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Limmud Oz meets Appetite for Diversity

June 16, 2010 – 2:43 pm9 Comments
An array of apple choices

Enough to satisfy an appetite for diversity?

By Sol Salbe

Like Melbourne’s weather, Limmud Oz provides a great deal of variety. If you don’t like something, just step in next door or wait a short while for the next session. With twelve simultaneous events at any given time, the choice was mind boggling. Even amongst Sunday’s nine time-slots, there were almost enough unique permutations for every man, woman and child on the planet!

A great variety of the bland would not be something to celebrate, but a lot of tasty fare was on offer on subjects ranging from politics to Jewish history, and from climate change to feminism, with luscious delicacies on Israelis in Australia, the “Jew media” and the Jewish community survey. There were, however, a few flies in the ointment. In this writer’s view not enough thought had gone into the programming of sessions. Program clashes are inevitable but it does not make much sense scheduling Mark Baker in conversation with a Muslim scholar at the same time as a panel discussion on interfaith dialogue, or the same Baker again to speak with Palestinian activists at the same time as a panel on the language wars of the Diaspora looking at words like Zionism . A humble, but hopefully positive, suggestion: once the preliminary program has been scheduled, ask one or more people outside the organising circle to look for such clashes in the same way as one gets a second pair of eyes to do the proofreading.

Another observation: in a fascinating session, Professor Andrew Markus pointed to the skewed age distribution of the Jewish community where the number of young people is comparatively low. Just as well he didn’t have to make a similar analysis of the weekend’s gathering, for the theme here was baby-boomers rule. There were just not enough younger faces around. Granted that younger people prefer to get their information online, it would still be a good idea to organise a brainstorming session of how we could entice members of generations X and Y to future sessions. Discount prices? An under-30s subcommittee to help pick suitable sessions? I don’t know, but let’s start thinking about it.

A Limmud Oz rule of thumb: do pick a few items outside the square. Get out of your comfort zone. The sessions into which you wander by accident will often turn out to be some of the best you attend. For me this year it was Raymond Scheindlin’s talk on Saadiah Gaon and the Judeo-Arabic Golden Age. I have to confess my ignorance: to me, Saadiah Gaon was the name of a street in Jerusalem. I wandered into the session because a chance conversation on the Internet required delivering a message to pass on to the speaker. But Prof Scheindlin opened a whole new world for his audience. For starters it is wrong to think of the Golden Age as been confined to Spain. Saadiah’s achievements, including a translation of the Bible into Arabic, actually took place in Baghdad. There Saadiah collaborated with Muslim and Christian scholars discussing philosophy, language, mathematics and logic. One of the rules of the group was that no one was allowed to prove anything by quoting from their own scripture. A logical proof was necessary. An absolutely fascinating session.

Scheindlin was one of 13 international speakers. It may have been the largest number ever, but their selection left something to be desired. There is no useful purpose in belabouring the point but three people belonging to the-problem-is-Islam school were not balanced by people who see the conflict differently. Maybe not Gideon Levy, who had spoken at the London Limmud, but a representation from across the political spectrum would be a good idea.

But if the organisers’ choice of guests was one-sided, Limmud Oz attendees have shown that at least in terms of politics, their views line up along a continuum. That point was brought to the forefront by Vivienne Porzsolt in a session on critical Jews. She asked the audience to stand and distribute themselves from the most “pro-Israel” to the most “anti-Israel”. Well, nobody wanted to describe themselves as anti-Israel so that corner remained conspicuously empty, but about half the audience distributed themselves along a line while the other half chose to remain in the centre. It was a theme that one encountered throughout the festival of learning. No more can the Jewish community be described as “speaking with one voice”. Perhaps it is the logical flow-on from the multitude of blogs, websites and Facebook pages that have sprung out since my last attendance. The good news is that we may not have to say “let a hundred flowers bloom” because everyone can see and smell them. I am told that when Tzipi Hotovely finished her address by telling Diaspora Jews that they should volunteer to assist Israel by taking up Hasbara, it was someone whose political views were a long way from those of the AJDS who challenged her to tell us what Israel should do for Diaspora Jewry. Others complained in the next session when Efraim Inbar referred to the Palestinians as “barbarians”. Quite a large audience gave a fair hearing to Samah Sabawi and Maher Mughrabi, presenting two distinct Palestinian points of view. Moderator Mark Baker, using a very light touch, managed to guide the two through some of the most difficult issues with which Israelis and Palestinians would ever have to deal. Only an occasional murmur of disagreement was heard. The panel on the “Jew media” saw a whole range of diverse views on the key issue of the Age’s coverage of the Middle East.

