Jaw jaw about war, war

| November 18, 2023

Ever since the University of Melbourne took Rai Gaita’s public lecture series from us we have been going to Rai’s house in St Kilda to talk. Not regularly, life is too much for that, whenever we can though.

Few people in this world believe more in face-to-face conversations – in speaking with others not when you’ve done your thinking, but in order to think – than Rai. This is how The Wednesday Lectures, first at Australian Catholic University and then at Melbourne University, where we teach in criminology and creative writing respectively, came to be. This belief is a guiding presence in Rai Gaita’s latest book, a collection of his works, Justice and Hope.


Juliet: What I would call “the St Kilda conversations” between Maria, Rai and me weren’t trite. We started with some idea of documenting the thoughts or perhaps even methodology of Rai Gaita. We would take a few moments to adjust to arriving and to decide on tea or coffee but before these important decisions had been made the conversation had begun, about war, about justice, about pain, about grief – and one of us would reach for the phone and press record. No such thing as small talk. Everything and everyone is important.

Rai’s idea of the preciousness of every person appears in all his thinking, and in ours almost from the moment we arrive. Why talk of war at all if there is not something inherently wrong, morally if not legally, in the loss of the uniqueness of a person in war, even if that loss is of something in them when they kill?

Rai’s thinking in these conversations moves from Hannah Arendt to Simone Weil to Albert Camus and back to the ideas in the room. He is promiscuous like this. He values the preciousness of their arguments as he does ours. But there is no place for lazy thought. Having slid into some abstraction, I’d be pulled up – but what do you mean by that, he’d say? It was a painful relief. And sometimes I had no answer and I was grateful even to know that.

Maria: One day last November, nine months into Russia’s war against Ukraine, I came to Rai’s house wanting to talk about shame and denial. How is it families in Russia were telling relatives in Ukraine: we are not bombing you! you’ve been brainwashed! These photos? Staged. These ruins, air-raid alerts? They’re – if they’re real – your Ukro-Nazi forces bombing their own people, congratulations!

I had never known denial in the face of incontrovertible evidence to be so phantasmagorically total. Mothers to their daughters! I no longer understood how to think alone about this war.

Round that time I’d been delivering a final-week lecture in a capstone subject I coordinate, left my notes in the office, had to go off the cuff. “I’ve come to think of my mission as a teacher as helping students develop a capacity to bear shame” – these words fell out of me.

Could people be so afraid of bearing shame they’d do almost anything not to feel it? So we speak about shame. Rai says, “Shame is not just an emotion or an affect, it can be a form of understanding the moral reality you are caught up in.” We talk about how different forms of reality avoidance – insisting on absolutes (moral, political, historical) is one example – become forces in the lives of individuals, families, communities, nations.

Rai’s tough-minded conception of conversations sidesteps chat and debate alike. You speak not to say something and to hear something back, not to dazzle, be right or stake a claim, but to be held accountable to each other. A conversation is a pact. You are accountable not only for what you say but for the way what you say, and how you live your life, does or doesn’t square up. A conversation is also a precious opening. The light of another person’s presence turned towards you will almost always illuminate something you couldn’t see or find thinkable before.


Juliet: When I first met Rai I was sitting on the top floor at Melbourne Law School feeling the approach of a ferocious exhaustion, having flown from Connecticut, arriving that morning, late, delayed, rerouted, refuelled (barely) to deliver a paper at the Passions of International Law colloquium hosted by Gerry Simpson, Rai’s close friend. I can hardly read the words in front of me, I am trying to convey my feelings about months of watching hours of Holocaust testimony videos. My relationship – a feeling of confusion and a kind of irritation – to one testimonial in particular. I explain it psychoanalytically, trying not to fill the room with jargon, trying to remember that I felt something about this testimony, that I cared deeply about this woman’s experience … before the room starts spinning.

I look up as I read, and though everything’s a bit blurry there is the warmest gaze upon me. It’s Rai, sort of smiling, part care for me, part care for this woman I am using to explain my theories of trauma and imagination.

I think I’ve made a mess of it but all I care about is getting to bed. And then as I’m grasping in the break for the comfort of a piece of watermelon he approaches me and expresses his appreciation. He has heard what I said, how I both cared for this woman and felt unnerved by her melodramatic phrasing, and my own irritation. I say “yes of course, it’s hard not to care” but he doesn’t give me a way out. Nor does he pin me to my own rationales. He is curious. It is an academic manner, of sorts – I recognise it from a time before we thought we knew everything or felt we had to prove it to an audience. I’m fond of saying “I’m an academic, I know stuff about stuff”, Rai is fond of saying “let’s talk”.

