Yarmulkes, Head Scarves, Crosses: Diversity or Disaster?

Donna Jacobs Sife/ Australia, 12/22/2003

Celebrating difference is the only way to salvage our nation's soul
Donna Jacobs Sife / December 22, 2003 / Sydney Morning Herald

The French move to disallow Islamic headscarfs and Jewish skullcaps from schools strikes me as an insidious and thinly disguised action towards intolerance and bigotry. It speaks of a society that does not trust itself with difference. The claims that these outward religious signs threaten secularism is a cynical attempt to legitimise something which stems not from liberty, but suspicion of the other.

As a Jewish woman, I am about to celebrate the festival of Hanukkah. During this time, we remember the Greeks and their brutal insistence that we Jews give up our identity to become Hellenised more than 2000 years ago. We remember the Maccabees and their small band of rebels who took to the hills and began a guerilla campaign against the Greeks, freedom fighters who believed that religious freedom of expression was worth risking one's life for. Their eventual victory is considered a miracle.

As well, there is a second miracle, that of the oil to light the eternal light in the temple in Jerusalem, which lasted for eight days when there was only enough for one. As part of this sacred commemoration of Hanukkah, we light a nine-branched candelabra for eight days in memory of the miracle of the oil. And, significantly, we are directed to place this candelabra by the window so that all can see that a Jewish family lives there.

I never fully understood this imperative to declare my Jewishness until I attended the first peace march after September 11, 2001. There, faced with not just the anti-Zionist but downright anti-Semitic placards, I felt I needed to leave, or else be complicit with those sentiments. I resolved to identify myself as a Jew at the next rally. This I did. Wearing a sign that said Jew for Peace, I joined my greater community in protest against war.

And, as I stood there, I was approached by Palestinians, by Muslims, by Christians, all interested in what it was I believed, all sharing the same vision for peace and a safe homeland for both the Jews and the Palestinians. We discovered that we were, in fact, allies to the same cause, and dialogue between us served to break down prejudice and suspicions, a dialogue that was possible only because I identified who I was.

Like the Greeks, the French are caught between the dubious desire to make everyone the same - assimilation - and the more challenging paradigm of multiculturalism. And Australia is not far behind. John Howard, with his regular reference to we Australians and his still unrevoked "we-don't-want-people-of-that-kind-coming-to-our-country" comments, reminds us that we are either with them or against them. We are led to believe that otherness is alien, suspicious and dangerous.

The stranger is prevented from having a face, or a voice, or a heart, or a story, as with the refugees in detention, hoping to create the illusion that they don't really exist, and, if they do, they shouldn't.

It takes a strong and confident society, one with a clear and proud sense of identity, to embrace difference. Only a nation that is sure of itself is willing to be expanded by the experience of others, and to imagine something outside of itself.

But Australia has become so diminished that we want to take Christ out of Christmas. We trust ourselves so little that we cannot imagine coping with diverse religious expression. We think we will be weakened somehow by sharing in our varied mythologies and traditions. With the drive to secularise society, we tend to focus on the superficial rather than the essence of religious expression, forms that take the shape of materialism, or status, or singular truth, rather than the values and ethics that are held in the stories. In doing so, we forfeit part of our nation's soul.

We all are challenged by difference. That is a perplexing truth about our species. It is one of the things we are meant to grapple with while we are here on earth. It is, I believe, one of the sacred tasks, to eventually be able to say, as did Gandhi, "I am Hindu, I am Buddhist, I am Jew, I am Christian." To transcend difference and recognise only the shared humanness in us all. Not through denial of difference, but through acceptance and celebration of it. It is so often the case that the very thing we fear is what will set us free.

Donna Jacobs Sife is a professional storyteller and writer.