How to Stop Losing Friends and Alienating People – Part One

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series how to stop losing friends and alienating people
  • How to Stop Losing Friends and Alienating People – Part One

As many of you know, I have a pretty high threshold for what might constitute anti-Semitism in the arts and media.

Please keep this in mind when I write that yesterday, while watching a play, I witnessed a truly vile depiction of Jews that initially made me want to launch myself from the back row of the audience and onto the stage so that I could begin a thorough throttling of everyone involved in the production.

To summarise, it was a very long, very minor production that supposedly dealt with the vagaries of faith.

There was a Jew! And a Muslim! Together! On stage! They almost hugged at the end!

While the Muslim was played by a cherubic, innocently handsome subcontinental, the play’s creators managed to find an unfortunate young Jew who quite resembled some of Nazism’s less flattering portraits of our people.

They plastered masking tape across this man , and wrote on it in giant letters: “The Liar.”

Seriously.

The Jew’s  job was to smarm and lie in obvious ways, to say unpleasant things about Muslims, and to be generally repugnant as well as unreasonable. Fortunately, the cherubic Muslim was there to play sweet, kind, honest straight-man, to guide our errant Jew gently towards The Truth.

That’s the short version – the VERY short version.

The play, lasting two hours, had a cast of… well… tens, and delved into all sorts of things my puny brain could not comprehend.

Admittedly, I have not attended a theatre performance since April.

And when I say “theatre,” I mean The Hi-Fi Bar, and when I say “performance,” I mean Mike Wilmot, in all his foul-mouthed, dishevelled, beer-soaked glory as part of the Melbourne Comedy Festival.

This is to say, I am no feinschmecker (appreciator of fine things), and am generally not in a position to comment on theatre. But this sort of anti-Semitism was just so blatant.

What stopped me from my kamikaze dive onto the stage was the knowledge that this was a very small play – that few Melburnians would ever even hear of it, and that the clumsy idiocy of the Jew/Muslim dichotomy was probably the product of a very unsophisticated worldview.

It was written by a Jew who likely thought he would be doing some good in the world by generalising extreme self-deprecation to his entire ethnic group.

This was just a small and silly play, put on by a bunch of young folk “exploring” things and going on “journeys.”

To an extent, this sort of thing almost needs to have its airing in “spaces” that can only accommodate tiny audiences. Calling for censorship has never served us well in the past, and I’m certainly not about to start now.

But there was a point my blood ran cold.

The onstage foolishness was one thing, the audience reaction another entirely.

The very long play generally elicited strained giggles and titters at the moments that were supposed to be comedic.

The ONLY genuine belly laughs came at the expense of The Jew, who rubbed his hands in his best Fagin impersonation and delighted in the audience response.

Laughs were only louder when The Muslim set him straight. There was a triumphal feeling in the audience during these moments. Something like, “Ha, isn’t that just like a  Jew! Glad you set him straight, nice ethnic boy!

Many of you will also know that I am generally an optimist, that I believe that our place as Jews in Australia is generally very good.

This audience, however, was a worry.

It’s preciselty because they WEREN’T drawn from a left-wing rabble, or some far right anti-Semitic group, that we need to examine what their mirth means. I very much doubt anyone in that audience could be called an anti-Semite in regular life, away from stage depictions of sneaky, lying Jews.

But something in that performance spoke to them. And what it said about us should leave us wondering how we got to this point.

I’ve written before that the arts and academia, while not representing current mainstream values, are often at the vanguard of what will eventually become widely accepted.

Acceptance of women’s rights, homosexuals, multi-culturalism and the need to protect the environment all developed first in the arts/academia crucible.

That these groups share a permeable border with the mobilised left is very problematic for us, because the left – now bereft of the easy moralising that apartheid South Africa provided, now needs a new “good versus evil” narrative, and Israel fits the bill nicely.

It doesn’t matter that the parallels with South Africa are unfair and untrue.

