An engagement party hosted in defiance of COVID-19 rules and attended by members of Melbourne’s Orthodox Jewish community, including several coronavirus-positive guests, has sparked national outrage.
“These are shitty choices,” said Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews to describe the decisions made by around 69 people who gathered at last week’s party in spite of the state’s ban on entering other peoples’ homes amid a fresh outbreak of the virus in its capital, Melbourne. Andrews said that the party added “thousands of hours” of work for contact tracers. The lockdown was extended, and a night curfew from 9 P.M. to 5 A.M. has been added for residents of the city.
In a video from the engagement party that has gone viral in Australia and around the world, the groom says in a speech that the party isn’t an illegal gathering since it is a “group therapy session,” referring to his father, who is a prominent psychologist. His remarks drew laughter from the crowd. Several other health professionals were in attendance, including the father of the bride, who is a family doctor.
The party hosts have reportedly received a AU$350,000 ($256,000) fine for the gathering – a cost of $5,000 per guest. The police have also opened an investigation into the engagement party.
The family of the groom, a prominent family in Melbourne’s Orthodox community, has apologized, telling Australian Nine News that “We did wrong but the hate coming our way is just so mean” and calling on Australians to “look into your hearts and find forgiveness.”
On Tuesday, 24 new COVID cases were recorded in Victoria, bringing the number of active cases to 227.
Orthodox Jews in the spotlight
Melbourne entered a strict Stage 4 lockdown from August 5 as the city battles a new coronavirus outbreak. The restrictions include compulsory face coverings indoors and outdoors, a ban on entering someone else’s home and a restriction on movement to five kilometers from a person’s residence.
In addition to the engagement party, several communities in the city, including Orthodox Jews, have been accused of repeatedly gathering and flouting restrictions as recently as last Friday, said former Melbourne Orthodox community member and current activist Manny Waks. People who had COVID-19 allegedly attended synagogue services on Friday.
“It’s a much broader issue than just one event, or a minyan breach,” Waks said, referring to people defying the restrictions to gather in groups of 10 that are traditionally required for Jewish prayer. “It’s an attitude and a despicable ‘holier than thou’ approach and hypocritical on so many levels.”
Yet Josh Burns, Federal Member for Parliament for Macnamara in Melbourne, one of Australia’s federal constituencies with the highest Jewish population, said that most of the Jewish and broader community “have been doing the right thing, and have rightly condemned those who have broken the rules and put us all at risk.”
“As the premier and police commissioner have made clear, those who have done the wrong thing will be dealt with by authorities and suffer the legal consequences,” Burns added.
The reaction from the wider Jewish community was condemnation of the engagement party, with prominent community figures calling on community members to follow the rules.
Bram Presser, a Melburnian affiliated with the Orthodox community who knew several of the people at the party, told Haaretz that they’re “generally good people.”
However, Presser said he is concerned by the backlash the community will face in light of “the small few others who have been breaching regulations by gathering in sizable groups [and] have done things that put the general community at risk and cast the Jewish community in a terrible light.”
The representative body for Victorian Jewry, the Jewish Community Council of Victoria, condemned the gathering. JCCV President Daniel Aghion said that “the majority of the community has done the right thing,” and that the event is a “stark reminder to us all why it is so important that every single one of us complies with the mandatory lockdown restrictions.”
Responding to both the engagement party and the allegations of illegal prayer gatherings, the Rabbinical Council of Victoria issued a statement urging congregants to “comply with government restrictions without exceptions … Including for prayer.”
Targets of antisemitism
Partygoers have been targets of public ridicule and shaming in Australia, with the Jewish community and members of the wider public taking to traditional and social media to condemn the engagement party.
Prominent Melbourne radio presenter Neil Mitchell called the actions arrogant, saying during a broadcast that the partygoers were “laughing at us while we’re sitting at home.”
The father of the groom, a family doctor, was trolled by dozens of people on a website used to rate doctors, with one user calling on the Australian medical authority to revoke his medical license and another calling him an “inbred” with a “tiny willy.”
Allegations of antisemitism have also been raised.
At a press conference Tuesday, Andrews condemned antisemitism, labeling any antisemitic commentary as “unacceptable and evil.”
“We have a zero tolerance to that in our state,” Andrews said. “The event was not a function of being Jewish… Them [the attendees] breaking the rules was not an act of faith or culture.”
Dr. Dvir Abramovich, chairman of the Anti-Defamation Commission, said there was a “tsunami of antisemitic expression and abuse directed at the Jewish community” following the engagement party.
“This engagement party has become a vehicle for malicious stereotyping and generalising, demonization and calls for violence which are frightening in their intensity,” Abramovich said in a statement.
A Melbourne intern at a hospital called to put Jews in the gas chamber on social media; she has since been fired by the hospital, which apologized for the “hurt and anger” caused by her comments.
Jewish organizations have also been targeted by callers leaving hate-filled messages, including one calling Jews “germs.” Several of the recordings have been published by Abramovich.
Phillip Dalidakis, a Jewish former member of Victoria's Parliament, shared a Facebook post that went viral emphasizing that the event “is not representative of the overwhelming Jewish community.”
“To suggest otherwise would be to engage in anti-semitic behaviour. However, smallpockets of our Orthodox & ultra Orthodox community need to see this event as an opportunity to reset & reflect on just how dangerous & selfish their behaviour has been,” Dalidakis wrote on Facebook.