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.”

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