Limmud Oz reflected the community’s appetite for diversity.

Sol Salbe is an Israeli-born journalist who works as Australia’s only full-time monitor of the Israeli media running the Middle East News Service. He also edits the Australian Jewish Democratic Society Newsletter. Given a choice, he’d rather spend his time in the kitchen combining the best Middle Eastern and Jewish traditions with Australian ingredients.

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  • ariel says:


    Thanks for the summary of Limmud-Oz, it sounds good.

    Based on your experiences and observations, I urge you as a journalist to write an article for SMH/The Age countering the abhorrent claims appearing the letters pages over the last few days accusing Jews of speaking with one voice, having more loyalty to Israel than Australia (whatever that’s supposed to mean; I’ll consider it more when New Zealanders in Australia start supporting the Wallabies) and accusing us of being supremacists.


  • frosh says:

    Hi Sol,
    I enjoyed reading your guide/review to Limmud Oz.
    However, I’m curious about Ms Porzsolt’s exercise, and how no one was willing to position themselves as anti-Israel.  
    Did Ms Porzsolt take part in this exercise herself?
    Some time ago, she added me to her mailing list (for some unknown reason).  Based on the nature of the frequent emails I receive from her, I would have thought that to represent herself on this continuum, she’d have to stand somewhere out in the car park, in hand-holding distance from Sheikh Hilaly.

  • Mandi says:

    Good piece Sol – great topic. I hope you’re right that our community is developing an appetite for diversity .  But I read responses to some  of the sessions you mention a little differently to you.
    Mark Baker’s skillfully handled dialogue with Samah Sabawi and Maher Mughrabi was indeed given a respectful stage  – even though it wasn’t easy  for many (including me) to hear all that was said . I sensed an itch in the room to rebut, and the unallowed ‘yes buts’ in the air was palpable . There were grumbles after, that people didn’t get the chance to make their points. Not sure that everybody appreciated the difference between a dialogue and a debate .  I also attended the Hatovaley session on the Diaspora and was a little gobsmacked that it was 80% of the way through before somebody expressed frustration at her assumption that everyone in the room agreed with her vision that the ways for Jews to engage meaningfully with Israel was to give money and act as hasbara agents for Israel – no matter what their political views. There was a real appetite for what she had to say – one attendee suggested that Tel Aviv academics  who advocated a boycott of Israeli products be sacked. To be fair, Hatovaley defended the importance of academic freedom but I half expected many in the room to call for a beheading of said academics! And the Jew Media session – again some diversity but the naivete of the outrage that “the community” met with The Age, and yet nothing has changed is almost amusing – and I sensed it as the dominant view in the room. I don’t enjoy The Age’s coverage of Israel too much, and I think Leunig  is a hatemonger –  which surprisingly didn’t come up – but  the expectation that “the community” has the right  to make demands about a newspaper’s editorial position is just ridiculous. But again, people did listen respectfully to Gawenda telling them things I don’t think all wanted to hear. Maybe Jews are just becoming more Anglo- Saxon in our sensibilities.
    Our community does not speak in one voice but I’m not convinced that the appetite for diversity is strong  enough to  make a mark  on our institutionalised forms of expression. But as they say in Israel, appetite comes with eating – I think Limmud Oz has whet the appetites of many for more content and more difference.

