By Michael Gawenda

Scribe 2023

ISBN: 978 1 761380 47 1

RRP: $35 (PB)

Reviewed by Anne Henderson


As a memoir, Michael Gawenda’s My Life as a Jew is part autobiography, part confession, part analysis of historical and contemporary global antisemitism and part a journey of discovery. It is searingly honest, hugely informative and reads with the literary effect of a page turner. It also reflects, disarmingly, Gawenda’s later years of personal transformation against the stirring of ancient, antisemitic tropes and social division. The book was written and published just before the Hamas attacks on civilians in southern Israel on 7 October 2023. Since the attacks, Michael Gawenda has strongly defended Israel’s right to exist.

The book begins with an account of the breakdown in the long friendship between Gawenda and Melbourne publisher Louise Adler. Both Jews of the left, they fell out after Adler published journalist John Lyons’ Dateline Jerusalem: journalism’s toughest assignment in October 2021. This was essentially a bucket job, without any evidence, that Lyons had written on what he claimed was the Israel Lobby in Australia and its supposed influence over major Australian editors. The booklet’s contents were anathema to Gawenda, a former editor of The Age.

The fact that, in May 2021, Adler had been among the journalists and “media workers” to sign a letter, couched in the black and white of pro-Palestinian positions on the Israel/Gaza conflict of that time, left Gawenda to conclude that Adler knew what Lyons would write. For this, he believed, she was complicit in publishing a gross distortion of both the legitimate lobbying of Jewish friends of Israel in Australia, such as Mark Leibler and Colin Rubenstein, as well as the work of Australian editors and journalists. Gawenda also objected to the desire of the letter’s signatories, and Adler and Lyons, that editors and publishers should “banish from the public debate ‘discredited spokespeople’ (Jewish leaders) who peddle ‘tired narratives’.” Adler had become what might be termed an “internationalist” Jew, opposed to Zionist Israel and in denial about the true roots of antisemitism. The divide between Adler and Gawenda then becomes the intellectual motif of the book that follows.

Retracing his early years, Gawenda sketches the Jewish inheritance he could recognise as a young Australian. Born in 1947 in a displaced persons camp on the outskirts of Linz in Austria to parents who were survivors of the Holocaust, Gawenda was a late arrival for his family. When he was born his two oldest sisters were 19 and 17 and a third daughter already six. The family has escaped Lodz in Poland just before the arrival of the Germans and survived the war in a Displaced Person’s  camp. As post-war Jewish survivors opted for Palestine or far away countries like Australia, those of Gawenda’s extended family that survived were resettled in both places. He would grow up with stories of the war years and the displacement and genocide of Jews as well as the establishment of Israel in Palestine where he would have both distant relatives and, in time, some friends. Gawenda’s mother would die when he was eleven and his father when he was in his early 20s.

For all that, even though he had absorbed his politics as part of his father’s socialist Jewish Bundists, Gawenda dropped much of his traditional Jewish connections with his father’s death, remaining what he called a Bundist fellow traveller. He writes:

I am not sure what sort of a Jew I was. I had nothing much to do with the Jewish community …rarely went to shul – never for services, and only every now and then, reluctantly, for a bar mizvah or a wedding.

Until the Six Day war in 1967 when he joined a group of Melbourne Jews ready to enlist their help, Gawenda saw himself as an Australian secular Jew of immigrant background from a family that had not really connected with Israel. But the war stirred his sense of identity:

I never believed that the establishment of Israel would solve the “Jewish problem”, normalise Jews, make them a nation among nations … But I was invested in Israel’s survival in part because it was full of Jews. I was unbreakably part of the Jewish people. But I was not a Zionist. I was not a nationalist.

Gawenda’s formative position on Israel was common among Australian Jews of the left, in spite of the governments of Israel for decades being sustained by left-wing positions. But while he belonged to those Jews who had not invested their identity in Israel, Gawenda admits that he never thought Zionism was evil. Apart from that, the Bundist and internationalist Jews also believed that antisemitism was dead after the horror of the Holocaust.

My Life as a Jew is a search for answers. Gawenda revisits the support for Israel in the Australian Labor Party, especially from Bob Hawke and even, for many years, NSW’s Bob Carr. Unlike Hawke, Carr later turned into a bitter opponent of Israel like Louise Adler. Thus, Gawenda begins his probe into the denialist stances of Jews such as Hannah Arendt. Arendt’s thesis that the Jewish leadership of Europe had collaborated in the Holocaust saw her exonerate Adolf Eichmann in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, her hagiographic account of his trial in Jerusalem in 1961. To help explain this phenomenon, Gawenda explores the work of Dara Horn and her prescient People Love Dead Jews and the way the erasure of “Jewishness” has pervaded the memory of the Holocaust.

Turning to playwright David Mamet, novelist Harold Jacobson and intellectuals such as Andre Glucksmann, Alan Finkielkraut, Pascal Bruckner and Bernard-Henri Levi who have all, among others, drawn the contempt of former Marxist colleagues with their support for Israel, Gawenda argues Mamet’s view that progressive Jews have reduced Judaism to a social justice movement in their move to universalise it. Jews such as Adler today and Arendt in the past are “anxious” or “universalist” Jews. They want to throw off the burden of being Jewish – for Arendt the wrongs done by Jews seem more hurtful than that by other people. From Arendt to Adler, they are Jews who find the stigma of Jewishness a burden they wish to disengage from.

With his moves to accept Israel or what he refers to as his “coming out”, Gawenda experienced a similar ostracising as for many in Europe and the United States, with Jewishness defined by being anti-Zionist or Zionist – the anti-Zionists rapidly moving to align with radical Islamists and accusing Israelis of being Nazis. Gawenda found himself being psychoanalysed by people who did not know him. A telling moment came, at a public function, when Melbourne activist and barrister Julian Burnside’s Jewish wife Kate Durham accosted Gawenda to call him out for not publishing more refugee stories in The Age. How could he, a Jew born just after the Holocaust, not do this? In 2021, Burnside posted a tweet that compared Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to Nazi Germany’s treatment of the Jews.

Gawenda brings My Life as a Jew to a close in a wonderful personal analysis of how his life with his children and grandchildren, and his gradual experience of the impact of the state of Israel on Jews across the world, uncovered a deep desire in him to reconnect with his Jewish heritage and the richness it offers. He examines what he feels about this Jewishness, the traditional idea of it being passed on only through the maternal line or in some other way such as with the closeness of his gentile son-in-law to the family’s Jewish heart. It is a touching and intimate portrait.

This is a book that explores not just the identity of one in the world he knows, but which travels across the whole panorama of an ancient and modern reality. Louise Adler on one trajectory wants to silence the supporters of the modern state of Israel while Gawenda on another has come to a quite different stance, as he writes:

I am a Jew of the left, but some dreams of the left I do not share. … Israel is not the consequence of a bad dream. It is not a nightmare. In many ways, I believe, Israel is a Jewish dream come true. It has taken me a long time to come to this position, but here I am. I cannot imagine a Jewish world without Israel.

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History.