Friday, August 8, 2014

Words that Insult, Humiliate, Agitate, or Inspire Togetherness

Introduction: Dear Friends,

I am thinking about the importance of words at this time.  A lot of angry words are being spoken, many motivated by altruistic, passionate concern for the innocent and outrage over the loss of life and the violence. Some have been simply abusive words by ignorant and even drunk individuals. A man screamed “Allah Akbar” at me in the middle of Bankstown.

I write these words with the threat of renewed hostilities in the air. There are very small things I can do to try to prevent the on-going killing in the Middle East. I am doing these quietly. As Joe Wakim of the Arab Council said about another bridge builder, this “role is to prevent this kind of stone throwing, not engage in it”. This is a small meditation regarding words and people of different backgrounds getting along in Australia.

All the very best,


An example of the power of positive words.
The wonderful Paul Benett's book that I
launched. A real example of living
with light.
We saw a victory this week for collaborative efforts between communities. The Australian government accepted their joint calls against the humiliation of people on the basis of ethnicity or “race”.  

Yet a dark cloud hangs over community harmony in Australia. Yes, there is an elephant in the room that is a matter of life and death.  The burning question is how to stop the killing, violence and the suffering? This is a vital question that I care passionately about. Our tradition teaches that “to kill” is to diminish the “image” of the King, namely God, in whose image ALL humans are created (1). This question must be answered, in certain contexts, not by me in this public context. This is because I sincerely believe I might do more harm than good.  Every blame claim, justification, refutation and counter argument that  I can imagine, has already been shouted endlessly, motivated by a mix of anger, hatred, as well as sincere desires for justice and to protect the innocent.

Here is another question: What will be the impact of all this death and conflict here in Australia, where we Australians of Jewish, Arabic, Muslim, Sunni, Shia, Ukrainian and other backgrounds live?

An old Rabbi was attacked in Perth this week. School children were terrorized in Sydney. Shia Muslims have been copping it for many months, Muslims generally, for years. Less significantly, yesterday, I walked through a state school playground filled with Arabic teenagers. When they saw me, an identifiable Jew, they chanted at me: “Free, free, Palestine”.  A sheikh, who had been working with me and a group of students at the school, walked alongside me to support me as I walked quickly to my car. 

Students in Australia should be encouraged to care about the world they live in and engage with the pursuit of justice.  However, chanting at a Jewish man reflects a generalized hostility to the “Jewish people”, rather than advocacy for aggrieved Palestinians.  I don’t blame the kids. The distinction is not an easy one.  A Muslim who works with me, made the point that what I felt in that playground is very similar to how she feels when people shout out “terrorist” to her. “It has nothing to do with me,” she said.

Perhaps, of equal importance, was the raising of this very painful and difficult topic in our group that has been working together regularly from the beginning of this year. The question about the current situation was raised by a student in one word, “Palestine?” It was a useful conversation to have. At the same time it reflects a growing tendency to talk and think in slogans rather than fully developed ideas with any nuance. A lot of the “dialogue” about Gaza and Israel has been via Facebook and Twitter - images of dead children, other images with captions or slogans. 

I accept that, in some cases, one may insult, provoke, polarize, simplify and ridicule as part of agitating for change. The Biblical prophets resorted to exaggeration, simile and ridicule to argue for change. On the other hand, we need to get along in Australia. If we can’t do it here, where our lives are not under direct threat, how can the people who have lost relatives and their sense of security, not lose hope?! To some extent, hope has been another casualty of this terrible situation. It must be restored.

Words matter. According to the Jewish sages, humiliating another person to the point where the colour drains from his face is equivalent to spilling his blood. I think that is hyperbolic, but reflects the seriousness of the harm caused by denigrating speech, suggesting a psychological death. Perhaps, more to the point, if people with authority engage excessively in denigrating groups, younger people and less educated people will take that as a licence for violence and a signal that they have a right to be “bigots”.

I don’t have a formula for preventing murder, killing or war, but I know that listening from the heart, goodwill and nuanced conversation are part of the answer. Polarization is usually less helpful. We cannot banish darkness by beating it with sticks. We can only overcome it with light. I pray for the preservation of life, dignity, justice and peace. 

