I was recently approached by Hashy to deliver a talk at their 2023 Queer Night, having done so at their 2022 event. I was delighted to be invited back, and warmly accepted the offer.
I asked the date and was told it would be Sunday October 15. That’s going to be a big day for the country, being the day after the referendum. I had to come up with a topic for my talk and after a few minutes I realised I had lived through a moment in history that perfectly connected my journey with Aleph with where we are today with the Voice referendum, and that would inform my talk.
Let me explain.
In 1998 Aleph Melbourne approached the Jewish Community Council of Victoria about applying to become an affiliate of the council. The rationale for wanting to join the council was to be a voice for gay and bisexual men (as that was who we supported at the time, prior to us representing LGBTIQ+ people in 2007). We wanted to have a place at the table, to talk about how we were discriminated against, faced unique health issues, suicide, stigma, taboo, etc. We felt that if we had a voice at the council people might understand our issues better, and be more open to helping us defeat the hurdles and setbacks that challenged us.
Our application was supported by their executive and the then-president Philip Bliss. We were also forewarned the journey might be difficult. Our committee resolved to proceed with the application, which set in motion a chain of events that led to one of the biggest controversies the Melbourne Jewish community has ever experienced. Once the news of our application hit the Jewish media there was constant media coverage, with many in the community – notably schools and youth groups – showing support, and (not so) many claiming a homosexual group in the Jewish council would divide the community and cause irreparable harm. Orthodox Rabbis and conservative community stalwarts spoke stridently about how we had an agenda, and how halacha (Jewish law) considered homosexuality a sin, and Aleph was an organisation that was not deserving of a seat at the community table.
At one stage a collection of mainstream organisations threatened to withdraw their membership if Aleph became a member. And then Rabbi Lubofsky stood up at the fateful meeting in May 1999 and wove a hurtful story of how Aleph wanted to go into schools (yes, we wanted to give educational books to school libraries), and how parents should fear our agenda. We were apparently going to split the community, infiltrate schools, run rampant through the community and wreak harm at every step of the way. I do remember in particular a young Gabi Crafti spoke up and eloquently spoke in favour of Aleph’s membership application. She was the voice of reason, the voice of humanity, and the voice of a generation who understood why it was important for gay and bisexual men to be included, not excluded.
We failed in our opportunity to become a member of the council in 1999 at a vote of the plenum, but not by much. In 2015 the now-defunct Keshet LGBT group did become a JCCV member, a sign of how times had changed. In 2017 the JCCV affiliates voted unanimously to support the civil marriage equality campaign. Being queer in 2017 was no longer the problem for the mainstream Jewish community that it was in 1999.
In May 2020 Aleph, together with 21 other Jewish organisations, co-signed a statement “Voice, Treaty, Truth – Jewish organisations reaffirm support for First Nations Australians from the heart”. Part of the statement, at the link prior, reads:
We reaffirm our full-hearted support for:
– amendment of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act to enshrine a First Nations Voice in the Constitution;
Aleph represents people who face discrimination, marginalisation and health challenges. Our people also have a lot to offer society. And on that basis we stand up alongside other communities who face similar challenges, have similar ideals and aspirations, and who want to live their lives to the fullest. We all want gaps closed, disadvantages turned around, and lives celebrated.
To that end, with our history in mind, and having committed in 2020 to supporting a First Nations Voice, we stand strong in believing that a constituted voice will do more good than bad for first nations Australians. The Voice is simply an advisory committee to the Parliament and the Executive Government, and amounts to a place at the table.
If you’re voting in the referendum, I urge you to take time to find out the facts and make an informed decision. I certainly won’t tell anyone how to vote, but I know in my heart, having come on this journey, that it makes for an easier time if you have a voice at the table than if you don’t.