Here in Australia we are faced with uncertain times. We have no government after Saturday’s inconclusive election, and we have no confidence in our potential leaders. The nominally conservative Catholic one made a point of celebrating Ramadan in the Prime Ministerial residence, while the supposedly working class one accused a metal worker of being a “fake” tradesman and tried to eat a sausage in a bread roll from the middle. It is no exaggeration to say that Australians are feeling a tad discombobulated.
Two days before we were plunged into this morass of disquiet, I attended a fundraiser for and in the Launceston Synagogue, the second oldest in Australia. The drawcard was Jewish singer-songwriter Deborah Conway and husband Willy Zygier. Conway first raised eyebrows in the 1980s with her gutsy lyrics and has never really stopped. It seemed an incongruous or even sacrilegious setting, but my non-conformity and love of music quietened my misgivings and I figured that a thought-provoking collection of songs inspired by the Torah was very much part of the Jewish tradition.
As I listened, it struck me that however unsettling it may be, we might as well embrace the fact that we live in interesting times. Every Passover we are reminded that every generation our enemies will rise up in an attempt to destroy us, or as Deborah Conway put it in one of her songs: “you’re the other and it’s always your fault”. I’ve seen how in some this has led to a spirit of fatalism, but in those whom I admire (and hopefully in myself) I detect something more bold and wayward. It reminds me of parents who handed over their children to the Kindertransport and soldiers who went to their deaths knowing that their battle wasn’t the one that would win the war. Their defiant faith resonates with me, unlike the passive dependence of those who do nothing while they wait for G-d to sort everything out.
I’m not suggesting Australia’s political antics necessarily herald doom and gloom, but our state of leaderless limbo, which is almost comparable to that of the UK post Brexit, certainly encourages us to question what path we are on. Rational discussion of issues has not only become infrequent but is too often drowned out by name-calling or hysterical declarations of hurt feelings. What sort of dialogue can there be when populists – you know, those politicians who try to represent ordinary people – are labelled ‘far right’ and Christians who defend the defenceless are called ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘ultra-conservative’? And what sort of democracy do we live in if we can’t have a plebiscite because public discussion of the pros and cons of legislation might hurt the feelings of a politician or two? Forgive me if I am callous, but perhaps these politicians have chosen the wrong career if they can’t handle a debate.
In the course of my lifetime I have seen our society reject knowledge, truth, and morality as absolutes. It was only twenty-five years ago when my fellow university students and I laughed at our lecturer Peter Singer when he suggested that relativism would soon predominate in our world. He was right, and we were wrong. But only because we were brought up with the conceited idea that we were better than the Germans, that we were immune to propaganda, and that the propaganda of our time would take the same blatant and unsophisticated form as employed by the National Socialists. We have fallen for the ultimate deceit, the one that tells us there is no truth, no right or wrong, no such thing as evil.
The question is, if everything is relative and there are no absolutes, then how do we deal with crimes and atrocities, or even the Holocaust? I think we’ve seen the answer in the reactions to the murders of Miki Mark and Hallel Yaffa Ariel. Times of Israel readers will know whom I’m talking about, but I can assure you most Americans and Australians don’t. And yet you can bet that they’ve heard about a gorilla that was killed to save a little boy’s life. Relativism. You get to decide what matters… unless of course you dissent from the consensus we know as political correctness.
Do we really want to continue on this path? Instead of saying ‘we can’t turn back now’ perhaps we need to start saying ‘we’ve gone too far’. Just because we want to make progress doesn’t mean we have to continue in the same direction. Sometimes, going back is the best way forward. Turning around doesn’t mean you’ve failed, it means you’ve discerned that the path doesn’t go where you want to go. And I don’t want to go to a place where murder isn’t murder, where the value of a human life depends on his identity or how much she’s wanted in society. Perhaps we have already arrived at this destination, but the way I see it it’s never too late to stop, backtrack, and find a better path. When you’ve gone too far, only idiots keep going.
History may repeat itself, and enemies will no doubt rise every generation in an attempt to destroy us, but that doesn’t mean we should stop fighting. No one should have to apologise for what they think, and offending someone shouldn’t land you in gaol. The real offences of our time are primordial ones and we’ve had them written down in our laws since the time of Moses. Call me nostalgic if you like, but I was brought up to question everything, be sceptical, and fight for freedom. I was taught that disagreement is inevitable when people think for themselves, and that dissent is a healthy symptom of democracy. So, regardless of who ends up leading Australia, the UK, and (in November) the USA, I hope we’ll see some real debate emerge from our uncertainty. As the President of the European Parliament had to remind its members when they booed Nigel Farage a few days ago, a key quality of democracy is that you listen to those with whom you disagree. Is that really so much to ask?