Ecology, Citizenship, and Jewish Identity
Speech to The Australian Association of Jewish Studies conference, Canberra, February 28.
Thanks very much. I want to start by acknowledging that we’re meeting here on the land of the Ngunnawal people, and pay my respect to their elders, past, present and still to come. This always was and always will be Aboriginal land. Always will be, because in Aboriginal law – a way of thinking we have so much to learn from – country owns us, not the other way around.
As a diasporic people, we Jews are used to being on someone else’s land. We’re used, indeed, to being unwelcome on someone else’s land. It’s so important for us, as a people who were uprooted two millennia ago, to respect and work to support those who remain dispossessed in their own land. And it’s such a gift to learn from them of the deep, familial connection we can find with land.
We of course also share with First Nations people a history of being the subject of genocide, and being the target of continued racism. However, where they are the most incarcerated people on Earth, and have shockingly lower life expectancy and socio-economic status than settler colonial Australians, we Jews live here these days mostly in privilege.
But I think many Jews have, like me, a complex relationship with that privilege – we’re all too aware that our forebears, including my grandparents, lived in privilege in Europe before it was ripped away by those in power with deadly, horrific consequences.
From this, then, we can extract the three aspects of my Jewish identity which I believe shape my politics, and that of many, but of course not all, other Jews: fragile privilege and what that means for how we are to be safe; uprootedness, which can become a positive internationalism; and abhorrence of dominating power. These three ideas lead me to a deep appreciation for and belief in interdependence, which, in my view, is the beating heart of green, ecological politics.
Let’s look very briefly at each of these, backing up my thoughts with those of some of the 20th century’s greatest thinkers – secular Jews Hannah Arendt, Murray Bookchin and Emma Goldman.
First: our fragile privilege and quest for safety in the diaspora, and what we do with that.
In her essay, “We Refugees”, written in 1943, just two years after she’d arrived in the US having escaped Nazism, Hannah Arendt asks us to think about Jews in the diaspora as either pariah or parvenu: embracing our exclusion or seeking to be included.
I’m necessarily oversimplifying here, but, in essence, the parvenu seeks safety in the diaspora by being helpful, even indispensable, while determinedly not rocking the boat, whereas the pariah, embracing our place outside the mainstream, our ever-present potential exclusion, seeks safety through that separateness. There are various types of pariah, in her analysis, expanded in the 1944 essay “The Jew As Pariah” – one being the “conscious pariah”, who seeks safety by working to change the society we have arrived in into one that can be more safe, not just for us but for others like us.
There’s a vital distinction here which plays out in Jews acting as bold change makers, as quiet achievers hoping not to be noticed, or as archetypes of the society they’ve joined. I, of course, believe in the first of these. I believe it’s incumbent on us who have privilege but understand its fragility to use it for the benefit of others. And I believe that the only world we Jews will ever be safe in is a world which is safe for all.
There’s a grand tradition in Australia of the Jew as conscious pariah. I’m thinking of James Spigelman, future Chief Justice of NSW, coordinating the freedom rides with Charles Perkins, and of Ron Castan’s crucial role in Mabo, Koowarta and the Franklin Dam cases, a tradition Melissa continues in her vital human rights work. I’m thinking of the Kaldor family and their work supporting more recent waves of refugees. I’m thinking of leading lights in the Greens, Ian Cohen, Dan Cass, the wonderful late Dr John Kaye.
This idea that we will only ever truly be safe in a world which is safe for everyone leads me to a side-track to Arendt’s pariah as change maker embracing their exclusion, a different approach to the longstanding debate between assimilation and maintaining our identity – an approach that can be found in ecological politics. Our liberal system is, in some ways, based on separation, building walls between atomised individuals. It’s a somewhat pathological approach to difference, fetishising it yet disapproving of it. It leaves us the options of either hating or tolerating those who are different from us.
Ecology teaches us different way of thinking about difference based on interdependent diversity – everything in an ecosystem is both different and interdependent, and it’s the combination which creates resilience. For me, a politics based on these ideas embodies coexistence. Neither seeking to erase differences between people, nor tearing them apart on the basis of those differences, nor even encouraging “toleration” of difference, ecological politics appreciates diversity as a necessary and beautiful part of the complex natural world, as long as the diverse parts see themselves as part of the complex whole.
That’s the kind of world we need to cultivate if we’re to be safe – a world where we cherish our identity, and everyone else’s, as they cherish ours. Until then, our privilege is fragile.
Second, uprootedness. The Jew as “rootless cosmopolitan”.
This is something I’ve always been very conscious of, growing up in Australia surrounded by Russian and Hungarian language and food, and Chinese paraphernalia from my mother’s family’s two generations there. The reality of being Jewish for millennia, but most particularly in the late 19th and 20th century, was the reality of being stateless, of travel both forced and unforced, of multilingualism. The positive side of this is the evolution of so many of us as citizens of the world, with a deep commitment to internationalism common to Jews from Trotsky to Goldman, Bookchin to Chomsky.
