Friday, December 28, 2012

Offending the Host Culture

Photo by Sheree Zielke, used under Creative Commons License

Should minorities pull their head in and show deference to the majority/host culture? A few examples; this week there was a major media storm in Sydney over a Facebook post that suggested Muslims are forbidden to wish people a Merry Christmas. According to an inside source the post was not an accurate reflection of a recent talk by a local Imam. In my own neighbourhood, St Ives, we had the issue with some Jews wanting to construct an Eruv (a few wires and sticks) meeting a lot of resistance and hostility. After losing a recent appeal, I am beginning to wonder whether it is time to “respect the umpire” and not “antagonize the locals”. A third example was the reaction to a decision by Parramatta Council to reinstate Christian Prayers at the beginning of Council meetings. Parramatta has a great diversity of religious beliefs, with those identifying as Christians in the census being the largest group but probably a minority[i].

In terms of the holiday greetings, I share the concerns of many Muslims and Jews about the importance of reciprocating the good will we enjoy from our Christian neighbours. In Maimonides’ code of Jewish law there are restrictions on interaction with people of other faiths around their festivals. There is also some leniency out of consideration about causing “hatred”[ii] or damaging relationships.  The Eruv is a bit more complicated, with at least some of the objections stemming from prejudice, raising the question of whether these attitudes must be repudiated, on balance I am concerned about antagonising people by being seen to be too assertive about minority interests.

Some objections were raised about excluding other faiths from the Parramatta Council prayers. Neil Kadomi, president of the local Islamic association called it ‘‘silly’’ and ‘‘discrimination’’. He said, ‘‘When the council starts to talk about trying to be religious, they are dividing the community[iii]’’. Yet some Jewish Australians commented in support of Christian council prayer on Facebook: “Since colonisation, Australia has been a Christian country. It had opened its Christian doors to allow people of all faiths to find shelter and build a home for themselves and their families. We have no right to enforce our ideology. We have to respect and give gratitude to Australia… Also by realizing that they have the right to continue with their tradition!  Sadly some people don’t understand gratitude…”

I also feel gratitude to Australia as a new migrant and have great respect for the Christian contribution to and role in this country and humanity. I wrote to the Mayor and other Councillors that Australia faces the challenge of properly honouring the enormous role of Christian faith in this blessed land while also being an inclusive multicultural country. I recognised that in itself the introduction of Christian prayer at Council meetings is a way of seeking divine guidance, particularly for Christian Councillors. We recognise the value of this and support it as long as it is done in an inclusive way. The chief concern for Together For Humanity[iv] is the way that the symbolism of exclusive Christian worship will be perceived by some in the community, particularly young people both or minority and majority backgrounds.

Academics studying prejudice are concerned with the way that a majority culture or belief becomes the norm and others are discriminated against by being considered "different". This has been called the "new racism". Several comments on the story in local media are consistent with the theory, seeing it as an affirmation of Australia as a "Christian country”.[v] I suggested that the introduction of prayer to Council is an opportunity to affirm the diverse character of your city and our country. One way to do this is by inviting representatives from various faiths to offer prayers... Taking up the opportunity in this discussion can support the efforts of teachers and governments to develop an inclusive society where all enjoy a sense of belonging and confidence to participate in all aspects of Australian life.

This is not a new dilemma. Joseph was a foreigner who did very well in Egypt, his father also thrived in Egypt, with his 17 years being among the best years of his life[vi] when he really lived[vii], in contrast to the rest of the years of his life that he described to Pharaoh as “few and bad[viii]”.  There is a problem though in that Jacob and his family have little respect or tolerance for the idol worshiping religion of the host nation. One way to manage this problem was to segregate the newcomers into their own enclave[ix]. Yet, the death of Jacob presented a problem, he was adamant that he not be buried in Egypt[x], according to one opinion this was because he didn’t want to buried among Egyptians who he considered wicked[xi].

Joseph was lucky to live in a time before Twitter and Facebook. His conversation with his father about the burial plans differs significantly to way he recounts the conversation to Pharaoh’s staff. Let us compare[xii].

Torah’s account of Joseph’s conversation with his father Jacob/Israel[xiii]
Joseph’s account of this conversation for Pharaoh[xiv]
29… (Jacob/Israel) said to him (Joseph), "If I have now found favour in your eyes, now place your hand beneath my thigh (a Symbol of an Oath),
'My father adjured (imposed an oath on) me, saying, "Behold, I am going to die”
and you shall deal with me with kindness and truth; do not bury me in Egypt.
30. I will lie with my forefathers, and you shall carry me out of Egypt, and you shall bury me in their grave."
 In my grave, which I dug for myself in the land of Canaan, there you shall bury me."
And he (Joseph) said, "I will do as you say."
31. And he said, "Swear to me."

