On the balmy evening of Wednesday 21 December, the fourth day of Chanukah, Rabbi Gabbi Kaltman the organiser and host of Pillars of Light celebration in Federation Square said, “22 centuries ago, Israel was under the Greek Seleucid Emperor, Antiochus VI who defiled the Temple and supressed religious freedom.”
“This was too much to bear for some Jews – the Maccabees,” said the Rabbi and in jest, pointed to the Greek Community of Melbourne, President Bill Papastergiadis and Neos Kosmos journalist Fotis Kapetopoulos.
“The Maccabees revolted to win back their religious freedoms and after three years of conflict they had a stunning victory against one of the most powerful armies in the world they retook Jerusalem.”
“They rededicated their temple, relit the menorah and with one small vial of oil which was undefiled that they found in the ruins of the temple, as the legend goes there was only enough for one day’s of oil, to rekindle the menorah and by a miracle that small vial was enough to light he menorah for eight days,” said the Rabbi.
John Pesutto, the new leader of the Victorian Coalition opposition and shadow multicultural minister, took to the stage and said that the event was “symbolic of multiculturalism and how precious it is.”
“Think about what we have built here in Melbourne and Victoria,” then asked, “Do we see this around the world? Do we see the kind of understanding and harmony, we have all worked so hard to build? The point I make to you is that we can never take that for granted.”
“Events like these are important, we do not stop working for the benefit of multiculturalism when we get comfortable.”
“For my parents coming to Australia from Italy it was hard, coming to a country they did not understand that there are others coming, and we need to prepare the ground for, to welcome.”
He closed his comments with an emphasis on the need for “compassion and understanding.” Bill Papastergiadis then spoke and said that Melburnians from diverse cultures have “come together to share the light and focus on what unites this great city.”
He thanked Rabbi Gabi Kaltman, for inviting him to attend, and I said it was “an honour.”
“This was a war that in fact brought our two people’s together in the long run.”
He said that “as the president of the Greek Community of Melbourne, Victoria I apologise for Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the son of Antiochus III who, unlike his wise father King Antiochus III, went against Hellenic principles of tolerance and openness.”
“I see the leader of the opposition John Pesutto is here, consider for a moment, Jews, Greeks, and Romans, in Melbourne… what can go wrong,” he said, and the crowd laughed.
“Let’s for a moment look back, and I make no excuses for my ancestors, however it was the Greeks, the only non-Jews who participated in the Synagogue, Συναγωγή, itself is Greek and means the house of assembly in Greek,” said Papastergiadis.
He then talked about the thousands of Hellenised Jews who fled to Greece after the war, and represent the oldest Jewish community in Greece, and said they “have made Greece a better place.”
“Not to forget it was Greek that was used to transcribe the Torah and ensure its survival as the Pentateuch.”
The president of the Greek Community of Melbourne and Victoria, then talked about the new deep alliance between Israel, Greece, and Cyprus across security interests in the Mediterranean, and new medical and scientific exchanges and how Athens and Thessaloniki are again havens for Greek Jews and Israelis.
The Cultural Centre of Florinians then took to the stage and danced traditional northern Greek dancers to the delight of the crowd.
The mayor of Ioannina is Jewish, and the Panepirotic Federation in Victoria posted on Facebook that it was “proud to support our city’s Jewish community.”
Janine Mohamed the CEO of the Lowitja Institute was the final speaker, she talked about the Aboriginal elder and activist “Uncle William Cooper, who publicly condemned the mistreatment of Aborigines in Australia, and the proud Yorta Yorta man could not stay silent on the Nazi treatment of Jews.”
When Cooper learned about Nazi attacks on Jews in Germany, he delivered a letter of protest to the German Embassy on the event of Kristallnacht, [the night of broken glass], in 1938 when, Jewish businesses, synagogues, houses, and schools were destroyed, people killed, and 30,000 men were arrested and taken to concentration camps.
“Uncle William Cooper empathised with the Jewish people, because his own people suffered racism and massacres.”
The proceedings ended with the customary lighting of the Menorah by, Fotis Kapetopoulos from Neos Kosmos, Cath Scartch from AMES, Mohamed Mohideen OAM from the Victorian Multicultural Commission.