The Subtle Art of Talking to Non-Jews

This entry is part 2 of 1 in the series Women in the media
  • The Subtle Art of Talking to Non-Jews

Broadly speaking, Melbourne Jewry can be divided into two camps – those with regular and deep social connections with non-Jews, and those whose associations beyond the confines of the community only exist professionally or incidentally.While superficially, most of us are indistinguishable from other Australians, Melbourne Jewry is nevertheless informed by historical and cultural circumstances that are unique.

Of course, there are  generational differences: the survivors were clearly distinguishable as migrants, their children somewhat distinguishable as the offspring of migrants, while the third generation appears to be entirely assimilated – although, again, I believe this is only the case at a superficial level.

For the purposes of this post, I’m going create a crude dichotomy:

Broadly speaking, Melbourne Jewry can be divided into two camps – those with regular and deep social connections with non-Jews, and those whose associations beyond the confines of the community only exist professionally or incidentally.

To set some parameters for this distinction – and these are necessarily, if unfortunately, somewhat arbitrary – let’s say that in order to qualify as having deep social connections with people from outside the community, one would count at least five non-Jewish individuals as close friends, and would see at least one of these friends for purely social reasons at least once a week.

The distinction between the two types of  Melbourne Jew is of particular interest when examining the makeup of people working  either voluntarily or professionally in our communal institutions.

I suspect that the vast bulk of our communal work is done by Jews from the group that has little regular or deep social interaction with wider society.

For any number of reasons, those who do have a large non-Jewish social group seem far less inclined to involve themselves in Jewish organisations.

The practical repercussions mean that those Jews who are best placed to understand the psychology, ethical frameworks, and culture of wider Australia, are not available to provide advice or leadership in our institutions.

Similarly, those who are least au fait with, for example, the mores and protocols of Anglo Saxon discourse, are charged with the task of attempting to target public relations campaigns to them.

Whether it’s more desirable to mix freely with non-Jews and risk assimilation, or to hunker down in the communal bosom, and become so insular that pathologies develop, is the topic for another post.

This post, however, is about the consequences of cultural differences and anomalies that have hampered our community’s ability to communicate with broader Australia.

Our  argumentative style is the most obvious manifestation of this cultural disconnect.

Whether it is a product of post-Holocaust communal trauma, or simply a cultural relic of Talmudic debating styles, the dominant Melbourne Jewish style of argument is simply not commensurate with notions of acceptable discourse in wider Australia.

With this in mind, I wondered – but did not have the opportunity to ask – whether the women of the Zionist Council of Victoria have deep and regular social interactions with non-Jews. Formal interactions, such as interfaith meetings, do not qualify because participants are not able to behave or speak as freely as they would in a less formal social setting.

I therefore have no knowledge of Ginette Searle’s, Emily Chrapot’s, or Elly Shalev’s informal contact with non-Jews. From our discussion, however, it did seem there was a lack of access to a broader Australian sensibility through informal ties.

This was made apparent during our discussion of Age Editor-in-Chief, Paul Ramadge’s presentation on the night of the JCCV plenum. The women saw the adversarial style of audience questions as symptomatic of passion, love of Israel, and open and honest debate.

To Jews of a certain political orientation, and perhaps, of a particular generation, this may indeed have been so.

When I asked them about the almost complete absence of young people from the audience, their response was familiar: it is very difficult to motivate the younger generations – particularly Generation Y.

I asked if perhaps it is impossible to motivate this generation within the specific context of such a presentation, in which so much of the audience was of like mind, and quite vociferous in their opposition to anything resembling dissent.

Once more, the women could not see the highly charged atmosphere as anything other than the natural form of Jewish debate.

When I moved on, and tried to explain the different ways such argument is viewed – that it would be utterly unacceptable in an Anglo-Saxon dominated audience, for example – I was met with surprise.

One very interesting point, made by Emily Chrapot, the ZCV’s Israel Advocacy Analyst, was that when stories are broadcast or published, such as the one-sided 60 Minutes piece on Israel that recently aired on Channel 9, she is inundated with demands that the ZCV “do something.”

Chrapot, along with Searle and Shalev, spoke about the weight of expectation on them to counter negative or unfair reportage on Israel.

