BY VIC ALHADEFF
December 24, 2016
Some time ago I was asked to get involved in a dispute that had arisen at a public school over the prominent placement of a Christmas tree in the school foyer.
The pupils were encouraged to place beneath the tree a small gift that would be forwarded to Bear Cottage, a hospice that provides palliative care to children suffering from life-limiting illnesses. The parent of one of many non-Christian pupils at the school objected vehemently to the prominence accorded the tree and what she regarded as undue and inappropriate celebration of Christmas, given that the school population was made up of families of numerous ethnic and faith traditions.
I was invited to participate in a meeting with the school principal, the Department of Education and the aggrieved parent. My role was to facilitate a compromise that would ideally satisfy the policies and practices of the school while mollifying the parent and answering her concerns. The meeting was convened in the school office, with the parent setting out her objections to a Christmas tree being given pride of place in the entrance, requiring the non-Christian pupils to walk past it on arrival at school every day, which she argued was an affront to their respective faiths.
The principal countered by emphasising that the institution took pride in being a place of inclusion with a long-established practice of celebrating a range of traditions, from the Indian festival of Diwali and the Chinese New Year to the Jewish festival of Passover and Christmas. All pupils were encouraged to participate in the various celebrations if they so chose, irrespective of their belief systems.
My response to the impasse was that the hallmark of this greatest of countries is that we overwhelmingly embrace difference and respect diversity. We are a robust and healthy democracy that enshrines such principles as equality for all, the rule of law, an independent judiciary, a free press, equality for men and women, and multiculturalism.
These notions are not meaningless truisms.
Their practical effect is that they give adherents of every faith and culture permission to practise and embrace their traditions, with the non-negotiable proviso that it is always within the law.
More than that, every faith and culture is encouraged to practise their tradition. That is what informs the rich tapestry of our country.
Former Australian chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks said: “I really do believe that we ought to be able, in the 21st century, to find resources for conveying the fact that we are enlarged by difference and not threatened by it. Because it may be the single most important thing we have to learn, and out of it will come a new friendship and a new listening to one another, of Jew, Christian and Muslim throughout the world — at least that is my prayer.”
We are not threatened by sending or receiving Christmas cards. Nor are we threatened by walking past a Christmas tree in a school foyer. It’s about respecting the other — and, in the case of the Christmas tree, it’s about respecting the country’s dominant tradition — and receiving the same respect in return.
Bernard Malamud captures the concept brilliantly in The Fixer, his acclaimed novel that won the 1967 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and relates the story of Yakov Bok, a Jewish handyman in 1911 Kiev who is imprisoned for the brutal murder of a Russian youth. Bok refuses to confess to a crime that he did not commit, and when his jailer berates him for not showing respect, Bok replies: “Respect is something you must have, in order to get.”
Australians do it better than most in this regard. The NSW parliament annually holds Iftar dinners during the Muslim month of Ramadan and a ceremony in the days leading to Hanukkah. Representatives of civil society and multiple faith groups are invited to participate in both.
On the other hand, talkback radio invariably picks up on disputes that emerge when a shopping centre somewhere cancels a nativity pageant to avoid “offending” its Jewish or Muslim patrons — prompting the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies to call in and assure listeners that the Jewish community fully respects the right of Christian Australians to celebrate Christmas. For “multicultural” reasons. As expressed by Yakov Bok.
It’s all about respecting our fellow Australians while holding true to our own beliefs. It’s what we do.
Vic Alhadeff is chief executive of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies.