Rising anti-Semitism in Australia Leaves Jews Feeling Vulnerable

'Jews are neither as free nor as safe as they were prior to’ Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip, says one academic, echoing fears expressed by many in the community.

Dan Goldberg
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A pro-Gaza rally in Sydney, Australia, July 20, 2014.
A pro-Gaza rally in Sydney, Australia, July 20, 2014. Credit: Reuters
Dan Goldberg

Australia is not afflicted by the same degree of anti-Semitism reportedly sweeping Europe, but there is a “palpable level of concern” among Jews here following a spike in anti-Semitic incidents since the Gaza war broke out seven weeks ago, some Australian academics warn.

Arguably the most notorious incident involved a gang of drunken youths who allegedly traumatized Jewish kids on a school bus in Sydney earlier this month, hurling anti-Semitic slurs while threatening to slit their throats.

Six minors were arrested after the incident, but no charges have yet been laid.

“We as a community are profoundly troubled by this latest event and the sequence of anti-Semitic incidents that has preceded it,” Robert Goot, the president of Australia’s 110,000-plus-strong Jewish community, said at the time.

There have also been several physical assaults on Jews here, but the torrent of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic abuse has come from the sewers of social media.

“There has been a seismic shift,” said Prof. Mark Baker, director of the Jewish center at Melbourne’s Monash University. “It’s as though the images that we once viewed on television have popped out of the computer screen and landed in our bedrooms.

“People feel as though they are living inside the experience of ISIS beheadings, anti-Israel demonstrations and the Gaza Israel war,” he told Haaretz.

“Everyone is talking about this incessantly, fearing that the world is no longer recognizable, and living in fear of an impending catastrophe. The community is in a tailspin and looking for answers.”

Prof. Danny Ben-Moshe, another Melbourne-based academic who analyzes anti-Semitism, agreed there had been a shift within Australian Jewry but stopped short of describing it as “seismic.”

“The collective well-being of Australian Jewry has been adversely affected,” Ben-Moshe told Haaretz. “Jews are neither as free nor as safe as they were prior to this war.”

But he added: “This is not to say that what is occurring in Australia is as bad or as serious as what is taking place in Europe, but ominous signs are there.”

While explicit anti-Semitism “remains taboo and widely condemned,” Ben-Moshe said, adding: “Something qualitative has changed.”

The incident on the school bus in Sydney sent shock waves across the continent. “My fellow parents waiting for the school bus the next morning in Melbourne were edgy with nerves and concerns,” he said.

Isabelle Stanton, whose two daughters were on that bus in Sydney, told Haaretz this week: “My elder daughter is still very fragile; I didn’t expect her to be so traumatized.”

Stanton, who has lived in Australia for seven years, added: “I’m left with a little bit of trauma, a little bit of fragility. I’m hoping there will be some charges laid [against the youths]. For the sake of the kids and for the sake of justice, the kids need to see that something happened to these boys.”

An immigrant from Belgium, Stanton said she reads the French and Belgian press. “I am shocked, I am more than shocked, I am disgusted, I am horrified, I am flabbergasted. I can’t say Australia is as bad, and we haven’t reached that level of hatred for the Jews, but there is this feeling that we have to be vigilant, and that we have to be discreet in our way of being Jewish here and I don’t like it.”

Hallely Kimchi, the editor of the Israeli newspaper E-ton, has been living here for 19 years but admits there’s been a shift. “This is the first time that I actually feel that my identity is a problem,” she said.

“Something new has happened” since the Gaza war, Kimchi added. “It’s never been like that. The anti-Semitism in Australia is much more than in the past.

“The kids are afraid, that’s the bottom line,” she said. “I know the community here is more alerted.”

She pointed to the false alarm outside the King David School in Melbourne last week. More than 200 Jewish pupils were evacuated for several hours while the bomb squad sent a remote-controlled robot to an abandoned car outside the school after community security officials had called police.

“It was nothing but people feel more intimidated,” Kimchi said.

Zeddy Lawrence, the editor of the Australian Jewish News, agreed there was a “palpable sense of concern” within the Jewish community, but did not go as far to suggest the community is in a tailspin.

“There have only been a few isolated anti-Semitic incidents,” he said. “But seeing what has happened in Europe obviously heightens fears of a backlash against the community here.”

In the wake of the incident on Jewish pupils on a school bus in Sydney, Dr. Dvir Abramovich, chairman of the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission, wrote earlier this month: “There are alarming developments and chilling signs that are making the Jewish community here less comfortable, less confident and very worried that the flames of anti-Semitism are burning more furiously at home.”

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