jewin' the fat

Oxfam are Oxymorons
August 24, 2009, 2:58 PM
Filed under: Comment, Israel | Tags: , , , , , ,

My brother-in-law announced quite casually one Friday night that he was planning to run 100km in under 24 hours. Through the bush. All in one go. At first, our family went through the five stages of an unexpected Shabbat announcement.

Shock.                                                                                                                                 Disbelief.                                                                                                                           Ridicule.                                                                                                                  Questioning.                                                                                                                    Acceptance.

In the name of Oxfam Australia, he and three of his friends were going to push themselves to their physical limits, along with hundreds of others, to raise money  for less fortunate communities in the Asia Pacific. Which, according to the Jewish spirit of generosity and focus on Tikkun Olam and Tzedakah, would have been an inspiring, fulfilling way to spend a weekend.

Except that a few days ago, I read a disturbing news story online which made me reconsider. Oxfam International dumped Sex and the City star Kristen ‘Charlotte’ Davis from its corps of celebrity ambassadors. Why? Well according to the original New York Post story, because she is currently contracted as the ‘face’ of Ahava skin care products, which is produced beyond the Green Line.

This ‘disputed’ territory, namely Kibbutz Mizpe Shalem on the Dead Sea coast, according to Oxfam is the site of “settlement trade”, which they “remain opposed to”. According to a source quoted in the NY Post, “From an Oxfam perspective, Ahava is a polarising company and Kristin shouldn’t be involved with it.”

Kristen Davis (bottom left) with protesters from CODEPINK, a grassroots women's peace activist group. (PHOTO: The Courier Mail)

Kristen Davis (bottom left) with protesters from CODEPINK, a grassroots women's peace activist group. (PHOTO: The Courier Mail)




According to a representative from Oxfam Australia, the following statement stands as the ‘truth’ of the issue:

 “I would like to assure you that the NY Post story (“Sex star, Oxfam split”) is not correct: Oxfam remains committed to maintaining Kristin as our ambassador and Kristin remains committed to Oxfam. Furthermore, this issue in no way changes Oxfam’s and Kristin’s future plans together. We do not currently have plans for publicity work while we work through the Ahava issue. It would indeed be a shame for this incident to be used by others to distract from her great work with us.”

Am I missing something?

If we are going to say there is a conflict of interest (namely, that the operating systems of Ahava and the ideology of Oxfam are in opposition), then why did Oxfam accept Davis’ services as an Ambassador? It’s not like Davis is being paid for her services – in fact, Oxfam benefits greatly from the fact that Davis is a television and movie star (who can forget her turn in Melrose Place), and probably chose her to capitalise on her fame. But then again, if she isn’t being paid to represent Oxfam (as she is with Ahava), is her personal ideology, or any divergence from the ideology of Oxfam, necessarily an infringement upon a part of the legal or contractual obligations of her volunteer service? What about the thousands of volunteers who walk the streets collecting signatures – does Oxfam care about their personal affiliations? Or for that matter, the hundreds of paid staff employed by this humanitarian company?

I have to admit, the idea of raising thousands of dollars to build clean water filters in schools, or providing micro finance to women in underprivileged communities is honourable, vital work, that as Australians with the means, I implore our communities to give to generously. But without prejudice? 

Can we afford to deny these deserving communities financial aid on the basis of our political affiliation, or conversely, are we to ignore the unfair politicisation of charity work as we blindly give money to an organisation that no longer sees the wood for the trees? Can we legitimately support certain initiatives, like Oxfam Trailwalkers, while feigning ignorance about the differences between Oxfam’s clear ideological persuasions and our own?

When it comes to Kristin Davis, at what point does it become hypocritical to be paid by an Israeli company, while volunteering for an organisation that raises money for Palestinians?
When it comes to where you donate your ten percent, are we being hypocrites? If you are for a cause, do you automatically need to be against another?
Is humanitarianism a zero sum game?


Punch and Jewdy

At a swanky media party in Melbourne, glass of white in hand, I struck up a conversation with a bright eyed young Melbournian, who had a plan to revolutionise the JC with his own version of Hasbara.