And almost every move Jewish officialdom in Australia has made recently has played into this narrative.

This post is the beginning of a series about how to reorient our disastrous public relations strategies. It will also answer some extremely interesting questions from readers, such as:

1) Is there going to be a pogrom?

The short answer will be, “no,”  but as I’ve been saying since the start of the blog, there’s a lot of ground between Utopia and the pogrom.

So much of where we find ourselves between those two points is up to us.

We have a fair bit of control over this one (at the moment) and we need to relinquish our current victim mentality immediately, before it becomes a self fulfilling prophesy.

It’s time for us to accept our agency and accept responsibility for our own fate.

2) What can we do when no one wants to hear the truth about Israel/Palestine or the manifold wonderful things Israel has achieved?

Again, this question comes from the old perspective and is itself indicative of our current problems.

I will write about how we must lift ourselves out of the muck of the school-style debates that do NOTHING to convince anyone of anything, and look to new methods of normalising Israel and the Jew in Australia.

3) What do we do when something genuinely anti-Semitic happens? Just lie down and take it?

Nothing could be further from what I’m advocating.

Just because we’re not in constant media punch ups doesn’t mean we’re not actively working against anti-Semitism.

That such aggression and actually doing good by the community became so inextricably linked in the Australian Jewish psyche, is at the heart of many of our problems. Our behaviour actually creates certain anti-Jewish feeling where it may not have existed before.

Only someone running for political position (in a completely unrepresentative institution that speaks mainly to people over the age of 50) would ever dare claim that Jews are so devoid of agency or power that they can play no role in formulating their image to the outside world.

When someone like Dvir Abramovich raises his metaphorical fist and declaims loudly that only anti-Semites cause anti-Semitism and that Jews are completely powerless in the face of this, I can’t help but be reminded of the American gun enthusiasts who scream, “Guns don’t kill people! People kill people.

It’s that same calibre of logic at play.

As a community, we have to be smarter than that.

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21 Responses to “How to Stop Losing Friends and Alienating People – Part One”

  1. Gennady says:

    The main thing in this story that should be in double bold and even red is that a Jew wrote the play.

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  2. Lazy Guy says:

    I know most people on the site will disagree with me, but I think the best policy in this case is to ignore it.

    One play, not seen by many people, which puts Jews and Israel in a bad light is not cause for alarm.

    I’ve no doubt some people in Australia don’t like Jews – I’ve met a few. However I live in a very non-Jewish world and don’t encounter problems. If anything the people I work with seem to view Jewish people in a positive light.

    I do agree with Alex that there is y we can do to maintain our standing. And that mostly involves continuing to be a part of the wider Australian society and making contributions to the common good.

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    • Alex Fein says:

      Lazy Guy, ignoring things like that play was pretty much central to the first half of my post. We must ignore the small stuff for many, many reasons that are constantly being enumerated on this blog.

  3. Morry says:

    Alex,

    you say: But something in that performance spoke to them. And what it said about us should leave us wondering how we got to this point.

    We have been at this point for millenia, sometimes better, sometimes worse, some places better some worse. I don’t know where you grew up, Alex, but I do know that those who grew up in Caulfield/St Kilda were largely sheltered from it. I grew up in the slums of Richmond, and this audience response comes as no surprise. Neither does the fact that the left and the arts live in wedded bliss in their own, often hate-filled, world, and have done for a very long time.

    True, we haven’t had actual pogroms in Australia, but we’ve had waves of anti-semitism. Ironically the 60s with their “make love not war” message were particularly bad with many Jews beaten. And it still happens, and there were waves of gay-bashing, and now it’s happening to Indian students. Huge numbers of the Jews of France were obliged to leave, and life is hell for those who stayed. Being far more assimilated than Australia’s Jews didn’t seem to help.

