Saturday, December 05, 2015
Saturday, September 12, 2015
Two people, initially created as one, born of no parents, with no religion, separated from each other at birth. They walked the earth 2000 years before the first Jew was born, and 2500 years before we were proclaimed a people at Mt Sinai. Their names were Adam and Eve. According to the Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 29:1), today is their birthday.
The words ‘Hayom Harat Olam,’ “Today the world was brought into being” mark the creation of the first human soul. The Talmud asks in Masechet Sanhedrin, "Why was only a single specimen of man created first? To teach us that he who destroys a single soul destroys a whole world and that he who saves a single soul saves a whole world; Man was also created alone so that no race or class may claim a nobler ancestry, saying, 'Our father was born first'; and, finally, to give testimony to the greatness of the Lord, who caused the wonderful diversity of mankind to emanate from one type. And why was Adam created last of all beings? To teach him humility; for should he ever become arrogant, let him remember that the little fly preceded him in the order of creation." – Talmud, Sanhedrin viii. 4-9)
The Yalkut Shimoni elaborates on this idea by stating God formed Adam out of dust from all over the world—yellow clay, white sand, black loam, and red soil. Therefore no one can declare to any people that they do not belong since this soil is the source from which we all emerged.
There are more texts in this vein which go to great lengths to express the idea that all mankind is descended from one Adam, a being who was neither male nor female, whose body held the potential to be a vessel for all future genders, races, and possibilities of human identity.
This principle, that all mankind originates from one, exists in many faiths, and is also enshrined in the pre-amble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognises the “inherent dignity and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.”
The first article of this declaration which has been endorsed by almost every nation on earth states, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
The Guinness Book of Records describes the Declaration as the world's "Most Translated Document." Even though it is not legally binding, the Declaration has been adopted in or has influenced most national constitutions since 1948 and served as the foundation for a growing number of national laws and international laws.
Sometimes I read it to my children as a bedtime story.
That said, in spite of this desire for mankind to be colour blind, articulated in both Jewish and civil law, so many events have occurred in the past year to show the opposite is true. I’d like to explore cases from two different countries that will be familiar to many of you here today.
Twenty years after Nicky Winmar famously lifted his jumper and declared ''I'm black - and I'm proud to be black!'' the response of Adam Goodes to a racist taunt from a 13 year old girl has now become a defining moment in Australian race relations. The day following the incident, Goodes explained his response:
“It's not the first time on the footy field I've been referred to as a monkey or an ape. It was shattering. This week is a celebration of our people and our culture. Last night, I was able to make a stand for myself and say racism has a face, and it’s a 13-year-old girl, but it's not her fault.
She's 13, she's still so innocent. I don't put any blame on her. Unfortunately it's what she hears, the environment she's grown up in that has made her think it's ok to call people names.”
A year later, Goodes was honoured with the title of Australian of the Year for his activism against racism. Whilst he was honoured by many, a small minority started booing him at AFL matches, the trauma of which led to him taking some time out of football in August this year. Amongst a great deal of commentary about this, I was incredibly moved to read these words of Wiradjuri journalist Stan Grant in the Guardian:
“I may be overly sensitive. I may see insult where none is intended. Maybe my position of relative success and privilege today should have healed deep scars of racism and the pain of growing up Indigenous in Australia. The same could be said of Adam. And perhaps that is right. But this is how Australia makes us feel.
Estranged in the land of our ancestors, marooned by the tides of history on the fringes of one of the richest and demonstrably most peaceful, secure and cohesive nations on earth.
The “wealth for toil” we praise in our anthem has remained out of our reach. Our position at the bottom of every socio-economic indicator tragically belies the Australian economic miracle.
From childhood I often cringed against my race. To be Aboriginal was to be ashamed. Ashamed of our poverty. Ashamed of the second-hand clothes with the giveaway smell of mothballs and another boy’s name on the shirt collar. Ashamed of the way my mother and grandmother had to go to the Smith Family or Salvation Army for food vouchers.”
