In recent years, the Islamic month Ramadan has become a time of interfaith conversations and dialogue.
The practice of Muslims inviting others to come to the “Iftar” – the meal after dusk for those who have been fasting – supplemented by Iftars hosted by businesses, governments and diplomatic missions, is increasingly widespread in Australia.
At a number of Iftars I attended this year, Muslim interlocutors – some of whom are friends, others I was meeting for the first time – took the opportunity of a relaxed and non-confrontational atmosphere to ask questions about Judaism, the Jewish community and Israel.
A number had attended functions or heard on radio the group from the Interreligious Co-ordinating Council of Israel (ICCI, who AIJAC hosted at a number of venues in Melbourne and Sydney, and been inspired by that experience to rethink preconceptions about the reality of daily life in Israel.
The focus of many of the presentations by the ICCI visitors had been on education, in particular the way in which Israeli society responds to the challenge of multiculturalism and religious pluralism in a politically-charged environment.
The fact that there are functioning mosques and churches in Israel came as a surprise to some who had been misled in to perceiving Israel as a crypto-theological totalitarian state, indicating just how important the visit to Australia was for increasing knowledge and understanding.
The challenge of educating the majority about minorities with whom they coexist was the subject of many of my conversations with members of the Muslim minority in Australia, with my kosher diet leading to a discussion of the way in which rituals such as kosher killing of meat, the practice of circumcision and even items of headgear with religious significance were understood within the broader community.
One Iftar conversation, on the differences between kosher and halal food, was interrupted by media calls seeking a response to a comment by Sydney radio personality Kyle Sandilands.
In the course of a discussion concerning the dramatic and impressive weight loss by the popular comedienne Magda Szubanski, the “shock jock” had suggested she would be even slimmer if she had the experience of concentration camp internees.
In my years of involvement in public affairs issues, I have rarely encountered such strong, pervasive, almost universal revulsion in the broad Australian community for words uttered on radio. The comments were not only personally nasty to Magda Szubanski, but offensive to the intelligence and sensitivities of all listeners with a minimal degree of understanding or humanity.
In radio interviews in particular, I reflected disappointment that a person could have these thoughts, let alone articulate them. The interviews further gave me the opportunity to talk about civil discourse and the nature of bullying, as well as to explain why it is important to learn about the Shoah.
In the days after my comments were reported and broadcast I was overwhelmed by the support for my views from media and political commentators, as well as Muslim, Christian and other sources and religious figures.
Regardless of the motivation, the broadcast of the comment indicated a complete lack of responsibility by the show’s producer, who could have blocked before it went to air, as well as of the person who uttered it.
The public response, such as that by my Iftar co-diners, who expressed disgust and anger that the comments had been made and aired – was testimony to the widespread goodwill, understanding and sympathy of Australians. However, the fact that the comment was made and broadcast was a reminder of the importance of education to prevent intolerance and offence.
In the case of the radio broadcast, the matter was one of gratuitous offensiveness, but in other situations ignorance can lead to policies and practices which discriminate against minorities. In both types of situation, education is the most important means of prevention and response.