    I don’t see us as victims, Alex, but to say that all is well in Australia is a major stretch. You say that “It doesn’t matter that the parallels with South Africa are unfair and untrue”. Do you really believe that? Does it really not matter? How big does the lie have to grow before people begin to hate, to hate so badly that they go out into the street to seek out somebody to beat? Not a pogrom, just a little bashing. It begins with little things. It always begins with little things. And we always ignore them. A young Israeli girl just won the International Chess Championship for her age group, the best in the world, and for the first time in Turkey they refused to play a winner’s national anthem. It’s a little thing (well, not for the poor girl) but if we say nothing, does that not make it true and OK? “We called Israel apartheid and there were a bunch of Jews there who said nothing, so it’s gotta be true!”. You don’t want to know how many people I’ve spoken to who truly believe that the Jews run the world. When I pointed out that nobody had ever asked me what to do about Zimbabwe, they looked at me as if I was completely crazy. When I pointed to terrorism in which Jews were dying, I got a wink and a “You don’t know yet why they want it, but you’ll see”.

    From where I sit we are a tiny part of this population. None of us has direct access to the media, and I have definitely never felt part of a “powerful lobby”. The only letters I’ve had published in the Age are the ones that call for all sides to change, or a letter edited so badly that it actually said the diametric opposite of the point I was making. There are effective programs in place taking politicians, journalists and people of influence to Israel to physically show them the real face of Israel, but it reaches only a few every year … a good thing, but limited in it’s effectiveness because of the limited numbers you reach, some of whom are already lost causes. Face to face meetings would also be effective, but again, given the limted numbers of the Jewish community, hardly a drop in the bucket when weighed against the tide of bigotry and invective.

    One of the great positives of this age are bloggers who seek out the worst in media mistruths (most happen to be about Israel because that’s the media’s battlefield of choice at the moment) and expose them.

    I’m truly glad that you feel optimistic, so do I despite the tone of what I’m saying, and I’m certainly looking forward to a set of effective tools to deal with this age old problem. My own personal efforts often feel like somebody calling for help but the telephone lines are cut, except the ones to the AJN, and I could use some new strategies.

    Frankly, I don’t really see it as a Jewish problem, but as a societal one. I’m far more concerned for the wellbeing of democratic process than I am for that of the Jews. There are so very many issues facing these same irrational processes, and I think the problem is that we are living in an irrational emotive time, where logic, for very very many, is suspended. I put it down to educators … well that’s my current theory.

    Believe me that I’m not being a nay sayer nor negative, I just recognise the enormity of the problem, and truly look forward to your series for some Tachliss, some real solutions. This was mostly to let you know the issues that concern me, and probably a large sector of our community, certainly a lot that I interact with.

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    • Alex Fein says:

      Morry, you should know that I have enjoyed extremely close relations with non-Jews since birth. They have been friends and family since I was a child. I have lived among multitudinous ethnic groups, of varying socio-economic positions, in all sorts of neighbourhoods and cities, both here and overseas.

      I am very familiar with Paris, for example, having lived for a wehile in the 20th Arrondisement – the neighbourhood in which Jews and Muslims liv e together, buy and sell to each other, befriend each other, and every so often go absolutely gonzo and beat the crap out of each other.

      You should also know that the “assimilated French Jew” is often not the Jew making Aliya. The Jews with the most pressing problems are generally , like their Muslim brothers and sisters, from North Africa. France is not a kind place – compared to Australia – to anybody of non-European background.

      This is the long way of saying that Caulfield may be my country, but the short 34 years of my life have been packed full of the world beyond it.

