Principal Marc Light looks at the camera, he is wearing a grey suit and smiling. The King David School's logo is behind him, silver on a wood background.

Navigating criticism after 7 October

Theodore Hertzl’s text Altneuland was pivotal as a force for gathering momentum towards support for the establishment of a modern Jewish state in our historic homeland. The title, meaning ‘old new land’, was an expression of the interplay between the modern and ancient and the continuing Jewish presence. An interesting fact is that the name of the city Tel Aviv pays homage to this idea. Tel refers to an artificial hill which is built from layers of archeological remnants and Aviv refers to spring or rebirth and rejuvenation. 

I’ve been thinking about this history after attending a lecture by Lynda Ben-Menashe which was entitled ‘Neualtland – Navigating Being Jewish in Today’s Upside Down World’. Ben-Menashe contends that since October 7 the rise in antisemitism and hostility towards Jews has felt like a new version of the ‘old land’ faced by previous generations of Jews.

Lynda Ben-Menashe has been involved in the NSW community roof-body organisation, the Jewish Board of Deputies, for over 14 years. She works in community and leadership development, advocacy, public diplomacy, education and publishing. Lynda is a consultant and is devoted to building social cohesion.

The lecture was presented to the student leadership groups from King David, Bialik College and Mount Scopus Memorial College and was hosted by Temple Beth Israel as part of their excellent Scholars Series which is being conducted throughout March. 

Ben-Menashe offered a presentation which was particularly focused on helping our students to navigate the complexities of the post October 7 world and to build their confidence in conversing among their peers in relation to the current crisis.

She presented a model for distinguishing criticism of Israel from antisemitism and explained that in her view, when criticism is entrenched in an historic antisemitic trope it crosses the line. She cited criticisms of Israel that drew upon implicit comparisons to the blood libel as an example of this. Further, she explained that criticism that was anchored in the three d’s – demonisation, delegitimisation and double standards – are more likely to be antisemitic. 

She also explored the impact of identity politics, intersectionality and what she referred to as ‘the paradigm equation’ which she suggested offered oversimplifications that were resultant from reductivist worldviews. 

However, Ben-Menashe suggested that a hyper-sensitivity to all criticism was not helpful.

She stated that it was essential to ask questions which would reveal the motivations and assumptions that underpinned a critique. An example that she cited was that when she was in discussion with a friend about the Hamas attacks she was upset by some of the questions which he had raised which she felt painted Israel as deliberately cruel. Only after asking him to explain his thinking and by her explaining why she was challenged by this, were they able to move forward positively.

She posited that some of those that criticise Israel that the students will encounter will be motivated by genuine humanitarian concerns. She felt that in many cases there is a lack of requisite political and historical understanding in order to appreciate the nuance and complexity that makes the conflict so complex and intractable.

She said that it is vital for us to learn to sit in our discomfort with the situation as there is no simple solution and the conflict is a tragedy for both Israelis and Palestinians.

The students asked many questions about the conflict and the domestic environment. Of particular interest was that a number of the students mentioned the inter-faith program Building Bridges and how disappointed they were with the fact that the program has been paused. 

Ben-Menashe encouraged the students to maintain a connection with those from other faith-based schools and shared a personal story of casual, non-political text messages that she continues to occasionally share with a member of the Sydney Muslim community as a means of maintaining a relationship for a time when they are both in the headspace to reconnect more meaningfully.

An important message that Ben-Menashe shared with the students was that amidst all the grief and worry it is more vital that our community members remember who we are and what we stand for. She asked the students to continue to come together, strengthen one another and focus on the positive traits that they value.

This valuable lecture was one of many such speakers from a range of different perspectives that we will continue to present to our students to help them process this challenging period that we are all living through.

Shabbat Shalom,

Marc Light