I have met with a number of inspiring elders over the past few years through my participation in the Yorta Yorta Beyachad program at Mount Scopus. These moving words of Stan Grant are not new to me, and underlie how far we still need to travel as a nation before the aspirations of our anthem are realised.
The country I’d like to explore next is an ocean away from us, but very close to the hearts of many in this room. From 1948, its government had the dubious reputation of being one of the most racist in the world. I am speaking of South Africa. A country ruled by the British or Dutch since the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck in 1652 until the end of apartheid in 1994. Being one of what sometimes feel like a minority of Jews in Melbourne who is not South African, the history of this country has always fascinated me. Earlier this year, I had the privilege of visiting this most beautiful and challenging of places as a guest of Limmud South Africa.
Before my visit, most of what I knew about the country was based on memories of watching the Power of One and the 1995 Rugby world cup with many South African school friends who ate Biltong and lived in Doncaster. I remember the symbolism of Mandela wearing the once hated springbok jersey, and seeing the now multi-racial rugby team win over New Zealand. It was an incredibly inspiring moment demonstrating the power of reconciliation.
Last week, I re-watched the final minutes of the 1995 rugby world cup where South Africa defeated New Zealand. The first thing the Australian commentator said when the final whistle was blown was; “It's Over. A triumph for the rainbow nation.” This made me think, Is South Africa a Rainbow nation? 20 years after the end of apartheid, has it finally overcome its demons of history? Was this nation that categorised all of its people into black, white and coloured for so many years, able to implement the idea in Talmud Sanhedrin, that we are all created equal and are all from the same source?
On one hand, I found many examples to answer this question in the affirmative. Most striking was my visit to Constitutional Hill which is the site of a former Johannesburg prison that incarcerated hundreds of black and white members of the ANC, three of whom went on to become Nobel Peace Prize laureates. Today it is home to the highest court in the land. The Constitutional Court enforces what is arguably one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. Not only does it guarantee the traditional civil rights such as the right to vote, free expression, the rights of association and assembly, but also important social rights such as the right to clean water, health and to be gay or lesbian without being discriminated against. It ruled in favour of same sex marriage in 2005, passed strong laws against the death penalty, and has even tried a deputy president whilst in office. This court was an incredible prize to all who participated in the struggle for liberation.
|Visit to the Constitutional Court with former prisoner Alan Fine|
However, just outside the court, there were signs all over the city saying “Johannesburg says no to Xenophobia". These were a reference to a spate of racist attacks against foreigners in South Africa from Zimbabwe, and Congo, Somalia and Mozambique. 7 people lost their lives to this violence in April 2015.
The issues that motivated those who perpetrated the violence against the foreigners included competition for jobs, commodities, housing and nationalism. Clearly in these cases, even though both the victims and perpetrators shared the same skin colour, there was enough difference within the ethnic identities and lived reality to bring them to such tragic consequences.
In addition to this phenomenon of xenophobia, the #RhodesMustFall movement which successfully lobbied for the removal of the Cecil Rhodes statue from the University of Cape Town this year has generated much discussion around the issues of white privilege in South Africa. These have included strong debates about the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) initiative, which gives preference to Black and Coloured South Africans in the awarding of government contracts and university places, as well as the strong feelings of alienation by black students who are still learning in courses where Afrikaans is the language of instructions such as Stellenbosch University.
In light of these issues, of all the descriptions that are used to describe the South African people today on their journey to liberation, ‘a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world’ are not the words I would choose.
Even though we have only explored two countries today, stories about social, political and economic equality based on race can be easily found in almost every country on earth. With this in mind, I’d like to share a simple hope for the coming year 5776.
Many people of conscience throughout the world would like our planet to return to being a Garden of Eden without racial discrimination, but before that can happen, we need to acknowledge the legacy of racism, the privilege that some races still hold over others and the tikkun required before we can again return to an idea we are celebrating today on the creation of the first human.
May we all one day live in a world that is colour blind, where a person is judged by the content of their character and not the colour of their skin.
