Friday, November 21, 2014

Preserving Relationships Here - Refusing to Demonise

Craig Laundy MP (Member of Australian Parliament) in a
Hug with Sheikh Wesam Charkawi in a hoola hoop as part of a
Together For Humanity bridge building day between
students from different backgrounds
As a bridge- builder working for a Christian, Jewish and Muslim organisation, it is unwise for me to offer comments on conflict overseas. An exception to this rule would be to reflect on the ways in which we ensure that our ties to, and concerns about, what happens elsewhere do not destroy relationships in Australia.” The Australian” newspaper quotes me making such a comment this week to students from Granville Boys and Cronulla High Schools, referring to the deadly attack in a Jerusalem synagogue this week. “If I didn’t know these guys, ”I said, gesturing to my Muslim friends, “I would probably feel very distant because of the stuff that happens overseas. But, because of these connections, I’m able to continue to be friends with these guys, because we’ve got nothing to do with things happening thousands of kilometres away.” As my colleague Sheikh Ahmed said, “we need to localize” our thinking.

It is tempting to paint the “race” or “religion” of those on the opposite side of a conflict, no matter how far away, as monstrous and to essentialise the problem as being the rotten core of the “enemy religion or culture”. This is something that should not happen anywhere, certainly not in far-off Australia.

This relates to a theme in the Torah reading this week. Jacob, through various means, including impersonation of his brother, manages to acquire the blessings intended for his older brother Esau, which earns him his brother’s enmity (1). In later times, Esau would come to represent Rome, an empire known to have done terrible things to the Jews and others.

Esau, symbol of Rome, is born hairy and red (2).  This is taken to mean that “all of him was a spiller of blood” (3), and that “he was filled with blood…he hates blood as it stands in the human body (4)”. Strangely, we are told that “even while in his mother’s womb he drank her menstrual blood” (5). A Dracula foetus! Esau then marries women who are an “embittering of the spirit” for Esau’s parents with their intentionally difficult behaviour in the larger family home (6), further casting Esau in a negative light. 

Yet, there is an interesting counter lesson. The Torah tells us that Isaac, Esau’s father, became blind, which enabled Jacob to impersonate Esau and get the blessings. There was an easier way for Jacob to get the blessing. God could have simply told Isaac that Esau was evil and deceiving his father with his false piety. Yet, God chose not to speak badly about Esau and, instead, opted to make Isaac blind and leave him in ignorance of his son’s wickedness. Isaac’s blindness is, therefore, interpreted as a lesson in not speaking “Lashon Harah”, evil talk, even about Esau (7). While there are certainly very real problems for people to engage with constructively, care needs to be taken not to demonise a race or religion, but rather to “fight fair”, if one thinks one can right a wrong through “fighting”.

There is a touching story in our tradition about one of our sages, who helped a naked Roman survivor of a shipwreck. The sage saw him as a human being rather than as the “evil other”.  Perhaps, the easiest way to recognise each other’s humanity is by interacting. This was the experience of the students this week, as described in  ”The Australian” article below. If you live in Sydney, you are invited to have one more cross-cultural experience of your own at Together For Humanity’s fundraising dinner with former Governor Marie Bashir on 30th November in Auburn. (Details at this link  

(1) Genesis 27:41
(2) Genesis 25:25
(3) Midrash Rabbah 63
(4) Midrash Hagadol, cited in Torah Shlaima vol 2, p 1020, note 133
(5) Midrash Abchir, cited in Torah Shlaima vol 2, p 1020, note 131
(6) Genesis 26:35, commentary of Radak
(7) The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Likutei Sichos vol 15, p 215.

THEIRS are friendships formed across culture and religion in the wake of one of the ugliest ¬episodes of -racial violence in the nation’s history.
By Natasha Robinson, originally published in the Australian Newspaper 21/11/2014, reprinted with permission.

Now, Jewish, Christian and Islamic leaders are uniting again to connect the children of the southern Sydney beach suburb of Cronulla — barely old enough to go to school at the time of the riots eight years ago — with the boys from Granville in the city’s southwest, a heartland of Arabic, Islander and pretty much every other culture.

This week, at the home of the AFL’s Western Sydney Giants, students from Cronulla High and Granville Boys High hung out, kicked a footy and bemoaned the lack of teenage freedoms. It could have been any other day at school.

The Granville boys thought kids from “The Shire” were the children of “like, rich people”. They soon learned the Cronulla crew were a lot like them, and from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, too.

The boys from Granville spoke about the threat of Islamic State and how it had affected everyday lives. Joseph Valu, 15, recalled the day 800 police descended on the homes of young terror suspects.“When that ISIS thing happened, my mum called me three times. She was like, ‘Come home. Now’. She told me to be careful.”

