The Honourable Dr Brendan Nelson AO
Director of the Australian War Memorial
5 May 2019
A desire for knowledge for its own sake,
a love of justice that borders on fanaticism,
and a striving for personal independence.
These are the Jewish tradition that allows me to regard
belonging to it, as a gift of great fortune……
History has imposed on us a difficult struggle;
but so long as we remain devoted servants of truth; justice and freedom,
we will not only persist as the oldest living peoples,
but will also as before to achieve through our productive labour,
works that contribute to the ennoblement of humanity.
It is a humbling privilege for me to address you here, to mark the 71st anniversary of Israel’s independence. We also gather to mark the 75th anniversary of the Caulfield Hebrew Congregation. We do so in the week of Yom Hashoa commemorations.
You – all of you, have lived, endured and forgotten more about Israel and what brings us here, than I will ever know. Yet you invite me to speak.
Jewish identity has been shaped by three forces over the past century:
- Anti-Semitism which remains a repugnant, ugly force in dark recesses, deep inside far too many people and in many parts of the world
- The Holocaust or ‘Shoah’
- The daily existential struggle of the State of Israel to justify its very existence in a region dominated by theocracies and autocracies
Anti-Semitism is far from a feature of modern history.
The Roman Empire embraced Christianity. In doing so, anti-Semitism played a catalytic role in building the foundations of the religion that would supersede Judaism. European and western civilization was largely defined by Christianity which at various times used anti-Semitism to meet its political and theological objectives.
Anti-Semitism at different times has seemed ubiquitous, found in major religions, the political left and the political right, educated classes and amongst the illiterate poor.
It was into this context that the 19th century arrived.
Scientists drove a fascinated culture of order and control. Race emerged as a feature of the nation state along with nationalism. Populist perceptions rooted in race ran in parallel with social Darwinism and eugenics.
The First World War industrialised killing.
Then, the bitter hardships experienced by Germans after the First World War radicalised anti-Semitism. The Weimar Republic from 1919 to 1933 legitimised violence as a form of control that was acceptable to the educated, upper classes.
Hitler was able to take advantage of two key things.
The first was that the majority were indifferent to the plight of the minority.
The second was that in Germany – as in other parts of Europe, anti-Semitism was deeply rooted – religious, secular and racial.
Anti-Semitism did not end with liberation of the death camps, nor with the end of the war, the Nuremberg trials or formation of the United Nations.
Anti-Zionism, Holocaust denial, distortion of truths, glorification of Nazism have all featured since.
Troops are today deployed across Europe protecting synagogues and Jewish places of congregation. Fire bombings, desecration of cemeteries and other violations of freedom are real, present and escalating dangers.
In recent years, angry crowds have even chanted ‘Gas the Jews’ and ‘Death to the Jews’. A Dutch soccer slogan chants, “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas”.
We pause here 80 years after the outbreak of the Second World War.
A cataclysm spanning six years, it remains the most destructive conflict in human history.
A life was extinguished every three seconds.
It claimed 60 million lives including 6 million Jews, murdered in the Holocaust along with political dissidents, Roma, Gypsies and homosexuals. Among them 1.5 million Jewish children
Humankind moved from one age to another.
The world would never be the same again.
We gather 74th years after the arrival at Auschwitz of the Soviet forces from the 60th army of the First Ukrainian Front.
The liberators would find some 7,650 barely living survivors, hundreds of thousands of personal effects and 700 tonnes of human hair.
As many as 1.5 million people – mainly Jews, had been murdered here.
With awkward humility and abiding reverence, we gather here also to reflect upon, remember and honour them all.
We do so in renewed commitment to one another, our nation and the ideals of mankind.
In commemorating the dead, we are inspired by the triumph of the human spirit given us by those who survived.
We are also challenged - Jews and members of the human race, to make this history live in ways that evoke and embed memory, leading always to our best inner selves.
You don’t realise what you’re learning when you’re learning it.
The most significant thoughts that have challenged, shaped and transformed my own perspective, have come in random moments of quiet revelation - often when I least expected.
The power is in the story.
Hearing of my appointment as Director of the Australian War Memorial, a close friend said:
“You’re going to do what - run the Australian War Memorial? I can’t believe it. You’re wasting your life. You have much more important things to do for Australia than rearrange its history”.