The sad path tread by the anti-Muslim brigade

riding a camel

Me, riding a camel in the Sahara (Morocco, 2010)

Here’s a random scene from the life of Larry, a 43-year-old liberal-minded agnostic, Jewish South African/Australian:

A little while ago, upon alighting the train at Southern Cross Station, in the centre of Melbourne one busy weekday morning, I was asked by a young, traditionally dressed Muslim woman if I knew where the place was where you registered births. As I had been to the exact building before, I happily pointed out where she needed to go and walked with her part of the way through the busy station. She was shy, but sweet and thanked me as she headed out of the station and across the busy intersection of Collins and Spencer Streets towards her destination.

Here’s another in my illustrious life…

A few weeks ago, needing a haircut before a wedding,  I drove to our local shopping strip, parked my car, withdrew money from the ATM and went in search of someone who could cut my hair. Soon I found a funky-looking barbershop that had opened recently (it used to be a frozen yoghurt shop) and took a seat. A little while later, a young Middle Eastern-looking man with an accent like Turkish Delight showed me to a seat, asked me what kind of haircut I wanted, and then proceeded to cut my hair. We had one of those rambling, but friendly conversions you have when someone cuts your hair – I asked him how long the shop had been open and how it was doing and he asked me what my plans were for the weekend and about my family. 15 minutes later my head was neatly trimmed. I thanked him, paid and left.

And here’s one more…

A month ago my infant son was sick and we were in the Royal Children’s Hospital. A young trainee doctor with a Muslim name came in to check on us. He was a bit nervous, but politely asked a few questions about why we were in the hospital, what had happened and how things were now. He listened to my son’s chest, asked a few more questions, and then said goodbye and moved on.

These three random and unremarkable moments keep popping into my head like flashing lightbulbs whenever I encounter the opinions of Australia’s vocal Anti-Muslim brigade led by Pauline Hanson, the leader of far right political party One Nation, who believes all Australian Muslims should be treated with suspicion “You can’t tell a good one from a bad one” she said recently.

Others like cartoonist Larry Pickering told a dinner hosted by the Anti-Islam Q Society: “I can’t stand Muslims” while conspiracy theorist and aspiring politician Kirralie Smith from the paradoxically named Australian Liberty Alliance believes Halal-certified food is funding Islamic terrorism and should be banned.

I keep wondering how these three people live there daily lives in one of the world’s most multicultural societies, where you only have to step onto a train, bus or tram to encounter 10 different nationalities, three or four ethnicities and half a dozen different languages

How do they react when a Middle Eastern man dispenses their medicine in the pharmacy, swipes their items in the supermarket, delivers their new television or asks them directions to the shopping mall? Do they yell abuse, ignore them or cross to the other side of the street?

Do they avoid the local grocery store because its own by Lebanese people, or move to new seats in the cinema if they find themselves seated next to a Muslim family? Do they carefully read every food label before purchasing in case it happens to have Halal certification?

And what about when they travel overseas for work or holidays? Do they deliberately avoid flying Arabic carriers like Etihad or Emirates Airlines even if they happen to have the cheapest fares or the best reputation for food and service? What do they do if their flight to Paris or London refuels in Dubai or Kuala Lumpur?

in Putrajaya

Me, in Putrajaya, Malaysia, 2010

What about sport, that great Australian tradition? How do they feel when Australia plays cricket against Pakistan or Bangladesh or a soccer match against Iran, Iraq or the United Arab Emirates? Will they watch Australia at the next FIFA World Cup in Kuwait? How do they feel when cricketer Usman Khawaja, the first Muslim cricketer to play for Australia, scores a brilliant test hundred or when Richmond midfielder Bachar Houli, a devout Muslim, scores a goal at the MCG and the stadium erupts?

How do those people who worship at the altar of anti-Islam navigate their daily lives? Do they constantly have to remind themselves to hate and despise fellow citizens based on their ideological position or does the mask slip from time to time?

Do they ever question any of their beliefs? Are their views malleable or fused into some solid form of rage that is impenetrable? Do they doubt anything they believe? Is there any chink in their armoury?

egypt

Me, in Cairo, 2010

Thankfully, I don’t have to navigate any of those daily challenges. I take everyone at face value and like to think I make no pre-judgements of anyone.

