SYDNEY, Australia (JTA) – In what could be described as Australia’s Yom Kippur, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd expressed Wednesday the one word his predecessors refused to utter to indigenous Australians: Sorry.
Rudd’s Labor Party wrested power from John Howard’s Liberals last November on a platform that included apologizing to the “Stolen Generations” – up to 100,000 mostly mixed-blood Aboriginal children who were forcibly removed from their families between 1910 and 1970.
The text of the motion on the Stolen Generations, which won bipartisan support, acknowledged the “profound grief, suffering and loss” inflicted on Aborigines.
Australian Jews, some of whom have been at the forefront of the decades-long reconciliation effort, applauded the apology.
“To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry,” Rudd said. “And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.”
In a historic speech that drew cheers and tears, Rudd said he hoped the apology would remove “a great stain from the nation’s soul.”
Mark Leibler, the co-chair of Reconciliation Australia, a national organization that promotes reconciliation, said Rudd’s apology marked a “watershed” in Australian history but that this should be just the beginning of the reconciliation process.
“The shame as far as this country is concerned will not be cleared up until we bridge the 17-year gap in the life expectancy between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians,” said Leibler, who attended the apology ceremony in Canberra on Wednesday.
Leibler is also the chairman of the world board of trustees of Keren Hayesod/United Israel Appeal and national chairman of the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council.
“We’ve suffered 2,000 years of persecution, and we understand what it is to be the underdog and to suffer from disadvantage,” he said.
Jews have been at the forefront of pushing for civil rights in Australia.
In 1965, Jim Spigelman, a cousin of the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Art Spiegelman and now chief justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales, led 30 students on the first Australian Freedom Ride – a journey into Outback Australia to protest racial discrimination against Aborigines, who were not entitled to vote and were prohibited from swimming pools, pubs and other public places.
In the country town of Moree, a racist mob attacked the students and, according to newspaper reports at the time, Spigelman was smacked to the ground.
The man most Jews and Aborigines hail as having made the greatest contribution to the cause of Aboriginal rights is Ron Castan, a Jewish Australian dubbed by Aboriginal leaders as the “great white warrior.”
Castan, who died in 1999, was the lead counsel in the landmark 1992 Australian High Court “Mabo judgment” – named for plaintiff Eddie Mabo – which overturned the legal fiction that Australia was “terra nullius,” or an uninhabited land, when white settlers first arrived in 1788. Aborigines now own more than 10 percent of Australia’s land mass.
In a 1998 speech, Castan implored the government to say it was sorry, 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 charged.
In 1999, Howard proposed a motion expressing “deep and sincere regret” for the injustices suffered by Aborigines, but the then-prime minister said Australians “should not be required to accept guilt and blame” for the policies of previous governments.
Aborigines number about 450,000 in an Australian population of 21 million. They are the most disadvantaged group in Australia, suffering high rates of infant mortality, unemployment, alcohol abuse and domestic violence.
More than 100 members of the Stolen Generations were present at Wednesday’s ceremony, which was broadcast live on national television and on giant screens across the country.
“Our faith teaches and emphasizes the universal principles of coexistence and respect for human dignity and rights,” Rabbi Mordechai Gutnick, the president of the Organization of Rabbis of Australia, said in a statement. “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.”
In addition to their activism on Aboriginal issues, Jews were instrumental in leading the crusade against the White Australia Policy, a series of laws from 1901 to 1973 that restricted non-white immigration to Australia.
The president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, Robert Goot, said he is proud of the Jewish community’s ongoing commitment to reconciliation.
Rudd’s apology marked “the beginning in a new chapter in the quest by indigenous Australians for complete equality with their fellow Australians,” Goot observed.
Rabbi Jeremy Lawrence of the Great Synagogue in Sydney said in a speech on reconciliation last week 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 said 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.
Rudd’s apology comes more than a decade after a 1997 inquiry in Australia’s parliament, called the “Bringing Them Home” report, concluded that the Aborigines suffered “an act of genocide aimed at wiping out indigenous families, communities and cultures.” The report urged the government to apologize and offer compensation to the victims and their families.
The apology offers no recourse to compensation, although the issue is now being hotly debated. It also reignited the so-called “history wars” between those who believe the Stolen Generations were kidnapped in a sinister attempt to breed out their Aboriginality and others who say it was a benevolent attempt to save half-caste children from the ills of Aboriginal society.