  4. Yitzchak says:

    Morry,
    That certainly is a cri-de-coer and I ‘m sure all of us agree. You are quite right that it is a societal problem rather than a Jewish one, but I am not as generous as you – I worry more for us than for the wellbeing of the democratic process. I think of the line from “Man of La Mancha” – whether the stone hits the pitcher or the pitcher hits the stone, it’s going to be bad for the pitcher. Alex is quite correct that we have to choose our battles carefully but it is clear that even the wisdom of Solomon is not adequate to that choice.
    The trouble with conspiracy theories about Jews is that even after they are demonstrated to be false, they persist. Did antisemitism diminish in Poland when the Jews were eliminated? No! They transferred their hatred to the communists whom they identified as Jews.
    Recently I heard of a woman who approached a young casual sales assistant in Target at Malvern but withdrew and said that she would not return to the store when she saw the young woman’s magen david. Yes, she is just one ignorant woman but she seems to believe that if one sales assistant is Jewish, the entire business is Jewish. Furthermore, that is a level of antisemitism we have not previously experiencd in Australia – people patronised Jewish-owned shops even if they didn’t like Jews.

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  5. Mohan says:

    Stereotyping is distasteful. It serves the prupose of creating useful scapegoats.

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  6. Antony says:

    Alex,

    Explain why your response (“every move by Jewish officialdom has played into their hands…” etc etc) is different from blaming the victim?

    Aren’t you saying that we must determine our agenda and actions by what will be palatable to the antisemites?

    Should we not determine what is right (which sometimes does, and sometimes does not, fit the liberal agenda)and then at that point say that if antisemites don’t like it, that’s their problem?

    Thanks

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    • TheSadducee says:

      Antony

      The issue comes down to “who” determines what is right. The problem that is raised here often is that community leadership, which is unrepresentative, often makes that determination with disastrous consequences for the entire community by focussing on trivial issues rather than the major ones.

      Anti-semitism charges get trotted out far too often and the net effect is not education but trivialisation of a serious charge. The “boy who cried wolf” story comes to mind as the long-term impact of such a policy.

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  7. TheSadducee says:

    A couple of thoughts if I may indulge myself – my apologies for the length:

    1. What impact will there by on the Jewish community longer-term with the clear growth of observant Orthodox Jews (eg. Hassidic like Chabad) who are generally separated from the broader Gentile community and clearly identifiable by their dress?

    I am concerned for these brothers/sisters of ours because they will be the most likely targets of random/opportunistic or organised violence against Jews. Similarly, they will be (and already may be?) the image that comes to coalesce in the minds of the broader Gentile community.

    I’m concerned about them being ghettoised, and by extension, all Jews being affected similarly or being forced to demonstrate (in some way) their inculturation. Any thoughts? (I posit this because we can already see it with the boycott movement)

    2. This is controversial, but I think a lot of the hostility from the mainstream where it exists comes down to a few things –

    Firstly, what I call Holocaust fatigue. Many Gentiles are sick to death about hearing it and especially the Jewish victim focus. The average person recognises it as a great tragedy etc but they are bewildered when they hear about people still getting payments etc 60+ years later – regardless of the circumstances I have heard people articulate a sense of avarice to it and/or still feeling especially sensitive or aggrieved about the history. In this vein I think alot of people resent having to feel guilty or feel obligated to recognise the tragedy publicly for what happened back then with their grandparents.

    Secondly, average people don’t like the separateness of Jews (or Muslims for that matter) with their different practices esp. dietary/preference for Jewish marriages/the visible Orthodox separation from mainstream society/religious holidays etc. Despite what people say, most people like the comfort of social conformity.
    (This has been a historical problem since antiquity and I don’t think it can be resolved.)

    Thirdly, the I/P conflict. The PR war over the occupation is lost and Israel looks bad no matter what the circumstances are. Some are motivated by batting for the underdog, some by anti-violence generally. The ongoing conflict is disastrous for the reputation of Jews because they are seen as reflexively supportive of Israel despite the circumstances.

    To be honest, I suspect a lot of people don’t really give a damn for the Palestinians rather they use the conflict as a knout to morally beat the Jews.