Also, I have been lucky enough to have travelled to many Muslim countries in my life – Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia to name a few.

Most of my experiences in these countries have been extremely positive – nowhere is perfect – and enlightening. I have learnt about fascinating and ancient cultures, seen beautiful architecture and art, sampled new delectable cuisines and shared stories with  warm and charming people.

I say this not to boast of my travel exploits, but to make the point that I think you can only be anti-Muslim from a position of ignorance.

Indeed, a recent poll by Pew Research asking people to estimate the proportion of their country’s population that is Muslim shows just how uninformed we are.

In France the estimate among respondents was that 31 per cent of the population was Muslim when the real figure was 7.5 per cent, in the US the perception was that one in six Americans were Muslim, whereas the actual figure is one in 100.

Australians thought Muslims made up 12.5 per cent of the population when the true figure was only 2.4 per cent.

None of this should detract from the heinous actions of Islamic extremists, who make up a tiny proportion of the 1.6 billion Muslims whom we share the planet with.

Indeed Muslims themselves are the targets of many of these brutal acts, as the recent horrific chemical attacks orchestrated by Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad against his own people have shown to the world.

And let’s not forget the role the anti-Muslim movement plays in creating the next generation of extremists.

“…trying to demonise all Muslims is only confirming the lying, dangerous message of the terrorists,” said Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull in a recent rebuttal to the bigotry of Pauline Hanson.

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The end of reading: Zoo Time by Howard Jacobson

zoo-time-coverZoo Time is another very funny, novel by Howard Jacobson, the writer of the Booker Prize-winning The Finkler Question (read my review here) and The Making of Henry (reviewed here)

It’s the story of Guy Abelman, a once successful satirical writer, whose last book, Who Gives a Monkey? was loosely based on his relationship with a chimpanzee-masturbating zoologist at Chester Zoo.

Since then, he hasn’t written a bestseller in years. His books are out of print (available as ‘print on demand’ his new publisher tells him) and worst of all, making their way into the second-hand section of charity book stores.

Indeed this is where we first meet the middle-aged Jewish satirist: outside an Oxfam bookstore in the Cotswolds where he has just stolen a copy of his novel and been apprehended by the police.

Asked why he stole it, Abelman replies that he did not steal it but “released it”.

“The book as prestigious object and source of wisdom is dying,” he tells the constable.

Resuscitation is probably futile, but the last rites can at least be given with dignity. It matters where and with whom we end our days. Officer

In the Cotswolds to speak – or rather be heckled – at another writer’s festival (“The only character I identified with in your book is the one who died,” retorts one reader) Abelman believes the book is all but, dead, because no one reads books anymore, certainly not the clever literary stuff which once won him minor awards.

To confirm this depressing state of affairs, his old publisher, the terminally depressed Merton has just committed suicide, his final words being “Mmm” while his agent, Francis, does not even bother to restock his office bookcase with his old novels when Guy comes to visit.

The party’s over [Francis] wanted me to know. The age of sparing a writer’s feelings was past

To top it all off, Abelman desires to bed his sixty-something mother-in-law, Poppy while his frustrated wife, Vanessa wants him out the house so she can finally finish her own novel.

So badly has Guy run out of ideas, that the best he can do is tell Francis about his idea for a new novel: a plot based around his unrequited passion for Poppy.

If he’s sounding a bit like a neurotic, over-sexed Jewish character dreamt up by Woody Allen or Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Larry David – albeit a very British one – that’s probably a fair assessment.  And if you delight in that type of Freudian black humour and cynicism you will enjoy reading Zoo Time.

If not, I would suggest giving it a wide berth.

Indeed we spend the entire novel inside the head of the sentimental, lamenting and self-important  Guy, who when he is not railing against the loss of his own cherished self-worth (even the Soho hobos are writing novels), is indulging in fantasies about where, when and how to seduce his mother-in-law.

For Australian fans of Howard Jacobson, who spent three years lecturing at the University of Sydney, there is the added pleasure of numerous trips Down Under,  as Guy interrogates the collapse of his literary career.

Reminiscing about a trip to a writer’s festival in Adelaide (where a fat Nobel prize-winning Dutch author who wrote “slim novellas’ got a standing ovation despite not uttering a word on stage) Guy remembers his brief affair with Philippa,  a young Kiwi lecturer and teacher of ‘Unglush Lut” who performed oral sex on him among the vines of the Barossa Valley.

