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Drash on Parashat Mishpatim 2014

Drash on Parashat Mishpatim
Cantor David Bentley

This week's Parshah is mainly concerned with pursuing justice and equity with compassion. Amongst other things it includes repeated calls—echoing those found elsewhere in our sacred books—to look after the poor and to not wrong or oppress the stranger. This week we have a very timely opportunity to consider ways of doing this. Those readers in other parts of our Region will please forgive me if my focus is on Australia as it recalls the anniversary of European settlers arriving on January 26th, 1788.

This date is now officially known as Australia Day. The indigenous community also knows it as Invasion Day or, perhaps a little more positively, Survival Day although only a fraction of the indigenous population in fact survived European settlement. Reviewing their plight is not a comfortable exercise.

I also want to recall an important personal milestone: this month marks the tenth anniversary of my returning home to Australia after living overseas for about eight years to train and work as a Cantor. After the not-so-glamorous realities of daily life in some of the world's greatest cities like London, Jerusalem and New York, I came back to the Lucky Country keen to again enjoy the comfortable and easy-going lifestyle of our sunburnt, prosperous land.

For many in the indigenous community, especially, Australia is not the prosperous country that I grew up in and longed to return to. This disparity is fuelled by an undercurrent of racism that dates all the way back to 1788. The decimation of the indigenous population during the first 60 years of European settlement was driven by the attitude that “we” (British settlers) were superior and it was OK to let “them” die, to drive them off, even to murder them in cold blood. “We” didn't even consider “them” worth counting in the Census until 1967.
There are all too many recent instances of bad treatment of the First Australians. More than twenty years after the Mabo decision it is still a long, hard battle to secure land rights, even to remote parcels of land that no-one else has ever wanted. The continuing tragedy of deaths in custody is deeply shameful. The refusal of the John Howard Federal Government to say “Sorry” to the Stolen Generation was dressed up in fancy political rhetoric but it seems to me that it was driven by a high-handed, bloody-minded attitude that those who were wronged were not entitled to that simple consideration.

The statistics on indigenous health are appalling. Life expectancy is up to 20 years less than for other Australians. Rates of kidney disease, heart disease and diabetes are also worse. There is less cancer but it is more likely to be fatal. It is mind-boggling that the eye disease trachoma—which can cause blindness—exists anywhere in our country. It does exist, but only in indigenous communities. It can be avoided simply by having clean running water. Yes, you read that right. In a country where many of us take for granted air conditioning, fast broadband and HDTV, and where some people would feel lost without the latest model tablet to stream their favourite music and movies while they wait for their morning coffee, there are others who don't have a decent water supply.

Homelessness is also high. It runs to 12%. That's enough people to three-quarters fill the Sydney Cricket Ground.

On a more positive note it is becoming more common for us to invoke a “Call to Country” and at least pay lip service to the traditional owners of the lands we now inhabit. I would like to hope that this will grow into a widespread and determined awareness of the value of extending the benefits of the Western way of life to indigenous communities and, equally importantly, of doing so on terms that they find acceptable. There are some isolated but promising examples of this such as World Vision working with the NT community of Papunya since 1996 to bring in programmes such as health, aged care and other social services, and the WA town of Fitzroy Crossing where a number of local indigenous-owned and operated businesses have brought better incomes and correspondingly better standard of living.

But on the whole there is a huge gulf between the living standards of indigenous Australians and the rest of the country. They are strangers in their own land, poor and oppressed.

They are not the only poor in our midst and we as Jews may not have directly contributed to their plight but we certainly cannot ignore it. Until the shameful treatment of the indigenous population is redressed the whole nation is poorer. I don't have the answers. But I know with all my heart that we need to find them.

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