Run by the interfaith Together for Humanity Foundation, this is the kind of cross-cultural program those with long experience in combating extremism and social alienation say works.

Craig Laundy, federal MP for Reid, which takes in swaths of Sydney’s ethnically diverse western suburbs, is pushing for the government to fund the program more widely using a pool set aside for the counter-radicalisation programs, which are unpopular among many Muslim leaders.

“We don’t acknowledge each other by what makes us different, we identify what unites us,” Mr Laundy says. “This is a perfect ¬example of how we as a federal government should work with people with great ideas.”

Rabbi Zalman Kastel, who runs Together for Humanity, spoke to the children about the deadly ¬attack in a Jerusalem synagogue this week. “If I didn’t know these guys,” he says, gesturing to his Muslim friends, “I would probably feel very distant because of the stuff that happens overseas. “But because of these connections I’m able to continue to be friends with these guys because we’ve got nothing to do with things happening thousands of kilometres away.” He met one of the co-ordinators of the cross-¬cultural program, Emad Elkheir, after the Cronulla riots.

Mr Elkheir — now a community engagement co-ordinator with the Giants — was then a 17-year-old at Granville Boys and took part in a similar program. “I guess you could say of September 11 … It was a disgusting event, but it woke up those that were sleeping.”

Friday, November 7, 2014

Bold! - Vayera

“I was too afraid” is one of the sadder things I have heard people say to their family members when explaining why they didn’t tell their son or spouse something they thought the other would not take well. This blog post is about the merit of being bold, taking risks at a personal level as well as at the political level. The latter is front and centre for me because I am meeting with key people at both federal and state level and will be advising them to do something “courageous” in the words of “Yes Minister”.

I was sitting at my desk thinking about the Australian Curriculum Review when I received an email from one of the authors of the review, Dr. Kevin Donnelly. He suggested that I look at his recommendation number 15 as well as what he wrote regarding religion and spirituality on page 155; he also directed my attention to some harsh criticism of his suggestions. The timing could not have been better.

Recommendation 15 reads as follows: “ACARA revise the Australian Curriculum to place more emphasis on morals, values and spirituality as outlined in the Melbourne Declaration, and to better recognise the contribution of Western civilisation, our Judeo-Christian heritage, the role of economic development and industry and the democratic underpinning of the British system of government to Australia’s development”.

Recommendation 15 can be seen as simply promoting one heritage above others, without considering how this might impact on intercultural understanding.  However, thanks to Dr. Donnelly, I read this recommendation in the context of his broader writing on the subject. It is beyond the scope of this post to unpack it all. Suffice it to say that, based on the points he raised, I think it is reasonable to suggest to Governments that they boldly embrace a modified, inclusive version of this recommendation. This can foster interfaith understanding, and is standard practice in the UK and in many countries around the world.  This approach could provoke criticism on the part of people who object to either Christian or Muslim content in the curriculum. However, a group of academics and practitioners, known as “REENA”, have been engaging secularists and religious people to support the inclusion of religions and other world views in the curriculum. 

With the funeral of Gough Whitlam on our minds, it might be time to look afresh at the merits of bold government action.  

The theme of fear and courage also plays out in the Torah reading in the relationship between Sarah and Abraham, her husband. Three visitors, messengers from God, promised Abraham that Sarah would give birth to a son (1). Sarah overheard this and laughed. God complained (2) about Sarah‘s laughter and lack of faith in this divine promise, due to her advanced age (3). When confronted by Abraham, Sarah denied that she laughed because she was afraid  to tell Abraham that she doubted what he appeared to believe.   

One commentary states that “Her fear is compared to a loyal servant who fears (upsetting) his master and erred... When the master reproaches him for what he did…he can’t find the strength to admit what he did because of the great fear, so he denies it but, in the denial itself, he (implies) that it was true that he did so”. 

However, Abraham tells Sarah it is more fitting to admit that she did laugh because God wants people to acknowledge their wrongdoing (4).  Equally, that was what Abraham wanted and Sarah needed - to discuss their different initial responses to the angels’ prediction and to know that it is ok in their respectful relationship to confront difficult issues.

There are many reasons for fear. This is a call to overcome fears with courage.


(1) Genesis 18:10
(2) I am bothered by the fact that God spoke to Abraham about Sarah, rather than talking to Sarah directly. According to one commentary, it is not God who directly accused Sarah, but one of the messengers (angels in human form), sitting inside the tent with Abraham. The angel could be seen to be addressing Sarah’s doubt, thereby completing his mission of reassuring them about the miracle of a child in their old age (Radak, Rashbam, R. Bachya. Note: the word “God”, can also be understood to mean God as represented by the angel.
(3) Genesis 18:12-15
(4) Ohr Hachayim