The Jewish Response in Australia (Or: Small But Significant)

The mainstream religions in Australia range from the monolithic Catholic Church through to the very small Jewish community, numbering about 100,000. While most of the previous attention in the media has centred on the Catholic Church, all religions have had their problems. At present, some data on the problem within the Jewish faith have surfaced during the separate Victorian parliamentary enquiry. No doubt these, and possibly other cases, will resurface during the royal commission but will go mostly relatively unnoticed outside the local Jewish community.

The principal mover on the issue is Mr Manny Waks, who claims to have been abused in a Jewish school. To date, he is the only one to have gone public, but says many more have been affected. He has appeared before the Victorian enquiry, but much of his evidence has been censored. So too has his father, but his evidence was totally suppressed.

The Australian Jewish community, though small, is highly regarded here. For example, the late Sir Zelman Cowen was the most respected Governor General (head of state). There would be few countries other than Israel or Australia which have had a head of state who professed the Jewish faith. Another example is Mark Dreyfus, the new federal Attorney-General (chief law officer). It is therefore not surprising that much attention has been given, internally, to the effects on perception by the broader Australian community. The central allegations appear to centre around the Yeshivah School in Melbourne, run by the Chabad-Lubavitch, headquartered in New York. A former teacher at Melbourne’s Yeshivah College, David Kramer, was extradited from the US last month to face 12 charges for offences against children between 1989 and 1992. Also, a former security guard at the school is to stand trial locally in July on similar charges. All information collected by the Victorian enquiry will become available to the royal commission through an agreement between federal and state governments.

The Australian cases have been widely covered in the Jewish press, both within the country and internationally. From a general Australian perspective, there is one very troubling aspect. All other religious leaders have been very careful not to downplay the seriousness of the problem, and to reassure the general public that they have procedures in place to deal with it. Not so, apparently, for a branch of the Jewish faith generally termed “ultra-orthodox”.

Rabbi Manis Friedman has been quoted as comparing child sexual abuse with diarrhoea: “It’s embarrassing but nobody’s business.” Other statements indicate abuse does no real harm as such and there is no obligation to report it to the civil authorities. Most would regard such an attitude as being, for want of a better term, “un-Australian”.

Fortunately for the local Jewish community, few agree with Rabbi Friedman. Mr Waks claims the Rabbi is, “Perpetrating the negative perception many have of the ultra-orthodox community.” The Rabbi’s cousin, Sheiny New, who is a spokesperson for the Jewish Taskforce Against Family Violence in Melbourne, “distanced herself from the Rabbi’s views.” Rabbi Moshe Gutnick, President of the Organisation of Australasian Rabbis, also severely criticised Rabbi Friedman’s stance. The royal commission will give the local Jewish community a chance to show where it stands in relation to the broader public position.

It was a bit unfortunately for Mr Waks’ coverage in the media, since it was overshadowed later in the day by the Prime Minister’s announcement that the election would be held on September the 14th, which just happens, this year, to coincide with Yom Kippur (translating as “Day of Atonement”), the most significant date in the Jewish religious calendar. Hopefully, the royal commission will take things like this into consideration when scheduling hearings.

Read more here:

Sex abuse victims sue rabbi over comments (The Brisbane Times, 1 February, 2013).

Call for apology as Rabbi Manis Friedman likens child sex abuse to ‘diarrhoea’ (The Australian, 1 February, 2013).

Abuse endemic in Jewish schools: inquiry (The Sydney Morning Herald, 10 December, 2012).

Child sex abuse scandals roil Australia’s Jewish community (JTA, 24 November, 2012).

TOMORROW: The Anglicans, round one

That’s all I can say

Lewis Blayse (né Lewin Blazevich)

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