Aborigines can learn from Jews how to preserve culture and prosper

Opinion Article

2010 February, 14

I sometimes ponder the peoples of the world, their relative qualities, their contribution to the contemporary world and their role in history. I sometimes ask myself which peoples I most admire, and so from time to time I compile a top 10 list. Not just admirable people, but also awful people: when one is awe-filled by a people. 

Therefore the English make my list out of a grudging respect for their extraordinary qualities. 

Once, while we stood gazing down at Westminster, my friend Peter Botsman gave a moving evocation of the sheer toughness of a people who could produce the likes of James Cook, Oliver Cromwell and Winston Churchill. I could no longer deny how truly awful the English were as a people. 

I won't continue with my list lest I embarrass myself in the same way as the listeners who are responsible for Triple J's Top 100 songs in any given year, let alone its top 100 songs of all time. It's completely a whitebread show, as if black music has just been a marginal part of the story of popular music over the past half century. The inclusion of a few black artists in these lists is about as sincere as Hollywood granting Denzel Washington and Halle Berry their best actor and actress awards respectively in the year when the absence of African-American winners had become an issue of political correctness. 

At the top of my list are the Jewish people. No people have contributed more to civilisation than the Jews. Many of the greatest thinkers - Jesus Christ, Karl Marx, Albert Einstein - were Jews. They have led or played decisive roles in developing or powering philosophical movements at all points of the spectrum, from liberalism to socialism. From Ayn Rand to Joseph Stiglitz. From Paul Wolfowitz to Paul Krugman. 

Their ancient commitment to education and high learning is of course fundamental to their success. It is often said that their persecution and oppression is also an explanation for their resilience and seriousness as a people. 

Beleaguered peoples such as my own mob could do worse than draw upon the example of the Jews. They offer some lessons about how a culturally distinct people might hold their own and succeed in a world that is often without pity. 

First, there are lessons in the way they deal with the past. They have never forgotten history and they never allow anybody else to forget history; they fight staunchly in defence of the truths of history, but they never make their history a burden for the future. They have worked out how to deal with the past without cultivating and nurturing victimhood among themselves. Too many peoples turn victimisation in history into the victimhood of the present. 

Second, there are lessons in the way they deal with racism. They staunchly defend themselves against racism, but they avoid making racism their problem. Properly understood, racism should be a problem of the racialists, not the burden of those against whom it is directed. Of course the effects of racism are real, but the point is to not succumb to its psychological effects. Racism ultimately succeeds when it destroys the psychology of its victims and leaves them defeated. A people subject to racism have the difficult challenge of not succumbing. The Jews are such a people 

Third, there are lessons in the way they have maintained their identity as a people while engaging in the wider world into which they have dispersed through the diasporas. They have maintained an identity as a community and a sense of peoplehood, religion, tradition, culture and history while at the same time engaging at the cutting edge of whatever the world has to offer. Their peoplehood has survived diasporas probably because they have maintained an orthodox heart at their centre while the rest of their community engages in orbits around that gravitational centre, and they engage according to their own choices with the rest of the world. 

This is a vision for an Aboriginal future in my part of the country. We want Cape York to be the point of gravitation, to be home, to be the hearth for our people. But we want our young members in the future to orbit around that hearth and to engage in the world. 

We can maintain a sense of peoplehood and common identity and religion and language. We can maintain tribes, but if we think that tribes can prosper under the present model of deadening socialist collectivism, we will be wrong. The stultifying communalism of Aboriginal communities is the product of our bureaucratic dealings with the state rather than a true reflection of our ancient traditions. Until Aboriginal communities break out of the strictures of collectivism and free individuals and families to prosper and to pursue a better life in their own right, we will continue to wallow in dysfunction and misery. 

The Jews are an example of people who have maintained a communal identity while never placing strictures on individuals as to their jealous pursuit of their own interests and that of their families. It is the way people prosper in the world. If there is one thing we have woken up to in relation to our predicament in Cape York it is that liberal thought is right when it says that there is a power in individual choice and jealous regard for one's own immediate family. 

It's the engine of development the world over and I do not think indigenous peoples are exempt from this liberal insight. If we want to enjoy prosperity, then liberal thinking is right in relation to the power that individual choice and self-interest represents for development. Therefore we have to find a way, just as the Jews have, to reconcile self-interest and individualism with our common identity with our fellow members of our tribe. 

There are sufficient examples of peoples who have managed that reconciliation and who manage it very successfully and the lesson for us in Cape York Peninsula is that we can maintain a sense of peoplehood that captures our ongoing traditions, our language, our connection with the country, our religions, while at the same time enabling individuals to participate in the world according to their own lights and according to their own passions and their own talents.

Aborigines can learn from Jews how to preserve culture and prosper