This expectation obviously comes from within the Jewish community, and the desire to see unfair journalistic practices tackled is, of course, understandable.

Far more complex, however, is separating the desire for the instant gratification of an angry letter, article  or even a TV appearance from one of our leaders, and the need to have a level-headed, logical, and above all effective media and public relations strategy.

So often, the instant gratification route results in the opposite of the intended effect.

This is because we have traditionally written our angry letters and articles, or spoken loudly on radio or TV, in the manner that will satisfy other Jews, rather than in a way that actually has a chance at convincing those outside the community.

But how can our leaders know how to speak in a way that will resonate with non-Jews if they have no deep social knowledge of the non-Jewish world?

The increasingly necessary reformation in style cannot occur without substantial reform of the leadership’s makeup. Knowing how to talk to non-Jews is not something that can be learned on a weekend retreat. It is the product of a certain lifestyle.

While it is true that most Australians are not particularly concerned with Middle Eastern politics, that does not mean that the right combination of our own PR mismanagement, developments in the region, and a shift in the news cycle would have a significant impact on the favoured status Jews currently enjoy in the corridors of power.

It is important to remember that while our wealth and successes as a community are disproportionate to our numbers, those numbers and that wealth are still not significant enough to protect our current status should we ever become an electoral liability for the major parties.

The truth is, the majority of Australians do not actually need to care about Middle Eastern politics enough to go into the streets and demonstrate. They only need to care enough that their displeasure is reflected in opinion polls.

Indeed, such opinion polls are so valued by politicians because, blunt instrument though they are, they are still one of the better ways of getting a feel for broad public sentiment that may be reflected – in a heightened manner – among the difficult to identify swing voters.

It is the swing voters that matter in elections. They generally comprise a small proportion of voters and tend to pay closer attention to the news than most Australians, and are therefore more likely to have an opinion on Israel/Palestine.

So, it would make sense that a small shift in public sentiment on Israel/Palestine – as reflected in polling – would actually be interpreted by politicians in the intensified form that they imagine the average swing voter might be processing the situation.

The equation is quite simple: should we continue to handle PR in a manner that is designed to please a sector of the Jewish community rather than to achieve our true goals of protecting ourselves, and defending the State of Israel from unfair attack, we risk transforming ourself into an electoral liability.

We need people who speak the “language” of broader society, who are able to spot when something might sound “off” to a non-Jewish person, thus damaging our message.

Beyond that, we would benefit from moving away from the model of Jews as separate from the rest of Australian society that – perhaps unintentionally – informs so much of the style of our discourse.

This will require changing the way we talk amongst ourselves.

We need to move away from the Talmudic, post-Holocaust style of adversarial engagement in which moral certainty is not only asserted, but in which all dissenting views remain unexamined and summarily dismissed as proof of weakness or lack of moral fibre.

  • Share/Bookmark

Related posts:

  1. A Fascinating Meeting With the Women of the ZCV
  2. A Night at the Plenum
  3. Les Rosenblatt Writes about Expressing Unpopular Opinions at the Ramadge Address
  4. 8 minutes of terror
  5. The New Direction

6 Responses to “The Subtle Art of Talking to Non-Jews”

  1. Morry says:

    As always, SJ, plenty of grist in the mill of debate. Certainly I find more questions than answers within myself. I do know that it is perfectly natural for people to be drawn to their own. It’s no accident that so many Vietnamese live in North Richmond and so many Turks and Arabs in Brunswick. I’m not sure that that’s either something that one can abandon in order to “change”, or even if its at all desirable to try to shuck off your identity as a Jew, with all the cultural baggage that involves, in order to be able to communicate with non-Jews on a subject whose importance may well disappear with that change. As you said, “those who do have a large non-Jewish social group seem far less inclined to involve themselves in Jewish organisations”. The cost of sacrificing commitment to community and those wonderful people who give of their time and energy, for an extra bit of communication would be far too high, in my books. The cost of sacrificing your very existence and identity is, to me, unthinkable … to communicate well, but abandon your culture in the preocess.

    I do know that often discussions I’m involved in get heated and voices raised, and some of those more assimilated in our group (with lots of non-Jewish friends and only recently returning to the fold through more committed new partners … much per your stereotype) shudder and cringe when that happens. As those women said, there is no animosity there, it’s a sign of caring and passion … though clearly a solidly Anglo-saxon background would be horrified. Perhaps we don’t need to change who we are (rather leave that part to natural issues of defining and finding ourselves as individuals) as much as how we address others in order for them to understand and be comfortable.

    I had considered the American way in some instances, of hiring non-Jewish PR people … but then, do they truly understand the issues and the priorities of what is important? But, perhaps.

    The question foremost in my mind is how much difference does it make? Would 60 minutes be less inclined to bury Israel if we were all typically Aussie in every communicative sense of the word? Was antisemitism any less in Germany, with its almost wholly assimilated Jewish population, than in Poland, where most Jews were very different and separate, even in dress and manner?

    I think that if you speak up with consideration and respect, if you argue the truth and demonstrate a commitment to it, that will be respected, whether you speak with an accent, or wave your arms. I don’t believe for a second that any support this community has garnered comes from anything beyond good people recognising that something is right and just, certainly not any mythical “power of the Jewish lobby”. We don’t have power and have never had. We have neither the number of votes nor the wealth to make any difference. The only thing we have ever had is rectitude … and these days it serves us well, not in convincing people of anything (political correctness, conflicted ideologies and a lot of vilification make that difficult), but in being able to hold our heads up rather than kowtowing to ideological forces that would happily see Israel and Jews gone tomorrow, not necessarily out of bigotry, but in the mistaken belief that there would be less problems.

    I know of many who cringe when driving through St Kilda on seeing beards, payes and sheitels and the question I have to ask myself more than any other is “Have we become ashamed of being Jewish?”

    Support this comment Thumb up 0

  2. Ronnie says:

    Well written Alex and points well made. Firstly we as Jews are a part of larger society need to remember exactly that. To interact, mingle and treat everyone around us not as adversaries but as equals. To not separate, partition or compartmentalise. So those of you who don’t mix with anyone who isn’t Jewish, get out there and do so. You will be a far more well-rounded person for doing so and who knows what you might learn. As far as media treatment, the voices of dissent in all aspects of society are almost always louder than those who agree. Yes Israel, her politics and policies get a bad run in the media but objectively the arguments put by scholars and the public often have merit. Unfortunately as mentioned, these are often taken by passionate Jews and Zionists as being purely racist, anti-semitic or whatever and not considered on their truth, logic or reality. The biggest issue is that the situation in Israel with regard to independence for Palestine, protection from suicide bombings, Hamas etc. and the vast number of other issues often focused on when reporting bad news (which sells) and how Israel goes about it’s business is predominantly grey, and rarely black and white. If it was then there’d be no arguments. Truth is the first casualty of any war (your point gets across better, if you lie) and as Jack Nicholson so eloquently put it, there are plenty out there that ‘Can’t handle the truth’.

    Support this comment Thumb up 0

  3. Ilana Payes says:

    Ronnie, SJ, I completely agree.

    About four years ago I presented a paper as a part of my art curatorship course at Melbourne University. The topic was self-selected and I called it “Jewish Venice”. To this day I cringe when I think about how biased and ill-informed my presentation was. I won’t go into details about it here but the general gist was that although Jewish Venetians are as free as any other citizen, there are still anti-Semitic prejudices, and obvious segregation with the tiny city. Just before I began the curatorship course, I had studied in Italy for a few months, and spent a significant amount of time in Venice; there I met many people, but a handful made some nasty comments about my being Jewish and would physically point to people passing by who were Jewish. From this I wrote a paper. I can’t imagine what I must have sounded like. Actually, I have an exaggerated idea: a naive, pseudo –historian, presenting as the victim of a lifetime of persecution. If only I had lived at least some of my life amongst non-Jews, then I maybe I would have been in tune as to how spoiled and ignorant I must have sounded.

    Currently I am completing a post graduate teaching degree at Melbourne uni. My peers are not Jewish, and I fit in as well as anybody. That is to say, I don’t separate myself out as ‘other’. We all have the same goals and work beautifully together. My teachers and some friends know I am Jewish because I wear a magen-david and have spoken about the schools I attended. That is it. Stepping outside from our community and forming friendships with people from diverse backgrounds is not only incredibly easy but it should not be feared! I agree that to some extent the Jewish community separate themselves into a very real dichotomy – where one half thinks non-jews might bite, or worse, might influence their children to marry out!