Saturday, September 14, 2013
Monday, July 22, 2013
A: Welcome and support them in the hope that they will never be a victim again
B: Tell them you can’t help them, because someone else is also suffering on the other side of the world
C: Send them to the poorest guy in the street, and tell them to ask for help there.
Wednesday, June 06, 2012
The first is that he was a wise person. We learn this from the first Book of Kings where it says:
|Reuven Flescher at the age of 15, Polishing Diamonds in Petach Tikva|
Starting a new life in Australia at the age of 29 with a wife and two young children was not an easy task. Both my parents worked incredibly hard to ensure that my brother and I were able to attend Mount Scopus for our entire education.
|Ittay's Brit Mila in 1978|
With that in mind, May you my two children Eitan Reuven and Nava Shulamit, be just like Ephraim and Menashe, siblings with a great love for one another, and with a strong Jewish identity that I pass on to you, that I inherited from my parents, stemming from our language, culture and history. May these gifts lead you to do all that you can to leave this world in a better place than it is now, at the time you have arrived.
Friday, January 06, 2012
The seed for these protests began in June 2011 when Israeli film student Daphni Leef received a notice to vacate the apartment that she had rented in Tel Aviv for the previous three years. After several weeks of searching to no avail for a new apartment within reach of her financial situation, Leef discovered that the rental prices in the entire Tel Aviv metropolitan area had doubled in the previous five years. At the time, Daphni was working 14 hours a day on a reality TV show ironically named “Your house is worth more.” In realising that even a person like herself, from a 'good' family with an honest job could not afford to live in Gush Dan where rents had risen by 49% in the past 5 years (42% of Israelis live in the Gush Dan region), she started a Facebook group inviting anyone else in the same situation to join her in a tent on Habima Square on July 14. (see ).
These protests gradually grew larger until they peaked on the night of September 3rd where 460,000 Israelis marched for Social Justice. An opinion poll released by Channel 10 television showed that 88% of respondents said they supported the movement.
Daphni spoke of the idea in this TED Talk as being particularly significant in shaping her political philosophy. “You know, in the middle ages, in England, when you met a very poor person, that person would be described as an “unfortunate.” Literally, somebody who had not been blessed by fortune, an unfortunate. Nowadays, particularly in the United States, if you meet someone at the bottom of society, they may, unkindly, be described as a “loser.” There is a real difference between an unfortunate and a loser. And that shows 400 years of evolution in society, and our belief in who is responsible for our lives. It’s no longer the gods, it’s us. We’re in the driving seat. That’s exhilarating if you’re doing well, and very crushing if you’re not.” – Alain de Botton.
The demands of the protests were initially for the government to do something about housing prices. As more people joined their movement, they articulated further demands that were formed out of many dialogue circles and round tables.The round tables during the tent protests were conducted in a manner that is unlike any discussions I have ever had with Israelis. Inspired by the 15M movement which brought over 7 million Spaniards out to the streets in May 2011, they adopted and invented a number of unique hand signals in order facilitate up to 200 people being part of one discussion.These emoticons have now spread throughout the world through the occupy movement.
One of the best sessions I attended at Limmud was run by Daphni Leef and Barak Segal, where they broke with the traditional lecture style format and arranged all the chairs in the room into circles around ten. They then taught us the speaking legend:
Waiving your hands upwards – Agreeing
Waiving your hands downwards – Not agreeing
Crossing your hands – Veto (I will not participate in this initiative)
Rolling hands – Get on with it, I’m not getting any younger.
Raising your hand – I want to speak (the table instructor will note and write down)
Firing with Fingers – I have a brief comment – Only allowed with the permission of the speaker
Time out sign – Technical intervention
We then participated in a Round Table discussion which gave all involved a powerful taste of what direct democracy feels like. Under the rules of Round Table facilitation, all present must speak, which in itself is a big step forward from the far too passive approach many citizens around the world have towards their stake in democracy. Next, each person spoke to the person on their right for 5 minutes, after which their partner introduced them to the group. After this, each person turned to their left and shared an economic problem they had experienced. Topics that came up included the source of the London Riots, rises in student fees and the nature of capitalism. These problems were then shared back with the main circle, after which we again split into smaller groups to start researching solutions to each of these problems.
