By Jeremy Jones
To his great credit, Prof. Toh Swee Hin of Griffith University’s Multifaith Centre assembled an impressive and diverse group of religious figures, community leaders and civic-minded citizens in Brisbane in February.
Prominent Indonesian religious and political figures; interfaith activists from Bangladesh, Malaysia and the Philippines; Taoist priests, Buddhist monks, bishops, imams, rabbis and others came together to discuss “One Humanity – Many Faiths”.
Although not all of the formal presentations were engaging, the theme itself definitely was, and during workshops and informal sessions there was a vigorous, passionate exchange of views. A number of participants gave personal testimony of the gulf between assertions of how minorities should be treated and how their human rights are challenged, neglected or abused.
I spoke on two plenary panels, and was able to share experiences of dialogue in Australia and internationally at one session and raise concerns as to the value of the process and the challenges we all face at the other.
The diverse religious and national background of participants meant it was pertinent to discuss universal themes and global challenges – such as the philosophical construct of the contract of mutual indifference, in which interaction is governed by tolerance and detachment, contrasted with the concept of mutual care and affirmative action to assist those who are most in need.
Regarding global concerns, I spoke briefly of my participation, earlier in the same week as the Brisbane conference, at the London Conference on Combating Antisemitism, where I had addressed specific challenges in engagements with many and varied interlocutors. Arriving in Brisbane, I found myself in direct dialogue with Bahaís, Taoists, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians.
In Australia we enjoy access to many and diverse sources of information and have a vocal and articulate Jewish community. But this situation is the exception to the regional rule, and many delegates were keen to explore alternatives to what they had been taught concerning Jews and Israelis.
Media present sought my views concerning the state of Jewish-Muslim relations in the aftermath of offensive and hostile anti-Jewish activity in the wake of Israel’s military action in Gaza.
As John Mann, the non-Jewish British Labour Party MP who was the driving force behind the London conference observed, Gaza recently served as “the subtext for those with hatred and ignorance” and in far too many situations pro-Hamas/anti-Israel agitators were involved in “deliberate and calculated confusion of anti-Israel sentiments with antisemitism”.
While there is a complex and multifaceted relationship between Jews and Muslims in Australia, and it is not unusual for divergent views to be passionately held and vigorously expressed, comparisons between Jews and Nazis, or Israel’s military action and the Shoah, are beyond the pale of civil discourse.
Relationships of all sorts will continue to develop, but individuals and organisations which cannot distinguish vitriol and vilification from reasoned political advocacy exclude themselves from being part of this dynamic.
At the London conference, it was encouraging, even inspiring, to hear Christian, Muslim, Jewish and other parliamentarians from Europe, the Americas, Turkey and North Africa express their revulsion at antisemitism in its multiple manifestations, including the pernicious Nazi/Israeli analogy.
Although only a small number of the presentations in London are publicly available, the London declaration (available at tinyurl.com/b9hbfd) is a good summary of the aspects of the problem addressed in the conference and also gives a guide to the determination of those present to take up the fight against the archetypal hatred.
If the Brisbane gathering had a single motif, it was of hope and optimism, predicated on people of many religions and of none being willing and able to construct a better future. I left London feeling I had been in the company of those who not only represented commitment to better humanity but are willing and able to lead us all in the right direction.