In the lion’s den

November 10, 2023
A rally for Palestine in Gadi/Sydney. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

Together with fellow Jewish peace activists, Michelle Berkon and Dr Peter Slezak, I attended an Extraordinary Council Meeting of the Waverley Council on October 26, a local government area the Eastern Suburbs with a significant Jewish population.

The meeting was called in response to two Greens councillors’ refusal to support a very biased motion in support of Israel and the local Jewish community at Council’s monthly meeting the previous week.

The Greens councillors had proposed an amendment to include, alongside condemnation of the atrocities committed by Hamas against Israeli civilians on 7 October, condemnation of “the war crimes perpetrated by a right-wing Israeli government, including the bombing of Palestinian civilians”.

When the Waverley Council meeting rejected this amendment, Councillors Ludovico Fabiano and Dominic Wy Kanak voted against the substantive motion. A few days before the Extraordinary Meeting, a petition to the Mayor to remove Fabiano from his position as Deputy Mayor was launched, and attracted 2647 signatures.

The resolutions considered by the Extraordinary Council meeting proposed removing Fabiano from his position as Deputy Mayor and removing both councillors from most of their positions on advisory committees.

These resolutions were passed with a strong majority.

The atmosphere at the meeting was savage and toxic.

The packed chamber and anteroom seethed with anger, and erupted with constant interjections against the few speakers, like myself, who spoke in support of the people of Gaza, the two councillors and the democratic process.

There were even howls of protest when I began my speech with an Acknowledgement of Country. My comment that, like many of them, many of my family were consumed in the Holocaust ovens, was greeted with “Pity you weren’t!” and “You’re a traitor!”.

The fake news of beheaded babies was widely cited. The suggestion that Palestinian lives and Palestinian babies were equally deserving of compassion and respect brought only contempt and dismissal.

Several cries of “Dirty kaffir! Dirty kaffir!” attested to a substantial and racist South African Jewish contingent in the room.

There was considerable pushing. Posters with pictures of those taken captive by Hamas were shoved aggressively in our faces. This implied, totally erroneously, that we lacked compassion for those captured and murdered.

They were so crazed by their own fears and rage that they were unable to hear us, even when we were agreeing with them.

Although recording, filming and photographs other than Council’s official record were expressly forbidden by Council rules, people were recording, live-streaming and photographing the meeting freely.

Several made a point of including us in their filming, but no steps were taken to stop it. However, security immediately challenged Berkon for taking notes on her mobile.

Chair Mayor Paula Masselos tried to keep the crowd in order, but did not take up the option of either removing the most prominent instigators or closing the meeting down when her efforts were in vain. Given the volatility of the crowd, she may well have decided that discretion was the better part of valour and allowed the meeting to continue.

However, while speakers for the motion routinely spoke past the allocated 3 minutes, no time extensions were allowed for those opposing the motion, despite being constantly interrupted and shouted down by the crowd.

Consideration of civil liberties and the democratic right to dissent were thrown out the window in this tsunami of hysteria.

The Council chamber overflowed three times over with, from my observation, mostly Jewish constituents.

This mass attendance had obviously been organised. One elderly woman said as she came in: “I was told to come to this meeting at 6.30”. She didn’t seem clear about the topic.

Many people flashed colour A4 posters headed “Kidnapped”. Each had a photo and name of one of those kidnapped, a different person on each poster. Full colour posters individually printed is not a cheap exercise.

A number of people have contacted me, asking how I am after the abuse that greeted my speech. I am really OK. My strong feeling of connection with people, both Jewish and Palestinian, gives me a kind of shield and ground of security.

I am filled with pity for my fellow Jews who are so driven by post-Holocaust trauma that they have lost all connection with their humanity and reason in relation to Israel and to the Palestinians as human beings.

This trauma has been shamefully fed and manipulated by the Zionist movement to fuel their colonialist project. People witnessing last night’s scenes without appreciating or understanding this historical trauma could well respond with antisemitic impulses.

Nevertheless, I am terrified of the deep irrationality and over-powering hatred and anger on display at the meeting. How can we usefully engage with such trauma and stop the horrors now being perpetrated against the people of Gaza?

It seems overwhelming. This needs the compassion and skills of Auschwitz survivor and psychotherapist Gabor Mate.

When I see so many of my fellow Jews swept up by this all-consuming terror, I am appalled at this twisting of the human spirit and can only reflect that this is a dreadful posthumous victory for Adolf Hitler.

[Vivienne Porzsolt is a secular Jew, whose parents were refugees from the Nazis. She is a longtime activist for a range of social justice issues and is spokesperson for Jews against the Occupation in Sydney. This article was first published at Pearls and Irritations and has been republished with permission.]

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