Success at Mikolot public speaking competition
Two Year 11 Emanuel students, Sonia and Liahm, recently participated in the Mikolot public speaking competition semi-finals. The student participants from Moriah and Emanuel engaged in rounds of impromptu, as well as prepared, speeches with Sonia advancing to the Finals. We are proud to share here Sonia’s five minute prepared speech.
The stimulus: In Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants,’ he writes the following: “Much of what we consider valuable in our world arises out of these kinds of lopsided conflicts, because the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty.”
Using the Jewish people as a reference point, discuss the idea of success despite struggle.
Abraham Maslow once said: “If the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail”. It’s easy to look at the success of the Jewish people, and see it as a result of centuries of strife and persecution. But this should not be the case. The success of the Jewish people should not be indefinitely tied to their oppression. So when Malcolm Gladwell writes “the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty”, I dismiss this idea of needing to overcome adversity in order to reach success. Because it is not our oppression as a Jewish people of which success is an outcome, it is ourselves.
My mother passed away when I was five years old, and for 10 years I felt like a terrible victim. I felt alone, angry and scared. For years I waited for some semblance of good to arise from such misery, because I felt that I deserved it. But it was only years later, when I took responsibility for generating my own positive energy and happiness, that was I able to move on. Victimhood creates an insatiable desire for external support, for success because “we deserve it”. The first rule for success is that you cannot solely rely on it to materialise as compensation for your previous hardships. Ultimately it is you who must find the incentive to succeed.
How does this concept apply to the Jewish nation? Having survived over 2,000 years of persecution, the Jews are practically the trailblazers of this notion of victimhood. Whether it is the Roman conquest, the Spanish inquisition, the pogroms of Eastern Europe, the Nazi genocide, multiple Arab invasions, or Hamas terror, we have endured plenty of oppression. Indeed, our history has forged a Jewish identity in which our success is far too dependent on persecution and victimisation by our oppressors. And while we cannot build the future of Judaism without faith in the values of our traditions and history, it is important to not use the plight of the Jewish people in the past as the core impetus for our growth as a nation.
I’m not objecting to the memory of oppression. The Torah itself constantly tells us to remember being slaves in Egypt—but as the prelude to the Exodus and reaching Sinai. Even the Jewish concept of teshuvah – or repentance – is forward oriented. It does not dwell on what happened any more than necessary to propel you forward to a more positive future. Just as difficulties you face throughout your life don’t define your potential nor take credit for your achievements, the persecution of the Jewish people should not be accepted as the reason behind the strong sense of cultural identity that Jews have successfully established and continue to develop.
Yes, the narrative of the Jewish people is wrought with great battles, exile and the return to the Jewish homeland despite all odds, but we forget about the morals, the stories of great achievements and ideological advances that have placed Judaism in the centre of innovation and progress. Why focus on hardship as the reason behind our success as a nation, and not consider the examples in which the Jewish people have flourished outside of persecution? Why don’t we relish in the ways in which Israel has solidified its place in modern society, through the ground breaking settlements in the Negev, the advancement of science and technology, and the prominence of Jewish culture and heritage? Claiming Jewish prosperity based on oppression feels disempowering to me when we think of the myriad of other factors that have contributed so greatly to our success. This focus on victimisation ignores the complex interplay of cultural values, progress and principles that have lead to where our nation stands today.
I am not naïve. Jews are victimised in this world, simply because they are Jewish. That is repugnant, and it must be fought, and overcome. But this must not be our sole reason to grow our communities, to stimulate Jewish education, to practise our religion. This must not be our incentive. What arises if this is the case, is that Judaism becomes more adaptive to persecution than it is to an open, free, and welcoming society–that Judaism paradoxically needs oppression in order to survive. If we continue striving for success because of our struggles, our nation is doomed to live precariously on a pendulum perpetually swinging in a wide arc between the extremes of persecution and indifference. In this reactive model, Jews have little power over their ultimate destiny and success.
But we can prevent this. As the new generation of Jewish people, we do not need to be persecuted, impoverished, discriminated against, hated, and victimised in order for us to succeed as a Jewish people. We must be more aspirational than defensive, and we must learn that the responsibility for success lies in our own efforts to continue the Jewish tradition, rather than the challenges our people have faced. Only when we realise that it is ourselves, and only ourselves, that can take responsibility for the success of the Jewish people, can the seeds of change begin to sprout.