    I think this is mainly because of the factors discussed above – people want to feel morally superior – they get the opportunity, through the I/P conflict, to argue that Jews should know better because of the Holocaust and/or history of persecution (how many times has anyone heard that one?) and that they are just as bad as anyone else (in so doing diminishing the Holocaust). They also get to play on old tropes of prejudice (eg. dual loyalty, duplicity) by pointing at Israel and community leadership responses.

    3. As to mainstream folks laughing at caricatures. I call this soft prejudice – it is an expression of feelings held by people that they are not comfortable expressing because of social dissaproval (eg. racism, homophobia etc). It is always expressed in a non-confrontational manner which aims to subvert social mores of tolerance, acceptance etc. Our own community is not exempt from it – I cannot list the number of times I have heard extremist sentiments expressed within our own community.

    It is unfortunate but I don’t think there is anything you can do to tackle this. You could try to address it with the playwright but if they are an ideologue you wont get anywhere. There is no point trying to address the crowd at the venue – it would merely reinforce some of their existing prejudices.

    Overall SJ is right – activity done at grassroots level to convince people that Jews are fundamentally good people with a lot to offer and that they care about their fellow non-Jews will help infinitely more than lofty leadership responses to every issue, regardless of importance, that arises.

    Similarly, the conflict needs to be resolved. This is the greatest source of legitimacy for criticism that is leveled against Jews, whether rightly or wrongly.

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    • Alex Fein says:

      Sadducee, fantastic as always! You’re a real boon to this blog.

    • Sisu says:

      I don’t know if wider Australia cares specifically about any minority. Sure, there are (and always will be) anti-Semites, or homophobes, or misognynists, or…insert any person with a belief in their own superiority. Likewise, stereotypes will always exist, because that is what our culture is based on. The stereotypes themselves allow us to communicate in ways that might not be desirable, but do allow concepts to be put across. And as a general rule of thumb, as long as we realise that the stereotypes are simply that, we can laugh them off or dismiss them as prejudice as our mood takes us.

      It is when the stereotypes are used to define a whole group that they are dangerous.

      I think wider Australia is pc-enough to know that Australian Jews do exist beyond the stereotype, and to empathise with physical violence, or the painting of swastikas on fences, or any other truly horrid attacks on people. What we have seen, and what Alex posts, is a perception of the victim mentality, the boy who cried Wolf mentality.

      Of all the things that Sadducee mentioned, I think it will be the I/P conflict that does the most to sour relations between the Jewish community and wider Australia. The differences, the isolation is tolerable, because we are generally tolerant… but the I/P conflict is not presented in a way that supports Israel. And I don’t think it ever can be – Australia’s collective guilt about displacing our indigenous population has too many parallels with reports of the Settler phenomenon in the West Bank. This is the PR disaster that does turn so many people of.

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    • Arty Morty says:

      ‘To be honest, I suspect a lot of people don’t really give a damn for the Palestinians rather they use the conflict as a knout to morally beat the Jews. ‘

      an excellent observation. big guy is beating up the little guy, it looks bad in anyone’s book, regardless of the reasons behind it.

      there is always going to be support for the ‘weak’, justified or not.

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    • TheSadducee says:

      Arty Morty

      Your suggestion that people side with the weaker party may well be correct in some circumstances. However that shouldn’t be the lone cause of support in this case because it would be devoid of context, understanding and knowledge of the conflict itself eg. both sides are wretched in my opinion.

      However thinking about your suggestion one cannot help but wonder if it applies with the professional anti-Israel crowd who deliberately ignore examples which are even more egregious in terms of power politics eg. China and Tibet, Turkey and Cyprus, Russia and Chechnya etc?

      If these folks who professionally agitate against Israel devoted even 25% of their time and efforts to these causes then I’d consider buying into your argument.

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  8. Gedalia says:

    I agree with Sisu that there is an undercurrent of intolerance within Australian society that is trending in the wrong direction. Attacks against Indian students, Asians, and other minorities are on the increase, as is anti-semitism.

    Then again, you don’t see racism disguised as theatre at festival events that portray Indian’s or Asian’s as the source of all evil. You don’t see comments on mainstream newssites, youtube and blogs that accuse other minority groups of being murderers and liers, such comments are generally removed as being offensive. Unless of course the content is about Jews.

    Sadly, a double standard exists. At whatever level it needs to be countered.

    I don’t have all the answers, but I was once taught that the best response to anti-Semitism is to be more Semitic.

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    • Alex Fein says:

      Gedalia, heh! Love your last line…

      Thing is, part of being Semitic, is having a sense of humour.

      If we humourlessly bash people over the head with Jewishness and scream and yell, well – it won’t much matter if we’re Semitic, Indo-Aryan, Slavonic, Dravidian or anything else. We are going to piss people off. If we practise patient – but tenacious – good humour while not resiling from our Jewishness – or committment to Israel, for the majority of us that is ZIonist – we have a much better chance.

      But you’re right: Jews cop it from the Left and in the arts in ways that no other ethnic group would. Remember though, that the Right currently has a bee in its bonnet about Islam and the Muslims are copping it pretty hard from that direction. This points to a possible solution that I will be writing about in the next post.

  9. Morry says:

    Hi Alex,

    I very deliberately made no presumptions about your experiences, and they are every bit as valid to me as my own. You clearly were not shtetled in Caulfield, but, in your words “Caulfield may be my country, but the short 34 years of my life have been packed full of the world beyond it”.

    Nor do I suggest for a second that Jews and Moslems, or Jews and Christians can’t get along as the most loving neighbours, because it has been my experience that they can … as it clearly has been yours. But what proportion of Germans were Nazis? What proportion of Moslems are terrorists? And what proportion of our society are criminals? What proportion of Australians are drug dealers? The answer in all four cases is “infinitesimal”, “tiny”, “a drop in the bucket”, but the destruction to the lives of others that they wreak is immense, incalculable, and the ripples push through family and friends. It just doesn’t take many at all … and not much. Just two elements. The first is deligitimisation through popular “education”, which leads to the second that it’s OK to kill, rob, beat or whatever. This is true for terrorists, criminals and Nazis. It has always amazed me just how simple and universal these steps are.

    It doesnt’ have to be an evil thing. It’s exactly the way the media took out Rhodesia and South Africa. It’s how the Vietnam war was ended. It allowed Japanese Americans to be interred during WW2 … irrational, no? Now most of the mainstream media have their sights set on Israel and “the powerful Jewish lobby” … oh, and America, but I think America will survive it.

    Today we sit in the midst of the deligitimisation process, via the media, UN bodies, and even courts, and yes, definitely the way our leadership addresses issues is vitally important. But that’s very different to saying that if only our leaders spoke like Arnold Roth did in his recent interview with the “Australian”, antisemitism would disappear from Australia, possibly the world. That would be far too rational, and if everybody was truly rational, there would be no antisemitism and we wouldn’t be having this discussion … well, perhaps the bit about how community leaders are chosen.

    Alex, I wish I felt as empowered as you do, but I don’t. I’m just a firm believer that truth will ultimately prevail, and optimistic enough to believe it won’t be too late when it does. But having well-spoken leaders who can speak to the heart without being interrupted by anger and frustration, and who don’t preach, certainly can’t be a bad thing. I think to battle this problem we need a little more weaponry in our basket of tricks than very lucid leaders, though.

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    • Alex Fein says:

      “I think to battle this problem we need a little more weaponry in our basket of tricks than very lucid leaders, though. ”

      Morry, that’s where the next installment, detailing long term plans, comes in.

  10. Gennady says:

    The play was written by a Jew who put his own people in bad light. What more can I say? :-)

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  11. Alex Fein says:

    Sisu, you provide us with valuable insight into wider Australian mores in an intelligent, considered way.

    Thank you.