“You novelists tell the story of the human heart,” Philippa said. You see what no one else can see.” She was holding my pruck as she was saying this.

He also recalls a West Australian outback road trip, where he travelled with his wife and mother-in-law from Perth to the tourist town of Broome, stopping on the way for them to swim with the dolphins at Monkey Mia and where he thinks about an alternative career as a stand-up comedian, he’s opening line being: “Take my mother-in-law – I just have.”

It’s a darkly funny book. Guy is a pompous, snobbish, egotistical ass, but I liked him a lot, not just because of his cynical, very Jewish view of the world, but because of his lament against the decline of book reading in the age of smartphones, ipads, Facebook and Twitter.

You only have to sit on a train and see how many people have their heads buried in their mobile phones compared with the few who are actually reading a book to understand the truth behind the black comedy.

Interviewed about the book, Jacobson said it was primarily a book about reading, not literary failure.

“We don’t read well anymore. It’s a bit risky, because you’re insulting your own readers. But you hope they will feel they are exempted from that general charge,” he said.

howard2_1878348b

Howard Jacobson

This charge is best personified in the character of Sandy Ferber, the new head of Guy’s publisher who tells him at their first meeting that there is a “historic opportunity to “rescue reading from the word” by creating ” a thousand story apps for the mobile phone market”

Bus-stop reading he called it. Unbooks that could be started and finished while phone users were waiting to call them back, or for the traffic lights to change, or for the waiter to arrive with the bill. In short, to plug those small social hiatuses of life on the run.

 

 

 

A messy world: inside the zany comic mind of Tom Ballard (@TomCBallard)

tom-ballard-1-copy-e1403330225340The joke that sticks doggedly in my mind from stand-up comic Tom Ballard’s Saturday Night gig, ‘The World Keeps Happening’ is the one he made about 9/11.

Ballard, young, blonde, dressed in a t-shirt and black jeans asks: “Would 9/11 have been so bad… if they’d flown into the Trump Towers instead?”

(Queue: a low rumble of shock across the packed old theatre).

He qualifies this by saying the planes would be empty and so would be the Manhattan tower, except for Donald Trump, now president-elect Trump “alone, on the toilet, masturbating over a picture of his daughter.”

(Queue even more shock. But Ballard loves it). “Ooh a few Trump fans in tonight,” he muses.

Later, as his high-octane 90 minute set, which left no taboo unturned, drew to its close, he asked cheekily of his audience: ‘Have I managed to lose you all of you tonight?’

He hadn’t of course: almost everyone cheered loudly at the end including me. Perhaps they would have lynched him in Queensland or Ohio.

A night with Tom Ballard, as I found out, is not for the faint-hearted or easily offended. Certainly his stand-up material would set the right-wing old fogges in Western Sydney into a frenzy were he to perform it on the ABC, where he first cut his teeth as a Radio host on Triple J.

Ballard’s act swerves from embarrasing personal experiences mostly of a sexual nature (like the time an ex-lover texted him to say he had “gonorrhoea of the mouth and anus” and he replied to say he was all fine now after getting treatment, instead he replied to a youth worker with the same name, instead) to discussing how technology is ruining our lives (“I’m addicted to my iPhone, I even auto-correct myself when I speak”) to ticking off on racism, sexism and homophobia. (Ballard has hosted two episodes of popular ABC political talk show Q&A).

“No one assassinates politicians in Australia,” he says. “I’m not saying we should be doing that, but a bit of passion would be nice.”

He goes on to relate the disappearance of Harold Holt, the only Australian leader to die in office who disappeared while out for an ocean swim.

“We looked for him a bit and then said, uh, he’s gone. And that was that,” Ballard says with a playful shrug.

Back to the cringeworthy, Ballard related the story of a friend, who for some unknown, unfathomable reason thought it a good idea to eat two 24-slice packets of cheese in one sitting. The result: “He felt a bit unwell and had to go to the doctor”.

Here his friend was told that all the cheese had congealed into a solid mass – “He had a cheese baby” Ballard declares with unbridled joy at the audience’s revulsion,  “and he would have it removed by caesarian.”

I confess I knew very little about Tom Ballard before the show though I recognised the face and name. (We – my wife and I – were lucky to pick up two complimentary tickets).

I quick read of his Wikipedia profile reveals that he grew up in Warnambool in country Victoria, is extremely smart (named Dux of the South West Region) and is passionate about a number of issues: vegetarianism, homophobia and cyber-bulling. He also once dated another of the country’s top comics, Josh Thomas the star of sitcom Please Like Me.

As with all really good stand-up comics he both mines his own personal experiences for comic material and uses comedy to make a point about the issues he cares about. (Not just that, he organised for volunteers from Refugee Legal to stand outside after the show with buckets to collect donations to support the work the centre does for refugees).

On inequality, he tells the story about a visit to Grill’d, the burger joint which allows customers to donate money to local charities through tokens they receive after ordering meals.

In this instance, he was in Warringah, on Sydney’s upper crust Northern Beaches where onion eating ex-PM Tony Abbott is the local federal member.

One of the ridiculous charity choices was to donate to the local school’s rowing club so that they could buy new kit.

“Sorry starving people of Africa…” Ballard bursts out with indignation, “the rowing club needs a hand” followed by an impersonation of spoilt, rich parents and their “desperate” kids.

“People rowing boats, these are the boats we should be turning back!” Ballard retorts with maniacal glee, delivering a scathing rebuke of the government’s tough approach to asylum seekers who come by boat.

His other suggestion, which I really liked was that we should ban all drugs, except for one day every four years – preferably on election day – when it should be a free-for-all.

“When I am on ecstacy, I just want to hug everyone,” he says.

His point being of course that we’re making some pretty bad choices sober, so why not try the other way.

Not a bad idea.

(A quick note: the show was recorded and will appear on streaming video service Stan at some point as part of its “One Stan Series”. So look out for it.)

 

 

The utter stupidity of a Muslim migration ban

Turkey SyriaIt is hard to believe that almost one in two Australians support a total ban on Muslim migration.

Yet that is the finding of an apparently credible new Essential Media Poll.

As nauseating as that statistic is, it does though provide some clues as to where the likes of One Nation’s Pauline Hanson draws her small support base from. 

And if you extrapolate these findings to other first world countries, it explains the popularity of Donald Trump, the likely next US President, who wants an American ban on Muslim migration and travel.

I wonder how moderate, tolerant Australians feel about this.

I fear for the future of Australia’s enviable multi-cultural society.

I worry about the personal safety of the many traditionally dressed Muslims I see on the train every single day in my commute into work, who may become the target of violence.

And I wonder what prominent Australian muslims like journalist and broadcaster Waleed Aly, Labor MP Ed Husic, Australia Post CEO Ahmed Fahour and many others make of their native homeland and the attitudes of their fellow Australians.

essential-poll

The Essential Poll findings

Might those who want a blanket ban also realise that boxer Anthony Mundine, rugby league star Corey Paterson, cricket star Usman Khawaja and former Demons star Adem Yze are all Muslims? Would they like their family members banned from coming here?

Setting aside the humane argument against such a terrible idea, when you consider the wider ramifications of a ban on Muslim migration, you realise the economic impacts on Australia would be severe.

Economic disaster

By imposing such a ban, Australia would be denied many highly-skilled immigrants who could add greatly to the collective intellectual and cultural wealth of the country.

As it would be logical to assume that a ban on Muslim migration would also include a ban on Muslim visitors (for holiday, family or business) there would be huge negative impacts on foreign investment, tourism, retailing and many other sector of the economy.

Just ponder this: What would a ban mean for airlines from Muslim countries like Emirates, Qatar Airlines, Etihad? Would they stop flying into our airports and out of them? That would seem logical given most of their passengers won’t be able to get visas to come here in the first place.

Think of the massive impacts on trade and investment – Malaysia and Indonesia are Australia’s 10th and 12th biggest trading partners.

Governments and businesses from rich Middle Eastern countries like Qatar, the UAE and Kuwait invest billions in new Australian hotels, in agriculture, in property development, in shopping malls and in housing. They buy our beef and lamb and fruit and veg as we buy products and services from them

These are some of the world’s richest countries with vasts amount of money. How will they continue to operate in Australia if we tell the world we don’t want their citizens as part of our society? Do you think they will continue to invest or might they simply deploy their funds elsewhere?

