There is something in Australia’s down-to-earth culture that looks with suspicion, even derision, upon fanaticism of any kind.
Antisemitism, although not a new phenomenon in Australia, is rightly seen as a pathological obsession of ideologues of the extreme political right and left, and of religious extremists reflecting the worst of their faith traditions.
Since the 1960s racism generally, and antisemitism in particular, have been seen as shameful and socially unacceptable.
Yet antisemitism is a light sleeper. It remains as deeply entrenched in Middle Eastern cultures as it once was in western culture, and is infinitely adaptable.
A shared hatred of the values of western liberal-democratic society has brought together an unlikely alliance of western “progressives” and Islamist extremists. The first group is, for the most part, anti-religious and supportive of gender and sexual diversity. They would most likely not survive if the second group achieved their avowed aim of establishing a theocratic dictatorship.
The two groups have fictionalised history into a Manichaean struggle between oppressors and the oppressed, colonialists and anti-colonialists, white Europeans and people of colour.
Israel does not fit this picture. Jewish people, once vilified as Middle Eastern “semites” who were seen as alien and a threat to European societies, have now been recast as white European colonial oppressors.
Never mind that the Jews have an unbroken 3500-year history in the land they have supposedly “colonised”, or that most Jewish Israelis are of non-European background.
On the basis of this fiction, a new social license has been manufactured for antisemitism. On social media, in the arts and culture sector and in academia, Jews are now routinely vilified.
In their maniacal determination to maintain the idea that the babies, children, the elderly and other victims of Hamas’s murders, rapes, mutilation and torture on October 7 were “oppressors”, anti-Israel groups and individuals began to mobilise politically within hours of the atrocities, targeting Jews around the world, even before Israel began to respond.
As early as October 8, a Muslim cleric in Lakemba, Sydney told a crowd celebrating the Hamas atrocities, “I’m smiling and I’m happy. I’m elated”.
On October 9, at a rally held by anti-Israel Muslims and left-wingers at the Sydney Opera House, numerous witnesses have attested that they heard protesters chant “F**k the Jews” and “Gas the Jews” as they burnt an Israeli flag.
Anti-Israel protesters even confronted and verbally abused family members of Israeli hostages in their hotel in Melbourne while they were on a tour in Australia.
As the Executive Council of Australian Jewry reported, the Australian Jewish community faced a massive 738 per cent increase in the number of antisemitic incidents in October and November 2023 compared to the same two months in 2022. One can discern a direct correlation between the peddling of inflammatory falsehoods about Israel and the Jewish people to large, gullible audiences, and the number and severity of attacks on Jewish Australians and Jewish institutions.
Most recently, at mosques and prayer rooms in Sydney, Islamic preachers have been recorded whipping up their followers with descriptions of Jews as “monsters” and “descendants of pigs and monkeys”, “vengeful people” who “loved to shed blood”.
The hate preaching stokes division, animosity and ultimately violence between different parts of society. It needs to be confronted and stopped now before the damage it has done to social cohesion becomes irreparable. There are multiple ethnic and faith communities in Australia and the last thing we need is for our peaceful and tolerant society to be ruined by the importation into Australia of the hatreds and violence of overseas conflicts.
However, Federal, State and Territory governments have struggled to adapt to the new reality. Laws which were assumed to protect us from incitement to violence or vilification on the basis of race and religion have shown to be unfit for purpose, or alternatively no attempt has been made to enforce them due to a weakness of will by the authorities.
So the Jewish community itself has been left with no alternative but to take legal action – and we will. Somebody has to stand up to the hate-mongers.
Yet it is troubling that in a country like Australia any citizen should need to expend vast quantities of money, time and effort to take private legal action to remedy a public wrong.
Governments have the primary responsibility of maintaining peace and security in the community by taking decisive action to stop anyone seeking to set Australian against Australian. It should not be left to vulnerable individuals and groups to fend for themselves.
This is not just a concern for the Jewish community. We are society’s litmus test. If Jews are not free to go about their daily lives with a sense of safety and security, then ultimately no citizen is safe.
Peter Wertheim is co-CEO of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry. This op-ed previously appeared in The Australian.