Wednesday, 04 July 2012

Limmud Oz

Written by
“I know the smell, the taste, and the significance of censorship. The right of authors to express their views and we have a responsibility to listen, even if we don’t agree with what they say.”

These were words that June Factor, the author of many works on Australian children’s folklore, herself the victim of censorship in the past, used to introduce a panel of speakers prohibited from speaking at Limmud Oz 2012 ( the Jewish Cultural Festival) at Monash University on June 10 of this year. While the panel was held at the same time as Limmud Oz, it was held in a separate building and billed as LimmudX. Ironically, Limmud means ‘learning’ or ‘study’ in Hebrew.

The reasons for the ban are complex and reflect the conflicting sentiments that exist in the Australian Jewish community. The context of the ban also has implications for free speech on Australian university campuses and, disturbingly, the behaviour of private security forces in public spaces such as university campuses.

Limmud Oz reflects the growing cultural and intellectual sophistication in the Australian Jewish community, which for a long time bore the hallmarks of isolated provincialism. With around 100 sessions over 3 days, the festival demonstrates that Jewish culture is a heady mix, with presentations ranging across such topics as religious texts, interfaith dialogue, cuisine, Jewish languages, literature, art, music and sexuality, and many more. Attending the event would be an eye-opener for people who only think about Jews through a political lens.

The political dimension was there of course, ranging from a presentation by the Australian Greens - an important step, given the controversy in the NSW Greens over Boycott Divestment and Sanction of Israel (BDS) last year - to presentations by those holding views on the far political right, including beating up on organisations such as AusAid or the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees. I even participated in a dialogue with the Australian Palestinian Advocacy Network.

However, Limmud Oz was marred by the banning (or disinviting - the terms are disputed) of a group of authors associated with a book of recent essays called Beyond Tribal Loyalties: Personal Stories of Jewish Peace Activists. A number of factors made this banning controversial. For one, the Limmud Oz committee never made public its reasons for the ban, except in a one sentence rejection to the panellists. Peter Slezak was one of the recipients of this statement: “Our committee has decided not to schedule your session … into the 2012 program.” His viewpoint can be found here [http://www.jwire.com.au/news/invitation-reversed].

I don’t agree with a lot of what the panellists say, and the language they use to put their case. Yet - and this is a key point - some of what they reflect has validity in the context of the Israel-Palestine crisis, and it needs to be openly debated in the Jewish community. Avoiding argument with such people is not going to make the Israel-Palestine problem go away. Furthermore, the panel session was not originally meant to be about their political views as much as their paths to identity, yet the ban brought their politics to centre stage.

Attempts in the weeks leading up to the festival by the panellists and others to elicit more detail received no response. The Limmud Oz committee remained anonymous and silent; it only named its members in the printed conference program on the day and not at all on the website.

Of concern to those who, like me, are both academics (I work at Monash) and active in the Jewish community on a political level, the festival appeared to have a clear and unambiguous association with Monash University, yet the Limmud Oz committee decisions flew in the face of reasonable protocols about decision-making and communication regarding an on-campus event. It was, however, put forward that Limmud Oz was a private event that merely hired Monash premises and any academic associations or overtones were irrelevant to its conduct.

The issue of the Monash association in fact still remains unresolved. While the Vice-Chancellor’s representative and the head of Jewish studies claimed several weeks ago that there was no association between Limmud Oz and Monash, Monash logos were used and the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilization sponsored the event. To be fair, I believe that a mistake was made somewhere along the line and the right people were not informed. This only reinforces my view that academic protocols covering fair play should have covered the event.

Limmud Oz claimed it was welcoming of other disputed political viewpoints because a number of Palestinians were scheduled to speak, including a representative from the Australian Palestinian Advocacy Network (APAN). The Palestinians withdrew however, because they did not want to be regarded as tame ‘Uncle Toms’. They said in a statement “In our opinion, silencing voices is totally unacceptable in a free and democratic society and it becomes even worse if the source of censorship is an institution that prides itself on being a catalyst to knowledge transfer and discussion, as both Limmud Oz and Monash University do.... We believe our participation in the Limmud Oz conference this year will give the wrong impression to the wider community that the organizers are providing a vehicle for non-mainstream, or left-wing, voices when it is simply not the case. We do not wish our presence to be used in any form of tokenistic representation.”