The only problem is that he was beaten to the punch.

Welcome to the cut throat world of JC public diplomacy – where in a surprisingly similar fashion to Israel, confusion abounds, bureaucracy is King, and the debate is most fierce behind closed doors. There are red lines that cannot be crossed, individuals that cannot be pushed aside, and powers-that-be which must be given the last word.

So when I was presented with this community anarchist, I chuckled inside, shaking my head at this kid’s chutzpah – not only at the vision he had, but his having proposed it at all. Of course I smiled warmly as he continued – mostly because I was interested in how exactly he was planning to reinvent the wheel, and succeed where scores had failed before him. But as far as progress relies on unreasonable men looking to change the world around them, I wished him the best, and continued around the party.

But it got me thinking about traditional JC politics, and the mutinous young people who dare to buck convention, and try something different. Like this guy – smart, funny, charismatic, with zero chance of achieving his goal. And not for lack of trying …

Take the example of a young Jewish student leader, experienced and well conditioned by his/her involvement in a youth movement/university body. They have considerable skills and knowledge of informal education/PR/public diplomacy/marketing/demography, are flexible and their message is easily adaptable. They have strong contacts amongst their peers, and are committed to the community. As their tenure as leader comes to a close, they begin to look to continue their involvement as … uh, as a … um …

The reality of the JC is that there is a gap, and filling it is not a priority. There is an extensive investment in our young people, through formal and informal education from preschool to University age, but once they have taken it upon themselves to strike out on their own, the JC, well, lets them.
The current model of JC advocacy (incorporating interests in the Australian Jewish Community and Israel) is inflexible, averse to change or innovative media, and largely unwelcoming of new concepts/partners/parameters. I’m not recommending extreme change, or a shift in focus, but there must be some avenue to incorporate other ideas, individuals and influences. Without evolving in style or form, we will be permitting our next generation’s disinterest in their own community.

There is an entire generation of people who are patronisingly encouraged to be a part of the solution, to be involved, to get their ideas out there, but who are not provided the freedom, resources or support to bring their ideas to fruition. As a result, an apathetic demographic is created, unable to effect the change they see as vital to bring the JC into the future, and thus disinterested in the traditional modes of community involvement. Then the AJN runs an op-ed which criticises this disenfranchised Jewish group, and there is less and less imperative to get involved as their point is reinforced with the communal condemnation of young people as non-contributing community members.

So for the young guy in the bar,  it doesn’t matter what he was proposing. It could have been the next best thing, but without institutionalised encouragement of this entrepreneurial spirit, he would be forced to rely on free media like facebook and blogging, or the generosity of parents, family and friends to get his idea off the ground.

This trend, which sees the increasing bureaucratisation of advocacy in Australia, means that the longer this goes unchecked, the more we have to lose. Already, there is a clear shift away from traditional JC organisations to more grassroots, accesible media, dedicated to and by the sub-culture it represents. There is no good reason why the same voices are given airtime no matter the issue. I for one would like to see a young person talking about young people’s issues – because some how a 60 year old man talking about teen binge drinking just doesn’t ring true. So why are suitable spokespeople so desperately lacking – and why aren’t we doing more to involve those who will eventually be asked to take the reigns?

On the other hand, there is no one effective central body (and therefore no central message), but neither is there a move to delegate particulars to other organisations in an effort to improve dissemination (which without that central message is a moot point). There is no reason for the superfluous, overcompensating bodies that exist, largely side by side and overlapping in purpose, with little or no collaboration: ECAJ, JCCV, ADC, AIJAC, SZC, JBD, ZFA, ZCV, ZYC, AUJS …

Finally, this kind of reshuffle would not only represent more of the community, permit a variety of people to become effective communicaters and ensure the continuation of the communal representative bodies in the inclusion of women, students, young professionals, mothers etc.

It may not be the perfect answer, but I do know that the state of the union is far from perfect, and “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” just ain’t the fix any more.