Maria: In 2005 my then publisher asked Rai to launch Traumascapes. My first book, first launch – I bought my nine-year-old a matching green vest and skirt, a friend played a real-life harp. Rai didn’t know me or my work. I never thought I could be a writer once my family left Ukraine in 1989 so this whole “debut author” period felt, still feels, unreal.

Rai came in. Holding my book. To have a thinker of this calibre take your work seriously is destabilising. Rai had a bunch of my lines underlined and some crossed out – he really read me. Also, he was using an actual pen in a book, wow, bad Rai.

The launch was my first encounter with Rai’s moral seriousness, which animates his idea of a conversation. It is like a lamp you expect to be shined in your face but instead it lights up the room and everyone in it. Illuminates you, the shaky little thing in the room’s centre.


Maria: Rai Gaita has been seeking to create conditions in the public domain for people from different, sometimes antagonistic ecosystems of thought and belief to get into each other’s heads. Or – if the head image feels too ickily invasive (it’s mine, not Rai’s) – to pull their thoughts out like sock drawers (mine again) and look at what’s there and what’s stuffed at the very back.

Twice Rai invited me to give The Wednesday Lecture – on the royal commission into the institutionalised abuse of children, then some years later on feminism, and both nights I bitterly regretted saying yes and was finishing writing my talk with minutes (ten, five) to go. I never felt ready even though I had months to prepare. I felt rushed, pushed, whacked and then – adrenaline and self-loathing having peaked – I felt grateful. I was pinned down, called into accountability, made to face the world and myself. At the end, it was a relief.

Often these public conversations don’t work (sometimes they are disasters) and people walk away saying what the hell. But the goal of disarming each other through conversation strikes Juliet and me as necessary as water. That this was something our university pulled the plug on felt to us indecent. Decency is a Rai word. In Justice and Hope (2005), the title essay of the new collection, he writes about his father Romulus and Romulus’s friend Hora, the two most important influences on his life: “For them nothing mattered more than to live decently – and when I say nothing, I really mean nothing.” If you have read Romulus, My Father and After Romulus you feel this “I really mean nothing” go through your heart and into the shoulder blades. Perhaps you feel it anyway. “Decent” drops its dull, egalitarian overcoat and becomes all silk with sun and wind breathing through it.

Juliet: The lecture series was an event, historic – the world of academia does not always allow for such conversations, conversations without outcomes or grant pathways and where difficult ideas and sometimes difficult people are able to speak. Rai offered and held this hospitality, and to do so, occasionally had to be a difficult person. Hospitality on Indigenous land is a problematic premise to start with and then it’s hard to know what conversations bear airing.

Rai encouraged presentations and conversations on international law, feminism, colonialism, racism. Hard topics. He never shied. Perhaps the most difficult and controversial was his last series, in 2019, “Sleepwalking Through Privilege and Oppression”. Starting with his own commentary on this, he then asked Professor Chelsea Watego, a Munanjahli and South Sea Islander woman, to speak to the theme, and she spoke powerfully and essentially on the importance of black nihilism, to counter his commentary.

When he responded, some in the audience called for him as a white man to leave the speaking to Professor Watego. An important call, a necessary call on Indigenous land when white people have what we can now describe as too much voice. But hospitality is everything to Rai and he remained at the podium, not to reassert his position but to hold the conversation with the audience. It is what I describe as standing accused: the most crucial task of white people on this land. And to walk away would have been disingenuous as the host of a series.


We’ve been disagreeing – tangled in a conversation about Palestine and Israel; well to say disagreeing suggests it wasn’t a conversation, but it was, with differences, we shared our thoughts, listened, asked, and still disagreed. This is no skill we were born with. It comes from a belief that neither of us knew best or knew it all. It comes from time listening to and reading Rai.

Maria: Open letters have been flying like Shahed drones, detonating on impact. Shahed drones, manufactured in Iran and sold to Russia to pummel Ukrainian civilians and civilian infrastructure, are called flying mopeds because of the sound they make. In Ukraine these drones invoke a particular fear. They travel slowly enough to be seen (one was allegedly taken out by a pickled tomatoes jar) and can hit only static not moving targets, such as people, with any precision. This imprecision (“moped” is also evocative of the Shahed’s lowly standing in weaponworld), their visibility, and their use in swarm attacks – multiple drones against a single target – have put nails under the skin of nervous systems across Ukraine. Because they’re cheap, these drones don’t run out. You see where I’m going here, words are cheap.