So he (Joseph) swore to him

Joseph omits the explicit desire not to be buried in Egypt. Instead he seems to fabricate the idea that Jacob wanted to be buried in a grave he dug for himself which may have been an Egyptian custom at the time for noblemen to dig graves and be buried in them[xv]. He also does not mention his support for his father’s plan which he commits to carrying out and then makes an oath to that effect. He does not want to appear ungrateful[xvi] or offend Pharaoh.  In addition Joseph tries to keep this whole discussion low key, rather than talk to Pharaoh directly he speaks to the “house of Pharaoh[xvii]” not to remind Egyptians that a foreigner occupies such high office and also out of concern that permission would be denied[xviii].

Navigating these types of dilemmas is not easy and tact is essential.  Respect is a two way street. There is a so called politically correct view that seems to be essentially: “White bad/Black good”. This approach seems to advocate for respect for all views except the “White”, “Anglo” or Christian perspective.  I think all people, including Christians, Americans, Anglo-Australians, Western, as well as Muslims, Blacks etc. and their ways of life are deserving of respect.  We must differentiate between approval and agreement and what Jewish sources refer to as “ways of peace” or in plain English showing respect and goodwill.

At the same time we need to consider the much maligned so called “politically correct” arguments as they really are instead of some “straw man” caricature. There are real prejudices that are subtle in giving an impression of what is normal rather than screaming racist abuse but these are very real in the harm their cause. There is a problem when a government authority in what is practically a secular state is seen to favour one faith over others. The bottom line is that we need to make the effort to strengthen rather that weakens relationships.

[i] in this table Christians account for 41% of the population with the next largest group being those who selected no religion 18%, and a further 12% who did not identify their faith, some of whom are Christians, perhaps even half. Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists are 13%, 7% and 5% respectively according to the numbers on this site.  
[ii] Maimonides Yad Hachazakah laws of Idol Worship and Practices of its Worshippers  9:1-2
[iv] an inclusive Multi-faith, Christian, Jewish, Muslim based diversity education organisation I lead
[v] these include the following “pleased that Parramatta City Councillors will be commencing council meetings with a Christian prayer. Australia is a Christian country, and has been since settlement” and “Running a local government requires the wisdom of Solomon and Australia is a Christian nation…” and a third “Australia is a Christian country... whoever oppose this idea shall denounce taking Christmas Day and Easter holidays as public holidays, either turn up to work or reject your public holiday pay entitlements. Otherwise, you are just in bad faith!
[vi] Midrash Hagadol,
[vii] Drashat Even Shuiv Parshat Vayechi, citing a Midrash
[viii] Genesis 47:9
[ix] Genesis 46:34
[x] Genesis 47:29 and 30
[xi] Midrash Tehilim, on psalm 26, Sechel Tov cited in Torah Shlaima p1731-1732
[xii] Similar analysis is included in Nechama Leibovitz New Studies in Bereshit
[xiii] Genesis 47:29 and 30
[xiv] Genesis 50:5
[xv] Nechama Leibovitz New Studies in Bereshit p.532
[xvi] Meshech Chochma
[xvii] Genesis 50:4, see interesting thought about how Joseph’s authority seems diminished and he is relegated to pleading through the staffers, seemingly lacking access to the King himself classic commentaries give more technical reasons about Joseph being in mourning and therefore it not being appropriate for him to appear before a king as it states in the book of Esther “one cannot come before the kind, dressed in sackcloth”.
[xviii] Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch

1 comment:

  1. It is really a case of who offends who and people being a bit too precious.

    The claim that Australia is a Christian country is false given that a significant part of the population do not identify with any religion and of those who do many don't practice.

    From day one it was very un-Christian in its treatment of others. The ruling elite were typically Anglican Protestants while their convict servants and prisoners were mostly Catholic. Attendance at Anglican services was compulsory for all, convicts were punished for not attending and Catholic priests were barred from the country.

    What I view Parramatta Council's decision as is an attempt to restore this form of Christian dominion over others. Many years ago the atheist mayor of my local council decided that the council meeting would be opened with a short period of meditation where those who followed a particular religion could pray in a manner appropriate for them. Those who didn't want to pray simply observed the silence.

    There were three responses to this.: Condemnation form a local Anglican priest, support from a lot of others and a comment from another councillor who found it ironic that councillors would pray to God for help and guidance then go on to backstab their opponents on council.

    My opinion? Be inclusive and open prayer up to all.