Friday, November 11, 2016
Eruv, An Angry Intercultural Misunderstanding And A Democratic Contest
It's the morning after a big night of democracy and I was still quite emotional about it. Two hundred of my neighbors attended a meeting at my local council to be part of a tense and dramatic debate about the “St Ives Eruv". “What is that?” many would wonder. Apparently the answer to that question was hotly contested.
For some of my neighbors it is a highly divisive threat to the community, for others it's offensive infrastructure. For me, and for many Jewish members of the community, it's a technical religious solution to a practical problem, particularly for young Jewish mothers and their families. According to Jewish law, one should not carry anything in public areas on the Sabbath. For centuries this has meant that men and children went to the synagogue on Saturday morning for several hours of prayer and community while mothers of young children and babies stayed home, as pushing a pram or carrying a baby in public on the Sabbath is not permitted. Today's young women think of themselves as full members of the community and they are not happy to stay home, they also want to visit family and friends and to be included in community prayers on the Sabbath.
The solution to this problem has been the creation of a symbolic set of doorways, called an “Eruv” which would mean that the area encircled by these symbolic doorways would be deemed a great big courtyard, allowing them to push their prams and carry children. With the abundance of power poles in the area and the wires between them the simple addition of plastic conduits on the side of the poles completes the Eruv.
A few years ago an Eruv was proposed to the council, our local government authority. A website was created that referred to the Eruv simply as a wall. The council refused permission. I respect the democratic process and accepted the decision of our elected officials at the time. The organisers of the Eruv pursued the legal process further but eventually received legal advice that they didn't need council permission to proceed. The Eruv went up, allowing women to join their communities for prayers on the Sabbath..
Recently, the Eruv saga took a wild turn. A new application was lodged with council and some residents framed their opposition to it a leaflet. They claimed there was a real “risk of an Eruv morphing into a religious enclave” Furthermore, “By the very nature of an Eruv, the process of segregation, as opposed to integration must take place.” And it was “establishing a modern version of the ghetto...and eventual expulsion of secular people who live within the Eruv.” These claims were essentially repeated to the packed meeting at Council.
The original translation of Eruv as a wall probably contributed to this misunderstanding. However, a big part of the problem was that opponents of the Eruv relied on internet research to understand their own neighbours’ religion and culture, rather than talking to them directly. One local Rabbi has challenged his congregation to reflect on how much or how little effort we as a Jewish community make to connect with our neighbors. On the other hand, we heard at the meeting from a warm-hearted Jewish teacher and mother named Megan who actually knew the names of all the diverse people who live on her street.. She talked passionately about how the Eruv helps her connect with the wider community, rather than being divisive. A young lady who was not Jewish passionately echoed Megan’s sentiments.
It was hard to tell which way the tense meeting would go. One opponent argued that the original refusal was the decision of the umpire and must be respected. One councillor argued that this was all about human rights. An Anglican minister argued this was about religious freedom. Another councillor argued this was not about tolerance or rights, it was about plastic conduits! I think asserting that “the issue is categorically not what the other person is saying", is one of the most annoying tactics to use in a conflict, cross cultural or otherwise. Clearly for the 200 people in the room is was about needs, process and principles, not just plastic.
A stand out comment was made by a councillor who had lived near a mosque in the inner city. He talked about how he made friends with the people at the Mosque and there were no problems. In response to the concerns about a religious enclave and objections to the plastic conduits, he asked rhetorically, “really?!”
In the end, the vote was eight for the Eruv and two against. There was a great feeling of joy in the room for those who won.
I approached an elderly Jewish woman who had spoken against the Eruv on the ground that it would create a Ghetto. I listened to her politely. She told me to get with the times, and embrace the modern idea of assimilation. I held my tongue. I wanted to say that in fact in these times, we longer expect people to hide their differences. This conversation was on Tuesday night, Australian time. By the next morning the results of the US election were known and it seemed she was up to date with the Trump era while I stuck in the past age of Multiculturalism. I don’t accept that this is the case. Trump’s attitudes to women and certain non-whites, in my view, represents a fading (yet substantial) relic, still putting up one last fight. Practically all the speakers against the Eruv were angry, people of advanced age. The world has changed to embrace difference, but we need to fight to keep the change and foster greater acceptance of diversity or at least tolerance. On Tuesday night on the North Shore of Sydney, we had one very sweet small victory. More to come!