A plea for tolerance from all sides

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THE Limmud UK conference I attended in December 2017 was an incredible display of the richness of Jewish thought and culture, and above all, a valuable opportunity for social and ideological growth.

Limmud, a global institution, values equality and inclusivity, evident not only in the content and number of talks on issues of feminism, LGBT rights, and political and religious pluralism, but in participants’ openness to each other’s ideas and eagerness to step outside their echo chambers and have their perceptions challenged.

However, it was through this that I learned an important lesson about safe spaces.

At one particular panel discussing Jewish women taking on the patriarchy, questions from the audience were submitted by passing post-it-notes to the front, ensuring anonymity and that all questions would be taken.

The panel was prefaced with an announcement that, in order to create a space safe for women to talk outside of the male narrative, men were asked not to participate and only to observe and absorb. Unfortunately, one individual felt marginalised.

A man raised his hand and asked whether he would be able to ask a question later, explaining that owing to a learning difficulty, he had trouble with handwriting and could not submit a question on paper.

The chair answered that there would be an opportunity for spoken questions at the end, and then reiterated the plea for men to remain spectators.

Come the end of an empowering panel discussion, questions were permitted from the floor. With a moment remaining, the man raised his hand and requested permission to speak. As the chair began to explain that they were pressed for time, a woman called out from the audience “Do you identify as a woman!?”

The building aggression flustered the man, who answered no but that he felt voiceless and oppressed, to which another audience member shouted, “How do you think we feel?”

The atmosphere in the room had grown tense and uncomfortable, which only increased when the man left the room crying. In a space where lengthy measures were taken to ensure the comfort of everybody, this one person had felt unsafe.

From this experience, it became clear to me that extremes of inclusivity can result in the exclusion of others. The fault is not of Limmud, which remains a progressive and open forum, but it is important to acknowledge that it is not immune to outcomes of exclusion or discrimination.

Just as it is difficult to find the one cholent recipe that pleases all the guests at a Shabbat table, so too is it hard to create a space in which everyone feels comfortable. However, safe spaces are harboured when voices of oppression are removed or diminished.

From including LGBTQI+ education in Jewish schools, to synagogues allowing greater participation of women in services, we need to educate both authority figures and community members, as well as people in marginalised groups who believe no space exists for them in the Modern Orthodox world.

The saying “two Jews, three synagogues” is more apt today than we realise, and if no single shule can cater for the ideological quirks and qualms of every individual, then at least there should be options through which the community at large can endeavour to.

I sat on a panel at Limmud UK that discussed the Modern Orthodox utopia for LGBTQI+ Jews, where so many currently feel there is no place for them in the observant Jewish world.

We shared a vision in which every Shabbat table would be a safe space for LGBTQI+ Jews, who would not have to decide before they go to dinner whether to pretend to be someone they’re not.

We conjured an image of a Jewish community in which rabbis put aside their fears of political repercussions in favour of encouraging an inclusive environment for all Jews. We imagined a future where LGBTQI+ leaders and shlichim of youth movements can offer an equal but different Jewish family ideal for young people to look up to.

These dreams can become a reality but require bravery from both sides. Bravery from people who require safe spaces, to accept that not every conversation can avoid offending someone; and bravery of community leaders to put aside politics and convention to accommodate for new ideas.

Perhaps the secret to Limmud UK’s success as a welcoming environment begins with trust. As a community, we need to trust in our own tolerance (most strikingly demonstrated in the statistics garnered from the recent marriage equality postal survey) and be more prepared to make compromises.

The left should be cognisant of its rigidity when it comes to imposing rules that attempt to include but inevitably alienate, and the right should trust in the resilience of the community to change, and that small strides towards inclusivity are only going to strengthen us and encourage more young people to engage in today’s Judaism.

However, it is crucial to note that equal opportunity does not mean equal opinions. Limmud UK was valuable in this sense, as there were ideas across the spectrum on Israel, UK politics, religious observance, scriptural interpretations, social action and others, which is important in fostering productive dialogue.

Limmud-Oz in Sydney and Melbourne continues this work, but it would be productive for other institutions like the Jewish schools and learning centres to embrace this cross-ideological interaction. This element of trust within the community is the springboard to safer spaces and should be acknowledged.

Being unafraid to challenge boundaries is important for our community. We should trust in our cohesiveness and unity, and leaders should embody the ideological bravery displayed by others around the world, in Israel and the USA in particular, who have paved the way for comfortable progress.

We must adapt to avoid alienating young people but also recognise where imposition of safe-space rules can become draconian and counterproductive.

And we must be willing to learn from times where this does not go to plan.

LIORA BARAM from Sydney, is currently studying in Edinburgh. She attended Limmud UK in December 2017 representing Limmud Sydney. The next Limmud event in Sydney will be held on June 17.