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'We are all one family'

Navigating changes in our local Jewish community

My objective is to ensure our community remains strong; we remain united, even if we disagree on some matters; and, most importantly, we can continue living safe Jewish lives.

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I was elected president of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria (JCCV) a few weeks after the October 7 Hamas massacre. It was an extraordinary time to begin leading our peak representative organisation.

I grew up in this community and have been involved my whole life. During my first few months as JCCV president, I have observed a number of significant local changes. Those who have had travelled to Israel recently to bear witness to the devastation that has been wrought on our Jewish homeland have similarly spoken of changes. It seems that Israel, and the Jewish world, will never be the same.

My role now is to steer us through those changes. My objective is to ensure our community remains strong; we remain united, even if we disagree on some matters; and, most importantly, we can continue living safe Jewish lives.

What are these changes I have observed? It won’t surprise you to read that the shocking rise of local antisemitism is one of them. Incidents are being well documented by CSG; together with our amazing protectors, the JCCV continues to work with government and police to ensure all Victorian Jews can live, work and play in safety.

However, while CSG is recording antisemitic incidents in Victoria, it is simply overwhelmed by the amount of hate on social media to the point where it cannot be recorded. According to University of Canberra research, a quarter of young Australians use YouTube, Instagram and TikTok to get their news; fewer than 10 per cent read a newspaper. It really worries me that the same social media platforms that are plagued by antisemitism are serving up news to a growing number of young Australians. These young people will absorb hatred of Jews by osmosis, they don’t have to go searching for it.

A related change for the worse is the shameless lies being spread about Israel. Social media influencers, activist journalists and “human rights” agencies have all shown open hostility towards Israel. Are their lies based on ignorance or malice? I think both. But it is unconscionable that we have local ABC journalists lobbying to report Israel’s conflict of self-defence as a “genocide” or “ethnic cleansing”. It is unbelievable that the Red Cross is not doing more to help free the hostages, nearly four months into this nightmare.

Education and law reform are the only answers. The JCCV has been urging the Victorian government to strengthen Victoria’s inadequate anti-vilification laws since before October 7. In 2024, this work will continue. We will also redouble our efforts to reach as many people as possible through our Jewish Immersion Program, a long-term, evidence-based program of the JCCV that helps non-Jewish people understand our community’s diversity, challenges and threats.

Importantly, there have also been positive changes in our Victorian Jewish community since October 7.

Just a few months ago, community leaders were discussing the future of the Diaspora’s relationship to Israel, particularly for our younger generations. The discussion could not be more different today. I have observed a renewed strength of Zionist fervour. This has manifested in the overwhelming donations from our community to Israelis in need, by letter-writing, beanie knitting and poster sticking advocacy campaigns, and by the many Jewish Victorians seeking out Israeli media or listening to Israeli podcasts. Despite attempts by our enemies to smear Zionism as racist or objectionable, our community is more strongly Zionist than ever. As the son of Holocaust survivors, I know how important it is for us to have a Jewish safe haven. Jewish people, like all indigenous peoples, have a right to self-determination. Our community recognises this and is doing what it can to protect this right.

I have also noticed an uptick in participation in community events, including by people who have not had an active connection in many years. This conflict has brought the Israeli-born community closer to the mainstream Jewish community. There is no difference between us, we are all one family, and I welcome this new closeness and hope it continues.

Watching Jews – secular and religious, local born or overseas born – stand together wearing Israeli flags, singing Hatikvah, and calling for the return of hostages, is gratifying. My challenge is to find a way to bottle this unity of purpose for the future strength of our community. This will be addressed by the JCCV strategic planning office, which we hope to launch in coming months.

The JCCV is looking at what these changes will mean for our community in the months and years ahead. We want to build a future for all Victorian Jews that is safe united, proud and Zionist.

Philip Zajac is president of the JCCV.

The JCCV and Zionism Victoria will host a community forum to discuss the Victorian Jewish community after October 7. February 7 at 7.30pm. Free event, registration essential: trybooking.com/COKWT

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