Being a principal means that I have many children. Four of my own, and another 680 at school. For each and every one of my many children here at Yavneh I am invested in their educational success, physical and mental health and spiritual well-being.

As our VCE students head into their last few terms at school, and our Year 10s embark on careers’ testing with Ms Hall, I’ve been thinking about their future journeys beyond Yavneh, especially into tertiary education and the Universities here in Melbourne.

Our students at Yavneh, even within our bubble of belonging, have faced some pretty disturbing incidents of antisemitism. Even before October 7, some were threatened on a public bus by a knife wielding passenger who was spewing drivel about ‘Jews and money’. Then after finishing their English exam last year, (a few weeks after October 7) our Year 12s went for a celebratory burger and sushi down Carlisle. Their relief at being done with VCE English was short-lived as they were accosted for being ‘f#@%n Jews’ and then pursued until they managed to get away in their cars that had been parked around the corner.

And now our alumni who are on University campuses, and along with other Jewish students, face daily hate speech, vilification, discrimination, and overt threats to their physical safety.

Despite how scary these incidents are, they are not the at the top of my worry list. At least not yet. Our students, past and present, are resilient. Doing their best to ignore the hate, they keep their eyes on the goal. Even though it is not physiologically possible, our students are able to simultaneously keep their heads down and work and hold their heads high with Jewish and Zionist pride. They are steadfast and committed to Yiddishkeit and choose to channel their energies into things like Bnei Akiva and volunteering for Friendship Circle and Flying Fox. Nothing will drag them down.

But what does cause me great concern is that our students will be graduating into Universities which should be centres of learning, discourse and enlightenment, but instead are heading down the track of becoming cesspools of ignorance, stupidity and hatred. And I’m not talking about the encampments, I’m talking about the administrators who have allowed these encampments to set up and continue far longer than they should, and who have allowed hypocrisy and intellectual laziness into their courses and on their campuses.

I’m all for free speech, even from the uneducated. A democracy thrives with different voices and perspectives. What I lament, however, is the increase in the number of young people who claim to be well educated on a topic spreading their one-sided view and being unwilling and unable to hear alternative perspectives. Cancel culture has run rife in our tertiary institutions and has been detrimental to the education of our youth. Those in charge of our Universities have become confused as to what constitutes free speech, and what constitutes hate speech.

In the past, university administrators have shown that they are able to shut down protests quickly and efficiently, even when these protests constituted insulting (but not hate) speech. When there were ‘no’ campaigns for gay marriage plebiscite, they were immediately escorted off campus by police. And thus, Universities have demonstrated that it is not a matter of ability to shut down the encampments, but a matter of will.

Lecturers (some of whom don a keffiyeh and join the encampment as soon as their lectures are finished) have been told if Pro Palestinian protestors enter their classrooms they are to allow them to ‘speak for five minutes’. (I hope the cost of those five minutes will be deducted from everyone’s HECS bill.) And if the Jewish students feel unsafe because of this, they are welcome to stay home.

My concern, not only for our Yavneh students and alumni, but for all young people growing up today, is how rapidly critical thought seems to be disappearing under the stamping feet of popular thought. Somehow the acceptance of any speech combined with a reduction in teaching (and expecting) deep critical analysis of the news stream and popular opinion, and the upswell of cancel culture has meant that it is acceptable to jump onto a bandwagon and be caught up in a movement that is only superficially understood and ironically allow that movement to overtake centres of learning.

The allure of the mob is nothing new. Nazism started in the hallowed halls of the Ivy Leagues and so the scenes we have been faced with are not new to our grandparents and great-grandparents. We know that the Holocaust did not start with gas chambers, but with a groundswell of hate and blame for any and all ills we had very little to do with. What is new is the allure of news-by-reels, the inability (or lack of desire) for young people to research their beliefs and for this lazy approach to be rewarded by our universities. This is the real crisis and, as a parent and an educator, the one that concerns me most.

Yavneh alumnus, Tal Becker (’89) was interviewed by Dan Senor last week. Among the many articulate and thoughtful pearls of wisdom, Tal spoke about the importance of argument. In commenting on the almost fractured Israeli society that was emerging during the proposed judicial reforms, Tal spoke about the importance of disagreement in the Jewish psyche and experience. “It’s not whether we have these disagreements, the question is how we navigate them. We need to channel Talmudic discourse; to hold the vision that we disagree with, to have it feed into the majority opinions and not dismiss it completely. Reaching consensus is not a Jewish thing. ‘Macholoket LeSheim Shamayim sofo Lehitkayem’ – a Machloket for the sake of Heaven is destined to endure. Our goal is not to not have arguments, the goal is to have really good ones!’.

Our Yavneh students know how to argue (sometimes a little too well :)), which is why it is probably all the more frustrating for our alumni that when they seek to engage in genuine dialogue with the encampment protestors they are stonewalled. Through both the study of Gemara and through Nechama Leibowitz style evaluation of mepharshim of Chumash, our students are well versed in Machloket Le Shem Shamayim.

Halevai, if only our Universities would encourage Machloket Le Shem Shamayim too

We want our students to be able to continue to learn in places that value educated discourse and disagreement and unfortunately, our universities have shown that this is not the culture that permeates what were revered tertiary institutions.

So what now?

Unless they choose to study in Israel, many of our graduates will still need to get that piece of paper in order to work in the industry of their choosing. But what I hope, and know, they will do, is to continue to learn in the Jewish tradition of machloket. Aside from the Mizrachi / Yavneh Beit Midrash, we also offer our alumni a weekly shiur with Rav Berlin. We are thrilled that it is so well-attended! This grounding of Jewish learning will see our students through their university years and ensure that they emerge the same as they were when they started – as young adults who embrace discourse and difference, who know right from wrong, and who are resolute in their commitment to Jewish practice, Jewish learning and Jewish peoplehood.