Jewish high school students planning to attend university “need to feel comfortable and have the tools to be able to explain, ‘Hey, I’m Jewish. This is what my connection to Israel means’”, Australasian Union of Jewish Students (AUJS) president Alissa Foster said during a panel discussion on antisemitism at the Zionist Federation of Australia’s (ZFA’s) plenary conference on Sunday.
Held at Sydney’s Central Synagogue, the plenary also featured a Q&A with Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles, a keynote speech and discussion with Israeli scholar Rabbi Dr Donniel Hartman and an address from Israeli ambassador Amir Maimon.
The panel – which discussed the recent AUJS and ZFA survey into antisemitism on campus and what community, student, university and government responses should be – also featured federal Member for Wentworth Allegra Spender and Executive Council of Australian Jewry president Jillian Segal. It was moderated by ZFA past president Phillip Chester.
“I can’t say I was shocked by any of the data because it’s what I hear weekly when we’re talking about antisemitism on campus, when I’m talking to Jewish students,” Foster said.
“And the biggest thing which came out for me from the survey was that they’re not reporting [it] to universities because universities don’t understand what antisemitism is.
“I’m hoping that the survey data can be used to continue those conversations with the universities to say look, this is why they’re not reporting [it], this is why the complaints process is not adequate.”
Spender commented that most people in the wider community would be shocked at the extent of the issue.
“It is fundamentally a significant role of universities to protect students,” she said. “I think we have to hold them accountable for that.”
She said a lot of people who speak in anti-Israel rhetoric “do not actually understand the history of Israel, and the connection with the Jewish community for thousands and thousands of years”.
“Education has really got to be the start of it.”
Segal, who is a former vice-chancellor of the University of NSW, said that in addition to campuses adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism, there needed to be better complaints processes.
“IHRA’s there to provide a relatively bright line for students and for university administrators, but you need embedded complaints procedures, and you need training in the administration at universities and you need education among students,” she said.
In his opening statement, ZFA president Jeremy Leibler noted the political controversies rocking Israel today, and reinforced the need of the Australian Jewish community to come together to discuss the issues facing Israel and the community.
“Perhaps this year”, he said, “more than any other, it seems to me that we should maximise the time we have together to focus, with clear eyes, on the challenges the Jewish world is facing, and on the opportunities available to us.
“While we cannot solve all of Israel’s problems today, what we can do is to ensure that no one feels that their option is to be silent. Because, regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum, Zionism is about doing. It’s about engaging.”
Rabbi Hartman’s keynote address was a treatise on the responsible use of power, in which he reflected on statements by some current Israeli government ministers. He later sat down with Leibler for a special ZFA Conversation that was live-streamed from the conference.
Marles, who engaged in an off-the-record Q&A with Leibler focusing largely on the Australian government’s recent change in terminology with regard to the West Bank and Gaza, said after the conference, “It was a pleasure to join members of the Australian Jewish community at the Zionist Federation of Australia’s plenary conference.
“It was an engaging conversation with a range of views shared, and I look forward to continuing this positive engagement.”
The plenary conference also included an interactive workshop.
Reflecting on the topics tackled during the day, ZFA CEO Ginette Searle said, “The delegates and guests certainly left the conference with much inspiration and food for thought.
“We’re thrilled that the conference provided opportunities for deep dives into important topics as well as in-person, open conversations and exchange of ideas.”