I know the sickening sound of drones is what Palestinians are hearing in Gaza when they don’t hear explosions.

Open letters are often, if not invariably, single-use, self-detonating pieces of public discourse. I’m not too cool for them and some are astounding documents of collective labour and thought. But I haven’t signed any. It’s not the denotations (I’ve argued repeatedly that for Ukraine being anti-war equals being pro-genocide) but broken glass and craters everywhere make public spaces incapable of not causing injuries and won’t make a toenail of difference to people whose lives can still be saved. I’ve seen so many open letters that don’t mention the October 7th dead, don’t mention Hamas’s hostages. I don’t want to sign up for enshrining the choice between dehumanising the other (which starts with not seeing their dead) and betraying who and what you stand for. Even at the worst of times and our times might be the worst yet, this choice is not a thing until we make it so.

Familes of those held hostage by Hamas march down a street wearing t-shirts with pictures of their loved ones.

Families of Israeli hostages held by Hamas in Gaza march during a rally in Tel Aviv.

In his 2017 essay The Intelligentsia in the Age of Trump, Rai Gaita writes Trump has destroyed the “space in which Americans can seriously disagree” not merely by arsoning the idea of the political office and public institutions and letting loose demons of predominantly racialised bigotry and hatred but also he “eroded the conditions under which people can call their fellow citizens to seriousness: Come now! How can you say that?”

Juliet, I look around and oh shit. Saying come on! how can you talk about Israel without mention of Iran (and – just slightly off camera – Russia, China, Qatar)? how can you use settler colonialism as your only frame to speak about the Middle East? how can you righteously retweet genocide apologists from other contexts (Syria, Ukraine) will be pounced on as morally bankrupt bothsideism of the worst kind.

To speak of them alongside each other, the anguish experienced by people in Gaza and in Israel, and by Palestinian and Jewish diasporas, has become in the part of Australia that considers itself progressive an abject objectionable act, like “sending thoughts & prayers”, worse, like genocide apologism lite. To me, to speak of each without collapsing them both into a sentimental ahistorical mush, letting them be in a howling tension, letting them be in a shared space of thought and sight, is the only way we (settlers in Australia) can speak of this moment at all.

If shared public places – where a disinclination to dehumanise is not seen as cowardice or respectability politics, and where harm minimisation is a guiding principle – feel impossible right now, the question is what would it take for them not to be? If that feels unanswerable it still needs to be asked.

When the dead or captured on any side get in the way of the argument, the problem is with the argument. I am not talking about “condemning” this or that atrocity, that word’s gone for me, I am referring to an ethical compulsion not to erase.

Dead civilians killed by IDF and by Hamas are the mountains in front of us – can’t walk around them, can’t jump over them. To be clear: I don’t for a minute believe this injunction applies to people in Gaza or the West Bank and to Palestinian families across the world. It doesn’t apply to the Israelis and nationals of other countries whose lives Hamas has destroyed. Climbing those mountains (sliding down their sides) is the job for the rest.

Most Australians do not have families in Gaza, Israel or neighbouring countries of the Middle East. Whatever pain and despair many are feeling (it’s about impossible not to) the responsibility bestowed by Australia’s safety and distance is to keep holding spaces in which non-catastrophic futures are imaginable. This means practising bothness that is not bothsideism and alongsideness that is not equivocation. This means protecting the idea that public spaces should be free of hate. This means not leaving speaking about the co-existence of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism to our politicians and vice-chancellors with their “In Australia there is no place for …” In Australia, we’re seeing, there’s plenty of place for all of it and more. We can’t let the speaking be done in calcified idioms and grubby grabs – “anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism”, “Israel has the right to defend itself”.

I’m Jewish, first gen, from the former USSR. My history encompasses not only the Holocaust and the iron-clad denial well into the 1980s that it ever happened but also the Pale of Settlement, pogroms, gulags and Stalin’s own version of the Final Solution in which Jewish doctors were to be accused of a fabricated plot to poison government members on instructions from “Western imperialists and Zionists” (who else) as a prelude to mass deportations. When Stalin’s death in 1953 pulled the rug out from what many historians believe was a three-stage genocide plan, my mum and dad were 11 and 12. Jewish people in Australia speaking about their history right now are said to be weaponising (the weaponisation of weaponising makes my teeth hurt but OK) their trauma. But speaking about my history is the only way I can be properly – which is to say, to the ends of the earth – accountable for my words and their relationship to my life. To the dead of Gaza and Israel I have to add my family’s dead.

Where my family comes from, the word Zionism was only used with utmost cynicism. Soviet cartoons I grew up with depicted Jews as dogs, deadly snakes, as “Zionist cobweb spiders”; swastikas got fused with Stars of David. There is a pretty straight line from that cynicism to a recent Putin psy-ops in Dagestan where crowds tried to storm a plane arriving from Tel-Aviv. It works like this: first, let people know anti-Semitism is very much on the table then crack down on it while blaming Ukraine and the West for stoking “flames of ethnic divisions”, send a message to Moscow and St Petersburg elites to sit tight and count their blessings, arrest and send (as cannon fodder) to the frontlines of the war in Ukraine some of the Dagestanis caught in “disturbances”, and, in the meantime, invite a Hamas delegation to Moscow, speak rousingly of the need for Middle East peace, breathe as one with Iran.

It should matter that the same term with the same inflection is used by the mass murderer Bashar al-Assad, the mass murderer Ali Khamenei, the mass murderer Hassan Nasrallah, the mass murderer Vladimir Putin, the Hamas leadership as they promise a repeat of October 7th in perpetuity to refer to all Jews everywhere who get in their way. For me there is not enough soap in the world.

Thirty-plus years in Australia as a migrant-settler have taught me that the question where I am from must be bound with the question where I am now, on whose lands, if it is to keep its integrity. And since the answer is I’m on stolen, unceded lands, righteousness of any kind is inappropriate for me and it’s not my place to speak to the powerful ties between Palestinian and First Nation peoples in this country – a relationship with a long history of deeply held solidarity. I will register my pain at the way Jewish people in Australia, with the exception of a handful of vetted allies, or “good Jews”, have been shoved into the role of double colonisers, the worst people of all, and so Juliet I address myself to me and you and to other settlers like us.

Juliet: I have signed so many of those open letters you speak of. I cannot sit still with my hands on a keyboard writing words that help me think, and feel and wonder, but rarely help me be of use to others. I am no activist because I can rarely come to a decision, not a clean one, with edges that allow me to move … somewhere. I never say “moving forward” as we now say in the corporate academy, as if there is always a next step and that step means progress. As I’ve seen it, that progress usually means stepping on someone as you step away from responsibility for the past. But these thoughts keep me quiet. I cannot not sign letters which transport sentiments, ideas and demands I believe in when someone else finds it possible to write, to act.

I believe in them, these words. Cheap. Small. And occasionally violent as they are. I believe in letters that push a university and a government to act on one of the violences of this time. One of the most horrifying violences of this time. Not the only one. But it is one they will not act on. The Australian government did not sign the United Nations resolution that called for a truce, that called for a ceasefire, that called for the slaughter of Palestinians at this time to stop. Yes, the genocide. The Australian government did not sign but it did offer support to the Israeli government and support and care for the victims of Hamas. I do not need to write a letter asking the government to back the Israeli government and assist with trying to save the hostages. It does that of its own volition.

Men walk through a bombed refugee camp in Gaza looking for survivors.

An Israeli airstrike on a Hamas target in Gaza in retaliation for the terrorist attack which murdered 1,400 Israelis. 

You will notice I say Australian government, not Australia and not Australians, as I do not say Israel or Israelis. That is the true anti-Semitism, the conflation of all-as-one. We are not. They are not. You are not. Just as I shy from the “innocent victims” narrative I do not say there are even combatants in this war, as distinct from children. I have watched reels of ten-year-olds speaking with rage. At what point does innocence begin and end? Is the child who sees their family killed an innocent? Is innocence shed when they join the military a few years later? I would put this question to Israelis and to Palestinians, and to myself. What work does innocence do in this violent conflict? It is the cheapest of words. And yes, I would extend this to settler Australians. It is not the same. Nothing is the same. Analogies do not help us in a war of justifications.

