A Brief History of The Sensible Jew

Contact Alex Fein at sensiblejew@gmail.com

This piece was originally published in The AJN in September.

In February, I received an email that had gone viral in Melbourne’s Jewish community. It claimed that owners of a Caulfield-area restaurant were anti-Semites and urged readers to boycott it. On the one hand, something in the email’s tone aroused my suspicion. On the other, I wanted to know if a popular local eatery had a problem with Jews.

So I called the restaurant.

I spoke with employees and proprietors. The story they told not only differed from the email, but seemed entirely credible. One of the owners was in tears, telling me of her long and close friendships with numerous Jews, mentioning many by name. She couldn’t believe this was happening. Her business was heavily dependent on Jewish custom.

When she recounted fleeing her war-torn homeland for a place where sectarian hatred was absent from daily life, I promised to write a counter-email telling her side of the story.

“Please don’t worry,” I said, “Most Jews are sensible. Your restaurant will be fine.”

Some days later, the owner told me that the writer of the original email had apologised for the defamation. Had I not spoken to her directly, I wouldn’t have known.

So many people had received then forwarded the original email. So many had taken the accusation of anti-Semitism at face value. But there was no community mechanism for addressing these rumours.

In my counter-email, I wrote that not only is it terrible to destroy a business by slander, but when we misuse accusations of anti-Semitism, we completely devalue the term.

Soon after, a thought flickered: an online forum was needed for matters important to Australian Jews. What would such a site be called? My mind wandered to small town papers: The Caulfield Examiner, The Shtetl Bugle, The Yiddishe Tzures… until I remembered the first conversation with the restaurant owner:

Most Jews are sensible. “The Sensible Jew,” had a nice ring to it.

But it wasn’t until May that a confluence of events prompted action. I left the comfort of a politically inactive life and stuck my head – albeit anonymously at first – above the parapet.

I workshopped the idea with my mother, Yvonne Fein, who co-wrote the first two posts with me. She remains an invaluable consultant and we share a staunchly non-ideological outlook, eschewing partisan politics of left and right, or religious versus secular.

The blog’s first post concerned our leaders’ performance in response to the Seven Jewish Children play. It was certainly anti-Zionist, but facile and devoid of any real public interest until certain prominent Jews began fulminating on national television.

I agreed that the message of the play was execrable but objected to the transformation of a work no-one  really cared about into a freedom-of-speech issue.

The second subject was more troubling. Maccabi had decided to enforce a rule forbidding non-Jews from membership in its clubs. This signalled a withdrawal from broader Australian society, placing Jewish exceptionalism above all other considerations.

My belief that Australian Jews are innately sensible was confirmed by an emerging communal consensus that any directive to exclude non-Jews would be ignored. Eventually the policy was abandoned.

Since the blog’s inception, there have been two articles about it in The Sunday Age, a radio interview and a nerve-wracking appearance on The Shtik. It has also provoked numerous articles and letters to The Australian Jewish News.

One such article was written by Dvir Abramovich, whom I’d previously critcised on my blog for his prescriptive (and restrictive) views on appropriate ways to frame the Holocaust culturally.

Rather than understanding The Sensible Jew’s purpose – to create a forum for discussing Australian Jewish issues – Dr Abramovich chose to paint it as a quasi-anti-Semitic mouthpiece. Ironically, this provides me with an opportunity to clear up some misconceptions.

His most galling accusation – so easily disproved by actually reading the blog – was that I condemn “the entire Jewish community.”

Dr Abramovich also seems to have conflated my thoughts on intimidation in general with problematic leadership, but is particularly upset by my suggestions for improving communal PR. The reasons for this are mysterious.

The strangest accusation Dr Abramovich levels is that I have not been elected to my current “position.” He somehow fails to distinguish between bloggers and communal representatives.

Dr Abramovich’s misrepresentations were, however, a minor bump on the very bizarre road that has been The Sensible Jew experience. I have had the opportunity to meet, so many wonderful people – most of them Jewish, but many who are not – who relish the idea that through discussion and inquiry, we might be able to forge a better community.

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