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Punch and Jewdy

August 13, 2009 – 11:30 am3 Comments

punchjudyBy Jewin’ the fat

At a swanky media party in Melbourne, glass of white in hand, I struck up a conversation with a bright eyed young Melbournian, who had a plan to revolutionise the Jewish community with his own version of Hasbara.

The only problem is that he was beaten to the punch.

Welcome to the cut throat world of Jewish community public diplomacy – where in a surprisingly similar fashion to Israel, confusion abounds, bureaucracy is King, and the debate is most fierce behind closed doors. There are red lines that cannot be crossed, individuals that cannot be pushed aside, and powers-that-be which must be given the last word.

So when I was presented with this community anarchist, I chuckled inside, shaking my head at this kid’s chutzpah – not only at the vision he had, but his having proposed it at all. Of course I smiled warmly as he continued – mostly because I was interested in how exactly he was planning to reinvent the wheel, and succeed where scores had failed before him.

As far as progress relies on unreasonable men looking to change the world around them, I wished him the best, and continued around the party. But it got me thinking about traditional Jewish community politics, and the mutinous young people who dare to buck convention, and try something different. Like this guy – smart, funny, and charismatic, with zero chance of achieving his goal. Though not for lack of trying.

Take the example of a young Jewish student leader, experienced and well conditioned by his/her involvement in a youth movement/university body. They have considerable skills and knowledge of informal education, PR, public diplomacy, marketing, and demography; they are flexible and their message is easily adaptable. They have strong contacts amongst their peers, and are committed to the community. As their tenure as leader comes to a close, they begin to look to continue their involvement as … uh, as a … um …

The reality of the Jewish community is that there is a gap, and filling it is not a priority. There is an extensive investment in our young people, through formal and informal education from preschool to University age, but once they have taken it upon themselves to strike out on their own, the Jewish community, well, lets them.

The current model of Jewish community advocacy (incorporating interests in the Australian Jewish Community and Israel) is inflexible, averse to change or innovative media, and largely unwelcoming of new concepts, partners, and parameters. I’m not recommending extreme change, or a shift in focus, but there must be some avenue to incorporate other ideas, individuals and influences. Without evolving in style or form, we will be permitting our next generation’s disinterest in their own community.

There is an entire generation of people who are patronisingly encouraged to be a part of the solution, to be involved, to get their ideas out there, but who are not provided the freedom, resources or support to bring their ideas to fruition. As a result, an apathetic demographic is created, unable to effect the change they see as vital to bring the Jewish community into the future, and thus disinterested in the traditional modes of community involvement. When the AJN then runs an op-ed which criticises this disenfranchised Jewish group, this further decreases the imperative to get involved. Their point is reinforced with the communal condemnation of young people as non-contributing community members.

So for the young guy in the bar, it doesn’t matter what he was proposing. It could have been the next best thing, but without institutionalised encouragement of this entrepreneurial spirit, he would be forced to rely on free media like Facebook and blogging, or the generosity of parents, family and friends to get his idea off the ground.

This trend, which sees the increasing bureaucratisation of advocacy in Australia, means that the longer this goes unchecked, the more we have to lose. Already, there is a clear shift away from traditional Jewish community organisations to more grassroots, accessible media, dedicated to and by the sub-culture it represents. There is no good reason why the same voices are given airtime no matter the issue. I for one would like to see a young person talking about young people’s issues: somehow a 60 year old man talking about teen binge drinking just doesn’t ring true. So why are suitable spokespeople so desperately lacking, and why aren’t we doing more to involve those who will eventually be asked to take the reins?

On the other hand, there is no one effective central body (and therefore no central message). Neither is there a move to delegate to other organisations in an effort to improve dissemination of a message. (Although without a central message, this is a moot point.) There is no reason for the superfluous, overcompensating bodies that exist, largely side-by-side and overlapping in purpose, with little or no collaboration: ECAJ, JCCV, ADC, AIJAC, SZC, JBD, ZFA, ZCV, ZYC, AUJS …

A reshuffle would not only be representative of more of the community, but it would also permit a variety of people to become effective communicators and ensure the continuation of the communal representative bodies with the inclusion of women, students, young professionals, and mothers etc.

It may not be the perfect answer, but I do know that the state of the union is far from perfect, and “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” just ain’t the fix anymore.

This article first appeared on Jewin’ the fat’s blog.

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