Archive for September, 2012

Don’t put the girls and the drinks at the back of the room: why Yom Kippur needs saving

Note: this post was originally entitled ‘In defence of Yom Kippur’, but I started explaining why YK needs saving in the first place and that became an entire post. So please read this first and I promise that the defence is coming.

As I walked into my relatives’ home yesterday to break my fast, it was quite obvious to me that the whole function had been planned and organised by people who had not themselves been fasting.

How could I tell? Simple: after 25 hours of not eating or drinking, the one thing that you need more than anything else is some liquid. The human body can actually survive relatively well for weeks without food, but a couple of days with no water and *goodbye*. Knowing this, anyone who had been fasting would have drinks — and a lot of them — made very available for everyone leaving synagogue and coming to the social part of the evening.

As I walked through the door, however, I was greeted not with drinks, but with a whole range of food. This is not to say that I have a problem with the honey cake, chopped liver and other Ashkenazi fast-breaking treats — it’s just that it’s extremely difficult to swallow a mouthful of honey cake without choking when your throat feels like it has been covered in a layer of fly-paper.

I said the obligatory hello to the several relatives who caught my eye as soon as I walked in, but during this time my eyes were constantly searching for the elusive drinks table. I asked one of my interlocutors where I could find myself a drink around there, and he promptly pointed down the hallway, through a crowd of 50 assorted relatives and family friends, to the garden at the back of the house.

My face dropped in dismay. There was no conceivable way that I would be able to get to the drinks table without being stopped by at least one parent, two grandparents, one auntie and two or three cousins — each of whom would take up approximately 5 minutes of conversation before I could make a polite exit. Nevertheless, I have been fortunate enough to have had some rather intense commando-style training in moving through crowds with my head down, and this was definitely the occasion to use it.

A few minutes later, having managed to avoid eye contact with the vast majority of my kin, I arrived panting at the drinks table, only to discover that my cousins had hired a bartender for the evening to cater to the 70-odd guests and that — being a professional — he had a few bottles of mostly alcoholic drinks on the table and all of the glasses behind him. To my even further dismay, he was using those tiny glasses that people seem to think makes a function more classy, but I’m pretty sure are only used by restaurants to force customers to keep ordering more overpriced drinks as there is no way 200ml of anything can remotely quench anyone’s thirst.

At that point I probably would have started shooting my own family if it meant there was a drink at the end of it, yet I still had to wait for another 3 minutes while the bartender casually served other people as though he had all the goddamn time in the world and there wasn’t some guy standing there about to collapse from dehydration. When I finally managed to grab him by the arms his attention, I ordered three glasses of sparkling water (there was no still) which, after what seemed like an eternity of pouring, I was finally able to gulp down.

Now I am not telling this story not just to vent — I’m getting to the point, I promise you.

Putting the drinks at the back and guarded by the bartender would seem like a perfectly natural thing to do when putting on a function of that size which was not a breaking-of-the-fast. For those of us who did fast, however, it was torture. This is relevant because it suggests — as was the case — that most of my family did not fast. In fact, most of my family were not even at any shul services.

I have done calculations before that put shul attendance on Yom Kippur in Sydney at about 50% of Sydney’s Jews, excluding those who cannot make it because they are too young, too elderly or too unhealthy. There are many reasons why the other half of our community do not attend and if you had the next week or two to keep reading this I could perhaps list most of them, but as it is I may have to settle for one or two.

One thing that I can say for sure is this: the men in my family may put in an appearance at shul, but the women don’t go. Similarly, the women do not fast. That is true across the board — my sister, my mother, my grandmother, my aunties, my female cousins — they all arrived at dinner much earlier than those of us who were rushing home from the ne’ila service for the reason of having been not at the service and not fasting. (Some will tell you that they fasted until the afternoon, but to me that is called ‘skipping breakfast’ and happens once a week, not once a year. Also, in fairness, my mother did go to shul — but I will explain that below.)

This, while perhaps unfortunate, is unsurprising. As you may have gathered, my family is not particularly observant of our religion. Despite this, almost without fail, they have seats at Central Synagogue. That is the major Orthodox synagogue in Sydney, which charges an obscene amount of money for seats that people renew each year but never sit on.

In a religion and a culture that is theoretically so focused on questions and discussion, you would think that at some point people would ask questions like “why do I pay $3,000 every year to attach a little chrome plate with my name inscribed onto a chair in a synagogue that I never intend to ever sit on?” But ours is a community that is never taught to ask these things — all we really “know” is that it would be “wrong” not to fork-out the cash.

