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Lessons For Living: The Courage of Hope

The Courage of Hope

I grew up at a time when antisemitism was retreating – at least in public expression. Democracy and liberalism appeared to be dominant and spreading. Political scientist, Francis Fukuyama spoke confidently about the “End of history”.

Since October 7, I have keenly realised that history has apparently reverted back to the most primeval of times. I sadly appreciate the fear felt by my mother, who as a young girl, had acid thrown at her by antisemitic teenagers in Lithuania. I understand, in a new way, my father’s sonorous silence at the incomprehensible loss of his mother, brothers, sister and so many family members in the Holocaust.

I certainly never expected to feel this way in Australia. I had, after all, left racist, apartheid South Africa to live in a society that championed justice, equality and safety for all. Yet, this all changed while watching a mob outside the Sydney Opera House on October 9 burning flags and shouting obscenities against Jews.

It can’t get much worse than this, I thought, for Australian Jews. But then we witnessed the violent pro-Palestinian provocateurs in my own Melbourne suburb as we welcomed in the Shabbat. Surely this was the worst it could get - but then the protesters outside the Melbourne City Council (MCC) meeting last week broke my heart yet again.

Many Jews already felt insecure when wearing a kippah or Star of David in public and have avoided doing so. Like so many, I have been befuddled at how anti-Israelism has swiftly segued into anti-Judaism, and the targeting of individual Jews. I feel a sharp sorrow that Melbourne’s proud Jewish community is being intimidated by mobs, graffiti and anti-Jewish words.

Jews stand accused of using 'money’ and ‘power’ to manipulate and exploit Melbourne City Council (MCC) and politicians, of spreading their “tentacles” into the arts and music world. Suddenly Jewish philanthropy towards hospitals, theatres and galleries is presented not as charity, but cynical manipulation.

Polarisation and extremism, the toxic twins of our age, are now treated as celebrities.

Jewish Australians who attended the MCC meeting didn’t come to belittle and insult their detractors, or shout anti-Islamic tropes. Yet they still needed police protection just to exit the building as epithets about ‘rich Jews’ were aimed at them.

They almost all acknowledged the huge loss of life in Gaza; they certainly didn’t celebrate the killing of innocents, as Hamas supporters have done here and in the Middle East.

The Jewish community feels deep despair at the terrible loss of life and destruction in Gaza including the loss of life around aid trucks just yesterday. Yet, we also recognise that when faced with a diabolical enemy seeking to destroy you, your family and your people and which has a flagrant disregard for the lives of its own people, then you are in an impossible situation. If you stand up against your aggressor, you are seen as an aggressor; if you back down and proclaim a ceasefire to save the innocents being used as human shields, you will again become their target. This is no fantasy - Hamas has stated numerous times it wants to repeat October 7, again and again.

Hardly any of those who spoke in favour of the MCC resolution acknowledged the terrible price that Israel is paying for a war it didn’t start - in the loss of its citizens, its soldiers, the tens of thousands of displaced people and the trauma of a society which has witnessed savage barbarism and the captivity of hundreds of its innocents.

I draw comfort from the members of Melbourne City Council who not only recognised the acute suffering of the Gazan population, but also the severe trauma of the people of Israel, and especially the aching angst of Melbourne’s Jewish community in the face of vituperative antisemitism being experienced at our university campuses, schools, businesses and on the streets of Melbourne. Sadly, the exponential rise of antisemitism continues to significantly outstrip the horrible increase in Islamophobia.

Noble pronouncements about peace from any town or city in Australia will not bring real Israeli-Palestinian peace any closer. However, we do have a proud record of multiculturalism and interfaith engagement in Melbourne. We cannot resolve the complexities of the conflict of the Middle East here in Australia but we can work to maintain social cohesion and peace in our continent.  To listen to the other is the beginning of repairing the bridges that have been broken.

We all need to lower the heightened temperature of our discourse and reduce the anger and outrage on social media. The intimidation of Jews and those who support them should be totally unacceptable for any civil society. The pusillanimous and toxic comments of The Islamic Council of Victoria and its President, in its failure to acknowledge the savagery of the outlawed Hamas and its unprovoked attack on Israel on October 7, increases rather than reduces the hatred on our streets. Another lost opportunity to show leadership rather than obfuscation.

Despite the excruciatingly deep divide between Jews and Muslims, I continue to believe that the warring sons and daughters of Abraham can once again find a way to reject the toxicity of religious extremism and restore the ways of peace and harmony in both of their great traditions. Isaac and Ishmael did it centuries ago - surely, we can do it again!

One of the enduring words of Judaism is “Hope”. We remain a people of hope despite centuries of suffering. As the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said, “Optimism is the belief that the world is changing for the better; hope is the belief that, together, we can make the world better. It needs no courage to be an optimist, but it takes a great deal of courage to hope.”

Shabbat Shalom, enjoy your weekend.

Rabbi Ralph

This article is based on one written for the AIR-Australia Israel Review. If you would like to receive copies of this publication with its in-depth analysis of the complex challenges of Israel as well as their impact on Australia go online to:[email protected]