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The Voice and Jewish Values

I was once taught:  A fact is information minus emotion.  An opinion is information plus experience.  Ignorance is an opinion lacking information.  And, stupidity is an opinion that ignores a fact.

Having spent the past few months in Israel, I experienced a lot of opinion expressed as fact, a lot of ignorance expressed as alternative facts, a lot of emotion based on ignorance, and no shortage of myopic national stupidity.  I will reserve this as a blog topic for another time, but for the purpose of this post I wish to observe a contrast of severity in the daily grind of politics in Israel compared to that of Australia. 

The first news broadcast I heard when I returned to Australia was headlined with footy, followed by a weather event (the possibility of a gale force wind), followed by the stunningly important announcement that a date has yet to be set for the Voice referendum.  I thought this was very tame compared to the pressure cooker environment of Israel, where the news changes every hour, and where the politics has a real and often immediate impact.  In Israel a change of Government means a dramatic shift in policy, funding and social culture.  Not so in Australia where it seems that more or less the same decisions will get made irrespective of which side of politics holds Government.

Returning to my social and professional life in Perth, I set out to see what I had missed while away, what the big issues are, and what I need to be across.  A big issue is the Voice, and as I like to be an informed voter I set about trying to understand why there is contention, and what it is that I am being asked to vote for.

Fact, Opinion and infromation
Fact, Opinion and information

Big mistake!  There is no shortage of headlines, but little available on the detail.  It would seem that much of the detail of how the Voice will work actually comes later. Much of the controversy comes back to a matter of trust in relation to the Voice implementation. Trust and politics often do not work well together.

These are the questions I asked myself as I looked through the cases for the yes and no votes and read the media commentary.  Certainly much of this material was high on empathy and light on substance.  In my mind it raised more questions than it answered, so I went searching for more information.  Whilst not fully encompassing, I unpacked this as follows:

QuestionAnswerType of Answer
Have the First Peoples of Australia been subject to historic injustice?    YesFact
Has much changed since the Rudd Government’s apology?NoOpinion
Will my vote for the Voice be a request to change the constitution of AustraliaYesFact
Will my vote be to affirm specific draft text to change the constitutionYes  Fact
Is the Voice one page or does it comprise of many pages? Does it include the Uluru Statement of the Heart?It depends, but we are starting to become unstuck here. Information
What is the content of the Uluru Statement of the Heart?Quite a confrontational document.  To be informed it should be read before voting.Information and Opinion
Do we know how the Voice will be implemented and its associated governance structure?  Will there be a treaty?  How will the body, to be called the “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice”, be formulated?  We don’t know all the details.  Much of that will come later.Ignorance

So how will I vote?  At the moment I am still undecided, torn between supporting the principle but unsure of the consequence and the realpolitik that will follow.  When I do decide which way I will cast my ballot I’m not going to tell you because that is a private individual consideration for me, as it should be for you.  But my point here is that any voter should be informed and cast a considered vote based on what they consider to be morally correct, balanced against what is a workable outcome. 

I would like to think that most voters are fair minded and want to enhance the quality of life of First Nations peoples.  It is the risks associated with the structures and implementation that have many voters concerned.  The recently repealed WA Aboriginal Heritage legislation on the basis that it was practically unworkable is a case in point. 

Professor Greg Craven writes that under the Voice “Indigenous citizens will have no new powers or constitutional rights. They will have no differential status. Unlike in Canada and the US, there will be no unique Indigenous privileges. There simply will be a means for Indigenous people to express collective views to Canberra.”  Many would argue that if this is the case, mechanisms and powers to achieve this are already in place. If so, then why do we need a referendum in the first place?

Countering that argument, current Productivity Commission data shows that $33.4 billion per annum is currently spent by Government each year on activity that contributes to a better understanding of the adequacy, effectiveness and efficiency of government expenditure on services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. It is patently obvious that the results of this expenditure have been inadequate in impact and effect. Maybe the Voice can assist to improve the return on investment of this public expenditure?

