Dr Herbert Freilich, Mrs Valmae Freilich, Professor Deane Terrell, Vice Chancellor of the University, Professor Peter Baume, Chancellor of the University, Ms Maureen McInroy, Acting University Secretary, Professor Iain McCalman, at the signing of the Foundation Charter, July 1999.
Dr Herbert Freilich, Mrs Valmae Freilich, Professor Deane Terrell, Vice Chancellor of the University, Professor Peter Baume, Chancellor of the University, Ms Maureen McInroy, Acting University Secretary, Professor Iain McCalman, at the signing of the Foundation Charter, July 1999.

Established in 1999, the Herbert and Valmae Freilich Project for the Study of Bigotry has been running continuously at ANU for over twenty years.

Philanthropists Herbert and Valmae Freilich first approached The Australian National University in the early 1990s, with a view to establish and financially support a dedicated program for the study of bigotry. While of Jewish background themselves, the Freilichs understood bigotry as a universal problem that had many forms and held the view that it could be combatted through research and education. Herbert and Valmae Freilich’s vision struck a chord at ANU, and early discussions resulted in several events hosted by the Humanities Research Centre (HRC). This included the inaugural Annual Freilich Lecture on Bigotry and Tolerance which was held in 1997 with Philip Adams, award-winning ABC Radio National journalist, as the speaker.

In July 1998, ANU announced that it would contribute funds for the establishment of an anti-bigotry program to extend the activities undertaken by the HRC, and to partly match the financial contributions of the Freilich family. Initially called the Freilich Foundation, the program’s charter had three key objectives:

  • To fund research into the causes, histories, and effects of bigotry
  • To engage in public education in various forms to increase an understanding of bigotry and reduce intolerance in the community
  • To advance mutual tolerance and understanding between peoples of different ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds, as well as of different genders and sexualities.

In the two decades since its establishment, the Freilich Project has developed a distinctly inter-disciplinary and public-facing character. During this time, the Freilich Project has contributed to Australian public culture by facilitating a wide range of events including conferences, seminars, book launches, film screenings, public lectures, and professional development summer schools. Such events have promoted and contributed to national conversations on a range of important and timely topics including, but not limited to: the nature, relevance and practice of human rights; our collective responsibility towards refugees; treaty making and the relationship between First Nations peoples and the Australian State; Islamophobia; discrimination against migrants; justice re-investment and criminal justice; the nature, history, and origins of prejudice; religious toleration; marriage equality; and women and war.

The Freilich Project depends on the goodwill and generosity of many individuals and organisations to meet its objectives. Some of Australia—and the world's—most prominent intellectuals and public figures have volunteered their time and expertise to speak on subjects related to bigotry and social justice. A number of the Project’s events and initiatives have been collaborations with other university centres, such as the ANU Humanities Research Centre and the Hawke Research Institute of the University of South Australia. Other collaborations have involved major public institutions, including the Australian Human Rights Commission, the Australian National Maritime Museum, Reconciliation Australia, and the National Library of Australia, and various religious and community organisations. 

Generous funding from the Freilich family has enabled the Freilich Project to support a number of original research projects through its Fellowship and Small Grants schemes. This funding has also supported the appointment of three Convenors who have led the Freilich Project over the last two decades, including Dr Benjamin Penny, Dr Renata Grossi, and present Convenor Dr Melissa Lovell. The staff and board of the Freilich Project are very grateful to the many speakers, organisers, and participants who have contributed their time and expertise to support Freilich Project initiatives, and who have helped us to increase community awareness of the issues relating to bigotry.

Today, the Freilich Project continues its work to reduce bigotry and discrimination in the community by engaging with researchers and academics, educators, and policymakers. The story of the first twenty years of the Freilich Project can be found in the publication: 20 Years of Freilich 1999-2019: A History of the Herbert & Valmae Freilich Project for the Study of Bigotry at The Australian National University.


The Notes of Herbert Freilich

The late Dr. Herbert Freilich (1925-2009) was instrumental in establishing the Freilich Project and the generosity of Herbert and Valmae Freilich allows the Project to continue. In his notes from the early years of the Project, Herbert Freilich described bigotry as ‘endemic’, ‘all too easily aroused’, and ‘highly destructive to the victim, to the bigot and to the environment in which the bigotry exists.’ Experiencing bigotry in Australia was a formative experience for Herbert Freilich. In his Reminiscences on Bigotry, he told the following story:

From 1933, with the increasing Nazification of Germany, the Nuremberg racial laws of 1935 and particularly after the Anschluss with Austria, the Sudetenland crisis of August/September 1938 and the aggressive and growing power of Hitler’s Germany, some European refugees were allowed into Australia.

The numbers were relatively small — a few thousand — but the popular attitude was far from sympathetic. They were the “Reffos”. They were mostly, if not entirely, Jewish and in an overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon population they stood out disproportionately to their numbers. Apart from the accents and the limited English, the European clothes were a giveaway. (One did not then use the term Anglo-Celtic; there was still a dividing line between British and Irish origins. The fact that the Welsh were of Celtic origin was not considered. The Welsh, like Lloyd George and Billy Hughes, were Protestant. The Italians and Greeks — the “dagos and wops” — were of course not thought of as Australian at all!)

I met quite a number of refugees at Jewish community functions and those who contacted my father for advice and assistance. Most arrived with nothing. My father’s sister, her husband and infant son arrived from Antwerp in early 1939. My mother’s youngest sister, a girl in her twenties, had a visa to come and was booked on a ship to sail from Danzig on September 1st, 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland. She is believed to have reached Danzig on the day. She was never heard of again, her fate unknown.

In 1939 or 1940 I was 14 or 15 and a schoolboy at Sydney Grammar. I used to catch the bus outside Winns store in Oxford Street. At the bus-stop in Kings Cross a foreign-looking man asked the conductor a question — presumably a bus direction. He received a reply along the lines of: “Bloody reffo bastard. Learn to speak English why don’t you. Get out of here.” The conductor pulled the cord and the bus left leaving the man standing off the kerb. I was shocked. I was even more shocked at the reaction of the bus passengers. “Good on you mate. That’s the way to talk them. Reffo bastards. etc.”

I was stunned. I felt I should stand up and protest. But I didn’t. I sat silent. And have felt ashamed of myself ever since. Perhaps the Foundation on Bigotry is the protest I did not make 60 years ago.

Updated:  6 October 2021/Responsible Officer:  Freilich Project/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications