Talking About Minorities and Tensions – Rabbi Zalman Kastel

As I sit down to write this, I am afraid of upsetting people, but also of doing the wrong thing. I have been listening to opposing arguments relating to cultural and religious diversity and seeing how each is true for the people who hold them. A binary paradigm would demand that I simply take one side and ignore the other. I don’t think a binary approach is working. Despite all the good intentions of advocates, we are seeing the triumph of “Trumpism”: rising anti-migrant sentiment in Europe and the Australian High Court ruling allowing asylum seeker families to be returned to Nauru. On the other hand, attempts at acknowledging people’s fears of the “other”, such as an article I wrote for The Daily Telegraph, have been met with backlash. Along with positive feedback, there was a torrent of criticism ranging from thoughtful and partly justified to defamatory.

I apologised sincerely and have had the article taken down, but there are some principles worth considering, regarding thinking and talking about out-groups. We need to: 1. Engage with, rather than deny people’s fears. 2. Acknowledge the important difference between saying something is entirely about race or religion and considering a cultural or religious dimension as one contributing factor. The pursuit of justice must certainly start with protecting those with less power from those with more power. But justice for the vulnerable does not mean that they can do no wrong. Censoring discussion about tensions between members of minorities and majority groups is a well-intentioned but ultimately destructive posture.

I have seen this desire to censor tensions in my work with school students in my capacity as National Director of the Intercultural Understanding organisation Together for Humanity. On one occasion, a Year 11 student leader told her peers and our team of multi-faith presenters that the best strategy for dealing with tensions between groups is just to “pretend it is not happening”. However, “pretending” will often fail. Anti-racism literature insists that, “Participants must feel ‘safe’ to speak honestly and frankly, including talking about negative experiences. If people feel under attack and think they will be labelled as racist, they are less likely to listen or engage”[1]. One effective conflict resolution strategy is referred to as adopting the “and stance” which seeks to understand both sides of a dispute. Acknowledging the others’ stories can make it easier for them to add your perspective to theirs.[2]

In her article, “The Cologne Attacks and the Big White Elephant in the Room”, Randa Abdel Fattah questions the difference between saying race (or religion) has everything to do with these crimes, and saying it has something to do with it. The answer for me is in the benefit and truth of the latter vs. the harm and falsehood of the former. The distinction between the two approaches can be clearly observed in the example of the failure of some Australian Rabbis to turn to Secular authorities in cases of suspected child sexual abuse at Yeshiva centres. It is wrong to say that the Jewishness of the Rabbis was entirely to blame for their behaviour. This is simply not true as we can see that other Jews, including religious Jews, have trusted secular authorities to deal with these problems. Blaming Judaism falsely taints a community with the wrongful deeds of some. Yet it would be reasonable, and not anti-Semitic, to look beyond the question of assigning blame, and instead explore whether their Jewish faith was a “contributing factor” to these terrible choices. People and their decisions are multi-faceted and multi-determined. Although there were factors affecting individual Rabbis’ choices other than faith, such as concern about institutional reputation, personal loyalties, poor personal judgement that also contributed, these do not negate the validity of discussing the role of faith as one factor among others.

There is a careful balance. It is unhelpful to essentialise apparent problematic behaviour as being inherent to a group identity. This has been termed the “new racism” in which people express negative attitudes to certain groups whose “differences” are seen to be irreconcilable and a threat to the social values of the majority.

We need to move beyond the binary approaches where conflicts are attributed entirely to culture and religion or not at all linked and completely irrelevant. We need to move away from accusing those who want to explore faith as factor which contributes to conflict of being prejudiced. There is a complexity in the human spirit and complexity when humans with varied needs and assumptions meet in a rapidly changing world.  I don’t believe there are whole cultures or faiths that are incompatible with my own. It is just that mutual curiosity and effort are required for fostering understanding and coexistence.


Rabbi Zalman Kastel is the National Director of Together for Humanity

[1] Pedersen, A., Walker, I., & Wise, M. (2005). Talk Does Not Cook Rice: Beyond anti-racism rhetoric to strategies for social action. Australian Psychologist, 40, 20-30

[2] Stone, D. Patton, B, Heen, S. 1999. Difficult Conversations. Penguin Books


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