What sensible Jew?

col-dvir-abramovichDVIR ABRAMOVICH

READING through The Age interviews with Alex Fein (“The Sensible Jew”), I could hardly contain my bemusement. Fein’s evidence-light prosecutorial indictment of the community is riddled with omissions and sweeping contentions and that are unsustainable.

Fein states, “Australian Jews suffocate communal debate through self-censorship”. Whether it is in youth movements, synagogues, sporting associations, educational programs, young leadership forums, newsletters, conferences, informal gatherings, there is no shortage of outlets for debate.

Recall the public debate concerning the Gaza disengagement. And this month an Israeli Jew, an Israeli Arab and a Christian Palestinian spoke at various functions.

There are annually about 2000 events that are open to the Jewish public and explore every dimension of Jewish life.

In addition, the young are unafraid to air their views, even if Fein labelled Jewish students’ protest at the play Seven Jewish Children as “rabid, ethnic sloganeering”.

Last week Gary Samowitz, 27, was appointed an AJN columnist and some Jewish Community Council of Victoria executive members are in their 30s.

In 2007, Jewish members of Parliament, judges and unionists declared: “We endorse free speech and diversity within the Jewish community … Australian Jewry is a ‘broad church’ and most communal roof bodies include a wide range of opinions.”

Fein trots out a commentator named Captain Pugwash (religious/gender unknown) to imply that their abusive postings are somehow symptomatic of the community. She states that because of a small number of nameless visitors, “intolerance of debate” was “typical of something quite disturbing” within the community. This unjustly tarnishes everyone.

Fein says that community leaders appear “to stifle debate”. Where’s the proof?

Fein states that some blog readers “felt that if their opinions were made public, they would be publicly shamed, ridiculed, or defamed”. By who?

Fein evokes the bogeyman of the aggressive and conservative community leaders. What is Fein implying? A posse of Jewish leaders who meet to review statements that they dislike and then plan a strategic campaign of vilification?

Fein carelessly wonders if a bullying mentality is embedded in the community and feels the need to alert The Age readers that our community is not a violent one. Yet she says that she was shocked “that there was enough fear to keep a significant number quiet”. Fear?¬† Such overblown rhetoric is exceedingly unfair.

Following Fein’s half-baked logic, the Jewish community leadership is in a vice — it can’t protest anything since it will be accused of being “heavy-handed”.

Perhaps they should consult with Fein about the proper way to engage with the media since her concerns are about “poor public relations” and because she believes community spokespeople “are unaware of basic PR”.

In a patronising tone, Fein preaches that what the community needs is a “likeable Jewish face”. Should we run an Australian Idol-type contest to select a likeable Jewish face?

Fein states that the blog’s objective is to be “the first online open forum for debate” on subjects relating to our community that “was going down a dangerous path”. Dangerous? But blogs are the exact opposite of an open platform since the blogger censors and deletes any posts they wish.

Fein depicts herself as a whistleblower that breaks ranks and battles for what she defines as moderate, inclusive opinion. She writes, “moderates are just less motivated than their radical brothers and sisters to go media whoring.”

In the June interview, Fein observed that the response by the Jewish community to perceived anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel reinforces “anti-Jewish” prejudice. In one entry she noted that “certain types of anti-Semitism are self-generating and self-perpetuating”.

Imagine the outrage if anyone said that reacting to sexism or racism generates and perpetuates such ills. As the victims know, the only people who perpetuate anti-Semitism are anti-Semites.

Fein argues for better representation but does not want to get directly involved. Instead of shouting from the margins, she should engage with the institutions she lambastes.

She’ll find that although some may disagree with her, in the spirit of Jewish tradition, she would be no less welcome for that. And she can sleep easy — no-one will call upon the Jewish elders to visit any retribution on her.


Dr Dvir Abramovich, the Jan Randa senior lecturer in Hebrew and Jewish studies, is director of The University of Melbourne’s Centre for Jewish History and Culture. He is also president of the Australian Association of Jewish Studies.