I think I may have touched on this before, but I follow Mazorti and not Orthodox Judaism primarily because we do not believe in forcing the women to the back of the room and hiding them away, lest we be distracted from the important things — like peering over the shoulder of the guy in front to see where we are up to in the service, counting the amount of pages left, then crying a little when we realise that we have only gone through five pages in the last half hour because the chazzan loves his annual moment in the spotlight and feels the need to drag each syllable out as far as it can possibly be stretched and then repeat the whole line.

You know, because you can’t do that if you’re standing next to your mother. She might distract you, by being female and therefore quite possibly having cooties. Or something.

I, for one, can attest to the falsity of these entrenched tenets of Orthodoxy. I spent part of Tuesday night standing next to my mother in shul and still managed to not follow the service like a pro — I must have lost my place at least a dozen times.

Point is, if I were a woman and a member of an Orthodox shul (neither of which I am) I wouldn’t go either. I have been to Central on Yom Kippur and peered into that upstairs balcony from whence the womenfolk look down upon the service happening below and I know that what goes on there is not so much prayer as it is… let’s go with “discussion of secular topics”, to be polite. I have no idea why anyone would even need to go to shul to sit and chat when the same thing could be done anywhere else, so why bother?

Another consequence of the gender segregation in shul is that it breaks up families. One relative observed to me that he has a wife and three children and cannot be with them the whole day if they go to shul, so they don’t — and his wife has a very prominent educational role in our community.

Meanwhile, I have also been in the men’s section at the back of Central and found a lesser version of the experience of the women’s section. At least you are not totally excluded from the service and do get the occasional opportunity to reach out and touch the Torah scroll with your tallit as some dude walks by carrying it, but there is still a lot of gossiping and not much davening at all.

One thing it is most certainly not is any kind of spiritual experience — and yet the rabbis wonder why nobody shows up on any other day of the year.

Well, I think it’s a shame. I will stop here because this post is too long already, but bear with me and I will soon explain why I think YK is important and the kinds of things we could be doing instead.

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Apologies: thought for the season

For those readers who aren’t aware (I’m pretty sure at least one of you isn’t Jewish), we are currently in the 10-day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, in which Jews are obligated to remember all our sins and apologise so that god will give us a nice mention in the Book of Life, or something like that.

What has got me writing is an experience that I had recently where a few people let me down  and then asked me to forgive them — which seemed like a rather appropriate thing to do given the festive season (I will not go into the specifics because some of them may be reading this).

At this point, it is worth noting the difference between the Jewish concept of ‘atonement’ and the Christian concept of repentance. In Christian theology, Jesus died for the sins of all humanity, which means that we need to just turn to him and repent and our sins are absolved. It is a very black-and-white idea — sin and you go to hell, repent and you go to heaven.

For Jews, it is not quite so easy. We are required not just to repent, but to actually make amends for things that we have done wrong. Our bad deeds are weighed-up against our good deeds and we are judged on that basis. We are supposed to spend these 10 days atoning, which means delivering sincere apologies to all those whom we have wronged over the past year.

I came across a useful example in an article about teaching kids to apologise, which directed me to this poem:

This Is Just To Say

by William Carlos Williams

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

I have a feeling that I’m plagiarising some great Jewish thinker whose name escapes me, but I see three components in a sincere apology:

1) I was wrong. This means expressing regret for actions and not just consequences. It is the difference between saying “I’m sorry that I ate the plums” and not “I’m sorry that I upset you by eating the plums”. Notice that the second does not actually admit that eating the plums was wrong, it actually makes the quite hurtful implication that it is the person who was saving the plums that is at fault because they are overreacting to something that was not itself wrong.

2) I won’t do it again. This is just as important as admitting fault. There is no real point in expressing regret for something if you would just do it again next time. If you cannot commit to not repeating whatever you are apologising for, it is telling the person to whom you are apologising that they are less important to you than whatever you gained from the conduct for which you are apologising.

3) I promise to make it up to you. This one is not always possible, so only applies to some situations. While it is very possible to replace the plums that you ate, if you were cheating on your spouse, there’s not much that you could do except to promise never to do it again.

The last stanza of the poem contains what some might call an apology, however it is more a plea for forgiveness. The protagonist is not actually sorry for eating the plums and does not fulfil the steps outlined above. The only regret is that whoever they are talking to now cannot have the plums that were being saved for breakfast, and so is probably upset. It’s a classic disingenuous apology — “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings”, instead of “I was wrong,  I won’t do it again and I will do what I can to make it up to you.”

From my perspective, it is not worth apologising unless you are actually willing to change your behaviour in accordance with the apology. Doing so is worse than not apologising at all, because it is dishonest. Your goal is to placate a person’s response to actions that you do not in fact regret. You would be better-off just accepting the consequences of your actions.

It is very easy to apologise for something that was genuinely an error, because you will not intend to repeat an error. What is far more difficult is apologising in situations, such as eating the plums, where you did something for your own benefit that hurt another person. For that reason, doing so is all the more meaningful — it says to the person “I was selfish, but I value you and in future I will be more considerate of your feelings.”

If your apology was not sincere, you are in effect admitting that the person to whom you are apologising is less important to you than whatever the benefit was from what you did. I find this quite insulting, I would much sooner know where I stand with someone than have them pretend that they care about how I feel.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed that little drosha. Don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll write something smartass and political soon enough.

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Abbott may be bully, have problem with women

The scandal over Federal Opposition leader Tony Abbott’s character is set to explode as another incident from his past is brought to light.

Susie Somethingorother, who went to kindergarten with Mr Abbott, has gone public over an incident in 1960 when Mr Abbott – then aged three – refused to give her the red crayon. This marks the latest in a series of discoveries that seem to portray Mr Abbott as a bully who has a problem with women.

“I cannot recall precisely what I was drawing, however it may have been a picture of barnyard,” said Ms Somethingorother. “I do distinctly remember asking him very nicely for the red crayon and him shouting ‘no! I’m drawing a firetruck!’”

“The response was unnecessarily aggressive and entirely disproportionate to what was quite an innocent request. I found him very intimidating.”

Ms Somethingorother claims to have broken out in tears as a result of Mr Abbott’s conduct. She then proceeded to run to their supervisor, who castigated Mr Abbott for “not sharing like they’d discussed”.

In order to avoid further disciplinary action, Mr Abbott eventually gave the crayon to Ms Somethingorother. Shockingly, in the aftermath of the incident, the Opposition leader allegedly began referring to his former playmate as “Smelly Susie the tattle-tale”.

“It is a clear sign that Tony is a bully and hates women,” Ms Somethingorother said.

Another of Mr Abbott’s kindergarten classmates, who chose to remain nameless, corroborated Ms Somethingorother’s story.

“I don’t recall the precise incident in question, however that does sound like something Tony would have done. He was quite the schoolyard terror,” said the source, who claims that Mr Abbott always refused to let other kids play with his Flinstone Phone.

Mr Abbott has denied all allegations, however he initially claimed to have no memory whatsoever of the incident. As many “experts” have pointed out, if he does not remember committing the deeds in question, it is not clear how he can be sure that they never happened.

“Surely if he had genuinely not done it he’d remember not doing it,” observed the Age’s political editor.

Labor MPs have expressed serious concern over the incident, saying that it proves Mr Abbott is not fit to be Prime Minister, that he is a homophobe, that he hates women, that he eats children, and that he is “just a bad, bad man”. They also accused Mr Abbott of running a “relentlessly negative campaign”.

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Ivory tower watch: sure you hate the homosexuals, but if you kill Americans you are in the ‘global left’

Pro-BDS, ‘post-structuralist’ academic Judith Butler has controversially been given some German award that nobody had heard of until they decided to give it to her. But apparently is a big deal in the city of Frankfurt.

I, for one, am completely indifferent outraged!

Well, when I say ‘for one’, what I mean is ‘as one of many’. This incident seems to have sparked a bombardment of Frankfurt the likes of which have not been seen since… the Allies dropped 12,197 tons of explosives on the city in the World War II (more like: World War TOO soon).

Anyway, as Kenan Malik explains, Butler is known less for supporting BDS and more for her godawful writing, which is almost impossible to understand and, for those who have the patience to get their heads around it, says nothing very interesting anyway.

Oh, and there was also this little doozy that seems to have been brought-up a fair bit during said bombardment of Frankfurt:

Benjamin Weinthal and Richard Landes: The Post-Self-Destructivism of Judith Butler – WSJ.com.

Participating in an “Anti-War Teach-In” at Berkeley in 2006, Ms. Butler answered a question about Hamas’s and Hezbollah’s place “in the global left.” These are two of the most belligerent movements within the warmongering, anti-Semitic, homophobic and misogynistic world of Islamist jihad. Yet while criticizing violence and “certain dimensions of both movements,” Ms. Butler told the students that “understanding Hamas [and] Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of a global left, is extremely important.”

And there we go: exactly what I’ve been complaining about all this time! This is a self-proclaimed ‘progressive’ claiming two groups to her cause that are not merely conservative, but are actually bent on returning to a 7th Century society in which homosexuals were hung, adulterers were stoned to death and women were neither seen nor heard unless they were being beaten or raped, in which case it was probably their fault and they may be liable for death by stoning since they did technically commit adultery while they were being raped.

Oh and that’s not to mention the whole ‘driving the Jews into the ocean’ thing. Or the part about going to heaven for killing a Jew.

Now I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty damn progressive to me. Lucky we have people on the global left to fight against injustice by firing rockets towards civilian areas and hoping to hit something.

*sigh*

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Shameless propaganda hurts pro-Israel cause

I am often a spokesperson for the pro-Israel community in Australia. I do deliberately put-forward a line that is favourable of Israel and I admit that, from time to time, I will downplay information that runs contradictory to that line.

It is not an attempt to deny or whitewash anything, more a necessary aspect of being a part of a public debate. Ceding ground can have severe consequences, so must be done very carefully. It is made especially difficult for people like me to give honest criticisms of Israel when faced with opponents who are unrelenting, intolerant and even genocidal.

Any small criticism of Israel made by someone in my position is taken to be vindication for views that I find abhorrent. A common and very prominent example can be seen in comments made by now Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak a few years ago that Israel could become an apartheid state if action was not taken on the peace protest.

Barak was playing domestic politics — trying to malign his right wing rivals for not taking enough action on the peace process. However, I cannot count the number of times I have heard that Barak quote followed by something like ‘I agree with Mr Barak, I just think that Israel already is apartheid’, as though this were a perfectly natural conclusion to come to and there was just a minor disagreement between the speaker and Barak.

And of course, as a certain Jordanian BDS group reminded us recently, many of my opponents have some kind of racial prejudice thinly masked by their adopted rhetoric. In a charming Facebook discussion, several Jordanian Palestinians made it perfectly clear that, to them, any Jewish presence in ‘historic Palestine’ is illegitimate and the Jews should all ‘go home’. No, none of them could answer where exactly ‘home’ is.

Anti-normalization and the Israeli Left – a Facebook debate | +972 Magazine.

ALL CITIZENS OF THE ILLEGAL STATES OF “ISRAEL” ARE A PART OF THE ZIONIST COLONIAL PROJECT, EXCEPT THE ORIGINAL PEOPLE OF PALESTINE, AND SO, ALL THOSE WHO SERVE THE ZIONIST PROJECT ARE ZIONISTS FOR US, REGARDLESS OF THEIR RACE, RELIGIOUS BELIEVES OR DISBELIEVES OR POLITICAL VIEWS, FOR DISAMBIGUATION, ANY NON-ISRAELI JEW IS NOT A ZIONIST, ANY PALESTINIAN JEW IS NOT ZIONIST, AS LONG AS THEY ARE NOT SERVE THE ZIONIST COLONIAL PROJECT BY OTHER MEANS THAN CITIZENSHIP

That said, I think it is extremely important to be credible when speaking on these issues. Using ‘their’ tactics against them is not a strategy that I can follow in good conscience.

While I may write carefully in order to give a certain impression, I am not dishonest, I do not lie, and I do not manipulate the truth for convenience’s sake. This is why I am extremely bothered by people like Maurice Ostroff, who has done all of the above in an op-ed in today’s Jerusalem Post regarding a group of African asylum-seekers who were trapped between Israel and Egypt for the past week.

Setting the record straight: Migrants… JPost – Opinion – Op-Eds.

Contrary to the claim that the Convention obligates Israel to permit these refugees to enter the country, there is no provision at all in the Convention requiring a contracting state to allow entry of refugees who are not already in its territory. Article 33 refers only to refugees who have already entered, whether legally or illegally.

This omission of a requirement to admit refugees not already in the territory was evidently deliberate, as described in the judgment in the matter of Regina v. Immigration Officer at Prague Airport [2004].

The judgment refers to the important backdrop to the Convention as described in “Refugees under International Law with a Reference to the Concept of Asylum” (1986), as follows: “States the world over consistently have exhibited great reluctance to give up their sovereign right to decide which persons will, and which will not, be admitted to their territory and given a right to settle there. They have refused to agree to international instruments which would impose on them duties to make grants of asylum.”

