For Australia's Jewish Community, a Timely Reckoning on Violence Against Women

As Australia confronts its failures to combat violence against women, the country's Jewish community is also reeling. Survivors of sexual violence within the community tell Haaretz about efforts to tackle the problem

Gabrielle Briner
Gabrielle Briner
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Chanel Contos, the petitioner who exposed widespread sexual harassment in Australia's schools.
Chanel Contos, the petitioner who exposed widespread sexual harassment in Australia's schools. Credit: Courtesy of Chanel Contos
Gabrielle Briner
Gabrielle Briner

“I was seeing a boy and we were kissing, I said no to sex and he thought it was funny to push himself into me whilst I said no multiple times. We stopped speaking, and six months later we bumped into each other and he tried kissing me. I said no, and he grabbed my throat and I had to fight my way to get away from him.”

This jarring testimony is an incident of sexual assault that took place between two Jewish school students in Australia. It’s one of more than 20,000 incidents that have been submitted to a petition that aimed to shed light on the pervasiveness of sexual assault within the Australian school system. The petition has raised alarm regarding the frequency and ubiquity of acts of sexual violence in the Australian school system. 

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The petition, launched by 23-year-old gender studies student and Sydney native Chanel Contos, gained traction at the same time as a separate sexual harassment reckoning; two damning rape allegations emerged from Australia’s parliament, with young women accusing Australia’s attorney general and a parliamentary staffer of rape and sexual assault. 

Issues of consent and sexism were thrust to the forefront of the country’s public discourse, forcing Australians to confront the culture’s relationship with toxic masculinity and rape culture. Rape culture, explains Dr. Joy Townsend, an academic who researches the sexual experiences of women in Australia, is the normalization of sexual violence in a society, a result of toxic masculinity. 

“Toxic masculinity tends to refer to a traditional, narrow and stereotypical version of masculinity. Behaviors include the suppressing of emotions, maintaining an appearance of hardness or ‘being tough’ and the use of violence or aggression as an indication of power,” Townsend says. 

Alongside changing the public discourse in Australia as a whole, these incidents are shining light on sexual assault in the Jewish community as well. Despite recent initiatives to address the pervasiveness of the issue, many organizations have failed to instigate the sweeping cultural change needed to outroot it.

The Australian Jewish community is no stranger to battling public cases within its bounds. Former school principal Malka Leifer, charged with over 60 counts of assault against her students, is currently standing trial after a lengthy extradition battle in Israel.  

Former school principal Malka Leifer, wanted on 74 charges of sexual assault in Australia is escorted into a Jerusalem courtroom for an extradition hearing, in 2018.Credit: Mahmoud Illean,AP

A start, but not enough

Unwanted attention from men, including non-consensual touching, is considered a normal part of the experience for female Australian school students. “It’s happened to me before. When there’s parties and alcohol is involved… waist grabbing and other inappropriate touching happens [to girls] all the time,” 18-year-old Carlia, a Jewish high-school student from Melbourne tells Haaretz. “And afterward, the knee-jerk reaction is to evoke the alcohol narrative that blames the girl for drinking.” 

Since the public dialogue has centred on consent, mounting public pressure has pushed some Australian schools to reform their consent and sexual education curricula. Among them was the country’s largest Jewish K-12 school, Moriah College. Prior to the reform, it was mentioned by name by several victims of sexual assault in Contos’ petition. 

Moriah College was mentioned on the petition that named the schools of sexual assault perpetrators launched in March 2021.Credit: Australian Jewish News / Nadine Sacks

Moriah College Principal Rabbi Yeshoua Smukler says that in response to the petition, Moriah is working to overhaul and strengthen their consent education syllabus by putting the students' voices at the center of the conversation. 

“We worked with our student leadership, our team of psychologists, our wellbeing team and we listened to a lot of student voices at different ages and stages,” Rabbi Smukler says. “One of the things the kids said is that we should be teaching boys with boys and girls with girls and not hearing the same message. In addition to having specific forms when they can explore gender-specific things, the kids wanted co-education, and we’ve changed that.”

Haaretz reached out to other Jewish schools, who declined to comment or did not respond.  

Sources from within Australian Jewish schools say that this apparent commitment by Jewish day school staff reflects a more reactive change, rather than a long-term commitment to rethinking core issues surrounding consent. “[What’s being done] is a start, but it is definitely not enough,” one source says. 

