Taking a walk on the wild side (or “John Searle takes on Human Rights”)

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Yesterday afternoon I was lucky enough to be walking around the shore of the Mallacoota Inlet with my partner Gregory.  It’s a delightfully beautiful part of Victoria and we were absorbed in the magic of moment.  We live in a part of the world where we have many liberties and rights that others in less fortunate parts of the world are unable to similarly enjoy.  Living in a legal same-sex relationship, having the right to criticise government and having the right to vote in a democracy are but a few of these.

Yet in all of this our community faces many challenges before we can call ourselves world-class in the human rights arena.  And so we have the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC) to help us get there, one way or another.

Between sampling wild cherries, photographing sting-ray and marvelling at the ability of pelicans to hover mid-flight inches over the surface of the lake, my phone alerted me to a new email.  I quickly checked the message and saw it was a media release announcing the appointment of the new chairperson to the board of the VEOHRC.

Over the course of the evening and into today I fielded an amazing barrage of emails from all manner of human rights activists, media and other interested parties in Victoria, particularly from the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender (GLBT) community.  The messages were mainly along the lines of “have you seen this…”.  Yes, I had, only minutes after it had been announced.

The concern of these people was mainly centred around my past involvement with John Searle and my call for him to raise the visibility of GLBT human rights within the Victorian Jewish community.  It’s been a real challenge getting any traction on the issue, and I must admit that I never for once expected any degree of cooperation on this fraught topic.

Yet now with John Searle being appointed to the chair of the board of the VEOHRC (note, not the role of Commissioner), it puts him in a more public and accountable role on the issues of human rights and equal opportunity, for all Victorians.

Of particular concern to me is Searle’s ability to lead his board in making the best decisions for the welfare of GLBT Victorians.  He has shown glimmers of hope in wanting us to believe he’s genuine in his commitment to this cause.  Take for example the current Jewish Community Council of Victoria (JCCV) inquiry into the extent of vilification and discrimination against GLBT people in the Victorian Jewish community.  Listen to his interview on JOY 94.9 FM here.

What I find most intriguing about this high-profile appointment is that I would expect the incumbent to have a gleaming A+ record on being a strong and outspoken advocate for all human rights.  In my human rights activism over the past 3 years dealing with John Searle, in his presidency of the JCCV, I have found that that he has an unconventional approach to human rights.

Allow me to highlight three particular scenarios.

1. The Progressive Jewish movement has for a long time been amongst the foremost proponents for equality and inclusion of GLBT people in their religious communities.  The Australian Progressive Jewish community has proven to be a shining light on how a religious community can go beyond tolerance of GLBT people and actually include and accept them unquestioningly as equals.  So much so that the Australian Progressive Jewish community has called for full marriage equality for non-heterosexual Jewish couples.

Progressive Judaism Victoria, the Victorian organisation representing the Progressive Jewish community, is a member of the JCCV.  Yet despite PJV being a voting member of the JCCV, John Searle has yet to acknowledge their exemplary stance on GLBT human rights, and goes so far as to refuse to acknowledge their legitimacy as Jews in the Australian Jewish context.

2. Orthodox Judaism is uncompromising on its intolerance of homosexuality.  A significant number of the member organisations of the JCCV are actively members of the Orthodox community, or closely aligned with it.  Searle himself strongly follows Orthodox Jewish tradition.  Yet despite the absolute and uncompromising intolerant nature of Orthodox Jewish dogma when it comes to homosexuality, Searle has never once distanced himself from this repressive and homophobic attitude.  Simply put, he endorses it’s right to exist, under claims that it is “Jewish Law” and is immutable.

This spin never fails to amaze me, as the Progressive Jewish community have worked their way through these tough issues of “Jewish Law” and come out intact on the other side.  It seems the Orthodox Jewish community lacks the desire to confront this particular challenge, despite them having confronted countless other issues over many hundreds, if not thousands of years.  Most notably, they don’t stone homosexuals to death any more, as their dogma still dictates.

Even though the JCCV promotes itself as “The voice of Victorian Jewry”, under Searle’s presidency it has taken a strong stance in favour of its Orthodox membership, leaving its more open-minded and accepting Progressive, Conservative and Secular membership starkly unrepresented.

This situation was recently evidenced when the JCCV put out a media release claiming

Rabbi Rapoport contends that the GLBT community must accept that they cannot become official members of the JCCV as this would fracture the Jewish community.

I commented on this here.

3. Since late 2009 John Searle has singularly refused to have any contact with the only Jewish GLBT social and support group in Victoria, Aleph Melbourne.  He has not stated a credible reason for this situation and frankly it strikes me as a bizarre situation for his organisation, especially when it is trying to understand why GLBT Jews in Victoria feel vilified and discriminated against.

I can only hope that under the eye of public scrutiny John Searle will act in a more transparent and accountable fashion in his role as chair of the board of the VEOHRC than he has done with his presidency of the JCCV.

Further, I can only hope that he works to restore a healthy and wholesome relationship with the organisation I represent, of which there are a sizeable number of GLBT Jewish members.

To this end I hope that under the chair of John Searle, the VEOHRC can provide the best protection for GLBT Victorians on the grounds of human rights and equal opportunity.

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One Response to Taking a walk on the wild side (or “John Searle takes on Human Rights”)

  1. […] new VEOHRC chairperson John Searle has spoken out against racial vilification, making reference to […]

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