To many Americans, Australia conjures up pictures of kangaroos and a melodic national anthem, some of whose words are unintelligible to the non-Aussie. "Waltzing Matilda," however, actually describes the early days of a vast, as yet unexplored country, traversed by free-spirited swagmen – slang for hoboes – unwilling to be fenced in by rules and regulations, some undoubtedly the ex-convicts Britain sent to its far-off possession in order to get rid of them – a hymn to a country just coming into its own.
Jews were part of the story even then. In fact, the Jewish people have been part of Australian history since 1788 – when at least 8 of the 751 convicts transported on the First Fleet from Britain were Jewish. Over a thousand persons of Jewish descent were sent to Australia as convicts during the next 60 years.
Today, Australia, although physically remote from most of the Jewish world, has a thriving and proud Jewish community of about 120,000, ninth largest in the world. The Jewish community has the highest number of Holocaust survivors per capita in the diaspora, and greatly benefited from post war immigration as well as more recently, South African and Russian immigration. A very high proportion of Jewish school students, over 75% of primary and over 50% of secondary school students, attend Jewish day schools.
The community is well integrated into the wider Australian community and although only 0.5% of the population, its members have made impressive contributions to virtually every aspect of Australian life, distinguishing themselves in the fields of academia, medical research, business, arts and culture, sports and politics, including two governors general.
Australian Jewry also has some unique stories. Is there any other Jewish community in the world that can match a deceased member leaving a substantial annual bequest to his Synagogue conditioned on his seat (including nameplate) being permanently retained and chained off to prevent others ever sitting there?
More seriously, the vast majority of the Jewish community identifies with and supports Israel. Over 10,000 Australians – assisted by the ZFA Aliyah Department and by the ZFA Israel Office – have made aliyah - giving Australia one of the highest aliyah rates (per capita) in the Western World.
In general, Australia has been very good for Jews, and Jews appreciate the rights and freedoms they have. However, although most Australian Jews, as individuals, are able to lead a life free of harassment, abuse, and assault, some anti-Semitism exists. Its impact on the day to day lives of Jews is minimal and, as an overall problem, it is far less significant in Australia than in other countries.
Nevertheless, the Jewish community is the only community within Australia whose places of worship, schools, communal organizations and community centres, for security reasons, operate under protective measures such as high fences, armed guards, metal detectors, CCTV cameras and the like. The necessity arises from the incidence of physical attacks against Jews and Jewish communal buildings over the last three decades as well as continuing threats.
As has been the pattern in previous years, Jews continue to be targeted for harassment, abuse and threats at synagogues and other Jewish institutions, including schools. This occurs around synagogues on the Jewish Sabbath on Friday evenings and on Saturday mornings when Jews are walking to and from synagogue, and attending religious services. These incidents are certainly not the norm, yet they persist at a low but steady rate.
There is often a correlation between spikes in violence in any of the various conflicts in the Middle East (and a concomitant increase in media coverage), whether or not the conflict involves Israel, and an upturn in anti-Semitic incidents. In addition, when issues involving Jews or Israel receive prominent coverage in the mainstream media this often leads to a rise in anti-Semitic commentary and incidents.
Two incidents in recent years shocked the Jewish community. In 2013, a Jewish family of five, walking home after attending synagogue and Shabbat dinner in Sydney were physically assaulted by a group of eight young males. Ten months later, during the 2014 Israel-Gaza war, around thirty Jewish students, aged 5-12 years old, on a school bus in Sydney, were subjected to physical and verbal threats, by five male teenagers who yelled anti-Semitic abuse at them, including “all Jews must die”, “Heil Hitler”, and threatened them with “we’re going to slit your throats”. Fortunately, such incidents are rare, but they do serve to remind Jews that there are people who will act out their prejudices and hatred. There have been no such incidents since.
In addition to occasional physical attacks and threats, the sense of security of Australian Jews is affected by such factors such as occasional hostile media coverage of Jewish and Israeli issues, political and online commentary, as well as anti-Israel propaganda and protests. It is words, when given free reign, which create a poisonous atmosphere for those targeted by racism. It is words that incite hatred and violence.
While anti-Semitism has been confined to the fringes of society, that is, to the far Right and far Left of politics, and to bigoted religious extremists within Christianity or Islam, the situation for Australian Jews has been manageable. Anti-Semitism will never disappear or be destroyed. The best that can be achieved is that society as a whole deems anti-Semitism, and other forms of racism, to be socially unacceptable, not to be tolerated, and to be actively countered. Such an atmosphere gives Jew-haters very little breathing space from which to launch their hate propaganda and activities. The danger arises when anti-Semitism moves from the margins into the mainstream of society.
The mainstreaming of anti-Semitism in Australia is most vividly seen in the ABC, the national public broadcaster, and other major mainstream media outlets. For example, a documentary produced by the ABC, “Stone Cold Justice”, was aired in February 2014, which made some uninvestigated and unsubstantiated allegations that Jewish soldiers crucify Palestinian boys, and other equally absurd and inflammatory claims tinged with classical anti-Semitic tropes. In response, virulently anti-Semitic comments were posted on ABC Facebook pages. This ABC documentary continues to elicit anti-Semitic comments to this day via its posting on Youtube.
When mainstream media outlets are prepared to publish or host unsubstantiated claims and irrational bias combined with outright demonizing of Jews, then a signal is sent that anti-Semitism is acceptable and even respectable, and Jew-haters feel emboldened to promote their views and to act on them. This an area which the peak Jewish representative organization, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, monitors closely, and where warranted, raises objections. Most of the anti-Semitic content on mainstream media has ultimately been removed following representations to those media outlets.
For a diverse society such as Australia's to be harmonious, it is imperative that all Australians, regardless of race or religion, be able to live without harassment and hatred, without vilification and violence. Anti-Semitism is pervasive and pernicious. It targets Jews but has always had a wider fall-out, as a litmus test for the degree to which a society tolerates racism generally. Countering anti-Semitic and other racist expressions is therefore in everyone's interests.
Julie Nathan is the Research Officer for the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, and has authored the ECAJ’s annual Anti-Semitism Report since 2013.
Attorney David Singer contributed to this article.