Will Jews in Australia have to live in fear? - opinion

We cannot allow a situation where Jewish students arrive on campus and the first thing they do is remove their yarmulkes and tuck in their tzitzit.

 AUSTRALIAN PRIME MINISTER Anthony Albanese: There is a great chance that he can emerge as a staunch supporter of Israel, says the writer. (photo credit: BENOIT TESSIER/REUTERS)
AUSTRALIAN PRIME MINISTER Anthony Albanese: There is a great chance that he can emerge as a staunch supporter of Israel, says the writer.
(photo credit: BENOIT TESSIER/REUTERS)

MELBOURNE – In countless previous speaking tours in Australia, I was asked to speak on Jewish values, relationships and general Torah topics. Not so this time. With the exception of a single lecture on my book Kosher Lust, the only thing people want to hear me talk about is the rise of antisemitism globally and in Australia.

This itself is troubling. I’ve been coming to Australia since I was 19 years old and the Rebbe sent me to the continent nation to establish the first rabbinical college in Sydney. Though the community was comprised largely of children of Holocaust survivors, as is Melbourne, Jew-hatred was barely discussed. Australia seemed like a place where Jews need not fear.

Not so any longer.

The rise of BDS on college campuses, the harassment of Jewish students, and general hostility to Israel in many quarters – not to mention a new prime minister who, at the beginning of his tenure as an MP, said things that were highly critical of Israel – have made Australian Jewry very concerned.

Australia is now like nearly every other nation on earth. Security guards are outside every shul. At Central Synagogue, where I spoke last weekend, the guards are highly trained and heavily equipped. At Caulfield Shule, where I gave five lectures over 24 hours that revolved largely around the growing threat to the Jewish nation, the guards are from the community but ever present.

 An Australian flag is seen hung in a tree burnt by bushfire on the property of farmer Jeff McCole in Buchan, Victoria, Australia (credit: REUTERS/ANDREW KELLY) An Australian flag is seen hung in a tree burnt by bushfire on the property of farmer Jeff McCole in Buchan, Victoria, Australia (credit: REUTERS/ANDREW KELLY)

Australia has, thank God, yet to experience the kind of mass shooting at a synagogue along the lines of Pittsburgh or Poway. But no one is taking chances.

My mother-in-law’s family came to Australia from the Czech Republic and Slovakia after the war. They had been decimated by the Holocaust. My wife’s great uncle was murdered in Auschwitz at the tender age of 22. His parents mourned him for the length of their days.

My grandmother-in-law always smiled and steadfastly refused to discuss the Holocaust. I can still remember in Sydney, back in 1986 when we first arrived as students, how each Jewish congregation was populated by people with strong Hungarian and European accents. Australia was a haven to them from Hitler. Down Under they found a rebirth.

SO HOW did it come to this? How can a community that suffered such horrors now begin to fear the rise of Jew-hatred in a place where it scarcely existed before?

There are several considerations.

The first is a general respect of authority by the citizens of Australia, who are reluctant to vocally challenge aspects of their government. Here is an example.

After my speeches at Caulfield in Melbourne, we went out to eat with a group of congregants. One of them asked me if, in our many New York Times ads supporting Israel in the United States, we had ever directly criticized US president Barack Obama for his nuclear deal with Iran. I responded that we had done so many, many times.

“You don’t mean you criticized Obama directly, as president, right? You mean you took out the ad before he was elected.”

“No,” I said. “Of course we criticized him as president. Why would we not? His deal gave murderers billions of dollars.”

They were very surprised to hear this. “Obama is a very powerful man.”

“Yes,” I said. “His power, like that of the prime minister of Australia, derives only from the people. He is nothing without us.”

Although Australia is, of course, a complete democracy, there is a greater preparedness to submit to authority and, when challenging it, to do so with greater caution than there is, say, in the United States. The COVID-19 lockdowns that shut Melbourne down for some six months at a time are indicative of how the citizenry accept government authority more than we do in the US.

Don’t get me wrong. Many in Melbourne who accepted the closings of the synagogues off and on for two years believed passionately that this was the right thing to do and that it saved lives. They point to the one million lost lives in America as an example of our own irresponsibility amid their far greater preservation of life.

That may indeed be true. But there is no way on earth Americans would have accepted being surveilled by helicopters and having police check that they were at home by 9 p.m. curfew, and write their names down if they went out to hear the shofar blown on Rosh Hashanah.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is the new kid on the block. There is a great chance that he can emerge as a staunch supporter of the Middle East’s only democracy. But that will not happen if the very formidable Jewish community of Australia, well-organized and well-funded, does not flex its muscles now to show that it will challenge any and all unfair policies toward Israel.

The second consideration is the existence of a strong organization, like the AJA – the Australia Jewish Association – that advocates strongly for Israel. But it needs greater funding, greater support, and a much stronger grassroots commitment.

I discussed with the AJA and other Jewish groups the opening of a branch of our World Values Network in Australia that would advertise for Israel as we do in the United States and hold Israel’s enemies accountable for defamation. I hope this will materialize.

And finally, Jewish students on campus need to be organized to combat BDS wherever it rears its ugly head.

BDS is not a benign movement of Israel criticism. Its goal is the destruction of the State of Israel by economic means. More immediately, it serves to harass and intimidate Jewish students on campus and make them feel uncomfortable for being Jewish. The pro-Palestinian activists often have an agenda of making Israel a toxic word on campus. And it trickles down in the form of bigotry against Jewish students.

We cannot allow a situation where Jewish students arrive on campus and the first thing they do is remove their yarmulkes and tuck in their tzitzit. Now and forever, the Jewish people dare not become a secret society, hidden away from Jewish symbols like Magen Davids and Jewish religious garb.

That is as true in the United States as it is Down Under. It’s time for the Jewish community to stand, be strong, and be counted.

The writer, “America’s rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America,” is the international best-selling author of 36 books, including most recently Holocaust Holiday: One Family’s Descent into Genocide Memory Hell.”