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Pogrom talk

By Dirk Moses - posted Wednesday, 11 January 2006


The media commentary on the Cronulla riots on December 11 and 12, 2005, has been disappointing. Our non-academic, well-paid, elite commentariat of the major newspapers has let us down. Only few exceptions, like Clive Hamilton’s broad contextualisation (Sydney Morning Herald, December 23), offer new perspectives. Otherwise, we have been presented with the entrenched positions, staked out and clung to with dogmatic tenacity. Little critical self-reflection is evident, and few appear interested in appropriating the strengths of the opposing argument. Too many writers give the smug impression of already having all the answers.

A major problem is that both “sides” (for want of a better term) generalise negatively about groups as a whole (Anglo Australians and Lebanese Australians) from the small sample of young men and women involved in the violence - typically by exempting the group to which they feel sympathetic. Where Greg Barns vented his spleen about Anglo Australia and Anglo Australians on this site (December 22), columnists from The Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald made the predictably symmetrical counter-arguments against the Lebanese Australians.

For these writers, the Lebanese Australian men are members of “gangs” while the youths of Anglo-Cronulla are merely “beachgoers” (Andrew Norton, The Australian, December 22). The Sunday, December 11 violence was the responsibility of a tiny minority of “white supremacist cells” and “vigilantes” (i.e. not your typical citizens of the Shire) on the one hand, and “tribal violence among Lebanese in Sydney’s south” (i.e. your average Lebanese-Australian) on the other (Paul Kelly and Janet Albrechtsen, The Australian, December 21 and December 14 respectively).

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Or as Miranda Devine put it, “pasty-faced nerds with a taste for Nazi literature” opposed “the real hardmen, the Lebanese-Australian criminal gangs” (Sydney Morning Herald, December 22): in other words, the problem is not the home-grown neo-Nazis but the immigrants they despise irrespective of how they behave.

This is not the only instance that Devine plays fast and loose with the Nazi analogy. The violence by the Lebanese Australian on Monday, December 12 is described by her as “Sydney’s mini Kristallnacht ‘night of broken glass’”, a reference to the November 9, 1938 pogrom instituted by the Nazis against German Jews.

The comparison is grotesque. Across Germany that night and the next, Jewish shop windows and homes were smashed by Nazi thugs who also torched synagogues while, with some exceptions, the police and fire brigade turned a blind eye. Twenty-thousand Jewish men were interned in concentration camps and only released when they committed to emigrating forthwith. Whatever you want to call the revenge violence on December 12, Kristallnacht, even a mini one, is not an appropriate analogy.

Although Devine is embarrassingly out of her depth with historical material, she raises an important issue of terminology about these events. What is a pogrom and is it a useful term? We don’t need to resort to cheap Nazi analogies to answer these questions. Comparisons are available earlier and further east: in Imperial Russia where pogroms against Jews and Roma (“Gypsies”) were the order of the day.

Pogroms are violent attacks by majorities against minorities. They usually begin because a subordinate group has been felt to provoke the dominant ethnic group in some way. An isolated incident would be taken as general “arrogance” or some other transgression. The point of the pogrom is to put the subordinate minority group in its place. The violence is not just instrumental (i.e. looting shops), it is also symbolic. The message is: “We decide who comes to this place and the circumstances in which they come. This is our country. Don’t behave as if you own the place. Stay in your (subordinate) place!”

Whatever the provocation - and I am not denying offensive behaviour by some Australian men of Lebanese-Muslim descent - did it warrant the extent of the wanton brutality of December 11? After all, anyone with Mediterranean looks was attacked, irrespective of whether they were members of gangs, including women with hijabs. This targeting was very discriminating in its indiscriminateness. Similarly, the excess of rhetoric cannot be explained by inter-gang rivalry or youthful machismo. Let’s not hide the truth from ourselves: December 11 was a pogrom.

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What is striking is that senior journalists and other elites are now effectively justifying it in the same way as the authorities of central and eastern Europe did a century ago. Back then, they condemned actual violence on law-and-order grounds while sending the message that they sympathised with the perpetrators. We remain on your side, they implicitly signalled to the pogromists.

Australian media elites do the same. By identifying the Lebanese-Australian community’s supposed inability to integrate, by focusing on the bad beach behaviour of youths “of middle eastern appearance”, they are suggesting that the good burghers of Cronulla were unduly provoked. That the Lebanese Australian youths brought the violence on themselves is the inescapable implication. Well before the Nazis, the German rightwing referred to nativist violence against outsiders as understandable Volkszorn (the wrath or anger of the people). Now Australian media leaders are excusing the wrath of the people here.

The editorial in The Australian (December 22) made this point plain when it argued “there is a degree of racism” in all societies and people - that is apparently an anthropological constant - so that the efforts of many to end racism is “an exercise in fanaticism”. Consider closely the message here: the fanatics are not the neo-Nazis but those who oppose them!

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About the Author

Dirk Moses teaches history at the University of Sydney. His edited book, Empire, Colony, Genocide: Conquest, Occupation and Subaltern Resistance in World History (New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books) will be published in May.

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