As regular readers will be aware, I make a habit of checking sources.

Here is the UK House of Lords case to which Ostroff was referring (European Roma Rights Centre and others v Immigration Officer at Prague Airport [2005] 1 All ER 527). The passage that he quoted was not a ruling by the Court, it was one judge quoting an Australian case that the court had been referred to by counsel for the appellants.

In fact, referring to that case at all is disingenuous to say the least. The case concerned Czech citizens who were trying to claim asylum without leaving the Czech Republic — meaning they could not possibly be considered ‘refugees’ as they were not ‘outside their last country of habitual residence’. This was also at a time when the UK was being flooded with asylum seekers from the Czech Republic, the majority of whom were not valid refugees.

There is not really any comparison to a group of African asylum seekers fleeing from Egypt, which is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention and which has some rather unnerving practises like shooting asylum seekers as they try to reach Israel.

In fact, the Prague Airport case was brought by Roma who claimed to have been discriminated against when British immigration officials would not let them board planes to the UK — and they won! The Court ruled that British authorities could not refuse to allow Roma into the country on the premise that they might claim asylum once there.

Meanwhile, this was just sickening:

In terms of Article 33, a refugee (as defined in Article 1) may not be expelled or returned (“refouler”) to territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion. Clearly this does not include threats by common criminals. If this were the case it would apply to citizens of all countries suffering from a high crime rate like Colombia, Mexico and South Africa, which was plainly not the intention.

It is therefore obvious that the Convention does not cover the circumstances of refugees seeking admission to Israel from Egypt.

‘Common criminal’ is a broad and meaningless phrase. Let’s look at the actual situation and see if it fits.

Ostroff was referring to these comments by the UNHCR representative in the region:

UN refugee envoy: Eritreans trapped at Israel-Egypt border must be allowed in – Israel News | Haaretz Daily Newspaper.

“The most worrying thing to me is the discussion of pushing them back into Egypt, which is highly irresponsible, because if they go back to Egypt there is a high risk these people will fall in the hands of human smugglers, and it is well known, it is all documented, that many of these people have been abused, there are cases of torture or rape, and if you send them back you are sending them to a situation with a very high degree of insecurity.”

The Sinai is a largely ungoverned and chaotic region of Egypt. Its local population is mostly Bedoin and they make their money through organised crime, exploiting their convenient location on the land-bridge between Africa and Europe/Asia.

They also like to dabble in things like the human slave trade and kidnapping for ransom. They particularly like to target the vulnerable Africans trying to escape the continent as they know that these people have no real protection.

The Egyptian authorities have struggled to control this at the best of times and right now is probably the worst of times in this regard.

There is no ambiguity for Ostroff to hide behind, sending the asylum seekers back to Egypt would have meant that their “life or freedom would be threatened on account of race, religion, nationality, membership”.

Attacking Egypt for turning a blind eye to inhumane treatment is entirely valid, however it is completely unjust to try and pretend that Egypt is an acceptable place for these people and Israel is under no obligation to take them in.

The worst part of Ostroff’s polemic, however, was this:

The lack of credible information from the Foreign Ministry and the IDF spokesperson is a sad reflection on Israel’s public diplomacy. While admiring the valuable humanitarian work performed by Israeli groups like “We Are Refugees” that filed a petition in support of the migrants, I am disturbed by the ill-founded criticism which has been disseminated worldwide by them and by William Tall, the UNHCR representative in Israel.

Clearly, Ostroff does not admire the petitioners who managed to convince the High Court that Israel had to let the refugees in. He is essentially advocating that the Government of Israel do everything it can to oppose them and then take credit for their work when it loses.

That is dishonest and contemptuous. It does the pro-Israel cause no favours at all.

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Yom Kippur bike rental and the Israeli anti-freedom lobby

Chaim Eckstein thinks that the Tel Aviv municipality has gone too far in not suspending their bike rental service on Yom Kippur:

Yom Kippur bike rental – secular fanaticism – Israel Opinion, Ynetnews.

Suspending the bike rental service on Yom Kippur does not constitute capitulation to the religious community, and it has nothing to do with religious coercion. Why? Because Yom Kippur is not a religious day; it is an Israeli day. It is one of the state’s symbols.

You do not have to observe the Torah and the mitzvahs to deem Yom Kippur a holy day. Even avid seculars fast on Yom Kippur. Even those who regularly eat bacon with cheese feel uncomfortable upon hearing that an Israeli who plays for a European basketball team took part in a game that was held on Yom Kippur. Eat falafel, go to a barbecue but also fast one day a year – this is what it means to be Israeli in modern times.

That may be true, but these avid seculars may also want to ride a bike while they are fasting. Or maybe the 30% of Israelis who are not Jewish may want to ride a bike around Tel Aviv on a day when you can’t really drive. Or perhaps the tens of thousands of tourists that keep the Israeli economy running may want to ride a bike around Tel Aviv on that day.

Either way, who the hell is Chaim Eckstein to tell them they can’t?

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Oh the humanity!

English: Abortion protest sign on North Table ...

This was too good not to share. Although I do take mild offence to the term ‘abortion holocaust’.

I want you to meet my friend and fellow abortion abolitionist, 11-year-old Zoe Griffin. In a world when grown adults ignore, deny or just don’t care about the abortion holocaust that has claimed over 55 million of Zoe’s generation, she is willing to take a stand no matter what people think. Zoe joined her mother and friends to lay thousands of roses outside the site of the Democratic convention and pray for the babies, the politicians and this generation.

There is then a short monologue from said 11-year-old Christian warrior herself:

“The pro-abortionists turned to us and started pointing at different people, saying, “You’re a person! You’re a person! Fetuses are not!” Then the woman saw me crying and said,” You are making this girl cry with your bull____”. I couldn’t stand any more of those lies. They pushed it too far. In the highest-pitched voice I have ever spoken in, I screamed, “THEY ARE NOT THE ONES MAKING ME CRY! YOU ARE! WITH YOUR DARK HEARTS, YOUR DARK MINDS TURNED AGAINST GOD!”

Traumatic hey? But I guess there is hope.

I will never, ever forget what happened last night. I had a dream that night that they all converted to pro-life activists. I hope that dream becomes a reality.

Gotta love self-parody.

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Ivory tower watch: we don’t need free speech protections when we have vague ideas instead

We’re doing well this week – the last ITW even had a response from the actual academic in question. Since I’m on a high, I figure I’ll let it ride – especially as I have just had the rather painful experience of trawling through ‘What to do about hate speech:
 an “institutionalised argumentation” model’ by Kath Gelber.

Gelber doesn’t believe that free speech protections are needed in racial vilification legislation, mostly because she has a magic formula to find out if a statement should be unlawful. First-off, I’ll highlight this passage if only because it re-affirms my general issue with social scientists trying to talk about law. The law faculty can’t be that far away, you would think that she could walk on over and ask about some of these issues before presenting a paper on them.

[I]t has been claimed that the public interest exception was necessary because Australia lacked specific constitutional protections of freedom of expression, although no evidence is provided to support a direct link between the lack of a constitutional free speech protection in Australia and the inclusion of the public interest exception in the legislation. Except for very general comments in parliamentary debate, very little concrete evidence exists that the specific terms or breadth of the exemptions were discussed in detail before the racial anti-vilification legislation was enacted in NSW. [references omitted, my bold]

How is this for evidence of a direct link: if there were a constitutional free speech protection, having the public interest exception built into the racial vilification provisions would be completely redundant as it would just be replicating protections that already exist. The US does not need to include free speech protections in any of its legislation because they are already covered by the first amendment.

But the paper is really about hate speech – Gelber thinks a theory by Jurgen Habermas is all that we need in determining whether a statement should be proscribed hate speech. The statement she chooses as the sole test example?

The incident concerns a woman who was the target of the following comments from occupants of another vehicle at a service station: “You black slut”, “You’re nothing but a coon”, “I’ve shot worse coons than you”.

Using Habermas’ theory, Gelber spends 7.5 pages determining that this statement is, in fact, discriminatory. I hope that comes as a shock to you, because I was certainly blown-away by the revelation.

To summarise her application of the theory:

  1. On one level, it is objectively determinable, and probably untrue, that the woman was, in fact, a ‘slut’ or ‘nothing but a coon’ (short for ‘racoon’) and whether speaker had actually shot any ‘coons’ before.
  2. The statement reinforced the idea that the black woman was inferior because she was black and a woman.
  3. We can’t really know why the person made the statement, but they are probably a racist.

I’m glad we sorted that one out. To me, that statement is pretty clear-cut racial vilification. In fact, it would probably be harassment even if there were no racial undertones. Maybe Gelber could have chosen something a little more ambiguous to test her theory on?

How, for instance, would this test apply to very black Aboriginal activist Bess Price saying to a very European-looking Aboriginal man, “Look, I didn’t know you were a blackfella as well because I’m sitting here and you look totally like a whitefella to me”? Or for Chris Graham, the Founder of the National Indigenous Times and another pale-skinned Aboriginal, calling Price a ‘grub’ in response?

A little more difficult, no? Let’s apply the formula to the first:

  1. Price probably did assume that the man was not Aboriginal.
  2. She was affirming a norm that does exist where appearing black is linked with Aboriginality. Society has a lot of difficulty in determining if this is valid, but it is hard to tell someone who looks like Price that it is not. This criterion is a little vague.
  3. Both Price and the man knew exactly what Price wanted to say.

And the second:

  1. Price is not, in fact, a ‘grub’.
  2. Well, Graham is technically Aboriginal, however there does seem to be something racist in a white-skinned man calling a black-skinned woman a ‘grub’.
  3. His intent was pretty clear: he found it offensive that his Aboriginal appearance was being called into question by Price.

Should this be proscribed conduct? Not so sure now, are we?

But the worst part really is the ‘policy’ that Gelber puts forward at the end:

Might there be mechanisms other than apologies, retraction, fines and workplace-based educational programs that might respond more effectively to hate speech?

One alternative is to provide a hate speech policy which allows for the generation of speech which aims to counter the claims of the hate speakers. This means providing an assisted response to those who would seek to contradict and counter the effects of hate-speech-acts. This means that victims and victim groups would be empowered to respond to, and to seek to contradict, the impact of and the discrimination embodied in, the utterance.

She then spends a while explaining the benefits of this idea. The problem is, this is not really a ‘policy’ – it is a goal.

Apologies, retraction, fines and workplace-based educational programs are policies – they are things that can be implemented in the event that the Act is breached. Allowing the oppressed person to counter the claims of the speaker is not a policy. A policy could be, say, forcing the abuser to sit down with the abused and have at it – although I would question the effectiveness of this.

What I do know is that these vague alternatives have not convinced me that we can get rid of free speech protections in our racial vilification laws.

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Ivory tower watch: ‘racioethnic closure’ in the Netherlands

Remember when I was complaining about the normalisation of the non-whiteness of race? Well I have another highlight from moral relativist Ivory Tower types, this time from over in the Netherlands.

I have just read ‘The Impact of Migrant-Hostile Discourse in the Media and Politics on Racioethnic Closure in Career Development in the Netherlands’ by Hans Siebers, a sociologist from Tilburg University. Yes, the term ‘racioethnic closure in career development’ was a bit of a giveaway that perhaps this article was not going to be one worth paying much attention to.

See, most of us would have said ‘racial discrimination in employment’ – a perfectly adequate term in plain English to describe what Siebers is talking about. But why use plain English when you can write a paper that no-one but a handful of wankers social scientists could ever understand/want to read? After all, if nobody is reading your work, there’s nobody to tell you that you’re wrong.

But I digress. Here is a choice passage from Mr Siebers that I think really captures where he’s coming from (my bold):

Although there were mutterings of discontent in the 1990s, such as statements by liberal leader Frits Bolkestein (see Prins, 2002), a clearly negative tone towards migrants and migration gained momentum in the Dutch media and political arena basically after the turn of the century (Prins, 2002; Vasta, 2007). The events of 11 September 2001 did not fail to leave their imprint, but such a negative tone has also been amplified by domestic developments. For example, populist politician Pim Fortuyn managed to challenge established political parties, in part by mobilizing against minorities. While he called Islam a ‘backward culture’ and called for the abolition of the constitutional article that bans discrimination (de Volkskrant, 9 February 2002), his party became by far the strongest party in the local council of Rotterdam in March 2002. Only his assassination (6 May 2002) could stop him from doing something similar in the upcoming national elections.

Since 2000, it has become standard discursive practice in the media and politics to associate migrants with all sorts of problems – crime, fraud, ghettoization and societal decay – without feeling the need to support claims by facts. Somali immigrant Ayaan Hirsi Ali has become one of the spokespersons of this migrant-hostile discourse. She was welcomed into a governmental party as an MP in 2002 and mobilizes against Muslims and blames Islam for many societal problems. She joined filmmaker Theo van Gogh to produce a film in which texts from the Koran are painted on a naked female body that supposedly legitimize violence against women. She received death threats, and van Gogh was actually murdered on 2 November 2004 by a radicalized Muslim. That event triggered a spiral of violence against Muslim schools and mosques and retaliation against churches.

Is it just me, or was there some glee in the way Siebers described Fortuyn’s assassination? There was definitely a subtext of ‘well luckily he was killed before he could do any more damage’ to it, which makes me very uncomfortable.

What makes me far more uncomfortable, however, is the way he deals with the Hirsi Ali/Van Gogh incident. Let’s be clear: Hirsi Ali is a Muslim apostate from Somalia who left her country and her religion because she was being subjected to horrible abuse. Yes she blames Islam for many of society’s problems, however she has been at the receiving end of these ‘problems’.

When she made the movie Fitna, she was not just using texts that ‘supposedly legitimize violence against women’, she was using texts that had legitimised violence towards her, and are still being used to legitimise violence towards her – by the people who murdered Van Gogh, which again Siebers does not seem too upset about.

The actual research that Siebers did for the paper is quite interesting – he was trying to draw a link between vilification of immigrants in the Dutch media, the way that immigrants are dealt with by their employers and the difficulty that they then face in advancing their careers. I know this because months of reading about discrimination has given me the ability to translate his academese and look past his third-worldism/moral-relativism/borderline endorsement of assassination as a method for combatting anti-Islamist rhetoric. But most (sane) people would never be able want to go through that.

Problem is, he did this (my bold):

Only minority (92) and majority (1267) respondents (N = 1359) were included in the data analysis. In line with official categories and other Dutch studies (see Tesser and Dronkers, 2007), people with a western non-Dutch or Indonesian background were left out because of their successful integration into the labour market.

Ie in his study, he only looked at migrants that were not successfully integrated. He did not think that it may be worth considering why some groups of migrants could integrate successfully when others could not.

And since we’re getting kind of technical, there was this little flaw in his experimental design. See, he explained career advancement like this (my bold):

Career advancement can … be seen as the result of such a process at a certain moment and be measured in terms of one’s position in the hierarchy of job levels. … The old bureaucratic idea was to gradually pass through these increments, being awarded one increment every year. … If this framework were applied mechanically, the factors educational level, age and tenure would simply determine one’s position on this hierarchy of salary scales with little room for racioethnic closure. However, over the last 15 years, these factors no longer automatically determine one’s position on this hierarchy and upward mobility has become more flexible. Nowadays, applicants and employees are assessed on a variety of criteria and competence profiles. 

But designed his experiment like this:

Control variables. Since I wanted to measure racioethnic closure in career advancement, i.e. racioethnic inequality in career advancement that is not due to inequality in human capital, I used level of education, age and tenure (proxies for relevant work experience) and language proficiency as control variables.

Ie he identified that education, age and tenure are no longer the factors that determine career advancement… but just went ahead and used them anyway. He noted that career advancement is assessed on ‘a variety of criteria and competence profiles’, but then used the old redundant criteria plus language proficiency.

In other words, his experiment is looking at migrants who had not integrated successfully and seeing if they were being discriminated against by a system that no longer exists. Surprise surprise, the experiment confirmed his hypothesis that the media causes migrants to struggle to advance themselves in the workplace. This may well be true, but Siebers’ ‘research’ doesn’t confirm that – his experiment was more or less designed to prove him right and not to actually measure anything useful.

The real issue is Siebers’ paternalistic ideology. We can see this when he laments the fact that the Dutch government is trying to push ‘Dutch norms and values’ on immigrants, but does not acknowledge that Hirsi Ali had a legitimate point regarding the treatment of women (including herself!) amongst some immigrant communities.

In his desire to ‘protect’ Muslim immigrants from his fellow Dutchmen, he does not see the immigrants as autonomous human beings capable of flaws. He completely glosses over the culture of violence that led to two prominent critics of the immigrants being assassinated but spends pages and pages on the Dutch response (this happens in the part that I didn’t quote).

That is how he managed to design an experiment that does not consider the possibility that the immigrants are not advancing in their careers because of something to do with them, but only allows for the possibility that it is discrimination holding them back. That is why he refuses to compare immigrant communities that do integrate successfully with those that don’t – he is fixated on the idea that Dutch society must be responsible and not the immigrant groups.

The sad thing is that Siebers is probably right to an extent – immigrants probably do suffer from negative stereotyping by their employers due to vilification in the media. However, there will be much more to it than that and Siebers’ ideological myopia means that he misses a huge part of the picture.

So to Siebers I say this: thanks asshole, you just wasted an hour of my time reading your shitty paper.

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*Update* Siebers’ name is now spelt correctly.

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