SYDNEY – Australian Jewish leaders won several resounding victories last week, but these were offset by the trauma unleashed on Jewish school students by a gang of drunken youths on a bus in Sydney.
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Police are still interrogating some of the teens who boarded the bus last Wednesday and allegedly threatened to “slit the throats” of some of the Jewish students.
The incident, which made national headlines, came just days after a gang in Perth menaced a visiting rabbi from Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, Australia’s foremost authority on anti-Semitic incidents says homegrown Jew-hatred on social media is unprecedented in its magnitude.
“In 25 years of documenting anti-Jewish activity in Australia, I have never before witnessed so many overt, unapologetic expressions of anti-Semitic vitriol,” wrote Jeremy Jones in last Saturday’s Weekend Australian newspaper.
“What is unprecedented is the volume of anti-Jewish comments given platforms on social media, the viral spread of anti-Semitic slogans and defamation, and the domination of so much public discussion by racist loudmouths.”
Jones, who works for the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, also slammed the relative silence of Australian leaders. “There seem to be more Australian politicians willing to excuse the racism at anti-Israel rallies than to condemn it. Jewish Australians should not, and must not, be the loudest voices condemning an ill that affects society as a whole,” he insisted.
But it was largely the protests of Australian Jews that prompted an apology, a resignation and a government retreat within three days last week.
Editor apologizes for cartoon
On Monday, the editor-in-chief of the Sydney Morning Herald apologized “unreservedly” for publishing a cartoon that Jewish leaders claimed was “crudely anti-Semitic.”
The Executive Council of Australian Jewry had threatened legal action unless it received a full apology for the July 26 cartoon by Glen Le Lievre.
“The Herald now appreciates that, in using the Star of David and the kippah in the cartoon, the newspaper invoked an inappropriate element of religion, rather than nationhood, and made a serious error of judgment,” it wrote in an editorial.
On Tuesday came the second – and probably the biggest – victory when Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced his government was scrapping plans to repeal sections of the Racial Discrimination Act.
In a bid to safeguard freedom of speech, the Liberal government pledged to repeal the very sections of the law that Jewish leaders have successfully used to litigate against Holocaust deniers, anti-Semites and religious extremists.
The about-face followed a concerted campaign led in large part by Jewish community leaders who coordinated a coalition of ethnic communities opposed to the proposals.
“It would be fair to say – without wishing to give succor to those who reckon the Jews are too powerful – that Jewish community leaders have played a crucial role in organizing the opposition to any potential change to the Racial Discrimination Act,” wrote Michael Gawenda, a former editor-in-chief of The Age newspaper, in Business Spectator.
Hours later on Tuesday, Mike Carlton, a long-standing columnist of the Herald, resigned after he was exposed using abusive language to Jewish readers over a recent column on the war in Gaza.
The Herald’s editor-in-chief wanted Carlton to apologize for telling several readers to “f--k off,” among other insults.
But Carlton said he resigned “on the spot” when informed later he would be suspended for several weeks.
“Call it genocide, call it ethnic cleansing: the aim is to kill Arabs,” Carlton wrote of Israel’s “war of terror” on the people of Gaza.
Drunken youths board school bus
But before the three victories could be digested came the shocking news on Wednesday that a gang of drunken youths had boarded a bus full of Jewish school children, terrorizing them with alleged threats.
“The bus incident was very widely condemned in the Australian media and by politicians,” according to the ECAJ’s Peter Wertheim. But he added: “It is sad that it took such an extreme incident to make many people realize that anti-Semitism has once again mutated and adapted to contemporary events, and is as virulent as ever.”
Wertheim placed some blame on the “shallowness and sensationalism” of much of the international media, which “reflexively demonized Israel for causing civilian casualties, and downplayed the responsibility of Hamas.”
While the vast majority of Australia’s 110,000-plus Jews support Israel’s campaign, with more than 1,000 people demonstrating on Sunday outside parliament in Melbourne, nearly 200 dissenters broke their silence this week.
“In the face of the destruction of so many lives, we cannot remain silent while the official Jewish leadership gives such active support to Israel’s attack on Gaza,” wrote Vivienne Porzsolt, a member of Jews Against the Occupation, in an online letter signed by nearly 200 people.
“Their decision to stand with the oppressor rather than the oppressed is a betrayal of our history and values,” she wrote.
But one critic was quick to point out the open letter’s omission.
“Not one word on Hamas,” he said. “Not a word.”