The Worst of Times and the Best of Times

(pictured above: Rabbi Aryeh Azriel, Reverend Eric Elnes and Imam Mohamad Jamal Daoudi of the Tri-Faith Initiative.)

I haven’t uploaded a sermon in ages, so I’m going to make up for lost time by adding in several all at once. I hope you enjoy them. This sermon was written before it became apparent that we are most likely going to see more of the revolving door for prime ministers that has characterised these last ten years or so:

 

It was the worst of times, it was the best of times. It was a time when a newly-minted senator believed it was acceptable to stand on the floor of the senate and talk about how much better Australia was when everyone was white and Christian. And it was a time when nearly every other senator and member of parliament expressed their dismay and adamant disagreement. It was a time when that same senator could call for a “final solution” on Muslim immigration and a time when two members of parliament—one a Muslim man from the Labor party and the other a Jewish man and the grandson of a Holocaust survivor from the Liberal party—could embrace as friends in the parliamentary chamber.

Not surprisingly, I’d much rather focus on why it was the best of times rather than the worst of times. On Wednesday night, I got to hear journalist and football tragic George Megalogenis speak at the Hawke Centre on his new book The Football Solution: How Richmond’s Premiership Can Save Australia. It was a very brave thing to come to the home town of the premier-losing Crows and talk about Richmond, but happily no one threw anything at him during his talk. The book itself is about how the Richmond football club finally realised after thirty years that its long-time practice of sacking coaches and captains as soon as there was a losing season was not doing the team any good. It took the club’s first woman president Peggy O’Neal to transform the culture of the club and especially of the board, and that was the beginning of a new approach and so an entirely different and better football team.

Megalogenis’ message is directed especially at our Federal government, and how it continues doing things exactly the same way with ever less impressive results. He argues for a change in how the government runs and especially in how it leads. I confess that I didn’t buy the book, but I was charmed by how he wove football and government together. Did you know that the Richmond football club has more members than the national Liberal and Labor parties combined? That football clubs around Australia are among the most trusted institutions in this land? News to me!

It was impossible for Megalogenis not to talk about Fraser Anning’s incendiary and offensive maiden speech, which he had delivered just hours before the lecture. He noted the splintering of Australian society, in which an estimated 40% of the population is now disinclined to vote for either of the major parties. Only about a quarter of that 40% embrace the agenda advocated for by Fraser Anning, Bob Katter and the One Nation party. But they are the loudest 10% and so the people who are most likely to be noticed. I’m also guessing that a lot of them are concentrated in the rural regions of Queensland, represented by people like Barnaby Joyce and Peter Dutton. Megalogenis was puzzled as to why the current government seems so concerned about appealing to this 10% that it is prepared to antagonise the remaining 90% of Australians. But the reassuring message is that only 10% of the Australian population hold these extreme views.

I was deeply moved by the outpouring of support for Australia’s vibrant multicultural identity. As Katherine Murphy wrote in The Guardian:A line has been crossed in Australian politics. At least we know a line still exists.” I thought Penny Wong’s speech to the Senate was magnificent, and it was so important that her resolution received backing from such a diverse range of parties. I was even a little amused that Pauline Hanson was offended by Darren Hinch’s comment that Anning’s speech was like Pauline Hanson on steroids. If something is too offensive even for Pauline Hanson, that’s really saying something.

I wish I could say that I am sharing the universal Jewish view when I talk about how upsetting Fraser Anning’s speech was. But there is no one Jewish view. We live in an era when the prime minister of Israel extends an official welcome to the authoritarian, anti-migration Hungarian prime minister. When extremist rabbis in Israel and elsewhere regularly teach that Jews are biologically different to other human beings. Our own texts speak repeatedly of how Jews are different and holier than non-Jews. We Jews are just as susceptible to messages of hate and intolerance as other people. Such an easy way to unify us—by turning us against others who seem different.

One of the pieces of really good news from this last week was about the annual Tri-Faith Picnic in my sister’s home town of Omaha, Nebraska. The initiative was in large part a vision of Temple Israel’s now retired rabbi Aryeh Azriel. Along with Reverend Eric Elnes and Imam Mohamad Jamal Daoudi, Rabbi Azriel spent years pursuing his dream of a campus where Jews, Muslims and Christians could pray, learn and socialise. Today, a synagogue and a mosque share space on a re-purposed golf course. A church is under construction and will open later this year, and there are plans for a community centre to bring all three faith groups together. Each year, the Tri-Faith Initiative puts on a community barbecue. Attendees all bring a side dish, and everyone eats, chats and plays together. It is a simple but amazing thing. I note that the Tri-Faith memorandum of understanding was signed in 2006, but that the first completed building—Temple Israel—was not dedicated until seven years later. I would not have wanted to be in on the years and years of discussions that led the Tri-Faith Initiative to take shape, but I am in awe of the final result.

What is at the heart of this success is the appreciation that there is far more that unites us than divides us. It is also important to celebrate our differences rather than to believe that we can never find common ground. These are hard messages to hold onto in this era when our own elected officials are sometimes the source of divisiveness. So all the more gratifying when government and opposition, Greens and cross benchers, rise as one to affirm our vision of an Australia immeasurably enriched by our diversity. Shabbat shalom.

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