Thursday, October 28, 2010

Wrap-up of the inaugural Melbourne Jewish Book Festival

On Monday night I heard Raphael Aron speak about Cults, Terror and Mind Control. Very interesting. He said that cults and terrorist organisations both use similar methods to recruit people and to control their thinking, essentially undermining their ability to think independently.

While such organisations often exploit those at a particularly vulnerable time in their lives, no particular personality type stands out as being more vulnerable than another. Intelligence and emotional stability are no guarantee you won't be sucked in; nor is socio-economic background a relevant factor. Scary or what!

Raphael suggests that the solution lies in the government introducing programs into schools to educate kids about the existence of such institutions and the dangers involved. If kids are made aware of the methods used and taught to identify early signs of recruitment, they will be better equipped to resist. The problem, Raphael says, is that while innocent people still have the time and the ability to get out, they don't yet know enough about the organisation that is luring them in to want to get out, and by the time they know enough, it's too late.

Programs educating kids to be aware of stranger danger etc. have been very successful. So Raphael is petitioning the government to approach the issue of cults and terror organisations in a similar way. It doesn't help that many people no longer see terrorist organisations for what they are - seeing phenomena such as suicide bombing as a legitimate means of fighting a battle, and labeling terrorists 'freedom fighters' - and fail to understand that they are cults bent on destruction, with no regard for human life.

On Tuesday I heard Jon Faine speak at The Sunflower Bookshop. Jon's book From Here to There was recently released. In his session, Jon talked about the road trip with his son that inspired the book. They spent six months driving through non-Western countries, most of them ending with 'stan'. The main insights he gained during this time were a renewed perspective on all that we have in the West and take for granted, and an understanding that the world's poorest people are also the most generous.

John was entertaining, personable and inspiring.

And last but not least, the last night of the festival (last night, in fact) began with my own session, a conversation about the controversy Dancing in the Dark has given rise to in the Jewish community. Michelle Prawer gave a dramatic reading from the book, then asked me why it was so controversial. I explained that it had been banned at Mount Scopus College - although five copies were purchased, the principal refused to allow them to placed on the library shelves. She then asked me whether I thought censorship was ever justified.

In fact, I do. I think it's justified to censor material that incites hatred of, or violence towards, other people. I don't think it's justified to censor a book simply because it presents an alternate viewpoint.

The event was well attended, the overwhelming majority agreeing with what I had to say. One orthodox rabbi took the principal's side, claiming that I had written a truly sad story about a girl who gave up her religion and her community in order to dance, and that instead of portraying this as something tragic, I had portrayed it as a triumph, and her as heroic.

I agree that it's sad. Not because she chose autonomy over a restrictive religious lifestyle, but because she lost her family in the process. It's sad that her family couldn't love and accept her for who she was. And yes, she was heroic. It takes great courage to stand up for your convictions, and great determination to pursue a dream against such difficult odds.

My session was followed by Esther Takac talking about her book: Genesis: The Book with Seventy Faces. Esther began by pointing out that our sessions were thematically linked in that both dealt with the idea of respecting and valuing other viewpoints.  Her book tells the stories of the book of Genesis and provides many different interpretations for each of them, including liberal and feminist interpretations as well as orthodox ones.

All in all, a stimulating, thought-provoking and successful festival.

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