An article by Rabbi Raymond Apple to mark Sorry Day, 26 May 2000.
This weekend will see a major manifestation of reconciliation in Sydney. Hosted by the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, it will include a community walk across the Harbour Bridge and various other events. The Australian people will thus show they are one people. Some have ancestors who have been here from time immemorial; others immigrated from other places as recently as yesterday. They will join each other this weekend, walking together, talking together, discovering their common humanity and Australian identity.
There was a time when the focus of reconciliation efforts was on Native Title. At that time, among a number of articles and addresses I devoted to the reconciliation movement as one of its sponsors and supporters, I wrote a piece entitled, “A Jewish commentary on Native Title“. My aim, which I hope succeeded to some extent, was to clarify an issue which, because it was more spiritual and cultural than territorial, gave many people difficulty.
By way of contrast, there is no difficulty about the current issue of the Stolen Generation – or generations. It can be put very simply. Indigenous children were taken from their parents under government laws and were lost to their families, and their families to them. Since their original identity and culture were regarded as inferior, they lost out on part of themselves.
A political leader recently argued that the numbers involved did not justify the name “Stolen Generation”. An amazing assertion. The fact is that between 1910 and 1970, between one in three and one in ten indigenous children were forcibly removed from their parents, a total of roughly 100,000 children. Cases have been recorded where three generations in one family were removed. The consequences have been devastating for Aboriginal people and not one indigenous family has escaped the effects.
To any reasonable person this is no insignificant, almost invisible phenomenon. It sounds like brazen, organised kidnapping, regardless of whether some of the policy makers thought they were doing the children a favour in some sense. But even if only a handful of children had been snatched without their own or their parents’ consent, it would still represent a grave assault on elementary morality.
Look at last week’s Torah reading. It ordains remarkable humane institutions – the Sabbatical and Jubilee years. Between them they establish the principle that no property or person may be alienated forever. The Australian application is undeniable: no-one has the right to destroy the inherent quality or distinctive identity either of land or of people.
Like the indigenous Australians, Jews have been on the scene of history for a long time. We have seen a great deal but often had less than a fair deal. We have had our own stolen generation problem, not identical with the Aboriginal version but morally not too different. During the time of the Holocaust there were Jewish children left for safekeeping with supposedly friendly non-Jews who did not always want to give them back or allow them to retain their Jewish identity.
There was, for example, the infamous Finaly case, centring upon Robert and Gerald Finaly who were baptised in a Catholic children’s home in France which refused to give them up despite the decision of the courts that the boys be returned to their relatives. After a cat-and-mouse chase involving various Christian clergy and major public controversy, the children were eventually brought to their family in Israel. This was one but by no means the only case of the kind. The issue was the same and it cannot be regarded as anything other than a form of child abuse and denial of basic human rights to an innocent child.
What should Australians do about the stolen generation? Feel guilty? Hardly: it was not we who were responsible. But we have to face up to a less than proud chapter of our history. Saying “sorry” is not an admission of personal guilt, because we are not the guilty ones; but it is a decent, humane acknowledgement that there is a blot on our record and, to say the very least, we gravely deplore it.
Saying “sorry” does not imply that we have committed a crime. It recognises an injustice. It helps towards healing and reconciliation. And it should lead to something practical – the assurance that all Australians, not least the indigenous Australians, must henceforth enjoy dignity in every way, in education, health and economic opportunity.
26 May has been nominated as Sorry Day. In Hebrew you can say “sorry” in various ways. It can be chaval – it’s a pity”. Or ani mitzta’er – “I am distressed”. Either would be good for this Friday. There is another phrase which is especially associated with Yom Kippur, al chet shechatanu lefanecha… – “we have sinned before You”. In this respect it is not we who have sinned before God, but we will sin if from now onwards we do not defend the human rights of others, if we allow blotches to remain or grow on the face of Australia. Especially if we allow children to pay the price for adults who know not the wondrous Jewish doctrine that every child brings its own blessing into the world.