What I know is inter-generational trauma can produce innocence and culpability alike. I know something of why the Israeli government is fuelled by fear, vengeance and aggression. I know some of the stories that mean the violence towards Palestinian people in Gaza and beyond is more of a plea saying “how can you do this to us after what we’ve been through?”

I imagine it is fuelled by generations who watched those before them stare out the window with clouded eyes and memories that can never be spoken. I know when I sat for six months watching Holocaust testimonies I was irrevocably changed in my understanding of the significance of Israel. After hours of stories of lost families, pain, humiliation, systematic destruction of whole communities, and tortured children, the need to claim a space that was their own sounded like commonsense.

I understood something of Zionism. And so I say now, with the small understandings I have, that this did not begin with October 7th and did not even begin with 1948 but perhaps with Kristallnacht or perhaps with the arrogance of the Allies who thought they could declare a nation-state over the top of another. That violence is one we know well in this land and on these nations.

A Jewish shop destroyed by Nazi thugs during Kristallnacht, a scene repeated in cities around the world today.

To speak of Israel is not the same as speaking of the nation-state of Israel and this too is why I sign those letters that insist we need to be able to criticise law and policy and state practices that deny, that crush and now attempt to decimate peoples. I can understand some of the histories that have taken people there. I can explain but I cannot not fight against these practices with my small, cheap, literary pickle jars. Explanation is not justification. You cannot stretch a name across the lives of others and call it justice. That is colonialism. That is Australia. Explanation has no place on a land where others live. “Oh sorry did I step on your home, your life, the graves of your family, your future?” – this is colonialism and there is no explanation that justifies it.

If we’re to take moral seriousness seriously, in Rai Gaita’s terms, then I can only say that genocide is wrong. And that is what it is.

To say it is genocide diminishes nothing of the Holocaust. It is to use a name to make the world hear the extent of the violence, the devastation and the trans-generational impact: grief and trauma for generations. It is to demand action. Does the Israeli government intend to destroy a people? Well, there have been a lot of words to that effect, but I do not hold all people, or even all of the Israeli government, to the violence of some. There is resistance in all camps.

But if the question is about whether the name fits the act then I think that is a legal question and I am speaking of an experience more than a legal intent. Would it be better if the protests or the many open letters said “alleged genocide”, like we must say “alleged rape” when a woman is asking for her experience to be heard? The urgency is too great for such debates and abstractions. Or perhaps I would ask the Israeli government to stop the bombing while we have a such a legal debate, and allow time for food, water and medicine to be delivered.

I think some of the open letters try to open a dialogue where structures and law and policy are holding us back. These letters and the protests do not mention October 7th, which is to not mention the many dates. This was one. One horrible day that has extended into the lives of both communities. The hostages must be allowed to be free. But I use the word hostage advisedly, not legally, and not in the way the posters use it. I have learned through some of my own experiences with law and police that there are many forms of prison.

I wish October 7th could be mentioned and all those lives could be grieved without that grief taking the air from the history. It cannot. I think of Holocaust testimonies and the repetition and repetition of names. So important. Names going into the world as a pact so that the speaker and listener may share that reality. But we do not own names, we borrow them from history. And genocide is the worst of names, and the worst of worlds. This is my reason for signing letters, trying to make a space to breathe, a space for imagining the non-catastrophic futures you speak of, Maria.

Isn’t this what Rai means by justice – the opening of a space to think, to converse, to breathe? He quotes Camus

“We gasp for air among people who believe they are absolutely right, whether it be in their machines or their ideas. And for all who cannot live without dialogue and the friendship of other human beings, this silence is the end of the world.”

You speak of the breaking of silence with the robotic buzz of drones and I find myself wishing for silence. Open letters add to the cacophony, it’s true. But they are also a wish to drown out the drones, bombs, screaming. I have little faith in a competition for sound but I have faith in that pickle jar you speak of.

I do not know if white people in this country should take these positions. But I am doing what I always believe is the thing to do. Stand accused. I learned it from Rai. And have watched him take positions I don’t always agree with, as he has commented of mine. White fragility has never been his weakness. He stands and keeps standing. And I know, when I saw you speak at his series once, that he held that stage for you, so you could speak, and I was grateful for it. As I am always grateful for your conversation and for Rai’s demand: let’s talk.

This article was written by Maria Tumarkin, a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at The University of Melbourne; and Juliet Rogers, an Associate Professor of Criminology at the same institution.  It was published, appropriately enough, by The Conversation.