Message from Dan Sztrajt - Assistant Principal (Jewish Life) - 17 August 2017
The Boundaries of Political Pluralism
The events of Charlottesville brought a whole generation back in time. Actual Nazis with swastika armbands and real life hooded Klu Klux Klansmen violently took to the streets. Young people around the world, who had only ever seen such images from black and white movie reels of Kristallnacht and the civil rights protests, have now witnessed the demons of our history coming back to life.
For young people today, what makes this apparent resurgence of Nazism and the Klan so different to the 1930s or 1960s, is that our children have been brought up in a different world. Our society’s focus on tolerance and multiculturalism has rubbed off on our students. Critics of pluralistic environments may say that such approaches have encouraged the idea that all views are to be respectfully considered; that everyone has a place on the public stage. When discussing these shocking events in Virginia, students may naturally and unconsciously rely on this absolutist approach and try to consider the perspective of the ‘Alt Right’ and why the removal of a statue may very well be a betrayal of history. Unwittingly, this well-meaning approach may also rob students of a sense of absolute morality. The reality is that some ideas are simply evil.
When it comes to pluralism at Bialik, we are cautious to establish boundaries. We teach mainstream approaches to Jewish practice in Melbourne and actively avoid the fringe groups. Our approach to political pluralism is the same. It is not our role as educators to tell students which political opinions are correct, but rather to guide them to an understanding that allows them to form their own informed opinions. Yet, as parents and educators, it is our role to point out to children where the limits are; the red lines we do not cross. We must not expect a student to need to consider the pros and cons of the Klu Klux Klan’s positions on equality, but rather that their ideology contradicts the moral code of our Jewish values and our modern democratic society.
Our commentary of Jewish law, the Talmud, is comprised of pages of opposing arguments and debate. Yet, despite these differences of opinion, Jewish law is still bound by an absolute moral code; lines that cannot be crossed. Murder and baseless violence is always wrong. There is no Talmudic argument that seeks to justify it. Similarly, Bialik’s pluralism allows students to explore and debate the spectrum of Jewish streams and political positions, but our Zionism is non-negotiable. It is pluralism with limits.
The Charlottesville hate riots must be seen by our students as an aberration of democracy and modern society. Extremism is wrong or even evil and we must not shy away from calling it out when we see it. Remember, if you find yourself trying to justify the position of Nazis, look behind you, because the line you are not supposed to have crossed is back there somewhere.