1      1) Mechilta 


  1. The word "empathy" is defined in the dictionary as: "the ability to understand and share the feelings of another." One issue that raises its head when we try to walk a mile in another man's shoes is that we need to understand his values. If his values are similar to ours, and if he aspires to the same things as we do, then we can reasonably think in terms of healing the gaps, if any, between us. On the other hand, if the value set that is espoused by the man who believes himself to be aggrieved is radically different, then how does it help to empathise with him? If I am guided by The Golden Rule, and the other man has a similar moral compass, then we can communicate with honesty. But if he is driven by hatred and he values death above life, where is the common ground? How can one empathise with that? The high level overview, however, holds out hope because it is only a sociopath who has no feelings for his fellow man. Most people turn out to be reasonable human beings when we get to know them on a personal level. So it becomes important in the Gaza situation to differentiate between ordinary peace loving people and sociopaths who are driven by extremist dogma. And a critically important question arises whether the proportion of sociopaths is increasing as a percentage of the total population of Gaza. If that is the case then a point will inevitably be reached where the situation cannot be resolved by reasonable people sitting down and discussing matters calmly. So, in the end analysis, we have to ask the question: Is the "propaganda" surrounding the generalised hate indoctrination of Palestinian children true? If so, then we must accept that children are being brought up to become amoral sociopaths who are incapable of reason. If it is not true, then that fact (if it is a fact) needs to be very carefully and clearly demonstrated by the Palestinian people. Commonality of values is a condition precedent to peace, and the responsibility for proof regarding whether or not there is widespread child indoctrination lies with the Palestinians. I for one am prepared to keep an open mind, but I am not prepared to allow emotion to trump reason. What I would like to be true may turn out to be false and, if so, my own survival may be threatened. If such is the case then a resolution can only be effected by force. And that resolution will, of course, be temporary. So here's the challenge: Can the Palestinians "prove" to the world at large that their children are not being GENERALLY indoctrinated with hatred as part of their educational curriculum? Yes or No? Everything else will follow from the answer to that question. I cannot walk a mile in another man's shoes if that man has values that are diametrically opposed to my own. There are those who follow Islam who embrace the Golden Rule as the Prophet Muhammad laid out. But there are also those who claim to follow Islam who do not embrace this Golden Rule. It is not the responsibility of non Muslims to bring those people under control. It is the responsibility of peace loving Muslims to take this action. If you want peace, I am prepared to talk. But you need to prove by actions rather than words that you truly want peace. Post 1948, the Palestinian actions have not generally matched the words. Why not?

  2. Dear anonymous,
    It's much easier to point the finger at others than ourselves. You talk of empathy but express none. I think of you truly cared about this situation you would start the work where it can have the most impact, in your house and community. And trust that we are doing the same. Jews are being beaten in Israel by Jews this past month for trying to do that.

  3. You raise a difficult issue. At the start of Ramadan I resolved to disengage from arguing with supporters of Israel on Farcebook. I felt that doing so would distract me from what should be my goals for Ramadan. Sadly Israel chose to bomb Gaza and the rhetoric from Israel's supporters became a vicious tirade of nasty propaganda and venomous attacks. At its lowest it degenerated into an exchange with an Israeli who was proud that her sons were killing Palestinians and wanted to see more killed.

    Such talk is poisonous whether you engage in it or engage with those who speak it. It leads to your own mind being poisoned and you forget that there are decent people on both sides who oppose the killing.

    People need to talk but they need to be civil and it is hard to be civil when you see such obvious suffering. I am sad that you have been subject to abuse along with the Jewish children and the other Rabbi,. It is wrong but it is also a product of the violence inflicted on a defenseless people. In the end the solution is in the hands of the perpetrators. Ending the violence and talking about a genuine peace are the only way. Meanwhile all we can do is continue talking and treating each other in a civil manner. There is a belief that in Ramadan the Satans are chained and we only have to fight against our own personal demons. This time I think one of those satans slipped his chains and at times my conversation has been far from civil when talking about Israel and my language has been stronger than perhaps it should have been. Thank you for reminding me that like our deeds our words have consequences. hopefully calmer words and peace will eventually prevail. Till then I hope we can keep talking. Civilly of course.

  4. Banning the use of the word 'gentile' to describe persons who aren't Jewish, would be a great place to start.As a Christian, I and most others look back with abhorrence at the use by Christians, of words such as 'heathen'- a word which is offensive to persons who are not Christians. Yet in today's world of 2016, even liberal Jewish publications such has the online newsletter of Plus61J uses the derogatory, humiliating and intentionally divisive, polarizing word 'gentile'; a.word which intentionally turns non-Jews into the Other. Words matter as you say Zalman and its time for the Jewish community to stop using this profoundly offensive word.

    1. Patricia, I don't like to use the word Gentile, or "Non-Jew" because I don't feel right about defining someone by what they are not. I am not a non-Brazilian, for example. I am defined positively by what I am. I am more comfortable in certain contexts to talk about a Non-Jewish person, eg. the way you use it to talk about the obligations Jewish people have to show respect to people who are not of that faith. However, I don't think the word Gentile is intentionally divisive or derogatory - depending on how it is used. Perhaps there is more about this word I am not aware of.