Anti-Semitism in Australia?

By ARSEN OSTROVSKY
October 29, 2013 22:12

News of an incident has now reverberated around the world, with many commentators quick to say it is no longer safe to be a Jew in Australia or that Down Under is quickly turning into the next Europe.




Brawl in Sydney, Australia.

Australia anti-Semitic attack 370. (photo credit: Screenshot Sky News)

Last Friday, a Jewish family of five was walking home after Shabbat services and dinner in Bondi, in the heart of the famous beachside suburb in Sydney, Australia, when they were viciously assaulted by a gang of youths in one of the most horrific anti-Semitic attacks in Australia in memory.

Although police investigations are ongoing, three of the attackers have already been arrested, with police confirming they were part of a group of eight mainly Pacific Islander youths, who had no connection to Islam. The victims, which included a couple in their 60s, have now all been released from hospital, although each sustained serious injuries, including bleeding of the brain and a fractured skull.

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News of the incident has now reverberated around the world, with many commentators quick to say it is no longer safe to be a Jew in Australia or that Down Under is quickly turning into the next Europe.

So, allow me please to dispel some of these theories.

As horrific and unquestionably anti-Semitic as this was, it was an isolated and spontaneous act committed by a group of thugs with criminal histories.

The attack in Bondi was not the beginning of a pogrom and Australia is not in danger of turning into Europe, where a recent survey showed that a quarter of European Jews are afraid to openly identify as Jewish for fear of anti-Semitism.

Australia always has been, and will remain, an incredibly open, diverse, peaceful and tolerant society, and importantly, one of the safest places in the world to be Jewish.

Why do I say that? For one, before recently making aliya from Sydney, I grew up and lived in Bondi and know exactly where this incident occurred. I was also for many years involved with the Jewish community, both in a volunteering and professional capacity, so I know the community intimately.

At the same time, in my current capacity as the director of research at The Israeli- Jewish Congress, one of our key missions is combatting anti-Semitism in Europe, in which we work together in close partnership with the Jewish communities of Europe, the Knesset and Government of Israel, and European Parliamentarians.

Bondi has one of the largest concentrations of Jews in Australia, replete with synagogues, kosher bakeries, cafes and butchers and a number of Jewish communal centers. You are just as likely to see a beachgoer with their surfboard as you are a Chabad Lubbavitcher in the area. In over 20 years, I never once experienced or witnessed an act of anti-Semitism, albeit that does not mean none occurred.

There are also other important factors differentiating this from Europe.

What is perhaps most important to note is the reaction following the incident, which has received immediate and unequivocal wall-to-wall political condemnation, including from the highest echelons of federal and state government, social and community leaders, the media and from different faith groups, including from the Muslim community.

The police have already caught three of the attackers and expect to apprehend the remaining few shortly.

It is also important acknowledge the brave individuals, including the security guards from a nearby bar, who ran to help the victims, and a taxi driver who stopped to apprehend one of the attackers. As Peter Wertheim, president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, the umbrella organization for the Australian Jewish community, noted, “the brave and selfless actions of these bystanders is a much more accurate reflection of the attitude of Australians to their Jewish fellow citizens, than the hate-filled violence of the group who allegedly attacked the family.”

New South Wales, the state in which Bondi is located, also has exceptionally stringent laws against racism and racial hatred, with the authorities not hesitating to invoke them in circumstances where there has been a breach of the law.

At the same time, there is a strong emphasis on cross-cultural education and awareness, both in the schools and public service institutions, and Australia’s policy of multiculturalism has been an overwhelming success in welcoming and integrating members of different ethnic groups into broader society.

Australia also has neither the rise of far-right neo-Nazis or Muslim extremism that is rampant in many parts of Europe.

In fact, whereas the Muslim community in Australia outnumbers the Jewish community of approximately 120,000 by about five to one, the two communities enjoy very warm and cordial relations.

Though famous for its open, laid back and tolerant lifestyle, Australia is not perfect and a degree of racism, and anti-Semitism, does exist.

The Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS) Movement continues to demonize Israel and Jews, students on some campuses will incur verbal anti-Semitic attacks (most frequently from the far Left) and sporadic graffiti and vandalism attacks still occur (albeit well down on previous years).

The rise in social media is also offering a new large-scale platform for today’s bigots.

Notwithstanding, according to Jeremy Jones, the international affairs director at Australia/ Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, who has been maintaining records of anti-Semitic attacks in Australia for over 25 years, there has never been an attack of this nature before, with “a family group like this attacked by another group.”

Jones adds there is no indication or “trend” to suggest an overall rise in anti-Semitism in Australia, certainly not in violent attacks.

Overall, Australia has one of the lowest levels of anti-Semitism in the world, albeit it can of course always be lower and we must remain vigilant.

As the Australian Ambassador to Israel, Dave Sharma, noted following the incident, “such prejudice has no place in Australian society or values.

We condemn anti-Semitism wholeheartedly and can assure you that the vast majority of Australians are adamantly opposed to such views.”

One of the reasons there has been such a spike in anti-Semitism across Europe is because the political and social leadership failed to act when the warning signs first appeared.

Today, they are playing catch up, and some may say, are even too late.

While anti-Semitism will always exist no matter where, the Australian response of zero tolerance, education and unequivocal political and social condemnation ought to be an example to all those fighting this oldest and most enduring forms of hatred.

The author is director of research at The Israeli-Jewish Congress. Originally from Australia, he was also active in the Sydney Jewish community, including serving as a policy analyst at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council.


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