Reporters without borders (or standards)
August 1, 2009, 10:13 AM
Filed under: Comment, Israel, media | Tags: , , , , ,

It is the curse of the reporter to be attacked ad hominem by those who disagree with the topic of his copy. Too often, the journalist is attacked for elements of the story which are out of their control – photos provided by the photographer, headlines composed by the sub-editor -there is no doubt – it is a professional minefield.

But the following stories are clear examples of poor standards which in the past, have proven to be the undoing of those responsible. As EU Referendum says with regards to this kind of reporting during the Israel-Hezbollah war in 2006:

“Whatever else, the event in Qana was a human tragedy. But the photographs do not show it honestly. Rather, they have been staged for effect, exploiting the victims in an unwholesome manner. In so doing, they are no longer news photographs – they are propaganda.”

And little has changed – Walter Conkrite may have passed on, but the bleeds still lead – except of course, when the bleeder isn’t considered ‘newsworthy’ enough for a by line. One’s inner cynic may have been vindicated somewhat by the July 23 edition of The Sydney Morning Herald, where the laughably titled ‘World Focus’ announced the deaths of fifty two Gazans. For the humanitarian in all of us, it is a merciless reminder of the insignificance of Palestinian lives, to note that on the same day, while headlines screamed the politics of building permits in Jerusalem, and stories on housing settlements garnered half a page, when fifty-two people died at a wedding reception in Gaza, all the tragedy merited was thirty-four words.

The tragedy occurred when a bomb went off at a wedding reception of a relative of Mohammed Dahlan, former security chief in Gaza and now the Palestinian Authority’s new security minister. Interesting, if you look at the context in Hamas-run Gaza, where political opponents (namely Fatah supporters) are tortured or executed for alleged collusion with Israel by Hamas. So when a Fatah minister’s family fall victim to a bomb exploding at a wedding, why doesn’t it meet the standards of newsworthiness?

Sure, the big stories of the day, like municipal housing disputes, or the long queues at security checkpoints are valid and duly concerning, but the deaths of scores of innocent Palestinians should be a leading story.  The question must be asked – Where in the world is Jason Koutsoukis – or does he only report on Gazan casualties when the perpetrators are Israeli?

Captions can make all the difference when reporting on the Middle East, as this photo proves (AFP)
Captions can make all the difference when reporting on the Middle East, as this photo proves (AFP)

AFP photographer Ahmad Gharabli was on hand during violent demonstrations by ultra-Orthodox residents of Jerusalem against the opening of a parking lot on the Jewish Sabbath, and against the case handling of an ultra-orthodox woman, who was accused of child abuse. The photo he snapped, spoke volumes, and he captioned the photo as follows:

“An Ultra Orthodox Jewish man gestures during clashes with Israeli forces following demonstrations against the arrest of a woman accused of child abuse in Jerusalem on July 16, 2009. Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews clashed with police for a third day in protest at an ‘unjustified’ arrest of a religious woman and the opening of a parking lot on Saturdays, the Jewish holy day of rest. AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images”

The photo was used used by The Australian in their report to illustrate a July 20 story on US-Israel conflict over East-Jerusalem construction. The caption read as follows:

An Ultra Orthodox Jewish man gestures during clashes with Israeli forces following demonstrations in Jerusalem. Picture: AFP.

The only meaning readers draw from this provocative photo is that Israelis are brazenly defying the US, with one flip of the bird suddenly representative of an entire nation. Did you notice the “demonstrations” had nothing whatsoever to do with the published story? So how can the editor knowingly choose such an unrelated image and make the subtle association on the readers’ behalf – especially when the picture was front and centre on the world home page?

The truth is, new media can be especially murky. The space between comment and fact, the delineation between the skill or professionalism of the writer or journalist, and the un-moderated market place of reader talk back opens up a new can of worms.

Independent operations like New Matilda or ABC Unleashed are amongst those who deliberately blur the lines, and present their case as news created by the people for the people. But without moderation, comments on Middle East related pieces can and do descend into vitriolic, incendiary and largely offensive diatribes, prompting New Matilda to shut down their comment capabilities on Middle East articles, and bringing the debate to ABC Unleashed.

Although they say ‘Don’t believe everything you read’, opinion and knowledge of the Middle East is very much shaped by the content presented by the media. A recent poll conducted by Roy Morgan highlighted this fact, with 49 per cent of respondents admitting to not knowing very much at all about  “the situation” in Israel/Palestine (May 22, 2009).

So why the media role in informing the public is not made more concrete than simply an ethical code? There is a distinct lack of comprehensive regulatory standards when it comes to this kind of reporting, that gives credence to the axiom:

“If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed.  If you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed.”

Pocketbook Zionism and the fifth commandment

As with many children of the Jewish day school system, my childhood was peppered with intriguing anecdotes, and extraordinary stories of a far off Holy Land, where Jews are welcomed into their own nation, and the ground flows freely with milk and honey (I was soon to find out, to my bitter disappointment, that the allegory of flowing dairy foods was merely a metaphor for a land of abundance).

I was also reminded daily, that in my Australian reality my parents were paying good money to send me to a top Jewish day school, and cursed be I should I not take full advantage of the plethora of Jewish and Hebrew based subjects and opportunities (which, to my bitter disappointment, were limited to one or two modern Hebrew classes a week and a little ethno-religious history), get a banging Tertiary entrance mark, become a lawyer-doctor, get married and produce offspring for my parents to dote over on the weekends. It’s the fifth commandment after all – Honour thy Mother and Father (And be damned if you don’t do as they say).

And so it was – for years I was ping-ponging back and forth between the Zionism dream, and the ersatz Diaspora Zionist reality. But like thousands of other young Jews, I broke the mould, defied my parents (by studying Journalism and spending my gap year in Israel. And the summer break in second year. And 10 months at the end of my degree) and became a product of my Jewish Zionist education.

After 12 years, how much actually sinks in?

After 12 years, how much actually sinks in?

But the success story that eventuated was the parental nightmare: highly politicized, staunchly Zionist, with a hopeful entrepeneurial spirit and chomping at the bit to move half way across the world and make their dreams come true. In short, when I called home one warm April day to inform my parents that Israel was my homeland, and Aliyah was the only way up, I was shocked to discover I was talking to a brick wall. And no sooner had I mentioned my intentions, my parents were demanding my return to Australia. Months later and quite begrudgingly, I did arrive back, and quickly understood the reason I felt so trapped.

These days, Jewish parents in Australia invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in their children’s Jewish-Zionist education, which by definition encourages them to ensure their destiny is intertwined with Israel. For most people, that implies donating money to ambulance services and soup kitchens in Jerusalem, or continuing the traditional of providing their children with a Jewish education. For others, it might even include sending their children on a trip to see the country and its people for themselves.

But, for most of these pocket-book Zionists, it is easier to write a cheque the possibility of actually moving to Israel … well, it’s too rash, too extreme, completely out of the question, what about my friends, but I have a job here, I will need to talk to my partner, what would my parents say ….

Well, I know what my parents would say, because they said it. Loud and clear – never mind drug addiction, alcohol abuse, marrying the wrong person, pregnancy out of wedlock – the fulfillment of your Jewish-Zionist identity? Over my dead body. And the sick thing, is that part of me understands the struggle – as a parent, you want to give your child every opportunity, every chance to excel, to realise their potential, to become a strong, independent character with a keen moral compass. You just don’t envision them actually taking on the challenge and achieving that.

So what would your parents say if you told them you wanted to honour their gift to you, and become the person they imagined you would?

Maybe the question to ask is not what your Parents would say, but what they should say. And they should say yes. Because the hardest thing of all for a Jewish child would be to honour hypocrisy.

Sense and Sensibility
July 14, 2009, 11:31 AM
Filed under: Comment, Jewish Community, media | Tags: , , , , , ,

The gang up at the SensibleJew have decided to call it quits, after only a few months of poking at the various holes in the JC leadership fabric. Well, they are calling it an “indefinite hiatus”. And I know that I, for one, am a little bit indifferent to the question that seems to be on a lot of lips… “Who is the mole”?

Well, when I say alot, I mean those who actually have read the blog. Because let’s face it folks, these pesky little literary forays into the cybersphere are really nothing more than the meandering thoughts of people who want to be heard. However, it’s not too often that people want to listen.

So before we bemoan the demise of democracy, and the fall of freedom of speech, let’s stop and consider this with what little common sense we have.

The blog as we know it today, has been around for years, as have a variety of Jewish bloggers, who have taken their opinions and derisions to the World Wide Web with some gusto. Anonymity aside, the overhyped publicity that surrounded the creation of this blog, in The Age and The Australian Jewish News is unfortunately, not a sign that the community is suddenly “emboldened by new media” (My mother is very JC, and struggles to simply open her Outlook Express). Sure, the Rabbis may be vodcasting on YouTube, or hamming (ha) it up on Facebook, but this is not unusual. It and it certainly is not the beginning of anything but a new web-based opinion-machine. Less and less a “move more towards the centre in outlook”, more and more another cook in the kitchen, getting involved in the  broth-debate.

The truth of the matter, is that this is nothing new, and the fact that the Friday night dinner discussions/arguments/smackdowns have migrated to a new, shiny, bloggable format is nothing to write home about.

So “good night and good luck” Sensible Jew. May your new venture over at Galus Australis be as groundbreaking as the original. I just hope you haven’t inspired my mum to start with the Twittering. Nobody needs to read that.

The fine art of Fanaticism
July 13, 2009, 2:39 PM
Filed under: Comment, Identity, Israel, Zionism | Tags: , , , , ,

Sport is more an expression of culture in Australia, more tribal and clan-like, and the faith one has in a team, or sporting code, is more than the enjoyment of a spectator. It is the faith not unlike that which one might place in a deity or religious institution. In this big brown land, we dress up in special clothing, paint our faces and converge in our thousands to worship at the alter of ‘the game’, on fields of vast green, through those mighty conduits of the gods – ‘my team’. 

But I don’t think I realised just how much this really meant until I was invited along to the Sydney V. Essendon Aussie Rules (AFL) match on Saturday. 

Departing Sydney Swan's captain Barry Hall receives a standing ovation

Departing Sydney Swan's captain Barry Hall receives a standing ovation

Now, while I have always played, watched and loved sport, AFL barely registered a blip on my weekend gaming schedule. Sure, I know a few of the team names (mostly due to the variety of and assault(S)/drugs charges attributed to the players), but to me, the ‘players’ look like a ragtag assortment of boys whose mums wouldn’t let them play Rugby Union at school, for fear of injury.

It’s probably because they have no sense of direction (somehow running directly at goals is pushed aside, in favour of running at random in circles around the field, with no set trajectory at all), can’t catch, or throw (pick up the ball, run a bit,  drop it, pick up the ball, run a bit … until the whistle blows), there are no real rules that I could decipher, and for some reason, the winning team stays in the stadium long after the game is finished, singing their team-song in celebration.

But I value my life, so I decided to keep my opinions to myself for the duration of the game. At least until I was sure their team was going to win, and the potential for a violent rampage through the streets of Sydney was well out of the question.

But looking back on the experience, it suddenly dawned on me. Although the rules confounded and the supporters seemed content in their fanaticism, these Essendon supporters, happily jumping the fence to kick a footy around post-game struck me as all too familiar.

It’s just that instead of kicking a footy after a tough match, I was letter writing, debating, discussing, and instead of a weekly game at the Sydney Cricket Ground, my Zionism is a boundless, mobile sport, with home ground wherever I should choose to play.

It's my Ideology and I'll cry if I want to

It's my Ideology and I'll cry if I want to

As I watched this 20-something year old group of professional lawyers, nutritionists, accountants and football followers punching the air violently with their fists, leaping to their feet at the sight of  mark, heckling the weaker players, applauding or deriding the referees’ calls, laughing, crying, shouting, clapping, stomping – it appeared to be a passionate display of solidarity, a sense of brotherhood in arms, up against the mighty foe of the week. In this case, the Sydney Swans.

And looking around the stadium, it appeared the bug had caught on. Red white and black, faces painted in their war colours, carrying banners, hoisting their allegiances high in pom poms, balloons and accessories – it was a battle of the ages. It was an awesome sight, and I could feel the energy of the crowd, the euphoric mania of the supporters charging around the ground.