In the tent protest, the suggestions of these teams went on to become part of a detailed report by a committee of 60 economists led by Yossi Yonah, professor of education at Ben-Gurion University, and Avia Spivak, professor of economics at Ben-Gurion University and former deputy governor of the Bank of Israel. As opposed to the Trachtenberg Committee established by the government, the recommendations of the Spivak-Yonah Committee were very much by the people, for the people.The use of round tables has now spread throughout Israel through organisations such as Arvut.org and the Israel 2021.
Another one of my favourite presenters at Limmud was Ruth Calderon from Alma, the Secular Yeshiva in Tel-Aviv, who spoke movingly about the place of humanistic Jewish ideals in the slogans of the tent protestors. To see her point, compare the slogans of the many social justice campaigns around the world.
“Give me Liberty or Give me Death” – Patrick Henry, American Revolutionary War, 1775
“Libertie Egalitie Fraternitie” – French Revolution 1789
“We are not goods in the hands of politicians and bankers” – M15 Protests in Spain
“Action for Australia” – GetUp (Australia)
“We Are the 99%” - Occupy Movement (Global)
Noting that the similarity between the concerns of these other social justice movements and the tent protestors, it was amazing to see the Israelis use decidedly Jewish language to make their point with slogans such as: “The nation demands social justice העם דורש צדק חברתי”, “We want justice, not charity רוצים צדק לא רוצים צדקה” and finally “ All of Israel are tents for one another,” a play on words from the famous Talmudic quote, “All of Israel are responsible for one another.” (BT Shavuot 39a).
In addition to these highly prophetic slogans that would seem for more at home in the mouths of Amos, Jeremiah or Isaiah than the streets of secular Tel-Aviv, Calderon spoke proudly of the many Talmud study sessions facilitated by Alma in between the tents and the Kabbalat Shabbat services held each Friday night.
In reflecting on the remarkable events of Summer 2011 in Israel, many have decried the protesters as being naive idealists in calling for a welfare state that Israel can’t afford, whose protest will not achieve anything until they can form a political party and win big in an election. But Daphni doesn’t see it this way. She sees the goal of this protest as not changing the government, because she knows that this is not a right- left issue. What she is trying to do is to make sure that the concerns of the protesters are at the core of every decision made in the Knesset, no matter which side is in power. Acknowledging that the change she is advocating for will take a generation, the protest movement has recently created a new non-parliamentary movement תנועה called ב' זה אוהל that will continue the struggle over the cost of living and the values of Israeli culture and democracy. The movement will form a non-profit company in which the public will be able to buy shares and which will act as a lobbying group for social affairs.
Together with a number of the first tent protestors, the movement will be headed up by Major (res) Tomer Bohadana, a company commander in the reserves, who was seriously wounded in the Summer of 2006, fighting in the Second Lebanon War. He was evacuated to Rambam hospital in Haifa, and then rushed from the helicopter on a stretcher, with a doctor pressing his neck so he would not bleed to death. Before losing consciousness he saw a group of television crews and photographers, and signalled V for victory with his hand. This became the symbol of the war.
ment, “The foundation of this movement is the understanding that being a citizen in a democracy is not a responsibility that ends with a ballot at election time. This movement will strive to bring about a public debate around the hot topics that were strengthened by Herzl’s response on the eve of the First Zionist Congress in Basel to those who criticised him by saying that “the Zionist movement is entirely a racket, no more!” Herzl replied angrily: “Yes of course! s is bustle. The whole of world history is nothing but tumult: tumult of new ideas advancing. ”
Echoing the words of Herzl, I fervently hope that the new ideas that are being advanced by this movement will be the saviour of Zionism. By combining the best Jewish humanistic ideals epitomised in the direct democracy of the round tables, combined with the ancient vision of the prophets for a more just society, these young Israelis are showing the world how one should say Social Justice in Hebrew.