These issues all wind back to whether the structure of the referendum is flawed. Should our Government have separated a vote for Constitutial recognition from a vote for the Voice itself? No doubt a constitutional vote only would have overwhelming support but a second question specific to the Voice body would likely have greater support if more information was available on the process of implementation. Or even leaving the Voice out of the referendum as a matter of policy implementation alone. But we have passed that point and have lost the ability to draw this distinction through the ballot box.  This is particularly sad as the request for the Voice has come from the Aboriginal community itself and should sit above politics. It has regrettably become politicised, through the binding of constitutional recognition with the format of political representation. An issue that is supposed to unite the country risks leaving fear and division in its wake.

One of the big questions now is what will happen if the referendum fails?  Can the intentions of the Voice still proceed through existing policy mechanisms, and to what extent does this already happen irrespective of the referendum?  Into the future, can Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representation still be enhanced by constitutional recognition through a new referendum that avoids reaching into the domain of policy and implementation? 

There is a real chance that the vote will be a “no” for all the wrong reasons and the fallout would be a backward step to the social-ethnic cohesiveness of Australia. A no vote could be partly due to informed voters who are not satisfied with the lack of detail and perceived operational risk, but also in no small part due to culture wars. This includes a sizeable protest vote as a backlash against political, corporate and community groups advocacy to influence them to vote yes, as they take umbridge in being told how to vote. The Jewish community is not immune from this culpability either.

The Jewish perspective

Is there a Jewish perspective on the Voice?

Many people have noted that the Jewish tradition and historical experience would naturally bring much empathy towards being in favour of the Voice.  Jews have been wayfarers.  We have been strangers in a strange land, and we have been (and still are) subject to the experience of historic injustice. We have been commanded to build fair and just societies. 

Rabbi Doron Peres, Chief Executive of World Mizrachi shares an interesting perspective in his book “The Jewish State.  From Opposition to Opportunity.”  He writes:

“Used correctly, political power is an unmatched force for good.  Abused it is the single most destructive force on earth.”….”Rabbi Chaim David Halevi states the Torah has no preference for any particular political or economic regime.  Since cultural and political norms change over generations, and the Torah is eternally relevant to every epoch, the type of political leadership, whether kingship or a different system – is entirely dependent on the will of the people and can be compatible with Torah values. 

Professor Daniel Elazar agrees maintaining that the focus in Jewish tradition is not on any mode of political leadership but rather on the relationship between the political leader and the people.  He states that this is a distinct feature of Jewish political tradition from its inception and explains how the mesorah (tradition) is compatible with different regimes.  The fact that authority comes from the people plays a significant role in how a Jewish leader acts.”

In other words, the Jewish experience with political leadership throughout history has been complex, but a common denominator is that the Governance models are of less significance than the collective will of the people.  Call that an ideal democracy, if you will. Judaism has the Torah as its effective “constitution” and an oral tradition as it’s “voice”. By working the two together as a framework Judaism has a legal (halachic) system that is amenable, inclusive of the flexibility to accommodate evolving structures of leadership. So too, the proposed Voice for Australia is a move to enshrine a principle into the constitution, and then utilise a new and innovative system of governance to realise it.

Notwithstanding the relevant insights above, the Voice itself is an Australian domestic issue.  It need not be synonymous to Jewish values. It does not require a communal position for or against, nor does it need to be placed at the forefront of Jewish community discourse as a Jewish concern.  Ultimately the Jewish response to the Voice should be in the domain of individual opinion and preference.  It would appear and be fairly expected that the diverse spectrum of viewpoints within Australia’s Jewish community are as broad (and polarised) as that of the rest of Australia.  Moreover, many voters like myself remain torn between their empathy and support of the principles of the Voice and the yet to be fully articulated process of implementation, but in order to cast a vote will still need to preference one of these above the other.