* * *

For those who do not understand the concept of Zionism, or the importance of Israel to the Jewish experience or Identity, it seems a messy, unnecessarily complicated affair. The rules are unclear, and the players appear uncoordinated, reactionary, and with little or no control over the game’s results. And the supporters?

Well, we probably look like my friends looked on Saturday. More than a little crazy, or at least enough to stick with their team, regardless of the outcome, or the opinions of their peers. Because it doesn’t matter if your team is at the bottom of the table, or who just got done for drug abuse, or whether your star player is about to retire. Because a sense of community and purpose cannot be bought, sold or traded. And because Zionism is a deeply personal commitment, to the rights and responsibilities of the Jewish nation to endevour to live in their traditional homeland in Israel, in peace and security.

And sure, we may not have flashy, brightly coloured uniforms, or a weekly ritual, but our connection to Israel and intention to protect and defend her is worn proudly, and we run out to face our opponents with grace, determination and strength.

Because it isn’t about the numbers on the scoreboard. It’s about showing up, and staying in the game – win or lose.

Middle East middle ground
June 25, 2009, 1:40 AM
Filed under: Jewish Community, Zionism | Tags: , , ,

As per usual, ‘Jewish time’ has left the Australian JC trailing behind, wondering where the months went, and why no one told them they were so far behind on this crazy new trend all the kids are getting into – blogging.

In the wake of recent newpaper coverage of The Sensible Jew blog in The Age, I feel the need to address this overhyped, underwhelming example of a bunch of relatively intelligent people logging on (just like the rest of the world) and writing to no one and everyone about the things that only matter to them (just like every other blogger in the world – including this one).  In this particular example, the topic is all things Australian (or rather, Victorian/Melbourne) Jewish community.

In an effort to be all things to everyone a la Abraham Lincoln, (who was quoted on the desire and inability to please everyone all of the time), The Sensible Jew has stretched itself too far:

a) who exactly do they purport to represent? In their attempts to disassociate themselves from anyone with a principled opinion derived from religious or traditional political rhetoric, they have alienated the left, the right, the observant and organised, and their remaining demographic lies in the aetheist/agnostic, centrist, humanist, unaffiliated camp. Very far-reaching (and not at all stereotypical) I must say …

b) why the moniker ‘Sensible’? Are they implying that everyone else is not? That somehow religious fervour is ‘unstable’, or that a political perspective is ‘irresponsible’ in some way? I would venture to argue that those for whom ideology is a meaningful connection would feel deeply offended by the insinuation that their faith or perspective manipulates their sense of what is right or wrong to the exclusion of ‘rightness’.

c) And what about what makes us tick? The things that make our blood boil may leave us open to irrationality, and I know my Mum always told me to be a lady, but surely being ‘sensible’ isn’t all it’s cracked up to be? Where is the sense of adventure? The spontaneity? The instinct that reminds you that it’s all worth it, damn the risk?

Living on the thin edge of the wedge might be risque for some – the same people that cling to their ideological centrism with a veracity that makes me sure underneath their humanist tendencies is a little neo-con or green-fascist struggling to get out.

I’m not saying all people who claim to be middle of the road are pretending to be, or trying to invalidate their position. With specific regard to those self-described pacifists, humanists, and centrists – it is very easy to sit on the fence and proscribe solutions to a conflict that you have little or no connection to.

Unfortunately, those keen for those overused words ‘dialogue’, ‘engagement’ and other arm-chair political style rhetoric have never had 15 seconds to run for a bomb shelter, been asked to send their children to war, come face to face with death in the name of ideology.

So until these so-called ‘sensible’ types recognise the disingenuous nature of their refusal to take a side, their perspective will represent the position they have chosen to take – that of an outlier or bystander. Until they involve themselves, and get their hands and minds dirty,  their voice will remain marginalised in any debate because they have left themselves on the outside looking in.

Welcome to jewin’ the fat.  Taking a stand, making a point. It doesn’t matter what you have to say, as long as your mouth is full.