  • frosh says:

    Hi Mandi,

    That’s an interesting question you pose as to whether we are becoming more Anglo-Saxon in our sensibilities. Have you noticed an increase in the number of Jews who part without saying goodbye?

    With regard to the “Jew Media” panel, as one of the organisers of that panel, I had hoped that there would be more discussion of how Australian Jews are portrayed in the Australian media (e.g. the Einfeld trial), however, it seemed that the audience primarily asked questions about the media coverage of Israel. Fair enough, as it was billed as an audience driven session.

  • samo says:

    There is  a yom limmud in Sydney this coming weekend (with many of the best speakers that featured at limmud oz melb)
    I’m happy to report that if you are under 25 you pay $25
    and if you are under 35 you pay $35.
    That is one way of enticing the younger generations to attend.
    Other ways include:
    – Changing the date of limmud oz so that it doesn’t fall during university exams.
    – Including some young adults on the planning committee.
    – Providing an incentive program whereby if you volunteer for 2 hours you get the rest of the day free.
    I thought limmud was great, but we have a long way to go. The potential is huge!!
    The limmud UK has a policy of changing the Conference Chairperson every year. This ensure the programming is dynamic, the leadership is flexible and fresh, and the energy is high. (they obviously get guidance and support from guys like Clive Lawton and Andrew Gilbert).
    I think we need a similar policy in aus.

  • Sol Salbe says:

    Some responses –
    Ariel: Even though I am not aware of the letters to which you are referring I think an article from somebody from my vantage point elaborating on the whole range of views within the Jewish community would be an excellent idea.
    Frosh: No, Ms Porzsolt was to busy organising and explaining  to participate.  For my part I would think that disparaging personal comments about individual members of our community do not enhance our understanding of anything.  On this I am with the JCCV plenum’s  recent resolution. Let’s stick to discussing ideas.
    Mandi: Those who went to listen to a Knesset Member who regards Netanyahu’s endorsement of the two-state solution as a sellout were, like in every other session, a self-selected audience.  I am not surprised at the audience enthusiastic embrace of her and her ideas. I thought that the audience reaction in the  broader-based “Jew media” session to Ant Frosh’s comments was quite telling. They seemed to accept that given the same article supporters of side A thought that it was biased in favour of side B and vice versa. They were not wedded to their outlook. Having heard so many Palestinians and their supporters complain about the pro-Israeli bias of the Age, I think it was spot-on observation.
    The more important , but less specific, observation to be made is a time-perspective one. Having been involved directly as a writer and observer attending demonstrations, teach-ins etc for over 40 years I see the trends as well as the current snapshot. We may have a long way to go but even compared to LimmudOz in 2004 and 2006 the trend is towards increased diversity.

  • ariel says:

    I thought it a good idea to mention that I’m on the organising committee for the innaugural Limmud-Fest in NSW in November.

    Most of us are between the ages of 20 – 35 so hopefully the younger generation will be inspired to attend as we have some great ideas being programmed.

    I will also be at Yom Limmud this Sunday and have taken advantage of the lower price for younger people.

    Samo points out some very relevant issues. One which has come up in our organising Limmud-Fest is that Limmud-Oz is an independent entity, run by whomever happens to be organising it each year. It appears that the Sydney organisers are much younger and dynamic than Melbourne, from what you’ve all said. Perhaps there’s a need to have roof advising committee overseeing the organising committee each year, just as a guide. Too much decentralisation seems to be leading to erratic pricing and programming…

  • rachsd says:

    Hi ariel,

    I don’t think that a roof body would help – it would probably just make it less enticing to volunteer if you were being told what to do by a roof body. There may also be different financial contrainsts for the Sydney event compared to the Melbourne event. For example if there is a venue in Sydney that is available at a much cheaper price. But it does sound as though there might be some lessons for the Melbourne team in the Sydney Limmud.

  • ariel says:

    Hi rachsd,

    I’m by no means advocating a roof body to tell everyone what to do. Just suggesting a roof “custodian” or “guidance council” to point the organising committee in the right direction and to bounce ideas. It would help to keep the style of the event somewhat even across states…

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