Anti-Semitic episodes occurred in the earliest days of British settlement in Australia. Early in the 19th Century, a little Jewish boy was insulted and kicked in the streets of Hobart. Almost two centuries later, a Melbourne man, walking home from synagogue, was insulted and punched by some members of a country football team, travelling in a bus driven by an off-duty policeman.
Fortunately, such episodes are relatively rare. Australian Jews rightly consider our nation to be a tolerant place, where we are free to practise our faith. The situation is worse in other countries. A Jewish community worker was murdered at the community’s headquarters in Seattle. An American journalist covering the Middle East was beheaded by a terrorist group because he was Jewish. A yeshiva student reading the Bible was stabbed on a London bus. These shocking events have no parallels in Australia.
Nevertheless, there is no room for complacency. Anti-Semitism still exists in Australia. The frequency of antisemitic episodes is closely related to events in the Middle East. The second Intifadah following the failure of the Oslo Accords, and the war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006, were both associated with rises in anti-Semitic incidents. In 2006, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) recorded 442 incidents, 47 per cent above the annual average. Serious or violent incidents were 74 per cent above average. Anti-Semitic graffiti was at its highest level since records have been kept.
In earlier times, traditional anti-Semitism was commonly expressed as religious bigotry or racism. The medieval portrayal of Jews as Christ-killers and members of a superseded faith fortunately has little traction in modern Australia. The scapegoating of Jews for political purposes by portraying them as the masterminds of massive conspiracies reached its horrendous peak in Nazi-controlled Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. Echoes of this theme can still be found in the rantings of Holocaust deniers and far-right conspiracy theorists.
Some extreme elements in the Islamic community have taken up these themes. The notorious Sheikh Hilali of Lakemba has expressed doubts about the Holocaust, and racist CDs by Sheik Feiz Mohammed continue to be on sale. A Sydney-based Islamic website has reproduced the virulently antisemitic Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.
While the Australian Communications and Media Authority regulations cover violence and pornography, its policy guidelines fail to mention the promotion of racial hatred and religious bigotry.
A more recent form, sometimes called “the new anti-Semitism”, focuses on Israel. This takes the form of attempts to delegitimise Israel’s right to exist, to demonise it through false accusations, and to require of it standards of behaviour not demanded of any other nation. The new anti-Semitism emanates from elements of the Arab and Muslim community, encouraged by sections of the radical left. Friendly support is given by some journalists. The ECAJ notes that, “some commentators can be identified who use different criteria for judging Israel than they do for any other state”.
It is of course not antisemitic to engage in rational and even passionate debate about Israeli policies and actions. It is antisemitic to compare Israel’s actions in building a security fence, designed (successfully) to prevent terrorist acts against civilians, with the actions of the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto or those of the South African government in the days of apartheid.
Anti-Semitism is a complex and persistent phenomenon, and one that is unlikely ever to be eradicated completely. However, a society that is committed to ethnic and religious harmony, as Australia is, can do much to contain it and reduce its harmful effects.
Politicians, civic and faith leaders can speak out when episodes of racial hatred and bigotry occur. Media organisations should be held accountable for publishing biased material. Education authorities need to ensure that curriculum content dealing with Jews and Israel is soundly based. Swifter legislative procedures need to be put in place for dealing more effectively with hate-mongers who persistently disseminate antisemitic material.
With that said, it is important to maintain a sense of perspective. Australia is, generally, a peaceful, tolerant and just society. While Australia’s Jewish community is justifiably concerned, anti-Semitism is not a major source of alarm.
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