t is an event that many in Melbourne’s Jewish community may not want to revisit, but less than 12 months ago, an engagement party for a young Jewish couple hit the news for all the wrong reasons.
In August 2021, a video was circulated by the general media showing Jewish people at a gathering in Melbourne in clear breach of the public health guidelines at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The immediate concern within the community was for the health of those involved – remember these were the dark days before the vaccination rollout. But there was also widespread concern about the hateful rhetoric directed at all Jews after the video’s publication.
The Victorian Department of Health reached out to the Jewish Community Council of Victoria (JCCV) to lead the community response. Over the coming days and weeks, JCCV president Daniel Aghion, the dedicated JCCV staff and local MPs were brought together with Victoria’s most senior health officials to urgently try and prevent a wider outbreak, communicate the importance of following public health messages and deal with the fallout of the vitriol directed at the Jewish community.
As Victoria’s Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes prepared to draft pioneering laws to ban the public display of the Nazi swastika, her office called upon the JCCV to provide measured input, on behalf of Victoria’s Jews, to the Department of Justice’s consultation group. As a result, Victoria became the first jurisdiction in Australia to introduce laws to Parliament that clearly draw a line against neo-Nazis.
In 2019, after disturbing reports emerged of Jewish students facing antisemitism in a small number of government schools, an independent inquiry was initiated. The Victorian government accepted the inquiry’s recommendations, including that the Department of Education enlist the JCCV to help develop an antisemitism training program for Victorian government schoolteachers.
JCCV CEO Judy Fetter worked with the department to develop antisemitism training specifically for schoolteachers. Stage one of this training – facilitated by the Jewish Museum of Australia, Ark Centre and Courage to Care – was completed in term one this year. It helped teachers to identify antisemitism, learn how antisemitism manifests and understand how to report it. Discussions are now ongoing with the Victorian government with a view to deliver a modified online antisemitism training program to every government schoolteacher in the state. It is a groundbreaking program that again puts Victoria at the forefront of the fight against antisemitism.
When Councillor Margaret Esakoff asked Glen Eira Council to consider adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism, council officers asked the JCCV to assist with the preparation of their report. Aghion was also called in to address councillors at a pre-vote Q&A session. The result was historic and Glen Eira Council became the first Victorian local government to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism to help protect its Jewish residents.
You probably get the idea. The JCCV connects, coordinates, strengthens and provides leadership within our community, but also beyond it. This, however, would not be possible without the 52 affiliate organisations that hold up the JCCV. These affiliates collectively represent thousands of Victorian Jews. Synagogue congregants, aged care residents, school parents, basketball players, climate change activists, educators all stand behind the JCCV when it is called on by government, councils and other leaders to speak up for the Jewish community.
Throughout history, the Jewish faith has not traditionally followed a hierarchical structure. We have no Pope or a patriarch. But we have always been led and represented by strong leaders – from biblical times till now. Jewish Harvard academic Ruth Wisse wrote: “Democracy is less a Jewish idea than a by-product of the Jewish way of life.” It is this way of life that the JCCV seeks to protect and promote.
Through its regular plenum meetings, the JCCV gauges the attitudes of the community. We know that the vast majority of our community support the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism. How? Because we put it to the vote and only one of our 52 affiliates expressed opposition to the definition.
We know that climate change is a concern to our community. How? A policy that commits the Jewish community to take action against climate change was passed unanimously by JCCV affiliates.
And none of this is new. The JCCV – or the Victorian Jewish Board of Deputies as it was formerly known – has been operating this way for the past 84 years. As the Victorian Jewish community faces new challenges – whether brought about by demographics, community shifts, or a change in the way people interact with community – the JCCV will keep speaking up for at least 84 more years.
Naomi Levin is chief operating officer of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria.