Vic Alhadeff, Weekend Australian
December 5, 2015
A minor storm erupted at a Sydney primary school some years ago when it installed a 2m Christmas tree in the foyer. Pupils were encouraged to place beneath the tree gifts to be donated to Bear Cottage, which cares for children with terminal conditions.
The student body included a healthy mix of faith and ethnic groups, including Baha’i, Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu and Asian, and in acknowledgment of the impending Jewish festival of Hanukkah the school also placed an eight-branched candelabra in the foyer.
Incensed at the prominence accorded the Christmas tree, the mother of a non-Christian pupil complained to the NSW Department of Education that the school had trampled on its multicultural and multi-faith ethos — despite the fact most of its pupils were Christian.
Discussions were held between the Department of Education, the school, the aggrieved mother and leaders of her faith group in what proved to be a futile attempt to resolve the issue.
In fact, all the organisations at the table concluded that not only did the school have the right to erect the tree, but it should be commended — for celebrating the faith of the majority of its pupils, doing so in a meaningful way and at the same time acknowledging that Hanukkah was approaching.
Former NSW communities minister Victor Dominello liked to evoke a metaphor when discussing this country’s multicultural ethos and the challenges inherent in integrating into it: Australia was a strong, flowing river, he would say; each culture, each faith, each tradition, was one of innumerable streams flowing into it, strengthening it, enriching it, yet ultimately part of this one great river.
Jewish tradition speaks of a parallel approach, expressed in the maxim “The law of the land is the law”.
The rationale is an understanding that adhering to the authority of the country in which one resides is pragmatic; the law of the land should be regarded as binding.
We are at the time of year when shopping centres and schools across the country host nativity pageants and install Christmas trees, while millions of Australians will soon wish each other “Merry Christmas”. As it should be.
The inevitable cancellations of the above, and of Easter bonnet parades, for fear of offending others should not happen, nor should diluting the positive message of Christmas by substituting a saccharine and meaningless “Happy holidays” for what should be acknowledgment of a significant occasion.
The success of a multicultural society — and its failure, as is increasingly evident in parts of Europe — is predicated on a symbiotic relationship between majority and minority.
It relies on a firm base of mutual respect — a social contract that encourages every minority group to own and celebrate its distinctive identity to the utmost while acknowledging and respecting the right of the majority group to do the same. It’s a two-way street.
Ideally, groups should be open-minded enough to go further and not only promote their particular traditions but be sufficiently confident in the validity of their story to acknowledge others’.
Hence the candelabra alongside the Christmas tree at that school. Hence the multiplicity of faith events that NSW Parliament House regularly hosts, from Iftar dinners during the month of Ramadan to a Hanukkah celebration two weeks ago.
But absorption of the host nation’s value system becomes difficult if people immigrate to this country physically yet remain ensconced — even trapped — emotionally and psychologically in their country of origin via a self-perpetuating cocoon that takes the form of email, Whatsapp, FaceTime and cable television.
The inevitable result is a clash of expectations and values, and intolerance of diversity. So some institutions make allowances by misguidedly cancelling nativity plays and substituting “Happy holidays” for “Merry Christmas”.
Former Commonwealth chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote in The Dignity of Difference that “universalism is an inadequate response to tribalism and no less dangerous. It leads to the belief — superficially compelling, but quite false — that there is only one truth about the essentials of the human condition and it holds true for all people at all times.” In heaven there is truth, he wrote; on earth there are many truths.
Whether it’s about respect for our national anthem or respect for difference, we cast aside liberal democratic values — and the right to positively embrace our distinctive traditions — at our peril. It’s a slippery slope.
It’s Hanukkah next week, it’s Christmas later this month; let whoever wishes to acknowledge and celebrate these and other festivals be encouraged do so. Proudly.
Vic Alhadeff is chief executive of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies. Twitter: @VicAlhadeff