A petition has been created calling on Monash University to sever its ties to controversial Melbourne-based rabbi, Dr Shimon Cowen, following a recent speech where he called for anti-bullying and diversity program, Safe Schools Coalition Victoria (SSCV), to be disbanded while also linking homosexuality to incest and bestiality.
Cowen’s comments have angered LGBT activists as well as colleagues at Monash University, while the peak Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) moved quickly to note that the “highly respected” rabbi’s words were not representative of the wider Jewish community.
Cowen – said to be a leading bullying expert and an Associate at Monash University’s School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies – used a speech to anti-abortion group Life Vote to claim that since the “dawn of civilization” opposition to homosexuality was “normative” and that current anti-bullying programs in schools were akin to indoctrination.
“Here, as part of its program, [SSCV] requires schools to teach the acceptability of homosexual behaviour as a norm.
“By so doing, it flies in the face of over 3000 years of religious and cultural tradition since Sinai,” Cowen said.
“In terms of the world religions and world civilization, it is teaching something which is a moral wrong and fundamentally unethical.
“The notion that every child in a school, of which a great many come from religious backgrounds which prohibit homosexual behaviour, must be taught in the school from infancy that homosexual behaviour is equally normative is coercive.”
The speech was later reprinted as a journal article for the conservative Australian Family Association, which counts the likes of former tennis champion Margaret Court and Dame Elisabeth Murdoch as patrons of the organisation.
SSCV co-ordinator Roz Ward told SX that Cowen’s views were highly inflammatory.
“It sounds like something you might have heard in the 1950s,” she said.
“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.”
Last week, members of Monash University’s Faculty of Education also released a statement calling on the university to explain Cowen’s continuing association in light of his public pronouncements.
“Cowen’s views are based on neither historical record nor credible scientific literature,” faculty members wrote.
“We condemn the uninformed opinions expressed by Cowen, which are foreign to the goals, values, and standards of scholarship we proudly represent as researchers and teachers.”
A spokesperson for Monash University said that while it “encourages expert academic views” it did not endorse the comments made by Cowen (pictured), who happens to be the son of the recently deceased former Governor-General Zelman Cowen.
“Monash University reiterates its respect for the dignity of all human beings, regardless of sexual preference,” the spokesperson added.
ECAJ meanwhile gave its full backing to the anti-bullying programs.
“[Cowen’s] view that homosexuality is an illness does not represent a general view of the Jewish community,” ECAJ executive director Peter Wertheim said.
“The ECAJ reiterates its and the Australian Jewish community’s strong opposition to bullying at school on any grounds including sexual orientation, and welcomes any government program designed to counter-act bullying that has the support of victims and educators.”
“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,” Barnett said.
Barnett, this week, has also created a petition seeking a firm commitment from Monash University Vice Chancellor Professor Ed Byrne that the university will not associate with academics holding blatantly homophobic views.
“If you cannot uphold this, especially in cases of academics with a known history of such intolerance of homosexuality, you must sever ties with these academics immediately,” Barnett said.
The continuing controversy over Cowen’s comments come after it was revealed to SX that the organisation of Australian Jewish Psychologists (AJP) turned away numerous requests from Jewish LGBT activists to make a public announcement in support of marriage equality.
Dr Nicky Jacobs, spokesperson for AJP, told SX that the group does not endorse or put out public statements.
“We provide psychological response and we act as a resource to the community about psychological trauma.
“I am very happy to state that as an individual, I support marriage equality, however I cannot speak on behalf of AJP members,” Jacobs said.
“Both the American and Australian peak psychologist groups have supported marriage equality on the grounds of ‘improving mental health’ and as all our members are registered psychologists, many of whom are Australian Psychological Society (APS) members, I am sure the APS support would adequately cover AJP’s relevant members.”
Roy Freeman, from Dayenu, a Sydney-based support group for LGBT people of Jewish heritage, told SX that he was “deeply disappointed” that AJP had chosen not to speak up on the topic or the high rates of suicide amongst same-sex attracted people.
“It appears that they aren’t interested in the mental health of the community,” he said.
“It saddens me that as an organisation, they are not willing to take a stand on this issue.”
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