A number of other Jewish leftists also withdrew, but the session with APAN, in which I took part as a representative of the Australian Jewish Democratic Society, went ahead because we thought that a positive presence was better than a boycott. We did, however, make our views on the banning issue known.

There was another disturbing element to all of this. The Jewish Security Group (CSG), responsible for security on the Monash campus for the Limmud Oz, operates as a private, voluntary and registered security company that, upon request, patrols synagogues, schools, and other community events. Most of this is laudable, but they can be a little over-enthusiastic at times.

Much to my distress, when we attempted to hand out advertising leaflets about the counter panel (and the Palestinians’ statement) in the foyers of my building on campus - the same building where Limmud Oz was being held - I was told not to do so by CSG and Limmud Oz staff as the building was now private space, and further, that the ban also covered the Monash campus.

This was no small matter. I had never heard of a university being declared a private space by a private organisation and the right to free speech thus curtailed. I contacted the head of Monash security, who appeared and informed the CSG that the building was in fact public space, as was the rest of the campus, and my activity was lawful and entirely benign. The CSG were also checking Monash staff and student IDs, which I understand to be unlawful.

Later in the day, I was giving a session at Limmud Oz and had invited in a few of my students, as is often done by academics at conferences. The CSG came into the classroom and demanded the retirees and one fellow academic leave. I subsequently cancelled the class and moved it to non-Limmud Oz space in the building. These matters are now subject to a complaint on my own part to the police authority that regulates security agencies.

It is another unfortunate episode in the censorious and at times paranoiac attitude and response of elements in the Jewish community toward the public discussion of controversial viewpoints over the Israel-Palestine conflict. In the Limmud Oz case, it was a group of volunteers on the organizing committee reflecting a desire to keep confronting views out of range for fear that they could offend attendees and perhaps funding sources (and they were substantial). A number of the speakers in the banned panel at Limmud Oz hold views on the Israel-Palestine conflict that are regarded with disgust by many, even most, people in the Jewish community. The way some of them argue is in my opinion, crude and alienating, but their views should still be aired, even if only to expose them to argument.

Almost the same thing happened at Limmud Oz in Sydney last year when two speakers were banned not for what they were going to speak about, but their politics. Is this reason enough to ban them when many people in the Jewish community use equally confrontational language and hold extreme views and some of them were presenting, unimpeded, at Limmud Oz?

It appears that some in the Jewish community cannot abide the open expression of strong viewpoints criticizing Israel, even if they might have a kernel of truth about them, however badly put. Even talking to Palestinians or giving their viewpoint any credence is seen as traitorous now. There is a line that cannot be crossed; people who do so are viewed as completely unacceptable. Years ago, that line was in even talking about the Occupation, now it is the issue of BDS or one or two states. Not being able to cross that line in open discussions only drives the debate underground and to extremes.

The fact that many of these critics tend to be secular also alienates many in the Jewish community, where varieties of religious experience are regarded as important signifiers of belonging to a minority community. Yet the fact remains that some religiously-affiliated Jews are highly critical of Israel, though they are not in the limelight, particularly in this country.

All of this degrades the quality of public debate on the issue, in Australia and internationally, within the Jewish community and in the public sphere generally.

Even though I’ve been a player in all of this and responsible for some of the ‘noise’, I don’t know if these events will encourage Limmud Oz to reassess how it deals with controversy; the Israel-Palestine issue isn’t going to go away and more and more critical friends of Israel (which I consider myself), believe that all options need to be put on the table. Sometimes this means confronting unpleasant, hard issues and sometimes being willing to change one’s viewpoint.

After all, Limmud Oz is supposed to be about learning, not exclusion, particularly in a country which is relatively open and free of extremism.

Last modified on Wednesday, 01 August 2012
Larry Stillman

Larry Stillman is on the Executive of the Australian Jewish Democratic Society and was on the committee of Liberty Victoria for a number of years. He is a Senior Research Fellow at Monash University. All the opinions here are his own viewpoint and do not reflect that of AJDS or Monash.