Another source who works at one of Australia’s Jewish schools says that when students sexually harass female teachers in a way that would be considered illegal outside of school – such as catcalling and circulating photographs – it is framed as a “teaching moment” with no real consequences. She recalls that her experiences with harassment were addressed through "mediated conversations explaining why the act was hurtful, having [students] hear how it made me feel," rather than punishment. "Even though I was told I could access the school psychologists, no one actually checked in on me to see if I was okay afterward,” she says.

Not just schools

“What I think needs to happen is something complex, vast and multi-faceted, and woven throughout the many aspects of school life,” the source says. “Women and girls on campuses do experience sexism from students, from staff and even the wider parent body. It may not be every day, all the time, but it exists, it happens and it needs to be addressed.” They add, “Where are the rights of the female students and staff members to feel safe and protected?”

The problem does not disappear after graduation – Jewish community spaces and events have also been scenes of assault. Journalists Sophie Deutsch and Rebecca Davis, who conducted a landmark survey on the experiences of women who work for or are in leadership positions in Jewish organizations for the Australian Jewish News, say that it was the feedback on sexual harassment that shocked them.

“Around 17 percent of women said they have experienced sexual harassment at a communal organization. It was extremely disappointing and concerning to hear that multiple women felt unsupported when they found the courage to report an instance of sexual harassment or assault to a senior staff member,” Deutsch and Davis tell Haaretz. “Many victims said when they did so, little to no change occurred, and that raising the issue was met with excuses for the alleged perpetrator's behavior. It was commonly expressed that women often felt disempowered and subsequently left the organization.”

Moreover, the survey found, “one fifth of respondents said they had encountered sexual harassment, and 60 percent of women agreed that they feel uncomfortable with the language used about or toward women in the workplace.”

Melinda Jones, the director of the National Council of Jewish Women Australia, was sexually assaulted during a synagogue service by a stranger. “As the service progressed, his hand surreptitiously made its way onto my thigh and proceeded up my leg. It took me a few seconds to react because I was so shocked. Though I shook him off, I couldn’t leave because it was the middle of a service. I did what every woman does and waited, holding my breath till I could get away from him.” 

Melinda Jones, the director of the National Council of Jewish Women Australia.Credit: Courtesy of Melinda Jones

The publication of Deutsch and Davis’ report coincided with launching the Gender Equality Pledge, an initiative aimed to combat gender inequality in community organizations. Deutsch and Davis' follow-up report names Jeremy Leibler, the president of the Zionist Federation Australia, as an outspoken male Jewish leader acting against gendered violence and discrimination in the community. He says that despite efforts to rectify the situation, community groups have a lot more work to do.

“These disturbing revelations suggest that there are systemic and cultural issues in parts of the community. While bringing these issues to light is the first step required to address them and while I don’t have the benefit of any hard data, I think change is going to require more than what we have seen to date,” Leibler tells Haaretz.

The future of consent education

Several months after this consent awakening, Australia is reforming its sexual assault legislation. The state of New South Wales has adopted an affirmative consent law, which switches out the means of gaining consent from a “no means no” for a “yes means yes.” Queensland’s state government is rolling out a plan to introduce more explicit yet age-appropriate consent and sexual education for students, and plans to equip teachers with resources and knowledge to confidently teach these lessons. 

Yet Townsend says that despite these changes, “I think it’s probably still too early to comment on the impacts of this movement in terms of tangible changes in the way women are treated. Absolutely though, there are some significant tangible changes happening that are currently underway in response to the movement happening here, but we probably won’t see how those changes impact women for some years to come." 

Tahni, a 12th grade student in a Melbourne Jewish day school says she sees a difference in how her male and female peers engage with the issue of sex and consent since Contos’ petition gained traction. “Finally people are speaking up, educating, collaborating and having discussions. I am personally seeing a lot of change. People are genuinely interested and genuinely empowered to speak about what happened to them.”

Leibler says that it's on community groups to take the next steps. “I am hopeful that as a community we are taking some positive steps. The challenge is to ensure that real action is taken, and we don’t have to wait until the next survey to meaningfully address these issues,” he adds.

The Executive Council of Australian Jewry was contacted several times for comment on the issue in wider community organizations; they did not respond by press time.

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