Breaking bread – Australia at its best

NSW Jewish Board of Deputies chief executive Vic Alhadeff.

IT was Australia at its best. On a recent Friday night in Sydney, leaders of the NSW Young Nationals, Young Greens, Young Liberals and Young Labor walked into The Great Synagogue, writes Vic Alhadeff.

They were there to attend the Shabbat service – for the majority of participants, for the first time in their lives – and were joined by representatives of a range of sectors across civil society, from the Young Sikh Professional Network, Youth Parliament of the World’s Religions and Sydney Alliance to the University of Sydney Students Representative Council, the Australian Taxpayers Alliance, the Australasian Union of Jewish Students and the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter Day Saints.

Approximately 120 guests all up, the unprecedented gathering of an eclectic cross-section of this state’s current young-adult leadership – which must inevitably include a healthy number of this country’s future political leaders – came together under the auspices of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies. The event was the latest iteration of its program of advancing social harmony and respect for diversity by building bridges between the many differing sectors of society and the multiple and varied streams which comprise the robust Australian body politic.

Moving to an adjoining hall for dinner after the Rabbi Benjamin Elton-led service, the speeches by leaders of the four major political parties were uniformly articulate and collectively inspiring, the common denominator and powerfully unifying factor of the presentations being a declared passion and commitment to make this country an even better place.

Young Labor’s Paul Mills poignantly described the hardships which his Filipino mother had endured during his childhood, evoked the value of “giving back” and commended Labor stalwart Dr HV Evatt’s pivotal role at the United Nations in 1947 in recommending partition as a precursor to the establishment of the State of Israel. “It dawned on me that Labor is strong when its relationship with the Jewish community is strong,” he noted.

Young Liberals president Harry Stutchbury invoked the importance of protecting Australia’s democratic institutions and the freedom to be able to have a go, while Young Nationals president Jock Sowter pointed out with pride that his party is one of the last remaining agrarian parties in the world. He also apologised unreservedly for the infiltration of the NSW Nationals by right-wing extremists late last year – until they were identified and summarily expelled from the party.

“I unequivocally apologise for any grief and disrespect your members and community may have experienced,” he said, directing his remarks to the Board of Deputies. “Every community deserves the right to live peacefully without fear of bigotry and prejudice. I am deeply regretful of any pain, offence and anguish caused as a result of these events. The NSW Young Nationals has zero tolerance for any views which espouse bigotry on race, ethnicity, religious or cultural grounds. Those views have absolutely no place in our party, no place in our society and no place in our country.”

And Young Greens representative Damiya Hayden related that she had converted to Reform Judaism as a teenager “because of the emphasis on ethical behaviour, social justice, continuous learning and the belief that the way we manifest our faith is by being kind. The principles and values that brought me to Reform Judaism are the principles and values that brought me to the Greens. I strongly believe we can turn things around together,” she said. “Together we can create a safer, fairer, healthier, kinder world.”

The recurring message from all four leaders was an abiding commitment to tikkun olam – a determination to heal the world through the perspectives and prisms proffered by each of their respective parties. And that encouraging notion encapsulated the theme of the evening.

Both New South Wales and Australia have recently emerged from bruising and often-toxic election campaigns. Campaigns which were marred by candidates’ posters being scurrilously defaced with swastikas and Hitler moustaches; by candidates indulging in racist commentary; by candidates being targeted with unfounded allegations and insidious threats.

Compare and contrast the tenor of those campaigns and the many vituperative exchanges and commentaries to that recent Friday night in Sydney, which saw Australia at its best: 120 young political leaders across the spectrum proudly owning the policies and positions of their parties, while literally breaking bread, exchanging views, exchanging cards and sharing their experiences, and with all four speakers citing the parallels which exist between their party’s values and Jewish values. It was a moment in time – an event which spelt faith in the future.

Vic Alhadeff is CEO of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies.