In a nutshell:
In this piece I reflect on conspiracy theories, the attraction of autocrats, how we can all create a vaccine against hatred and intolerance, why Christmas decorations and customs can have an unintended negative impact on some Jews, and good wishes to all for a relaxing and festive break.
Last week in Australia we witnessed the devastating attack on members of our police force and the murder of a well-meaning citizen in Queensland. It was a deliberate, ugly and vicious killing of two young people, and a brutal attack on another two young individuals just starting their careers. It was all the more chilling for the perverted ideological conspiracy theories that drove the murderers in their cold and sophisticated murder spree.
The world today is awash in dangerous words, diabolical discussions, and dubious conspiracy theories. They gained traction during the Trump presidency, and the Covid pandemic unleashed an almost unstoppable pandemic of perverse propositions and actions.
Frightening times breed frightening ideas. Change is deeply unsettling. We long for the simplicity of certainty – a simple and easy way to understand the confusion and unpredictability. And that’s what authoritarian rulers, conspiracy theorists, and religious extremists offer. Black and white is more appealing than grey.
Columnist and historian, Anne Applebaum, explains the lure of autocracy, conspiracy theories, and the acute polarisation today as the allure of surety. She suggests that political systems with radically simple beliefs are inherently appealing, especially when they benefit the loyal to the exclusion of everyone else. I would add it’s precisely this absolutist approach that defines religious fanatics. They, after all, know better than anyone else exactly what God is thinking and expects of us.
Religious belief is not about an unthinking acceptance, but the willingness and ability to grapple with faith and doubt. Rabbi JB Soloveitchik’s fascinating analysis of the dreams of the young Joseph pinpoints this. Joseph dreams an agricultural (sheaves of wheat) dream and a cosmic one about the constellation of stars (Genesis 37). In them he predicted the age of uncertainty and anxiety that were coming. Despite his narcissism, he was warning his family to prepare for change in both their rural lifestyle and their parochial view of the world. He was challenging their simple certainties, urging them to think outside of the square. Unfortunately they were stuck in their simple sureness and enraged by his dreams. It would take many years and hardships to recognise the truthfulness of his vision.
We have had the good fortune to activate the best of the human spirit and ingenuity to create vaccines to halt the worst of the Covid virus. Now it is up to us to create a vaccine to counter the insidious and frightening spread of the ideological virus. For Jewish people there’s another edge of urgency since the toxic mix has dollops of antisemitism in it.
We are into the festive season, and even for those who are not celebrating Hanukkah or Christmas, it’s time to relax, to be with family and friends, and just to unwind into relaxedness and peacefulness. Time to pause, time in the words of the Welsh poet, W.H.Davies, “to stand and stare’’; after all, says Davies: “what is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare? No time to see, in broad daylight, streams full of stars, like skies at night“.
This is the season or at least the time of opportunity to delve into our respective traditions; be they Jewish or Christian, Muslim or Hindu, Buddhist or Sikh, humanist or secular; to activate the antidote of love and respect, Godliness and spirituality, of justice and morality.
This is, of course, part of our values of mutual respect and inclusion at Jewish Care. We respect the dignity of our different cultures and traditions. We are a Jewish organisation; which means we celebrate our identity while honouring and learning from others, including our First Peoples. Staff, especially those working with our seniors, should be mindful that some of the lovely Christmas traditions (like Christmas songs, decorations, and hats) can actually trigger negative associations for some elders. Unfortunately the relationship between Christianity and Judaism has been a long, complicated, and often negative one; which meant Jews were vilified and persecuted by some Christians with conspiracy-type accusations. Thus Jews were accused at Easter Time of killing Christian children to use their blood in baking matzo or for poisoning wells during the Dark Plague. There’s been a huge shift in the last century leading to a positive respectful interaction between Jews and Christians, especially with those in the Catholic and Anglican communities. As an advocate of multifaith engagement I embrace this, but am cognisant that centuries of suffering aren’t easily dismissed.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues for a paradigm shift to counter our polarisation, a new way of thinking in which we recognise that we are enlarged, not diminished, by the 6,000 languages and by (my extension) countless cultures and religious expressions that exist today, that the astonishing words of the prophet Isaiah come to fruition: In that day … the Lord Almighty will bless them, saying “Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance” (Isaiah 19-19-25). In other words, a day in which Jews who are Orthodox and Reform, Muslims – Sunni and Shia, Buddhists and Hindus, Catholics and Protestants, make space for one another and for the other…
The following message is doing the rounds for Chanukah, but should resonate for all people of goodwill!
Wishing you all a break that brings rest and relaxation, a season of light and joy, family and festivity, community and connectedness.