On the last day of October I was given the distinct honour of addressing an Australian citizenship ceremony at which almost 100 people, from places as disparate as Cote d’Ivoire and the Czech Republic, pledged allegiance to Australia and vowed to uphold the laws and values of our nation.
They proudly sang Advance Australia Fair, many shaming the locals with their command of that elusive second verse. It was a moving occasion, and to play some small part in it was a privilege I will not soon forget.
It was made more poignant by the fact that 25 years ago, as a seven-year-old boy, I sat in the very building in which the ceremony I was to address was taking place, in one of the seats I now faced, and became an Australian citizen after having arrived as a refugee from the Soviet Union in the late 1980s.
It was an easy speech to deliver: I just told my story. I described how I felt as a child arriving in a strange land, together with my brother, my parents and my maternal grandparents. We were penniless and alone, utterly unfamiliar with our surroundings and with the ways of Australian society and, initially, estranged from a population we were unable to converse with.
We were filled with trepidation and anxiety. My parents knew that their carefully forged careers and degrees and diplomas attained with pride in the Soviet Union would count for squat in our new homeland.
My parents and grandparents quickly went to work scrubbing toilets and selling clothes out of car boots in far-flung markets. We relied a great deal on the charity and good-will of other Soviet Jewish refugees who had arrived in Australia years earlier and were now sufficiently established to lend a hand to new arrivals; keen to offer measured words of advice or unwanted pieces of furniture, the latter generally more useful than the former.
I told the audience of the meagre possessions we had arrived with, consisting mainly of clothing crammed into old suitcases and photo albums to remind us of long dead relatives and the lives we had left behind.
I spoke of our former lives in the Soviet Union. Our Jewish ethnic origin had been stamped into our identity documents for petty bureaucrats to see and sneer at. We were denied the freedom to openly practise our faith, to enter certain professions or study at certain universities. Perhaps the cruellest injustice of all was that, for a long time, we were even denied the right to leave the Soviet Union and seek a new life where we would be treated with dignity and live free from persecution.
I wanted to tell the audience about the village in the Ukraine where my father grew up and taught maths and physics in the local high school. How his students formed a queue outside his office and solemnly entered one by one to offer condolences upon learning that their beloved mentor was a Jew.
“How could this be?” one of them said, “You’re such a good person.” Or how as a boy, my father inquisitively asked one of the old matriarchs of the village, “Aunty, why do we call this open plain a ravine?”
I am suspicious of any secular or religious ideology that treats the life of the individual as expendable.
“Ah, my boy,” she replied.” “It was a great ravine, until we filled it with Jews.”
I wanted to tell them of my mother’s daily commute to work each day, her bus winding along the road past Babi Yar, that place on the outskirts of Kiev where, over two days in September 1941, the Nazis and their Ukrainian collaborators forced the city’s Jews to assemble, strip naked and wait for the spray of machine gun fire. No one was spared.
Witnesses recall how the earth groaned and shifted for days as the wounded slowly bled and suffocated to death. Today there stands a memorial to the Jewish dead, frequently requiring the attention of local authorities to scrub away the urine and the swastikas.
But it was enough to tell the audience something of the freedoms that we lacked and our hopes for a better life in Australia.
Then I spoke about values and freedoms, the values and freedoms that I, with my migrant eyes, have discerned and can contrast with those of the place I left behind. I spoke of democracy, tolerance and mutual respect as the accepted norms of Australian society. I spoke about the corresponding responsibilities I now assume as an Australian citizen, to protect these values and freedoms both for myself and for others.
I turned then to what I regard as values which are uniquely Australian; the “fair-go” ethos which ensures that the extent of our success is determined principally on merit rather than by social rank or position or accident of birth. Then I touched on that complex, somewhat ethereal notion of mateship, which to me combines elements of mutual aid, camaraderie and, most importantly, egalitarianism.
I concluded by wishing our newest Australians good luck, and extended my sincere hope that they discover the beauty of our land and its people and will feel the same pride and love for Australia that I do.
I have no interest in bellicose displays of patriotism or blind loyalty to a kind of “Fatherland”. I am suspicious of any secular or religious ideology that treats the life of the individual as expendable. This is the kind of thinking, taken to its logical conclusion, that fills ravines and marks identity papers.
Yet I am able to recognise my extraordinary good fortune in having become an Australian citizen and can take pride in the values – some universal, some unique – that have made our nation one of the most desirable places in the world to live.
As it turned out, I was not alone in making speeches about Australian values that weekend. Across town, leaders of Muslim group Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) spoke on the same subject, but in a very different way. To HT, Australia’s national anthem and democratic values are tools of an oppressive campaign of “forced assimilation”.
I find such views repugnant, primarily because I have seen, through personal experience, that they are utterly false. Assimilation requires migrants not only to embrace Australia’s laws and values but also to discard completely their traditions and sense of identity with the countries of their birth. Australia makes no such demand.
Learning the official language was essential to my participation in my new home, but forgetting my mother tongue of Russian was never expected of me or requested. In fact, possession of a second language is prized and I take pride in speaking Russian to my infant daughter just as my parents did with me.
By becoming an Australian citizen I learned about our nation’s extraordinarily rich Aboriginal heritage, and to be mindful and respectful of the ancient custodians of the land I now inhabit. I also learned about, and came to appreciate, the great gift of the political and legal institutions we inherited from Britain. In no way was I required to forget my own heritage.
Nor was I expected to adopt the predominant religion practised in Australia, Christianity. My right to practise my Jewish faith and identify with the heritage of the Jewish people has never been questioned in Australia and I am afforded the freedom to study and practise my culture and faith to the extent that I wish. That is not assimilation but integration, the key to Australian multiculturalism.
Why ban Hizb ut-Tahrir? They’re not Isis – they’re Isis’s whipping boys
It is our democracy, representative government, rule of law, and basic freedoms, that protect us from arbitrary power, cults of personality and supreme rule by secular autocrats or megalomaniacs who claim a divine mandate to rule over us. It takes a special kind of evil for any person to try to use our freedoms in order to destroy them.
While HT may lament that our democratic institutions and traditions safeguard us from those who seek to abrogate the freedoms of others, and impose their tyranny on the rest of us, I choose Australian democracy having lived the alternative. I am also confident that our newest Australians, at the citizenship ceremony I was honoured to address, live proudly and assuredly with that choice as well.
First published at The Guardian.
Alex Ryvchin is the Public Affairs Director of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, the peak representative body of the Australian Jewish community.