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Friday, January 13, 2006

Leunig unloved?

. Leunig writes that he has had an invitation to speak at the Jewish Museum of Australia in Melbourne withdrawn. Stunning! This news comes to me at the same time as herself wanders out to let me know there is a headliner on television's Sky News that Brokeback Mountain won't be shown in parts of north-west Queensland. We are Queenslanders, or ex-Queenslanders, living in Melbourne and we spent many years living in north-west Queensland. The thing we rejoice in the most is the absence of racism and bigotry of the type and depth that prevails there through the community and in its politics and policies whether its the National Party or the ALP in power. What are people afraid of? Are they only up for more of the likes of The Proposition.

Leunig is a beautiful and spiritual man. The constituency of the Jewish Museum has cut off its nose to spite its face in such rudeness that it withdraws its invitation. Perhaps it is pandering to the lowest common denominator of criticism. No is a very conservative word. Of course, it is not unheard of in the Australian Jewish community that it expresses its disapproval in a way that seems to go against the grain of the mainstream Australian community. This is particularly the case in Melbourne. It seems to me moreso than in Sydney. In a lot of cases, it will put the might of its political and financial influence behind its views. In a pluralist democractic society it, like anyone else, has every right to do so. But having the right to do so does not make the actions right. Having the right to do so does not always mean that it is wise to do so.

On learning of Leunig's disendorsement I am reminded of the stories of Greek immigrants who raised their children in the strict mores prevailing in their homeland when they immigrated. As teenagers and young adults, these children would return to Greece to meet family and home-grown Greek culture for the first time only to find that social mores in Greece were more liberal than that enforced by their parents. Similarly with language. Language is a living thing and the language of the homeland growing and flourishing in its native soil can be a different thing from the language of the diaspora which can be static by comparison. When I thought of these instances, I wondered if the Jewish diaspora are more defensive than it would be within national boundaries, less open to critical debate. But then I think the national boundaries of Israel are pretty defensive at this time with Ariel Sharon's build-your-own-ghetto scheme.

We need to remind ourselves that there are different ways of bullying and intimidation just as there are different types of power. There is the power that comes through violence expressed in military and physical prowess. At Cronulla, we saw bullying based on phsyical violence and numerical dominance by a particular group of people wrapped up in a repugnant nationalism. A number of those who have been put in jail and refused bail are of an ethnicity that has known in previous generations ghettoism, religious and ethnic prejudice, ethnic cleansing, and gross repression. There is bullying and intimidation of a more sophisticated kind which uses political influence and financial facilitation to get its way. Each are repugnant because neither relies on reason, interchange, and debate to make its point. Each decides there is one point and no other and sets about enforcing that point.

The one comfort in all this is that there are Jewish people in Australia and in Israel who agree with me. The difficulty is that the bullying voice is the one that grabs the headlines. The reasonable voice is only heard as it is sustained over time and distance and this requires great and consistent effort. I think of Robert Manne, Marcus Einfeldt, and other great Jewish civil liberties practitioners who realise that Jewish civil liberties benefit as the civil liberties of wider and mainstream society progress.

So I would say to the decision makers at the Jewish Museum of Australia, put things right. You have done one about face in withdrawing Leunig's invitation. Come full circle. Do another about face and reinstate the invitation. Let this be an occasion of reconciliation. Let this be an occasion where diverse viewpoints can be heard and considered. This is the way forward. Sure, it requires risk. It may even require putting oneself in the place of vulnerability. But this is the way we open ourselves to growth - like a tough clawed lobster outgrowing and shedding a hardened, no-longer-useful carapace.