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The weight of shared history



I couldn’t concentrate after hearing on radio about Hamas’ ferocious attack on Southern Israel. I didn’t feel like celebrating my birthday the following day. During the week, I read widely on the war, listened to podcasts and followed social media closely. There were deep feelings of sadness and fear. Now I wonder why I feel so emotional about what’s happening in Israel.

Part of the immediate reason is because I have relatives living in central Israel and so I worry about them. I have a right of return to Israel because I am Jewish. But this still doesn’t explain why I feel a strong connection to Jews in Israel. After all, I live almost 14,000 kilometres from the country. And, like a lot of the Jews living in Victoria, I tend to only go to synagogue for the High Holy days, in my case St Kilda Shule, where the Rabbi rings people on their birthdays.

I only have a smattering of Hebrew and I don’t keep kosher like my ancestors did. My mum, who doesn’t keep kosher now, often reminds me how important kosher was in her family. She tells the story of how she thought she’d ‘be struck down by G-D’ when she first entered a non-kosher butcher as a teenager with her friend.

When I dig deeper, a large part of my feelings of connectedness to Jews in Israel and around the world can be explained by my link to Jewish history. There is the cultural and broader history and my own family history. So many of the Jewish festivals commemorate Jews escaping persecution. Purim celebrates the defeat of a plot to destroy the Jews of Persia and Pesach (Passover) commemorates the deliverance of the Jewish people from bondage in ancient Egypt.

And, then there is the expulsion of Jews at various times in history from places such as Jerusalem, France, Spain, Portugal, Russia, and England, which banished Jews from 1290 until after 1650. 

So much of this Jewish history of persecution and displacement can be seen through the lens of my family’s history. My mum’s father was born in London’s Spitalfields, but his parents were Polish and had left their town due to persecution and rising antisemitism. I don’t know how many times my grandfather’s ancestors had to move countries because of persecution.


'I attended the Jewish vigil recently at Caulfield Park to remember the Jews, Arab Israelis, Nepalese students and Thai nationals who perished in the Hamas attack. Thousands of Jews secular, progressive and orthodox, young, old and family groups attended supported by the Melbourne Archbishop of Melbourne Peter Comensoli, members of the Hindu community and bipartisan support from the major parties.'


The Russian pogroms, which started in 1881, directly affected my family. My great-great grandparents Hyman and Hanna Pearlman and most of their children came to Melbourne between 1892 and 1895 to escape the massacre of Jews in their town of Mogilev, now a town in Belarus.

My maternal great-great grandparents Solomon and Annie Jacobs escaped poverty and discrimination in Kovno, then part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, to London’s Spitalfields in the mid-1870s. They moved again to Melbourne with their six children in 1888 to also escape poverty and rising antisemitism.

A great-uncle, who has since died, managed to escape Germany just before World War II began and made his way with his mother and sister to London. But in England he was viewed as an enemy and forced onto the Dunera, which sailed to Australia. He ended up in a camp. My partner’s father was also a Dunera boy and in an almost unbelievable coincidence knew my great-uncle and was the best man at his wedding. My partner’s paternal grandparents perished in the Holocaust, and his mother’s family escaped Germany and sailed to Australia because it was the only country that would take them.

Much of what forced my ancestors to escape where they were living was based on hate and antisemitism, something Jews still have to deal with around the world. My family has told me stories about their experiences of antisemitism in Victoria. Before he died at 99 in 2018, my great-uncle Lloyd Pearlman told me about growing up in Ballarat and the abuse levelled at him at Ballarat High School because he was Jewish.

‘I couldn’t handle high school because of the antisemitism,’ he said. ‘It was awful. The kids called me names; they’d point you out all the time. There was a teacher who would bang me across the ears and say, "Now look here you little Jew get out of here. You little Jew, you’re not wanted here." It was horrible.’

My great-uncle was dux at his primary school, but he left his high school early because of the antisemitism. He wanted to be a doctor.

I attended the Jewish vigil recently at Caulfield Park to remember the Jews, Arab Israelis, Nepalese students and Thai nationals who perished in the Hamas attack. Thousands of Jews secular, progressive and orthodox, young, old and family groups attended supported by the Melbourne Archbishop of Melbourne Peter Comensoli, members of the Hindu community and bipartisan support from the major parties.

When I looked around at the crowd and saw videos of similar vigils around the world, I knew we were also united in a shared history.




Dr Erica Cervini is a freelance journalist and sessional academic.

Main image: A small selection of the personal photographs taken from prisoners as they arrived at the Auschwitz II Birkenau extermination camp. (Christopher Furlong / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Erica Cervini, Jewish, History, Persecution, Terrorism, Israel



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Existing comments

Cool article Erica, well said.

Philip mendes | 26 October 2023  

The rising tide of anti-Semitism in Western countries, mostly originating in universities, is truly alarming. One New York resident, Natalie Sanandaji, who survived the Hamas attack on 7th October, said she feels safer in Israel than in New York.

Ross Howard | 27 October 2023  

Is it anti-Semetism or anti-Zionism, Ross? When people shouted 'go home Yank', were they attacking American people or the American state?

Ginger Meggs | 28 October 2023  

Why are the Jewish people persecuted? Can anyone answer that question?

John Frawley | 30 October 2023  
Show Responses

They were persecuted because initially they were God's chosen people. Moses led them from captivity in Egypt.
Though Abraham had 2 sons, Ishmael was exiled because he was a bastard. Islam resent that exile to this very day.
From the time of the Babylonians (600 BC) the Israelites had not been independent as they had been under the Kings of David. They were ruled by other Empires. Resentment of this boiled over and the Jews revolted against Roman rule. The Romans moved swiftly & destroyed Jerusalem (70 AD), burned down the 2nd Temple, and deported Jews as slaves across the Roman Empire.
This was the second Jewish exile. Given the size of the Roman Empire, the Jews were dispersed across the whole world. The siege of Masada was one of the final events in the First Jewish–Roman War, occurring from 72 to 73 CE on and around a hilltop in present-day Israel. The siege is known to history via a single source, Flavius Josephus, a Jewish rebel leader captured by the Romans, in whose service he became a historian. A further revolt in 135 AD led by Simon bar Kokhba again resulted in defeat and Jews were not permitted to remain in the land. (wikipedia)
Rome renamed Judea as Syria Palaestina (the modern word Palestine) and Jerusalem (still in ruins from 70 AD) to Aelia Capitolina. (wikipedia)

1952 The British repatriated the Jews to Palestine after the Holocaust. Hatred of Jews was a tool for Hitler to unite the German people under Fascism and they became a convenient scapegoat for Germany's economic woes and unrivalled inflation.
Many other nations, including Russia and England mounted anti Semitic pogroms against Jews.
When in exile the host countries believed Jews only obeyed their own religious laws rather than the laws of the nations to which they were dispersed.

Francis Armstrong | 01 November 2023  

Francis, the British ‘repatriation’ was yet another act of colonisation in which European migrants sought to impose their will and culture on indigenous people. Remember that the British also seriously considered establishing a Jewish ‘homeland’ in the north-west of this country.

Ginger Meggs | 02 November 2023  

If you want the answer to that question John, you need to interrogate the history of Christendom.

Ginger Meggs | 02 November 2023  

Thank you for your comprehensive reply to my question, Francis. I have always struggled with the concept that God the Creator allegedly loves all whom he created but for some obscure reason, in the opinion of the ancient Israelites chose them and them alone as his true, one and only, people, superior to the rest of Humanity and thereby entitled [to whatever lands they wished?]. It sounds like a perfect recipe for dislike and
conflict. Reminded me of the Catholic bishop informing his friend, the local Rabbi, of his elevation to the position of cardinal. "Easy come, easy go!" he replied. "But don't you see? Now it is possible that I could become the Pope". 'So you're the Pope. So what", his friend replied. 'Well what do want, Rabbi? Do you think I have to become God eventually to impress you?" "Why not? One of our boys made it!"

John Frawley | 02 November 2023  
Show Responses

Interesting, isn't it John, that the 'chosen' are always self- identified. Whether it be the Israelites (the chosen race), the Europeans ('take up the white man's burden'), the English ('Land of Hope and Glory'), the Americans (with their 'manifest destiny'), and no doubt many others from east to west, and past to present. It suggests to me that it's all about fulfilling an earthly need for identity, to explain the difference between 'us and them', and to justify domination and control. Perhaps God is struggling with the concept too?

Ginger Meggs | 05 November 2023  

Perhaps all human beings are inherently racist, Ginger!

John Frawley | 07 November 2023  
Show Responses

Racist? mmm: tribal, perhaps; but is it nature or nurture John,? Remember the lines from South Pacific:

You've got to be taught
before it's too late
before you are six or
seven or eight
To hate all the people
your relatives hate
You've got to be carefully taught.

I was brought up in a household where all those Catholics that we didn't know were bad, but Mrs Kelly, who lived a couple of doors away, and whose children we played with, was OK.

Ginger Meggs | 08 November 2023  

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