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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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