The purported Chinese saying “May you live in interesting times” has been quoted so often of late that it prompted renewed research about its origins. While the quote is neither Chinese nor ancient in origin, its use is indicative of the fact that we are in uncertain and turbulent times.
Over the past week, for instance, it has been near impossible to avoid coverage of the latest indictment of Donald Trump. While the prospect of a former president (and current presidential candidate) facing jail time is both unprecedented and remarkable, the reaction to the indictment has been equally noteworthy. Opinion in the US seems split between the many outraged defenders of Trump who posit that he is the victim of a politically motivated prosecution, and incensed critics who point to Trump’s conduct in the aftermath of the 2020 election as evidence of his crimes and unsuitability to hold public office again. It seems on some level that politics is tearing at the seams of US society.
In Israel, significant fault-lines have emerged over the past eight months in response to the government’s controversial judicial reform legislation. The incredible scenes of mass protests across Israel, and the unprecedented threat of reservists to refuse to turn up for duty, have highlighted deep divisions in Israeli society and contrasting visions for the country which go beyond the reforms.
Locally, the political debate is currently dominated by the upcoming Indigenous Voice to Parliament referendum. Again, it is an issue which elicits strongly held views on both sides of the debate, with contrasting notions of morality and justice infusing the campaign with emotion and indignation. This will only become more pronounced as we move closer to the referendum.
Other examples abound throughout the west, but it is unremarkable to observe that we are living in a time of heightened polarisation. The advent of social media and its associated “echo-chamber” algorithms, the truncation of the media cycle and the rise of non-traditional and opinion-based journalism, have all coarsened the public square.
As has been the case historically, the Jewish community is not immune from political trends in broader society. Societal polarisation has not only allowed for the re-emergence of far-right groups, emboldened the far-left and provided a platform for offensive views, but it has influenced the internal political behaviour of our own community.
We have witnessed groups emerge locally on both poles which seek to deploy the concept of “Jewish values” in service of a political agenda. In and of itself, the emergence of new organisations is a sign of a thriving community and there is nothing objectionable about community members being moved to action in accordance with their deeply held beliefs or values.
Where the issue arises is when one group seeks to claim a monopoly on truth and deems any perspective which conflicts with its own to be beyond the pale, inconsistent with Jewish tradition or evidence of left-wing or right-wing groupthink. The truth is often grey and lends itself to multiple, mainstream interpretations. Fierce debate for the sake of truth has always been a key part of Jewish tradition.
Demonising others or undermining communal institutions which maintain legitimate but alternate perspectives may temporarily boost social media engagement, but it ultimately damages the community as a whole. Such behaviour may attract media coverage and win plaudits by activists at the margins of both poles, but it jeopardises the core pillars on which our community is built.
As a community, we need to appeal to the better angels of our nature to avoid falling victim to the bitter division and acrimony which abounds elsewhere. We owe this to ourselves and to each other at a time of increased antisemitism and reflexive hostility towards Israel in parts of the broader community. We have enough antagonists as it is without seeking to make opponents or enemies of one another.
The NSW Jewish Board of Deputies (JBD) emphasises the unity of our community while embracing diversity of thought. As a communal roof body, our constituent organisations encompass all segments of our complex community. Our members and directors hold a range of political views and religious beliefs, but come together in service of our community to advance our shared interests.
Over the past 12 months, the JBD has secured sufficient burial space for our community to last until the end of the century, obtained $15 million in government funding over the forward estimates to help defray recurring security expenses, secured grants for important communal institutions like the Sydney Jewish Museum and helped galvanise a coordinated policy response from the government to rising levels of antisemitism in schools.
We are only able to achieve these outcomes because we speak with one voice to external stakeholders. Unity has always been our strength and the source of our effectiveness. If you care about our community, the tent of the JBD is broad enough to encompass you and we – as a community – need you to get involved. In the interesting times in which we find ourselves, the wellbeing of our community is our collective responsibility.
David Ossip is the president of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies.
The JBD AGM will be held on Tuesday, August 15 with Deputy Premier Prue Car as keynote speaker. Become a JBD member: nswjbd.org/join-the-board