Journalist Rachael Kohn, Australia’s foremost mind on religion is set to retire. But before she goes, we quizzed her on the modern meaning of religion, the lessons of the past, and the reanimation of anti-semitism.
Rachael Kohn pauses and takes handfuls of her massed curls in her hands, and for a moment, it’s as if she wants to tear her hair out. It’s a few days before she’s due to leave the ABC, retiring after an illustrious 25-year career as a religious presenter, mostly of The Spirit of Things, and it feels like her iron control might be slipping.
The iron control she must have needed all this time to interview so many different people (thousands, she says) with so many different views on such sensitive and even uncomfortable topics. The strength of will to hold back her own views, which are strong. The incredible intellectual effort it must have taken to “try to raise religious literacy” in Australia, and to work within a media landscape she perceives as inherently hostile to Israel.
The iron control every successful journalist must have to be self-effacing and draw people out, showing just the right depth of knowledge, but not too much, pitched so that the audience will get it. While she says her background is not particularly religious, Kohn, I realise within seconds, believes in religion and the good it can do, the way that a dedicated teacher might believe in the power of education, or an environmental activist in old growth forests.
And her heart is sore at the end of this dazzling career, and she seems near to tears when she looks at the state of the world and the divisive effect of religion today.
“What drives me,” she says in an early email, “is a deep-seated concern to keep alive the gentle and generous kindness at the heart of the Biblical tradition, which recognises that we are all God’s children and therefore we respond to personal affronts with forbearance, humility, forgiveness and mercy in the hope of changing behaviour—rather than according to payback retribution and violence, self-interest, utilitarianism, and a ‘whatever works’ modus operandi.”
Kohn came of age, or to maturation, or consciousness (always it sounds like she is having a conversation with herself in her mellifluous voice, defining and re-defining, rigorously finding just the right word) in the late ’60s in Canada, when religion was in a “huge transformation stage”.
The “tectonic plates” were moving, she says. The US had changed its immigration laws, allowing people from the Far East to immigrate and set up religious movements, creating a “kind of hotbed” of Hare Krishna, the Buddhist movements, Hindu movements and others. As well, the “sort-of-failed” anti-Vietnam movement left people searching for spiritual redemption, rather than a political one.
Many Jews, particularly young Jews, felt as a consequence of the Holocaust that their god had failed and Judaism had failed to protect them. So they were rushing into the arms of the new religious movements and eastern traditions.
Jews were the first great scholars of Buddhism in English, Kohn says, the first translators, and the first monk ordained by the Dalai Lama was actress Uma Thurman’s father, Bob Thurman, who became the head of Tibet House in New York. There was a whole slew of Jewish scholars at that time interested in existentialism, and Zen. The important thing was to “be here, now”.
There was also an explosion of cults, some dangerous and authoritarian, and it is this flip side of religion that Kohn so fears. All religions have the potential for violence, she says.
Kohn herself was never on a personal search. Her Jewishness was not in question, she says, and begins to tell the extraordinary story of her father who was on the last passage out of Czechoslovakia, on a little boat of 500 Jews which went down the Danube, through the Black Sea, through the Dardanelles and out into the Aegean. But she was fascinated by religious studies which were thriving on campuses in the US and to some extent, Canada and England.
Later came the move to Sydney to marry her Australian husband. But academia here was disappointing in her field, and recruitment by the ABC afforded her an “unprecedented opportunity” to educate Australians on religion, especially important in our age and multicultural society.
For Kohn, the essence of being educated in religion would be to try find common ground with other religions and “perhaps point out the flaws which exist in not only other people’s religions but, most importantly, one’s own. That I think can provide us with a very optimistic future.”
Can religion help us?
But will it? Could religion really help us at this juncture? There’s a long silence… Kohn reiterates that people need to understand the resources for conciliation and kindness in most religions, and be “emboldened” to critique their own traditions from within.
It’s when the media portray religion as dangerous and diabolical that people reject it, thinking it is the root of all evil, when actually human beings are where evil arises. “We dress it up in different ways, we can dress it up as religion, or violence can be legitimated through Marxist ideology that’s punitive or we can dress it up as say, anti-religious secular ideology that is extremely bigoted.
“When religion is presented as something terrible and people reject it, that doesn’t mean that they have somehow protected themselves from megalomania, authoritarianism and misogyny.”
Contrary to common belief, she says, Judaism is not a particularly retributive religion. “What Christians do, they look at the Bible and say it’s an eye for an eye, but Judaism is not the Bible. The Bible is the very, very low foundations down there, and it is the rabbinic commentaries, the rabbinic culture that emerged out of that that is Judaism.”
By the time the Hebrew Bible was codified, it was already completely, embarrassingly out-of-date, a bizarre composite “full of mythological historical stuff” that couldn’t be applied. “That’s why the Talmud is big and why the commentaries had to be written very quickly and why there had to be Sanhedrin.”
“What drives me is a deep-seated concern to keep alive the gentle and generous kindness at the heart of the Biblical tradition.”
She’s constantly amazed by how little others know about Judaism, even Father Paul Collins, an academic, historian and very bright man who hired her at the ABC. “I’ll never forget him being in my office and saying something like ‘Isn’t Judaism the Bible?’ And I thought, ‘Wow, do you think we guys sat on our hands for 2,500 years while you guys were busy writing theology and systematic theology?’
“So many Christians know absolutely nothing about the Jewish tradition, about Jewish history, Jewish writers, and Jewish philosophers. Thomas Aquinas, the most revered Catholic philosopher-theologian of twelfth century, was entirely dependent on Maimonides for his work.”
For 2,000 years, Kohn says, Judaism and Jews have been delegitimised, made into a pariah people whose religion was wrong, supplanted by Christianity. Today’s antisemitism takes the form of delegitimising Israel, making it a pariah state and Jews a pariah people linked to a pariah state.
The UN has become the opposite of what was intended, she says, and is run by rogue nations who persecute Israel “consistently, constantly and uniquely” among all other nations. Jews today, particularly students on campus, are vilified, and those who mention Israel in any sort of positive light are shouted down.
“That has become the burden of antisemitism today, primarily and unfortunately very much through the Muslim world because most Muslim nations are emphatically opposed to the existence of Israel.”
As Jews, she says, we need to support people like Ed Husain, a co-founder of the London-based think tank Quilliam, which aims to promote a moderate Islam and fight fundamentalism. In his book House of Islam, Husain talks about the “rife and almost uniform” antisemitism in the Muslim world. “We need people like that to come into the mainstream more and more.”
Jewish leadership, Kohn says, needs to downplay internal religious divisions and come together as a community through activities building common good, such as interfaith work, the arts and communal services and projects, to develop more sophisticated contemporary offerings in Jewish studies in tertiary institutions, and present “the case for Israel” more widely to challenge the default anti-Israel position.
For all religions, the challenge is to educate their followers in the faith rather than in identity politics or “social justice” activism so they can find moral and ethical direction in religion and not rely solely on secular legislation. A case in point: we don’t need “gender education”, but people to know that their religion teaches kindness, respect, generosity to everyone.
The media’s coverage of Israel
There is legitimate and illegitimate criticism of Israel, she says, but her biggest headache around Israel today—aside from the flourishing of Hasidic groups, a kind of “cultish aberration”—has to do with Gaza, the Palestinians and the “extremely punitive organisations” of the Palestinian Authority, Hezbollah and Hamas that are “somehow strangely erased” from conversations about what’s wrong in Israel.
The secular press is “implacably opposed” to Israel, in her view, and seems to think that somehow people are victims of Israel’s policies whereas those people are largely the victims of Hamas, of the PA, certain European bodies and the UN. All the instruments that could call them to account don’t because they are focused on Israel because of the antisemitic assumption that Israel and Jews are all-powerful and can do anything they want. They echo Louis Farrakhan (the leader of the black nationalist group Nation of Islam, who is known for his racist and antisemitic statements).
“It’s just so utterly, uniquely the way Israel is treated and it makes me so frigging furious, so on my program I always put stories of people co-operating. ‘Here, look at this, here’s this wonderful person blah’ and guess what, there’s no ‘but then there are those Jews over there doing that…’ It’s just, ‘Guess what, you’re going to hear this today, because you can hear all that other shit somewhere else.’”
The secular press is “implacably opposed” to Israel, in her view, and seems to think that somehow people are victims of Israel’s policies whereas those people are largely the victims of Hamas, of the PA, certain European bodies and the UN.
Kohn says she still has a “kind of deep smile” about being Jewish because Jews have a profound optimism, a profound sense of hope, because they can’t not after what they have survived.
“You can’t not hope things will be better if you are a believing Jew in some way, and I don’t mean that as orthodox. I mean if you really understand the Jewish spirit then you know we are a people who have survived and have created such marvellous things.
“We’ve had the most extraordinary literary tradition, a beautiful arts tradition, poetry that makes you weep and a sense of the importance of continuity despite all, and also a pretty remarkable ability to knit into surrounding cultures and survive and flourish and benefit from their differences and incorporate them and enculturate them into our own.
“We are not burdened by the need to turn everyone into a Jew or the sorrow that everyone’s going to hell because they’re not Jewish. Any righteous person has a relationship to God, is loved by God…and we’re not excessively punitive and don’t aspire to an ascetic life, whipping ourselves, not drinking, not fornicating. We enjoy life, life is at the centre of our being, our aspiration is to enjoy life. As Spinoza said, to delight in every moment and therefore enrich time.”
This piece was originally published on Plus61J. It is reprinted with permission.