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Senator Lidia Thorpe prompts reflection on Aboriginal and Palestinian solidarity

Ittay Flescher
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Published: 9 September 2022

Last updated: 5 March 2024

Following a surprising response from Indigenous senator LIDIA THORPE at Limmud Oz, ITTAY FLESCHER considers the analogies between Aboriginal, Jewish and Palestinian experience.

Senator Lidia Thorpe highlighted Aboriginal-Jewish affinities when speaking at Limmud-Oz on Sunday.

Asked to speak about the clashing Indigenous narratives of Jews and Palestinians in Israel, the proud DjabWurrung Gunnai Gunditjmara woman told the room, “We have an affinity with the Jewish Community through William Cooper. (Through him) I feel that I’m a part of your community, just as I feel part of the Palestinian community.”

“Regarding the competing narratives between Israel and Palestine, she said, “I support self-determination, I don’t support violence. Through self-determination I’m hoping for a peaceful outcome. I want to work in a way that I work with your mob, and work with the Palestinian mob to find peace in a self-determined way.”

Perhaps she just knew her audience, but I was surprised by her response. Palestinian-Aboriginal analogies are far more common than Jewish-Aboriginal analogies, especially in Thorpe’s Greens Party.

 A consistent theme in the statement of almost every artist who withdrew from the Sydney Festival in February 2022 over their partnership with the Israeli Embassy in Canberra was an equation between the Aboriginal and Palestinian experience.

“As artists who work and create on unceded land, we are committed to justice for Indigenous peoples everywhere, from so-called Australia to Palestine,” one of the most widely signed statements against the festival read.

Jews also see themselves an indigenous people in Israel. In opposing the boycott, representatives from the ZFA, AIJAC and ECAJ expressed outrage at the boycotters' “denial of the indigeneity of Jews to their historic homeland Israel,” and the description of Israel as a colonial enterprise akin to South Africa or Australia.

Zionism is not colonial in the sense of British, French, Portuguese or Dutch colonisers. There was no mother country from which Jews came and no desire to transfer wealth or use the land for the benefit of another country.

Jewish settlers came not with the guns, germs and steel of a colonial power but with a history of persecution and desperate need for refuge. Many came stateless after the Holocaust or after expulsion from Arab countries. 

As Israeli historian Gil Troy writes, the early Zionists’ desire to move to the land of their ancestors was to build and “be rebuilt, not extract and exploit".

But many of the early Zionists from Theodore Herzl to Max Nordau were comfortable describing their movement as a colonial one. Vladimir Jabotinsky explicitly equated Zionism with other colonial movements, writing of Palestinian resistance, “Native populations, civilised or uncivilised, have always stubbornly resisted the colonists … whether the colonists behaved decently or not.”

In Australia a decade later, William Cooper, an Indigenous leader of the Yorta Yorta nation began a new tradition of resistance as he held the first “Day of Mourning” protest on January 26, 1938, a day that was meant to celebrate the sesquicentenary of Captain Arthur Philip’s landing in Sydney.

It's hard to imagine any Israeli prime minister saying anything to Palestinians similar to Keating's Redfern speech to aborigines.

Every year since on January 26, a growing number of Indigenous people and allies for their rights have ceased celebrating "Australia Day" in favour of "Invasion Day’"events that memorialise the many innocent Aboriginal men, women and children who were killed in the massacres of the frontier wars, children taken from the homes during the period of the Stolen Generations, the unconscionable life expectancy gap between Aboriginal and other Australians, and the intolerably high number of Aboriginal deaths in custody that persists to this day.

Australian prime ministers have recognised the suffering of the Aboriginal people, the first being Paul Keating, who acknowledged in his famous Redfern speech of 1992 that it was, we (the Australian government) who did the dispossessing, took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life, brought the diseases, the alcohol, committed the murders, took the children from their mothers, practised discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice and our failure to imagine these things being done to us.”

Echoing the themes of Invasion Day, Palestinians mark Israel’s birth, which is celebrated by many Jews in Israel and beyond as Yom Haatzmaut – Independence Day, as the Naqba, meaning "catastrophe" in Arabic, remembering the uprooting and evacuation of Arab villages turning many people into refugees.

But it’s hard to imagine any Israeli prime minister saying anything to Palestinians similar to Keating's Redfern speech to Aborigines. If they recognise the pain inflicted on Palestinians in 1948 and beyond, they see it as self-defence in order to build a much-needed national home and protect Israeli Jews.

Many liberal Zionists have come to acknowledge the pain of the Nakba, but even they often justify the process because without it, there would be no Israel today. In his book, My Promised Land, Ari Shavit writes, “In that square kilometre of what was once Old Lydda, one still feels that something is very wrong. Amid the ugly slums, the shabby market, and the cheap stores, it is clear that there is still an unhealed wound.

“Yet I will not damn the brigade commander and the military governor and the 3rd Battalion soldiers (who carried out the expulsion of more than 35,000 Palestinians from Lydda). On the contrary. If need be, I’ll stand by the damned, because I know that if not for them, the State of Israel would not have been born. If not for them, I would not have been born. They did the filthy work that enables my people, my nation, my daughter, my sons, and me to live.”

Many Australian Jews who are known to be very supportive of both Zionism and Indigenous rights will likely be very worried about growing Aboriginal-Palestinian solidarity.

They will note the stark differences between the two cases, highlighting the Jews as the indigenous people of Israel, while minimising or sometimes even negating entirely the historic Arab connections to Palestine. 

Others will sit in discomfort, acknowledging the parallels, the need for reconciliation in both cases, supporting Israelis and Palestinians who seek to acknowledge the hurt they have caused one another through building bridges to a more just and equal future.

Either way, the pain of the victims and the families who ultimately bury their loved ones always was, and always will be, the same.

From that pain, whether it be from an Israeli, Palestinian, Indigenous, or immigrant Australian, one can only hope the desire for revenge and hatred is overcome by movements that build justice, security and equality for all.

Photo: Poster from the Perth Pali Youth Project, supporting Palestinian Aboriginal solidarity

About the author

Ittay Flescher

Ittay Flescher is the Jerusalem correspondent for Plus61JMedia. Since moving to Israel in 2018 from Melbourne, where he was a high school teacher for 15 years, Ittay has been collecting stories about the people with whom he shares Jerusalem. He is also the Education Director at a youth movement that brings together Israeli and Palestinian teenagers to work towards equality, justice, and peace.

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