    But staying locked up in Caulfield and peering out only occasionally from inside the ghetto-bubble severely distorts our perceptions of others, and more significantly, of ourselves.

    Support this comment Thumb up 0

  4. Morry says:

    We may be speaking at cross purposes here, and I certainly have no opinion or ideology on the subject one way or the other. Like Ilana I have always found it easy to get along with people, to interact with people in my courses or workplace, go out for a drink and a chat, share a joke, whether Jewish or non-Jewish. Romantic attachments and friendships whilst travelling were no problem either. But when I look at my life, at my most intimate relationships, the people who are closest to me, the people I would go to when in trouble have always been Jewish …. not by design, but, I’m guessing that these are the people I feel most comfortable with on that level, the people I need to explain myself least to, because their experiences most closely mirror my own.

    For my niece, most of her closest friends are not Jewish, and I often envy that closeness she has achieved with them, because she is blessed with a group of friends, every one of whom is uniquely special and beautiful in a different way. I think gender plays some part in that difference though. Women can have incredible closeness because they open up to each other in ways men rarely do.

    I went to Scopus and Habonim, she found her intimate friends at McRob. Other Jews made close non-Jewish friends at university. In terms of the close friends we make we may be the product of circumstance and opportunity.

    The point I’m trying to make is that we all need to be very open to what life brings, and it brings wonderful things, and it’s all good, with Jewish or non-Jewish friends alike … but we shouldn’t crawl out of our skins to prove a point. I doubt that I could ever say to myself “this person isn’t Jewish, so he/she will be my best friend come hell or high water”. I would find that as reprehensible as saying “this person isn’t Jewish … they can’t be my friend”.

    I very much agree ith Ilana: “Stepping outside from our community and forming friendships with people from diverse backgrounds is not only incredibly easy but it should not be feared!” … I’m just not convinced that it’s fear that’s driving people’s choices. It’s certainly not a factor in mine.

    Support this comment Thumb up 0

  5. Evelyn says:

    I went through Scopus from prep to HSC – I was in your mother’s year, Alex – and I found it very difficult initially when I went to uni to feel 100% comfortable with non-Jewish people. Largely for this reason, I chose to NOT send my children to a Jewish day school. The community we live in is not 100% Jewish, so why should we school our children in this kind of environment?

    I believe in treating everyone with respect, and I am not sure that this is something that is practised by everyone in our community. When you treat people with respect, in the majority of cases you are treated with respect in return. I cringe when I hear terms like ‘Yok’ and ‘Shiksa’, which are almost spat out as they are said. We are no better and no worse than non-Jews. We have different beliefs, and a different heritage. We don’t expect them to take on our views – in fact we make it extremely difficult for anyone to become Jewish – so we should respect their views and hope for mutual respect in return.

    My children, now at Uni, have many friends ‘in both camps’, thanks to being schooled in a government high school that was 99% non-Jewish, having family friends who are Jewish, and a Jewish home environment. A stint in Israel on Academy also helped. They identify Jewishly through involvement in AUJS and CSG, and are, I suspect, exactly the kinds of ambassadors you say we need, Alex. But their job and the job of others like them is made more difficult by arrogance and lack of respect of non-Jews by others in our community.

    Support this comment Thumb up 0

    • Alex Fein says:

      Evelyn, welcome!
      Thank you for your wonderful comment.

      I stoingly agree with everything you write, with one exception:
      Certain words can be ameliorated in their meaning – sometimes to the extent that they create benefits, where once they were destructive because of their pejorative meanings.

      While I’ve yet to see “shiksa” rehabilitated (it is still a horrible word, with horrible connotations of promiscuity and lack of depth), “Yok” has been reclaimed in some quarters as a humourous, positive, and affectionate term that some young Jews use with their non-Jewish friends. The use of this formerly nasty Yiddish word, when used by the non-Jews themselves has the effect of creating an in-joke between them and their Jewish friends.

      It’s often less about the individual words than the context and sentiments behind them. When there is true closeness – such as the friendships your children have – between Jews and non-Jews, that intimacy makes all sorts of taboos and sensitive subjects explorable.

Leave a Reply

Anti-Spam Protection by WP-SpamFree