Our community organisations normally undertake outward advocacy of Jewish positions to the non-Jewish community, and have had little reason to promulgate inward advocacy of national issues to the Jewish community.  But they are now tripping over themselves to bring their messaging into the community. There have been headlines in the mainstream media.  One report highlighted that the Australian Jewish Association says the Indigenous voice to parliament advocacy goes against Jewish values.  Another from the Executive Council of Australian Jewry in support of the Voice as being just, reasonable and achievable. Yet these bodies should be advocates and representatives, not arbiters (or interpreters of Jewish values.)

Tonight in Perth a forum was hosted by the Jewish Community Council entitled “The Voice – Uniting or Dividing us”.  Whilst a respectful and heartfelt discussion, there was little on offer to resolve my voting dilemma.  There was much to agree with at an emotive level, but nothing other than advocacy to vote “Yes”. The reasons were principle based as a virtue, but once again it was more about the “why” and not the “how” of the process.

The small amount of commentary on offer that attested to the application of Jewish values (however we selectively choose to define them) to a Jewishly inspired decision making process was somewhat limited. The President of the JCCWA affirmed it’s position to be that of the ECAJ as an affiliate, noting that the JCCWA is consulted and provides comment on Jewish matters that impact legislation. This did not proceed further to address the basis upon which those positions are determined, or matters of governance in reaching a position that represents a Jewish view in favour of voting “Yes”. It was also implied that although the Jewish community have a mechanism to feed into Australia’s legislative framework that the Aboriginal community do not, hence the need for a Yes vote. This is a somewhat contentious arguement.

One of my fellow Jewgle bloggers has noted that there have not been other community forums hosted by our peak body on internal issues that are of existential importance to the future of our Jewish community (identity and affiliation, infrastructure, assimilation, cost of sustaining Jewish living etc).  Perhaps more open community engagement could be constructively considered.  I do not wish to criticise the JCCWA for delivering a conversation to the community, but I am somewhat surprised at how the event implied across the board communal support for the Voice without diving deeper into the potential political and economic consequences of implementation.

As far as our Jewish community organisations are concerned, both at a local and Federal level, many contend that there has been over-reach.  Advocating a position and maintaining a public stance on the issue of the Voice is beyond these organisations role of representing the Jewish community on Jewish issues.  It also places those organisations into a no-win situation when there is a plurality of perspectives from amongst their constituency. Better that they inform, but stay shtum when it comes to affirming a communal stance either for or against.

Expressed another way, it is not the place for Jewish community organisations to ascribe their world view to a matter beyond their remit by utilising the mantra of Jewish values and experience as a justification.  For this risks binding facts, information, opinion, and emotion that will mean different things to different people. 

An objective forum needs to present both sides of an issue. For and against. Ultimately Jewish community members have both the mandate and obligation to decide for themselves at the ballot box without being told by their peak representative bodies how to vote.


19 July 2023

Following feedback and comment, my position on the Voice has been selectively quoted and misrepresented. I am NOT against the Voice. In summary of the above my position is as follows:

  1. I am in favour of constitutional recognition
  2. I would like more detail on issues such as Treaty, implementation and policy prior to casting my vote
  3. I would have no hesitation in voting yes if the consitutional recognition was separated within the referendum question
  4. The Jewish community forum was a great presentation, but only presented one side of the debate
  5. I do not believe Jewish organisations should be taking a partisan stance on this issue or advocating their constituents to vote either way. Voters shoud make their own minds up.

Copyright 2023

2 thoughts on “The Voice and Jewish Values

  1. I was upset that Geoff Midalia was not wearing a kippa. Even though the PHC was not being used as a Shul it is still a holy place with a sefer torah. When you are representing the Jewish community you should have respect for the place. If he was visiting a mosque he would take his shoes off, but no respect for his own religion. Most people including non-Jewish visitors had a headcovering inside the Shul. If we care about Aboriginal culture we should start by caring about our own.

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