The negative side of it is still felt in a country like Australia today in things like the ludicrous section 44 fiasco regarding politicians with dual or multiple citizenships. What angered me most about that whole affair was the blasé attitude of most people, from journalists through to our most senior judges, that it was a simple matter of getting your paperwork sorted, when in fact the complexities and difficulties can be immense. It took me 6 weeks to divest myself of my British citizenship, knowing the language and the legal system and there being easy processes in place. It took me 14 months to renounce the Hungarian citizenship I hadn’t even known I had, navigating complex policy and politics in a foreign language, tracking down lost documents, and lobbying hard at both ends. Someone less determined would have given up. Any Jew can tell you it’s not a matter of simple paperwork, because we’ve had to face it for generations, and we know it’s designed to exclude.
Where this knowledge can take us, and has taken leading Jewish thinkers, is to a critique of the nation state, and the invention of a new geopolitics of mutualism, of interdependence.
The great anarchist, Emma Goldman – who was born Russian Jewish, fled to Prussia, settled in America, expelled from America and sent to the USSR, left in disgust, and eventually died in Canada – wrote in the magazine Mother Earth in 1906, “owing to a lack of a country of their own, [Jews have] developed, crystallized and idealized their cosmopolitan reasoning faculty … working for the great moment when the Earth will become the home for all.”
Arendt, too, having fled the Nazis to France, been interned there after France fell, and managing to escape to the US, wrote of the contradictions of the liberal nation state. If you respect the idea of sovereign nation states, she argued, true universalism, including human rights, becomes unenforceable. What’s more, and from a peculiarly Jewish perspective, she equates statelessness with rightslessness – rights in our system are conferred by the state and can, of course, be taken away by the state with no recourse. States are exclusive entities, and we are very frequently among those excluded.
Murray Bookchin was the child of Russian Jews in the US, although he himself never had to relocate. But he was something of a political wanderer – brought up communist, becoming anarchist, and eventually developing his own communalist ideas of municipal confederalism – ideas I find very persuasive. Bookchin also has a fantastic historical critique, set out mostly in his book “The Ecology of Freedom” and drawing from Marx and others, that relates systems of oppression and environmental destruction to the ownership of land. Our shift from living knowing that country owns us to systems of separation and domination, enclosing land, declaring that we own it and can do with it as we like, is where our problems started. It’s a process that leads inexorably to the nation state as an entity with a monopoly on violence, exerting dominant power. After Indigenous people, Jews are ideally placed to understand this.
Bookchin’s bottom up system of popular assemblies coordinated at various levels through delegates, is currently in use in the multi ethnic autonomous region of north eastern Syria known as Rojava. Its 2 million citizens, thriving amidst the rubble, consider themselves a nation, but not a state. And it could form the building blocks of a new mutualist internationalism.
This vision of a world evolved beyond dominating nation states, of course, closely relates to the third and final point – the abhorrence of dominating, oppressive power.
I don’t know who originally said it, but to me the phrase “Jews should always be on the side of the oppressed, not the oppressor” has always struck home.
And, taking that to its logical conclusion, much of radical Jewish political thought has been about creating a world where there IS no oppressor. Emma Goldman, whose ideas were shaped by witnessing beatings in Russia and the appalling treatment of workers in the US, wrote of wanting to obliterate injustice.
Arendt has a magnificent articulation in her essay, “Reflections on Violence”, where she posits true power as the opposite of violence. Reversing Mao’s famous claim that “political power grows from the barrel of a gun”, she says “Power springs up whenever people get together and act in concert. … Out of the barrel of a gun grows the most effective command, resulting in the most instant and perfect obedience. What can never grow out of it is power.”
Arendt points out that violence and oppression can always destroy power, and that it takes constant effort to cultivate and renew this different, deeper power, power that springs from people acting in concert. It’s in participation, discussion, deliberation, an open public space, where Arendt situates real political power, as opposed to domination.
And that’s what Bookchin seeks to enable through his municipal confederalism, cultivating new forms of power, power from below, and an international order based on that. Instead of democracy being a grant of some portion of a say by a top-down entity, a Hobbesian Leviathan, a separate power we are all subservient to, Bookchin argues that true democracy can only ever be bottom up. All actual decision-making power must rest with the people in assemblies, delegating coordinating responsibilities, but not power, to confederal councils of various kinds.
As Arendt, Bookchin and many others have noted, this requires a shift in thinking, changing the way we disagree, altering the way we think about decision-making, moving it, frankly, to a rather Talmudic approach to debate, rather than the mediaeval tournament-style adversarialism we have now. The drive to defeat your enemy has to be replaced with seeking a common path through a puzzle.
All this, for me, leads us to a politics of interdependence. Which, for me, is ecological politics, Greens politics.
Goldman put it beautifully in her ecological anarchism, drawing on the work of the (non-Jewish) scientist and anarchist, Piotr Kropotkin: community is “rather like a living organism, the character and vitality of which is made possible only by the ‘mutual cooperation’ of the ‘cells’ which, in turn, are able to ‘attain (their) highest form of development’ only within the organism.”
That, to me, is where ecological political thinking, grown around a suite of aspects of Jewish identity – seeking safety in the diaspora, uprootedness, and abhorrence of dominating power – can lead us: to an insight that the two opposing strands of 19th and 20th century political thought – individualism vs collectivism – need to be brought together in an ecological understanding. What is the individual if not a member of a collective? What is a collective if not a group of individuals? Interdependence, mutualism is the way to the solve the puzzle.
Image Source: Hannah Arendt in 1975 – By T. Kajiwara (1876–1960) – Library of Congress, Public Domain.
Image Source: Photographic portrait of Emma Goldman – By Unknown author – American Memory, Public Domain.