History making statement issued by Australia’s Jewish peak body against ‘respected’ Orthodox Rabbi

Feb 15, 2012

ECAJ logoLast Friday, February 10 2012, news came to me by way of Queer community journalist Doug Pollard that Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen had published a paper via the virulently anti-gay Australian Family Association, slamming homosexuality and along with it the Safe Schools Coalition Victoria.  The SSCV web site describes itself as “Dedicated to supporting gender and sexual diversity in schools.”

Doug Pollard has a personal interest in the welfare of SSCV as he was instrumental in helping the program get off the ground.  I have a personal interest in fighting homophobic intolerance in the Jewish community.  So without delay I wrote to the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) and asked they intercede in this unpleasant matter, as they had made a commitment to countering hatred against GLBT people.  Together with Doug Pollard and also Rob Mitchell of the RJM Trust we had a dialogue with the ECAJ, explaining our concerns and reasons why a prompt response from the ECAJ would be beneficial.

On Monday, February 13 2012 Peter Wertheim, Executive Director of the ECAJ, issued a statement indicating the rabbi’s views were not representative of those of Australian Jewish community and in doing so, distanced themselves from his toxic viewpoints.  To the best of my knowledge this single acts sets a precedent for the Australian Jewish community (and perhaps even globally), as there has never been an organisation representing, in part, the Orthodox Jewish community that has spoken out publicly against an Orthodox Jewish rabbi.

I have to praise Peter Wertheim and the ECAJ for their professionalism, sensitivity and swift action in handling the concern presented to them.  They have told the community that it is unacceptable to vilify homosexuals and attack organisations and programs that have been established to prevent young people from bullies, especially bullies of the likes of Rabbi Cowen and his cohorts.

In saying that though, there is ample room for improvement in the position taken by the ECAJ.  Their cautiously worded statement lacked the necessary gravitas to tell the Orthodox Rabbinate that they must never again speak ill of homosexuality, that they must never refer to it as an illness, that they must never offer ‘reparative therapy’ as a ‘cure’ for homosexuality and that they must actually accept that homosexuality is a normal and healthy expression of human sexuality.

I have presented the ECAJ with a statement each from the Australian Psychological Society and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists.  These statements are absolutely unambiguous in their message and leave no room for uncertainty as to what these two professional bodies believe is the best approach to the issue of reparative therapy.  Yet the ECAJ has refused to publicly acknowledge these two statements.  Why?  It surprises me that an organisation that has access to a plethora of psychologists and psychiatrists in the Jewish community didn’t source one of each to help them understand and convey these plain language statements.

The presence of Professor Kim Rubenstein on the ECAJ executive adds the necessary relevant academic and scientific qualifications to the repertoire of the ECAJ, as she is the convenor of the Gender Institute at the Australian National University, and is well-connected on these matters.  With her talents at hand, and access to a wealth of resources through the ANU, the ECAJ currently has no reason for saying “but it’s outside our area of expertise”.

I need to remind myself that the Jewish community, at its official level, is excellent at fighting hate from beyond its borders.  However it is far from having perfected that art when the hate emanates from within.  What is rewarding though is seeing that it is trying hard to get there.


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