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Inspiring advocates share hard-won wisdom at Jewish social justice summit

Michael Visontay
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Published: 27 August 2018

Last updated: 4 March 2024

“AUSTRALIANS HAVE TALKED about being relieved that our new prime minister is Scott Morrison, not Peter Dutton. But I remember this man erasing human rights. He oversaw more children in immigration detention than anyone else.”

Kon Karapanagioditis, head of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, did not hold back in his keynote address to Australia‘s first Jewish social justice summit on the weekend.

“Politicians talk about maintaining national security: What is at risk right now is our empathy, our compassion. We need to stop taking about having to justify compassion,” he told a packed room at the opening of the summit, titled Beyond The Tribe, in Melbourne.

“In the United States they are taking about building a higher wall. Why doesn’t anyone talk about building a longer table?”

Karapanagioditis’s impassioned speech, which called on Australian leaders to regain their compassion and stop exploiting shallow fear of strangers, set the tone for a weekend of heartfelt wisdom and hard-headed messages to some 130 people who attended the summit. Rabbi Ralph Genende

Beyond The Tribe was hosted jointly by social justice organisation Stand Up and The Jewish Independent, and was conceived to draw together bright lights in the field of social justice and innovation from within the Australian Jewish community and further afield.

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Their aim was to energise and inspire participants to find a way to do some good and make a difference to Australian society. “Our message at Stand Up is to be an upstander not a bystander,” the organisation’s CEO Gary Samowitz said in his welcome to open the summit.

Karapanagioditis was followed by Rabbi Ralph Genende, from Caulfield Hebrew Congregation, who echoed the opening sentiments when he described the rabbi's role: "to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable". Other prominent speakers included David Ritter, CEO of Greenpeace Australia, human rights lawyer Melissa Castan, social and digital entrepreneur Evan Thornley and World Bank consultant Zara Sarzin.

The summit’s panels ranged broadly across the gamut of social justice issues, from refugees to climate change, indigenous rights and  homelessness, gender equity, mental health and the role of media.

Evan Thornley had the room spellbound as he drew on personal experience to call for a “relational revolution” in society to underpin a more honest social contract between individuals. If we focus on improving our personal interaction, Thornley argued, this will flow on to a more compassionate corporate culture.

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David Ritter, the CEO of Greenpeace Australia, asked his audience to reflect on the yawning dissonance between the beauty of the environment we now enjoy in Australia and current scientific projections that the planet will be four degrees warmer in 2100.

”That is incompatible with civilised society as we know it. The conversation nobody wants to have is that [this is] all coming towards us and no political leader is talking about it.

“Instead, we’ve just witnessed a week of ironic disjunction in Canberra, between the false hollow political crisis, which generated so much noise, and the genuine looming planetary crisis, which created no noise.”

The weekend was also filled with case studies of resilience - a panel with young Sudanese women talking about how they have adapted to life in Melbourne – and projects which created building blocks of hope.

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Zara Sarzin, who spent ten years working for the World Bank in Washington, delivered an illuminating presentation about how the bank partnered with the South Sudan and Tanzanian governments to develop basic infrastructure, such as paved roads and bicycle lanes, in several coastal towns. These projects not only benefited commercial and social interaction but led to a transfer of knowledge and skills to enable the local authorities to initiate similar projects on their own.

The last session of the day was a robust Shark Tank-style “Pitch4Purpose”, which saw five groups stand up and sell their social justice initiatives to a wildly enthusiastic room, giving the summit a perfect exclamation mark on which to end.


About the author

Michael Visontay

Michael Visontay is the Commissioning Editor of TJI. He has worked as a journalist and editor for more than 30 years. Michael is the author of several books, including Who Gave You Permission?, co-authored with child sexual abuse advocate Manny Waks, and Welcome to Wanderland: Western Sydney Wanderers and the Pride of the West.

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