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Vale David Zyngier: warrior for public education, climate, Israel and justice

Dan Coleman
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Vale David Zyngier: warrior for public education, climate, Israel and justice

Published: 28 November 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

DAN COLEMAN pays tribute to the former Jewish school principal and councillor for the Greens, whose life was guided by his devotion to the common good.

David Zyngier, who passed away on Saturday at the age of 72, was many things to many people. To some, he was a lifelong advocate for public education. To others, he was a lion in the cause of peace and justice. For his local council constituents in Glen Eira, in Melbourne, he was a powerful voice for climate action.

Some viewed him critically as a self-hating Jew, confused that he could support the human rights of the Palestinian people while still identifying as a Zionist. Ever ready for a good argument, David had his enemies, as do so many who are forthright in the cause of justice.

A tribute from Glen Eira Mayor Anne-Marie Cade provides only the briefest summary of David's lifetime of accomplishment and leadership: “Cr Zyngier was a well-known member of Glen Eira’s Jewish community. He worked in education for more than 35 years and was principal of a local [King David] Jewish school. He was an active member of his synagogue, Kehilat Nitzan, an advocate of Jewish LGBTIQA+ rights, and a member of the Jewish Climate Network.

“As a volunteer with the Ardoch Foundation, Courage to Care, and Father Bob Foundation, Cr Zyngier’s passion for giving a voice to the vulnerable permeated all that he did.”

David’s family would find me remiss if I made no mention of his pride in his numerous peer-reviewed articles being cited over 2000 times.

But for me, he was more than his accomplishments. David was the dearest of friends. That, and the most steadfast comrade in the many causes we shared, primarily within the Jewish Greens Working Group.

David was a man of deep feeling. To say of the deceased that they loved their wives, their children, their grandchildren is commonplace. With David those feelings were palpable and always in view. I kidded him recently, “your priorities are your wife, your children and grandchildren, your politics, then me.” He did not disagree, and I felt honoured to be in the mix.

For David’s young grandchildren, I would liken him to the Itsy-Bitsy Spider, steadfast in his journey regardless of obstacles. But their grandfather was nothing like the Little Engine That Could. To say “I think I can” is to acknowledge the possibility of failure, something David never could do. He was a man who thought he might beat pancreatic cancer and who, three days before his death, told me he was looking forward to visiting my new apartment.

David and I shared a concern about the rise of antisemitism and the potential weaponisation of the IHRA definition to censor calls for Palestinian rights. In The Age and elsewhere, we called for combatting antisemitism through education and coalition building.

The need for education on antisemitism was vitally important within the Greens Party if it was to credibly stand for justice for all peoples. To that end, David and I co-authored an article for Greens Magazine proposing a party policy on antisemitism. We followed it up with a companion piece published by The Jewish Independent.

But that project was put on the backburner early this year by the necessity to update the party’s policy on Israel/Palestine. David was adamant in his insistence that the new policy be prefaced by the assertion that “we aim to rectify this injustice [to the Palestinians] in ways that will allow both Palestinians and Israelis to live in peace, security and equality, exercising self-determination as described by the United Nations Charter”.

This was a fundamental expression of the progressive position that David and I shared on resolving the conflict, a resolution that today seems more distant than ever.

After David’s diagnosis last winter, people would ask him what they could do to help or show support. “Come to the Sunday morning rallies for Israeli democracy” was his unhesitating reply.

In recent months, I joined David’s family in imploring him to get off Twitter, to ease up on politics, to step away from the fray, yet it was not in his nature to do so. I believe they are proud of his engagement despite the pain the attacks he endured on social media caused to them all.

David placed the well-known words of Rabbi Tarfon on the logo of J-Greens: “it is not your responsibility to finish the work (of perfecting the world), but neither are you free to desist from it." Indeed, this was his credo until his final breath.

All was not politics for David. We shared a love for music, whiskey, film, and footy, though he always barracked for the wrong side. We sat on a bench in St Kilda Botanical Gardens and sang the Simon and Garfunkel song Old Friends though our friendship in years was not that old.

Perhaps our connection was deeply rooted through our mothers, born the same day in 1920. My mother, with parents who emigrated to the US from eastern Poland in the 1890s, David’s born in the same region and surviving Auschwitz to find refuge in Australia.

Perhaps it was the legacy of the Holocaust, through his father as well, that made David such a dynamo. Perhaps it was the relative ease of life as middle-class Americans that my parents bequeathed to me that gave me the patience to stand with him through all the meshugas in the Greens Party.

David and I also shared the early deaths of our older brothers, his over 40 years ago, mine more than 20, my elder brother also succumbing to pancreatic cancer.

The legacy of loss, the drive for justice, and the laughter that animates the best of friendships among Jews. These are the qualities that my friend and I shared. For me, David Zyngier was a beloved brother, and I am proud to call him so.

Ric Benjamin, Chairman of NIF Australia, adds: “David was the son of Holocaust survivors, he was a leader at Hashomer, he was a card-carrying member of the communist party in the early 1970s and had an ASIO file due to the Vietnam protests. He made aliyah (only to be brought home by my sister!) after which he became a teacher and eventually a school principal King David School, then an academic passionate about pedagogy and government education. He finished as Australia's only elected Jewish Green (at Glen Eira Council).”

About the author

Dan Coleman

Dan Coleman is a former member of the Carrboro, North Carolina Town Council, and a former political columnist for the Durham (NC) Morning Herald. He is the author of Ecopolitics: Building A Green Society. He lives in Melbourne.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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