The Snow Forest, which was set in Russia, I was immediately approached by the media to comment. In a striking contrast, on the literary festival circuit where I am the only Israeli, I’ve never been invited to panels where Israel is concerned.

Although I’m not a political writer, neither are many other speakers at such panels. I, at least, did my time in a sealed room during the Gulf War and the compulsory army service... But nobody wants to hear what I have to say about the place where I spent my formative years.

I can attend the literary party – where everyone is vigorously encouraged by publishers, funding bodies and peers to “go to their roots” – but just as long as I don’t discuss Israel. So I go, hanging on the edges, feeling this most-loathed emotion of jealousy as I see yet another award offered to “foster diverse voices”…

The benefits of ‘ethnic minority’ status rarely apply to any Australian-Jewish writers. Most of us, if we engage with Jewish themes and are not outspoken anti-Zionists, remain on the margins of the throbbing, thriving multicultural party. But there is a difference between my Jewish peers and myself - and it is more than that being an Israeli migrant. I cannot choose whether to “pass” or not.

When Jewish writers engage with “Jewishness”, their works most often tell stories from the Holocaust or grapple with its legacy. Such narratives are intrinsic to Australian-Jewish community, where so many belong to families of Holocaust survivors. These stories are infinitely important and must keep being told. But Holocaust stories are also less contested. They are the kind of stories that Jews are (mostly) “allowed” to tell about themselves.

Whereas my ‘Jewish stories’ are of the forbidden variety (unless they are about Russian antisemitism…). My Russian-born family wasn’t physically impacted by the Holocaust. My parents were religious refuseniks and so my life has always been bound with Israel. Which is “unfortunate” for me, whose creative architecture, both in nonfiction and fiction, is like that of the poet Rachel, who famously confessed “only about myself I could tell”.

So even among Jewish writers, I feel like the writer with the most unsafe identity. Occasionally I even feel like the unwanted reminder of “the Israel problem” to some of my Jewish peers. I get it, though. We all have our different injuries to nurse on the page.

My chronic non-belonging grew so substantial during the 2021 Israel-Gaza conflict and then when October 7 brought to the boil all the simmering hatreds, that I could no longer walk around it. Fiercely anti-Israel open letters appeared signed by significant numbers of writers and publishing professionals.

Certain prominent Australian authors have been getting away with, and even receiving well-publicised peer support for, expressing antisemitic views. Some literary journals now make it a part of their policy to only publish “anti-Zionists”, which rules out at least 75 percent of Jews. So professionally speaking, I no longer know what the future holds for me.  

I suppose I could walk my earlier, safer path, keep writing about feminist issues or Russia. But I teach writing and the first thing I tell my students is: write only about what is urgent to you, no matter the risk. As antisemitism’s hydra keeps multiplying its terrible heads, all that burns in me is to explore what it’s like to be a Jew today, and my kind of a Jew – the one who comes from the most demonised country in the world, the only country not invited to the party.

About the author

Lee Kofman

Lee Kofman is an author and editor of eight books in Hebrew and English, including The Writer Laid Bare and Imperfect, which was shortlisted for Nib Literary Award. She is also a writing teacher and mentor.

Comments11

  • Avatar of Beverly Goldfarb

    Beverly Goldfarb14 June at 08:43 pm

    Thank you for articulating this view, Lee. I feel like I am attacked by all sides these days, and have become mute and sad.

  • Avatar of Jane Messer

    Jane Messer13 June at 07:27 am

    You’ve broached so much complexity, with such thoughtful, measured prose amongst the tumult. Thank you for helping me think more deeply about the politics and the emotions that we’re grappling with. Thank you for speaking out.

  • Avatar of Natasha Cica

    Natasha Cica13 June at 07:26 am

    Dear Lee

    Thank you for writing this. I have posted a version of this comment on social media.

    My experience is not the same, and I am not Jewish.

    However, there are many commonalities in being of Serbian/exYU background and also Australian, in terms of how my own perspective is received.

    I have been deplatformed from a range of cultural spaces in Australia in recent years as a consequence – after a grinding and extended period of gaining a basic toehold. All have been publicly funded spaces.
    I have twice co-edited Griffith Review – Tasmania: The Tipping Point? (2013) and The European Exchange (2020). Both proactively platformed marginalised and emerging voices as well as recognised opinion formers, were extremely well received and changed some games. These included a great piece of fiction by you, and a great piece of non-fiction by Irris Makler about the legacy contribution of the descendants of Holocaust survivors to Australian society. Since then, I have been deplatformed there as well.

    The state of public conversation in Australia is fairly dire at the moment. I do still care about it, which is the only reason I am speaking up about this. I might not care about it for much longer. There are other places to work and live.

    In my own view, Australian cultural gatekeepers need to move past fetishising the ‘other’ (as stereotypically bad/good and always exotic), move past a leaden focus on maximising cultural safety – and better embrace cultural risk. That kind of risk is the entire basis of the successful parts of Australia’s multicultural project.

    Thank you again, Lee, for all the work that you do.

  • Avatar of Pauline

    Pauline11 June at 10:47 am

    Thank you for articulating the feeling for many.

  • Avatar of Stuart

    Stuart7 June at 11:55 pm

    Lee, this is such an extraordinarily written article. You write so beautifully.

  • Avatar of Sara Tiefenbrun

    Sara Tiefenbrun5 June at 11:50 am

    Thank you Lee for your bravery in expressing what’s happening right now.

  • Avatar of Ian

    Ian4 June at 11:27 pm

    Lee,
    A factor which you have not mentioned but I think is present, is the “Australian politeness”.
    People who have decided that Israel is evil – and because you are a Jew, also you – they will tell you upfront that they disagree, violently oppose, boycott, whatever, but they refuse to engage in any serious discussion.
    Frustrating!

  • Avatar of Romaine

    Romaine4 June at 11:46 am

    Thank you for writing this, so moving.

  • Avatar of Elaine Davidoff

    Elaine Davidoff4 June at 11:37 am

    Beautiful piece Lee, moving and brave, as you are.

  • Avatar of Steve Israel

    Steve Israel4 June at 08:42 am

    Lee, thanks for this. It’s an eye-opener for me and I am so sorry to have heard it. I am an Israeli who visited Australia a number of times in my work as a Jewish educator and I enjoyed not only the Jews that I encountered in the community but also the laid-back liberal and welcoming atmosphere that I felt around me in Australia as a whole. This was in contrast to the atmosphere in other places that I visited.

    I am so sorry that either I was superficial in my optimistic judgments of Australian society then or that the climate has changed in such extreme terms, bringing it into line with other, harsher, places.

    I’ve always argued against the automatic resort to “Anti-Semitism” as the label to explain hostility to Israel and it’s still hard for me now. I tended to emphasise ignorance and jealousy as factors to explain some of the criticism in addition to the genuine justified criticism that has to be rightly made, in my mind at aspects of the Israeli reality. But it’s getting increasingly hard to deny the evidence. I don’t know you or your writing (my loss, I’m sure) but I’m very, very, sorry that you have to encounter the reality you describe. We’re all hurting in different ways at the moment. I’m genuinely sorry to hear that it’s reached Australia.

  • Avatar of Michael Gawenda

    Michael Gawenda4 June at 08:06 am

    Brave and beautifully written. Such a fine writer’s voice.

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