24 Feb 2012
The Australian Jewish News Sydney edition
Responding to Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen’s controversial article on homosexual anti-bullying programs in schools, Rabbi Fred Morgan says his views on “normative” behaviour ignore the realities of the human condition.
MY impression of Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen is that he is a gentle man. When he spoke from the bimah at Temple Beth Israel at his father Sir Zelman Cowen’s state funeral, despite Chabad strictures on their rabbis entering Progressive synagogues, he showed that he is also a compassionate man, someone who is able to appreciate what it means for each of us to be created in God’s image.
I am perplexed, therefore, how a caring individual like Rabbi Cowen can express views about homosexuality that are so hurtful and damaging, as he did recently in an article in the journal of the Australian Family Association. Unfortunately his views made the front page of the free broadsheet mx. The report in mx quoted a leading member of Aleph, Melbourne’s Jewish gay group, as saying that the rabbi’s views are “delusional”. It also quotes a press release from the Executive Council of Australian Jewry distancing Australian Jewry from Rabbi Cowen’s remarks.
The crux of the rabbi’s argument lies in the word “normative”, which he uses repeatedly in his article. For example, in rejecting the value of educating teachers about homosexuality as part of an anti-bullying campaign, he claims it is “using bullying as a pretext to teach all schoolchildren that homosexual conduct is equally normative with heterosexual conduct”. For Rabbi Cowen, what is “normative” really matters since it defines the style of life that a person should lead. There is a “norm”, and those who are homosexual do not fit it. Rather than basing the “norm” on observations of human behaviour, including the experience of homosexuals, the rabbi bases his “norm” on an ideological principle that, in his view, takes precedence over the realities of the human condition.
What precipitated Rabbi Cowen’s article? It seems to be the decision of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria and other bodies to seek to educate teachers in how to deal sensitively and compassionately with students in their classrooms who are becoming aware of their homosexuality. These students face ostracism and bullying because we still live in a predominantly homophobic society.
“Keshet”, meaning “rainbow”, is an American-based, Jewish-focused program that trains teachers to be aware of these issues in the classroom. A group has been set up in Melbourne to bring Keshet to Australia. Rabbi Cowen does not seem to believe that programs like Keshet should be used to train teachers in Jewish schools about how to give support to students who are struggling to come to terms with their sexual identity.
What Rabbi Cowen seems to overlook is that Keshet and similar programs are not about what is “normative”. They do not seek to lay down how people should behave. They are about reality – how people are in fact.
Since an appreciable percentage of the population is homosexual in fact, students who are becoming aware that they are or may be gay or lesbian need to be supported in that exploration as much as students who are exploring their sexuality as heterosexuals.
They need to be supported by teachers who are there not to declare what is “normative” and what is “abnormal”, but rather to offer support to all their students by recognising the differences among them, protecting them from prejudice and attack, and giving them confidence in expressing their deepest sense of self.
This story appeared on page 2 in the Melbourne mX on February 16, 2012, following on from the previous day’s cover story.
Jewish community groups have
distanced themselves from a
rabbi who criticised antibullying
programs for gay teens.
Aleph, a social and support
group for Jewish gay, lesbian,
bisexual and transgender
people, has condemned the
remarks by Rabbi Dr Shimon
Cowen as deluded.
He had claimed support programs
about gender and sexual
diversity in schools ‘‘could in fact
cultivate and encourage homosexuality
amongst many children
who would ordinarily grow
into heterosexual lifestyles’’.
Aleph spokesman Michael
Barnett said of Cowen: ‘‘He
needs to understand that people
who impose their religious
beliefs on same-sex-attracted
people are doing more harm
than good, and that it actually
adds to their suffering, misery
and is completely unacceptable.
‘‘It’s not a very helpful perspective
when it comes to
understanding the issues behind
sexuality and the very sensitive
nature of young children.’’
Barnett said he regularly received
calls from ‘‘distressed’’
Jewish families who needed
support for young gay people.
‘‘These people are suffering
badly – it’s because of the attitudes
of people like this rabbi
who have repressed discussion
in the community, repressed
tolerance and inclusion, and
unconditional love,’’ he said.
The Executive Council of Australian
Jewry has also distanced
itself from Cowen’s comments.
In a statement, it described
Cowen as ‘‘highly respected in
our community, but that does
not mean that his views on any
subject are representative’’.
Front cover of the Melbourne mX, February 15, 2012.
Gay abandon – Jewish leader slams anti-bullying campaign
Anti-bullying programs for gay teens
have been criticised by a Jewish leader
who says they are ‘‘unethical’’ and may
Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen’s comments
have been slammed by gay and lesbian
lobby groups, which have labelled them
‘‘damaging’’ and ‘‘irresponsible’’.
Cowen, a Monash University academic
and the son of former governor general
the late Sir Zelman Cowen, has
hit out at Safe Schools Coalition Victoria’s
program supporting gender
and sexual diversity in schools.
He said it was ‘‘using bullying as a
pretext to teach all school children that
homosexual conduct is equally normative
with heterosexual conduct’’.
‘‘This program could in fact cultivate
and encourage homosexuality amongst
many children who would ordinarily
grow into heterosexual lifestyles.
‘‘The bullying of homosexually inclined
children should be stopped
and it should be stopped by a process
which eliminates all kinds of bullying.
‘‘What the program wants to do is
tackle bullying by celebrating homosexuality
as one form of legitimate human
expression. To eliminate bullying
does not require that.
‘‘Let’s say a child was being bullied
because the child was fat, you don’t
have to celebrate obesity.’’
Cowen said he had ‘‘nothing against
people with homosexual inclinations’’
and wanted ‘‘a full parliamentary debate’’
into programs in schools.
But Safe Schools Coalition Victoria
co-ordinator Roz Ward said the comments
‘‘The program has been widely well
received and is having an impact in
schools to reduce bullying and I just
think these kinds of comments are
unfounded,’’ Ward said.
‘‘It sounds like something you might
have heard in the 1950s.’’
Micah Scott, general manager of youth
gay and lesbian support centre Minus
18, said the view was ‘‘damaging’’.
‘‘Same-sex attracted young people
are . . . already a vulnerable group due
to homophobia,’’ Scott, 23, said.
It comes as Kath & Kim actor Magda
Szubanski, who publicly came out yesterday,
admitted she was suicidal as a
‘‘I know how those kids feel, believe
me, I know how those kids feel,’’
Szubanski told 3AW today.