VINCENT SAMMUT is a Leederville local and long time Voice correspondent who ran Books Etcetera on Fitzgerald Street until 2013. Originally from the US, he moved here half a century ago. In this week’s SPEAKER’S CORNER, he discusses anti-semitism.
IN 1940’s Brooklyn, I was only two years old.
I remember how, on a quiet, snowy winter’s night, my father carried me in his arms.
We were on our way home from a social evening with family friends. I recall the hypnotic glow of street lights filtering through falling snowflakes. I was sleepy-eyed. A dreamy peace protected me against a child’s fear of the night’s darkness.
Then, abruptly, my blissful peace was shattered by the frightening sound of a horse’s hooves clattering loudly through the frozen street, pulling a fruit and vegetable wagon: sparks flying off its horseshoes.
The peddler mercilessly whipped his horse, yelling angrily at the suffering animal whose eyes bulged with desperation. I burst into uncontrollable sobbing, helpless, unable to comprehend, unable to make the horror stop. I was only two years old.
Why was that man so cruel? What did the horse do to deserve such a savage beating? Why didn’t anyone stop him?
The ugly vision of that gross injustice has never left me.
Eight years later and it is 1948. I sat in the local cinema which had just shown 20 funny cartoons. While waiting for the latest instalment of an “in the nick of time” thriller, we were presented with news footage of Israel’s declaration of statehood.
The deep-voiced narrator described the jubilation of the Israelis. I was shocked. In the cinema’s aisles, Jewish children were dancing happily. I wasn’t Jewish so I just watched, upset, confused and reacting to what I saw. On the screen, were pictures of indigenous Arabs dressed in traditional Middle Eastern garb just as I had seen them dressed in the pages of National Geographic magazine.
They were being driven from their homes and lands and replaced by mainly European Jews easily identifiable by their European clothing.
I recoiled against this obvious injustice: one people forced out of their ancestral lands in order to accommodate a new cultural group claiming sovereignty. Who spoke for the victims, I wondered?
I never discussed my feelings with anyone. Children at 10 years of age did not discuss world events and I was politically inarticulate.
In 1961, at age 23, working in Milan, Italy, I shared a room with Antar, a charming Syrian guy who, unfortunately, was the most virulently anti-Semitic person, I have ever met. I spent several long, robust sessions trying to reason with him, telling him that his view on Jews was twisted.
At some point, I gave up. His hatred of Jews was ingrained and intractable. I wondered what had fed his extreme bias. In part it was Israel’s colonisation of and maltreatment of Palestinians.
I shared his dissatisfaction with the historical wrongs visited on Palestine since the advent of the Zionist’s first settlements in Palestine but not his blanket loathing for all Jews.
In fact, my experience had been quite the contrary with Jews featuring very strongly in my life as friends, teachers, co-workers, employers and classmates.
Often, Jews have assumed me to be a fellow Jew and treated me accordingly as an intimate. Many have said I look Jewish.
This isn’t always a good thing. I was the victim of an anti-Semitic verbal assault by someone who called me a “typical, arrogant, know-it-all, f—ing, New York Jew”. He let fly with a torrent of ugly hate speech. The man was drunk. I doubted that telling him I wasn’t actually Jewish would have penetrated his anti-Semitic rage.
The truth was that the hate in his heart was there all the time and would not be cured by informing him that I was the wrong target.
As far as I was concerned, there was no ‘right’ target. His anti-Semitism was the problem.
At the time , I wrote a letter to this newspaper outlining the entire sordid encounter, stressing the shocking existence of anti-Semitism in our midsts here in Perth. I declared my opposition to anti-Semitism publicly.
In the 1980s, when Jack Van Tongeren, the pro-Nazi leader of the Australian Nationalist Movement was bombing Chinese restaurants and plastering Perth with anti-Jewish and anti-Asian posters, I travelled with black paint and brushes in my car and obliterated every one of their posters I saw. On one occasion, I was accosted by an angry young neo-Nazi supporter for spoiling his poster hanging efforts.
I was alone. No witnesses. I dared not return to my car, fearing he might trace me through my plate number, so I walked away. He stalked me until there were just too people around. He gave up. I eventually returned. That was scary, but I continued my activities.
So how does someone who has never felt anti-Semitic, who has always been open to Jews, who has had numerous Jewish friends and associates and who has spoken and acted against anti-Semitism repeatedly, become an anti-Semite? And why?
Because I’m critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians; according to “The New Anti-Semitism”my frequent criticism of the Israeli state is considered to be anti-Semitic on the grounds that repeated criticism of Israel constitutes an attack on the Jewish state which is interpreted as an attack on Jews in general – effectively hatred of Jews, therefore anti-Semitic. I profoundly disagree.
The working definition of anti-Semitism was created in 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and deserves to be studied for its interesting combination of sense and highly questionable assertions.
However, its first sentence is clear and unproblematic. “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred for Jews”.
Beyond that statement, claims are made that call for much disputation.
I refuse to be defined by a set of bespoke Zionist guidelines deliberately framed to deter critics from making the telling and truthful comments that can expose the injustices they wish to perpetrate. If I am to be labelled an anti-Semite, let it also be said that the brand of purported ‘anti-Semitism’ I stand for is what we need more of.