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17 Feb, 2008

Australian Jews Laud Historic Apology to Aborigines, Now Let Israel Follow With One to Palestinians

Originally Published: 17 Feb 2008

I salute the people and government of Australia for the historic apology to the indigenous people. And I promise that a day will come, probably not soon but it will come without a shade of doubt, when the Israelis will apologise to the Palestinians for inflicting upon them same kind of pain and suffering that the Australian aborigines have faced.

This desire to right the wrongs of past generations clearly came from the heart. It may not have gone far enough, in the views of many aboriginal leaders, but it is a valuable first step.

In a world full of injustice, political deceit and backstabbing, plucking up the courage to apologise is an act of statesmanship. Syed Atiq ul Hassan, an Australia-based freelance journalist, said February 13 should be celebrated as the real Australia National Day, not January 26, which commemorates the establishment of the first European settlement in Australia.

Of the many salutations that appeared worldwide, the most noteworthy item appeared on the website of Jewish news service JTA [www.jta.org]. It is this item that strengthens my conviction that the Jews will one day apologise to the Palestinians for doing unto them what they would not wish done unto others.

According to the JTA story, some Australian Jews have been at the forefront of the decades-long reconciliation effort. One of them, Mark Leibler, the co-chair of Reconciliation Australia and national chairman of the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council, was quoted as saying: “We’ve suffered 2,000 years of persecution, and we understand what it is to be the underdog and to suffer from disadvantage.”

The story then went on to list a number of Jews who have been at the forefront of pushing for civil rights in Australia, one of whom was identified as Ron Castan, a Jewish Australian dubbed by Aboriginal leaders as the “great white warrior.”

According to the JTA story, Castan had implored the Australian government to say it was sorry in 1998, citing Holocaust denial in his argument. “The refusal to apologize for dispossession, for massacres and for the theft of children is the Australian equivalent of the Holocaust deniers — those who say it never really happened,” Castan was quoted as saying.

Mordechai Gutnick, president of the Organization of Rabbis of Australia, was quoted as saying, “Our faith teaches and emphasizes the universal principles of coexistence and respect for human dignity and rights. It teaches the need to recognize and rectify any failings we may display in our interaction between our fellow man. To say ‘sorry’ in a meaningful manner goes a long way in ensuring that mistakes and discrimination will not be repeated.”

Rabbi Jeremy Lawrence of the Great Synagogue in Sydney was quoted as saying that Jews must not “deny nor stand by nor stand silent in the face of the pain of the Stolen Generations. It is incumbent on us to acknowledge the wrong, to apologize for the damage caused.”

Noting the importance to Jews of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, the British-born rabbi was quoted as saying that Australia should have a similar institution for Aborigines.

“There ought to be a national place where people who have suffered can come and identify with their past and understand that the incursion of their culture and heritage has been recognized and an apology has been made,” he said.

After reading those striking statements of principles, I took the liberty of using the full text of the Australian apology as a template, replacing the word “indigenous” with “Palestinians” and making a few other minor technical changes, in order to draft a future apology that the people, Parliament and government of the Jewish state of Israel could offer to the Palestinian people. This is how it would read:

Today we honour the Palestinian peoples of this land.

“We reflect on their past mistreatment.

“We reflect in particular on their mistreatment – this blemished chapter in our nation’s history.

“The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.

“We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on the Palestinan people.

“We apologise especially for the seizure of their land, the extra-judicial killings of their people, collective punishment imposed upon them, the destruction of their homes and olive groves, the building of walls that have separated their families, their communities and their country.

“For the pain, suffering and hurt of these people of Palestine, their descendants and for their families, we say sorry.

“To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.

“And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.

“We the Parliament of Israel respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation.

“For the future we take heart; resolving that this new page in the history of our great continent can now be written.

“We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Palestinians, Israelis and the peoples of the Middle East.

“A future where this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.

“A future where we harness the determination of all the peoples born and brought up in this land, Muslims, Christians and Jews, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.

“A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed.

“A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.

“A future where all the peoples of this land, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of Israel and Palestine.”

In my last column, I challenged the Jewish people to prove that they do not consider themselves to be above the law. In this column, I challenge them again to follow through on the principles of their Australian Jewish leaders and apologise to the Palestinians.

Oh, by the way, here’s to Kevin Rudd for the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize.