May
24
2009

The New Week: Ideas from SJ Readers 2 – Jewish Priorities, the Media, Jewish Schools, and our Leadership

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Ideas from SJ Readers

Malki and Yoram raised a couple of very important points here.

On Shabbat, Malki spoke with a number of people who expressed to her increasing concern about the rising costs of Jewish schools. They seemed to be far less interested in the Jewish public face, or our relationship with the media. She asks whether such issues as education can be discussed here. The answer is, of course they can! Any topic that relates to our community and the way it’s run should be discussed here.

Many, many Jews feel that the cost of Jewish education is becoming prohibitive. There are discussions about amalgamating schools and other ways to reduce costs.

Two important points to remember, however, are: 1) Jewish education is still an issue that is bound up in our leadership, and 2) the importance of Jewish education need not be an exclusive concern. We can tackle more than one issue here, and as a community.

Following Malki’s comment, Yoram contended that we (readers and writers at this blog) need to broaden our scope and not focus exclusively on PR or the media.

While we strongly agree with Yoram on this, we do not agree with his extrapolation that we should not focus too much on the media, or get caught up in its “glamour.” Yoram believes that we are not in any danger of an imminent “pogrom,” and with this we would also agree.

But that does not mean that relations between our community and the Muslim community have not deteriorated considerably. There are many unpleasant actions and events that can take place before large scale violence occurs. It’s also important to remember that communal violence of any stripe never erupts without a long lead-up of perceived insults to honour. One of the hopes of The Sensible Jew is to catch the destructive tendencies of our leadership before any lasting and long term damage is done. Indeed, danger is not imminent, so we are blessed in that we have this opportunity, during a time of peaceful relations with other communities, to build networks and on-the-ground relationships that will prevent a slide into inter-communal animus.

This leads us to the media and its role. As others have mentioned, nasty pictures of dead civilians coming out of Israel/Palestine can inflame Muslims. This is true to a limited extent. Muslims are not a monolithic group. Their countries of origins, their educational and socio-economic backgrounds matter far more than their religion regarding their responses to the conflict in the Middle East.

Obviously, we can’t control the images that international news agencies send to the networks, nor would we want to. What we can control is our response to those events here. Do we position our community as an Israeli outpost that differs from Israel proper in that we defend every government action? Or do we position ourselves as Australians who treasure their ethnic and religious background, feel connected to/support Israel, yet sympathise with Palestinian civilians who are harmed, because we believe in universal human rights? Going down the former route absolutely puts us in an adversarial position with regards to the hotter elements of the Muslim community. It also gives Australians unconnected with the Middle East pause about us.

Of course, your average Anglo Australian is not going to come with a group of mates and  some burning torches baying for Jewish blood. But there is a huge area between existing harmoniously in the context of the wider Australian society, and The Pogrom.

Most Aussie Jews will deal with non-Jews throughout their education and then their professional lives. Some might even like to have non-Jewish friends – or even a spouse! Even Adassniks can’t close themselves off completely, and what non-Jews have heard about Jews really does matter – whether they read Mx or The Economist. Most Aussies are people of good will, but a lot of explaining does seem to have to happen when a non-Jew is exposed to a Jew for the first time.

There is still the “stingy Jew” canard out there. There is absolutely the fear of Jews’ divided loyalties between Israel and Australia. If you or your children want to study the humanities at university, it becomes clear just how bad our reputation is amongst the intelligentsia. And that really does matter, because the students are our future leaders, employers/employees, business partners, doctors, etc. And the academics advise government and business, and are the first stop for journalists wanting to give some intellectual heft to whatever their working on.

And I ask our readers: Do you often go beyond the Jewish zones of Melbourne (or Sydney)? Do you know anyone from the northern or western suburbs? Melbourne is huge, and the cultural differences between regions is similarly vast. We say with confidence that beyond the inner east and south eastern suburbs of Melbourne, Jews are rarely known personally and are only known about via the media.

In short, if we have an image problem, we have a problem. The Pogrom may not be imminent, but Menachem Vorscheimer can tell you that there’s a big space between Peace and Pogrom.

So we need good leadership more than ever. We need it because Jewish education is no longer a matter of cultural, “choice” for many Jews, but a financial impossibility, and because our image may not be as bad as that of some other communities, but that doesn’t mean we’re doing particularly well.

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May
24
2009

The New Week: Ideas from SJ Readers 1 – Yoram’s Report from Auburn Rd Shul

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Ideas from SJ Readers

Over the last day or so, a number of ideas have emerged from our readers. Because these ideas are complex, we will devote three posts to them:

1) This post will address Yoram’s report from Auburn Rd Shul

2) Jewish priorities: the media, Jewish schools, and our leadership

3) Where to now: practical questions and suggestions for change in our community

Firstly, Yoram, of the Auburn Rd Shul, conducted a discussion among the  Shul’s congregants regarding some of the themes raised on this blog. We thank him for doing that. For more information on that discussion, you can read Yoram’s comment here. The congregants, diverse in age and background seemed to agree that the community requires some form of leadership; however, Yoram contends that even though such a forum was effective at promoting discussion, the “Town Hall” style of meeting may not be best suited to establishing tangible changes.

One very interesting theme to emerge is what we’ll call, “The Loewenstein Paradox” – that is, when Antony Loewenstein first emerged in the mainstream media, he complained incessantly of the community’s silencing of dissenting voices. Ironically, this complaint helped propel him into the public eye. Yoram wrote that during the discussion it was suggested that, “…if someone believes they have a position that deserves an audience then simply get out there and make yourself heard, the media will inevitably follow.”

We believe this is not the correct conclusion to draw from the Loewenstein Paradox. When Loewenstein first emerged, his was very much a, “man bites dog” story: A young Jew, instead of defending Israel, writes and speaks of Zionism in language that seems more suited to Palestinian lobby groups. It was this novelty – the arguing against type – combined with media awareness of the massive ruckus Loewenstein’s views would cause in the community – that made his voice so audible. We cannot imagine moderates of any background having such an easy time attracting attention. We’re just not that exciting, and we don’t play the required dichotomous roles.

Yoram also paraphrased people as saying, “[Loewenstein] did the work, he got out there and now he is one of the voices that the media will turn to for quotes and opinions.” This again disregards certain facts. Anyone who has read anything by Antony Loewenstein will be aware that his arguments are of themselves, neither novel, nor edifying. His fact-checking abilities (or lack thereof) hint at an intellectual laziness that could only be ignored if one were more interested in the personality behind the story than in the story itself. Had the same lack of scholarship/writing/argument been put forward by someone without the explosive communal relationship that Loewenstein developed, the book would likely never have been published.

So we disagree that media attention is as easy to attract as just speaking out, or slapping a poorly written book together. There needs to be a hook. You need to be,  for whatever reason – good or bad – newsworthy.

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