Might it also be unreasonable to expect Muslim countries to ban Australians from visiting their shores in response to us denying them access to our?. (Perhaps my South African passport will finally come in handy!).

Will Australians still be able to travel to  exotic and wonderful places like Turkey, Morocco and parts of India or even just make a busines trip to Indonesia or have a beach holiday in Bali?

And what about sport, one of the nation’s greatest attributes?  Where would we play our World Cup soccer qualifying matches against teams like Iraq and Iran and the UAE? And how would we play home cricket matches against Pakistan or Bangladesh or Afghanistan? And would our teams travel to these countries in return?

(I could go on and on)

So I ask, has anyone who wants a blanket ban on Muslims coming to Australia (or the USA for that matter) stopped for just a minute, paused and thought it through?

If they did, they might see the utter stupidity of it more clearly – even if they refuse to accept its blatant bigotry and inhumanity.

Cheap goods, expensive real estate and the end of the Chinese economic miracle

bargain storeIt always amazed me how cheap products are in the numerous ‘Bargain’ shops on our busy high street in the cosmopolitan Melbourne suburb I live in.

Just how can you sell pots and pans, knives, gardening utensils and art supplies for just a few dollars and still make a profit?

The answer of course is: Made in China.

The mass industrialisation of China over the last few decades fuelled by a massive inflow of cheap migrant labor from rural villages has created the huge factories (and sweat shops) that produce all these products so incredibly cheaply.

This urbanisation of China has created its 1.3 million Chinese millionaires (projected to reach 2.3 million by 2020) and millions more middle-class Chinese that have helped fuel Australia’s biggest ever housing construction boom as well as push up the prices of prestige real estate in best suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne.

As a property journalist I have reported first hand on this huge wave of Chinese money being spent on Australian real estate and there is of course the many tales of money being flown into the country on private jets to pay in hard cash for multi-million dollar luxury property.

foreign investment in Australia real estate

But it’s these two extremes: mass production of cheap goods and aspirational wealthy and middle-classes that urbanisation has created that have combined, hand-in-glove, to bring about the end of the Chinese miracle and which rightly has Australian economists and global economists so jittery.

How has this happened: well the answer lies in a something called the ‘Lewis turning point’ (named after economist W. Arthur Lewis): a term used in economic development to describe a point at which surplus rural labor reaches a financial zero: in other words when productivity gains starts going backwards.

This is essentially what has happened in China: the wave of cheaper labour that propelled its extraordinary growth for decades  is coming to an end.

China’s population is ageing so there are fewer young workers to carry out the unskilled work plus, with urbanisation many young Chinese people don’t want to work on a factory line for a tiny wage: they want the fruits of economic prosperity – easy, high paying jobs with benefits.

Also impacting on China has been a drop in global demand for its goods, over production and other countries like Vietnam, India and Bangladesh being able to produce them more cheaply.

The end result: factory wages have doubled in the past 7 years, company profits have tumbled and many manufacturers are now looking to shift their factories from China to places like Vietnam  and India, which are much further down the economic development scale, and where they can employ people on much lower wages.

An excellent 15 minute video prepared by the Financial Times tells the story of how China is changing through the eyes of two people:

  • Yang Zonghou, a migrant worker from Hunan province who lost his job in a Japanese toy factory when it closed down last year and is now considering returning to his local village and family.
  • Ha Van Huy, a 28-year-old Vietnamese man who worked illegally for a while in a Chinese factory sewing the fabric layers for headphones and earning twice the salary he earned in Vietnam.

It seemed almost too incredible to fathom that Chinese factories are willing to employ illegal labour from Vietnam but this is indeed happening as “factories that powered the country’s growth for decades are being squeezed by a shortage of workers, rising wages and falling prices” the FT.com video shows.

As Yang Zhanghou explains, whereas in the past Chinese workers were happy to work hard and earn whatever they could, and send a bit back to their families, now  everyone wants easy jobs with benefits.

The factories won’t employ him because he is too old while at the same time the he says the villages are filling up with young people who are “choosing to be at home”.

So where does this leave countries like Australia: staring down the proverbial barrel.

This has already unfolded in the resources slowdown, which was fuelled by China’s previously insatiable demand for raw materials like iron ore, copper and aluminium which drove up commodity prices and generated record profits for Australia mining companies.

With the slowing Chinese economy, demand for these commodities has fallen – and so to have commodity prices as oversupply has set in. In February, the world’s biggest mining company, Australia’s BHP Billiton posted a $7.84 billion loss in its interim results.

Luckily a big drop in the Australian dollar has resurrected sectors like tourism, property and education, though all of them have become increasingly reliant on China’s emerging middle class to fuel their growth.

The FT.com documentary ends by warning that if the slowdown continues, it could force the whole world into a fresh economic crisis.

“If that does not happen, rising labour costs mean consumers will have to pay more for everything…Made in China.”

That of course could spell the end of the Bargain stores on my local shopping strip with their cheap goods.

But it seems an infinitely better option than a world-wide financial crisis.

How to be young and rich in Australia: be a man

How do you become young and filthy rich in Australia?

The short answer is: be a man.

Yes, be a tech whizz, a property tycoon, a retail visionary, a sports star, but most importantly, to steal a line from Canadian stand-up comedian Russell Peters, BE A MAN!

How do I know? The latest BRW Young Rich 2015, a compilation of the 100 richest Australians under 40, which came out in October, had just eight woman on it.

The all-male Top 10

2015-brw-young-rich1Source: BRW.com.au

Of those woman on the list, just four – singer Sia Furler, founder of financial counselling service My Budget, Tammy May, super model Miranda Kerr and golfing star Karrie Webb – have made their fortune entirely on their own.

The other women on the list have made their fortunes in partnerships with men: Erica Baxter through her marriage to billionaire James Packer, Erin Deering, through online bikini company Triangl founded with her husband Craig Ellis; Melanie Perkins, who set up online graphics software company Canva with Cliff Obrecht, and Michelle Strode, who co-founded technology company Invoice2go with her husband Chris.

So, making it on your own as a woman is even tougher. Having a bloke by your side helps.

I remarked about the lack of woman on the BRW list to a number of people and got pretty much the stock standard answer: woman don’t become ultra-wealthy because they are off having babies etc etc.

The truth is for all the talk in Australia about gender equality in the work place; not penalising women who want a career AND a family; lifting the proportion of women in senior position; and equal pay for men and women who do the same jobs – we still live in a very unequal business environment, where men earn the big dollars and women are expected to give it all up when they have children.

There are of course exceptions, the likes of former Westpac boss Gail Kelly, Mirvac CEO Susan Lloyd Hurwitz, and in government, deputy prime minister Julie Bishop.

But, mostly there remains the old-world misogynist view of women not rising too high in society, displayed most strikingly and distastefully in the 1423545120130attacks on Australia’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard called a ‘bitch’, and  ‘witch’ by mostly middle-aged men in politics and the mainstream media. Julia Gillard was also judged by society – both men and women – for not having children, as if that was some kind of heinous crime, not merely a valid life choice for any woman.

This unequal belief system – that men should be the big earners, the stereotypical ‘providers’ – extends into all realms of Australian working life: I was flabbergasted to read recently that the basic contract for an Australian woman representing the national soccer team, the Matildas, is just $21,000 a year, two-thirds of the minimum wage.

This is a team, ranked 9th in the world, who beat Brazil at the World Cup this year and reached the knockout stages.

By contrast, regular members of the mens soccer team, the Socceroos, have each earn more than $200,000 so far this year, despite losing every game at the last World Cup and being ranked a lowly 65th in the world.

It’s does not surprise me at all that the Matildas have gone on strike, demanding fairer pay.

In the property industry, the sector I cover as a journalist, gender is a big, emotive issue.

Property has traditionally been a very blokey, boy’s club industry, though it’s true that efforts are being made to encourage more women into the industry, and also that there have been some notable successes in this endevour.

But still, the property industry remains dominated by outrageously wealthy men as can be seen by the number of young male property tycoons on the BRW Young Rich List  (I counted five) and the complete absence of any women property tycoons.

Supermodel Miranda Kerr

Supermodel Miranda Kerr

The other point about the type of women who make it onto the BRW Young Rich List needs to be made delicately.

In short, looks definitely matter.

This to me, only reinforces the “Crocodile Dundee” image of Australia as the land of “Bruces” and “Sheilas”, that was circulated around the world in the 1980s and later reinforced by cringeworthy iconic Australians like the late animal entertainer Steve Irwin famous for jumping on to the backs of wild animals in true Aussie macho style

While it is true that there is much that is progressive, modern fresh and exciting about Australia, it still retains a distinct air of male chauvinism and a strong underlying current of conservatism (gay marriage is another area of distinct inequality).

Real wealth and power in this country, remains in the hands of blokes, now, and, given the make-up of latest BRW Young Rich List with its tiny female representation, will remain in their hands in the future too.

There is no place in Judaism for intolerance

As far as being Jewish goes, I am no great role model: I don’t keep  kosher, I don’t observe the Sabbath, I don’t fast on Yom Kippur and I have married outside my religion.

But I consider myself Jewish in my upbringing, cultural connections, appreciation of Jewish food, jokes and more deeply a sense simply of always, no matter what, being a Jew.

Then of course there is just being a decent human being: fair, just, kind, compassionate, empathetic. These too I consider very Jewish values (and ones that I try to uphold), though they are also the values of good and decent Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and atheists.

For me they have always been more important than going to synagogue, observing the high holy days, not mixing milk and meat or wearing a kippah on my head.

Which is why I have always believed so strongly that intolerance has no place in Judaism or Jewish life and why I reacted so strongly when I read a letter, published  recently in the Australian Financial Review, written by a fellow Jew, Michael Burd of Toorak, Melbourne.

Written soon after the Australian government had agreed to take in an additional 12,000 Syrian refugees and amidst the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War, Mr Burd’s contribution to the debate was not to naturally as a Jew, identify with the persecuted, tortured, and frightened people fleeing genocide, but argue against compassion and call for the protection of the Jewish community in Australia – one of the most privileged minorities in one of the world’s most prosperous countries.

In his letter, Mr Burd wrote of the threats to Jewish schools from Muslim extremists (never mind that the greatest threat to Jewish kids comes from the paedophiles that work in these schools) and other Jewish institutions, ending his indignant letter by saying:

With 12,000 Syrian asylum seekers  coming to Australia our government is playing Russian roulette with Jewish community safety.

Jewish refugee children arriving in London from Nazi Germany in 1939

Jewish refugee children arriving in London from Nazi Germany in 1939

It appalls me that an educated Jewish man, who probably lost relatives in Europe during the Holocaust, and would well know the long history of Jewish flight from persecution to set up new lives as refugees in countries like South Africa and Australia, should hold such intolerant beliefs and paint modern day refugees in such a negative light, particularly given current events in Europe, and around the world.

But it does not surprise me at all.

So many of the memories of my very Jewish upbringing (I had a Bar Mitzvah, attended a Jewish Day School, went to synagogue on the Sabbath) in South Africa are darkened by intolerance.

Here’s a phrase I remember well: ” Shiksas are good for sleeping with, just so long as you don’t marry them.”

A Shiksa, for those who don’t know is a non-Jewish woman.  Another word used constantly for non-Jew was ‘Yok’.

Then there were the constant references to the ‘schvartze‘ – a derogatory Yiddish word referring to a black person.

When I was growing up in South Africa, the schvartze was the black domestic worker toiling silently in the kitchen or the garden ‘boy’ (in fact a grown man) raking up the leaves from the swimming pool.

Words like shiksa and schvartze was said all the time by the very people who should have been my role models: my peers, older relatives and even those observant, ultra-religous Jews with their disapproving judgements of non-religous Jewish life.

Of course there have been many heroic Jews around the world who have fought for human rights and justice, who would be equally appalled at Mr Burd’s letter.

In South Africa, people like anti-apartheid heros Joe Slovo and Albie Sachs  and war crimes prosecutor Richard Goldstone spring to mind. Indeed, there is my own cousin Henry Brown,  who represented Nelson Mandela as a young lawyer in the 1960s.

But it is the intolerance within the Jewish community that has seen me drift further and further away from my faith.

Instead, i see my Jewishness, purely through cultural references and reminscences: the comedy and witticism of Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, the mournful hymns we use to sing in the beautiful old Germiston Synagogue on Saturday mornings, the lavish meals of chopped liver, marrow bones on challah, mock crayfish, matzoh ball soup, roast meats, potato kugel and parve chocolate mousse served for dessert.