PRIMO Levi was an Italian chemist who was arrested by the Nazis along with thousands of other Italian Jews – including my grandparents – and deported to the Auschwitz death camp during the Holocaust.
He survived, and he went on to write about his experiences during that horrendous experience.
His best-known work, If This Is a Man, is a harrowing account of the 11 months he spent at Auschwitz. He was 25 years old at the time.
In one of the most chilling vignettes in that book, he describes being emaciated, starving and suffering from debilitating thirst. Looking through a hole in the wall of his barracks, he noticed an icicle.
“Driven by thirst, I noticed a fine icicle outside the window, within hand’s reach,” he wrote.
“I opened the window and broke off the icicle.
“But a large heavy guard prowling outside brutally snatched it away from me.
“Va-rum?” I asked him in my poor German. “Why?”
Replied the Nazi guard – “Hier ist kein warum” – “Here there is no why” – pushing me inside with a shove.”
Those five simple words – “Here there is no why” – encapsulate mankind’s inability to understand racism and bigotry and Islamophobia and antisemitism.
Which means there is an imperative to do whatever we can, whenever we can, to identify the warning signs, to speak out and stand together with those who do know what it means to be targeted for the crime of being different.
So it was that within hours of the Christchurch massacre, the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies – which represents the Jewish community of NSW, and which I have the honour to represent as its CEO – launched a crowdfunding campaign to assist the shattered Muslim community of this great city and indeed, the shattered people of this great country. The response was outstanding. Within weeks, a total of 454 people collectively contributed $69,780.91.
The donations ranged from $5 to $5000. And I found both levels of support equally meaningful. Those who contributed $5000 knew they were making a significant difference.
And those who contributed $5 did so in the awareness that every dollar would reinforce the message that we cared; that the Jewish community cares about its colleagues who comprise the Muslim community of Christchurch; and cares about every individual who looks different, sounds different, walks to a different drum – as long as that individual adheres to the law of the land.
Author Bernard Malamud put it brilliantly in The Fixer, when he wrote: Respect is something you must have, in order to get.
It sounds trite but it bears reiterating: We are all members of a shared humanity. We all want our loved ones to return home safely each day. Without having been abused because of their race, religion, gender, sexual preference or any another feature which suggests difference.
The most practical way of making the world a better place is to cast aside differences where we can and meaningfully support each other where we can.
Which is why our crowdfunding campaign was the right response. It was compassion trumping politics.
In concluding, I acknowledge and thank the following for their enormous efforts in this endeavour: the New Zealand Jewish Council and specifically its president, Stephen Goodman, as well as Juliet Moses and Gael Keren; the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand, particularly Mustafa Farouk and Ibrar Sheikh; and the Christchurch Foundation, particularly Amy Carter and Julia Rose.
On March 15 the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies stood in solidarity with the Muslim communities of Christchurch, New Zealand and Sydney in condemning this tragedy.
The massacre occurred at a time when people were at their most vulnerable – at prayer in a house of worship. All humanity was and is profoundly the poorer. We remember the attacks on the mosque in Quebec, the synagogue in Pittsburgh, the church in Charleston, the mosques here in Christchurch.
An attack on one faith is an attack on us all. We extend our condolences to the families of the victims of the Christchurch massacre, and we extend our hand in friendship in calling for an end to racism, an end to antisemitism, an end to terrorism, an end to bigotry in all its forms.
To borrow from the best-selling novel To Kill A Mockingbird: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … Until you climb inside his skin and walk around in it.”
Today, we are all walking around in the skin of the Muslim community of Christchurch.
Vic Alhadeff is chief executive of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies. He delivered this speech at a ceremony in Christchurch on Wednesday, where he presented a cheque on behalf of the NSW Jewish community to Mayor Lianne Dalziel.