I have never joined a protest march or participated in a demonstration. However, if I had been in Washington on Tuesday I would have joined the March for Israel, along with tens of thousands of Americans, that was organised by the Jewish Federations of North America.
Sure, I support Israel’s retaliation following Hamas’s barbaric assault on Jewish civilians – including the elderly, women, children and even babies on October 7.
Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state in the Obama administration, has pointed out that Hamas broke an existing ceasefire to invade southern Israel. But it now wants a ceasefire so it can regroup after Israel’s invasion of Gaza. If the Hamas leadership wishes to end the killing of civilians and military personnel alike, it can surrender now.
However, my main reason to demonstrate in support of Israel would have been to take a visible stand against anti-Semitism, which has exploded in Western nations such as the US, Britain and Australia – and more besides – in recent weeks.
Anti-Semitism has been a fact of life in Australia almost since the First Fleet arrived in 1788. It has been unpleasant to a greater or lesser extent. But, for the most part, Jews have led very successful lives in Australia and experienced little violence or reason to feel unsafe. Until recent times – when anti-Semitism has never been so prevalent.
In the early evening of October 9, I watched demonstrators march down Sydney’s Phillip Street on their way to protest against the projection of the Israeli flag on the Sydney Opera House. The display was the decision made by the recently elected Minns Labor government in NSW to express support for the murdered, raped, butchered and kidnapped Israelis who were victims of the Hamas terrorist attack.
As it turned out, the NSW Police Force allowed a large group of pro-Palestinian supporters to march from the Town Hall to the Opera House. To accommodate this protest, police advised the supporters of Israel’s right to defend itself, including many Jewish Australians, to go – or stay – home. Note that this demonstration took place well before Israel’s massive retaliation began.
As it turned out, a large police contingent, including one car marked “riot squad”, occupied an entire block at the rear of the demonstration. As the vocal protest passed me, the chant was “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”. A call for Jews to be removed from the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea – which would amount to the destruction of Israel by ethnic cleansing.
By the time the demonstrators reached the Opera House some were inciting murder. How else to explain the call “Gas the Jews”? Moreover, there was no condemnation of the Hamas attack and no call for a return of the hostages. As former Labor MP Michael Danby has pointed out, the most recent burst of virulent anti-Semitism in the world initially took place in Sydney on the site of one of Australia’s most famous buildings.
There was more. On Friday, November 10, a group of pro-Palestine demonstrators travelled to the Melbourne suburb of Caulfield, where many Jewish Australians live. The demonstration took place on Friday evening at the start of Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, across the road from a synagogue.
The following day in Sydney, a group of pro-Palestine activists, led by a man who has served prison time for threatening to kill police and intelligence officers, crossed Sydney on motorbikes from a pro-Palestinian centre in Regents Park in the west to Coogee in the east. Coogee is another Sydney suburb with a large Jewish population. The pro-Palestinian convoy received a NSW police escort through Sydney suburbs.
Despite their high profile, the Jewish population of Australia is relatively small at under 100,000. This compares with a Muslim population of more than 800,000. It stands to reason that Jewish Australians feel threatened by cries of “Gas the Jews” and/or “F–.k the Jews”. Muslim Australians would feel the same if threatening evocations were directed at them.
I remember being told by my Berlin-born friend Professor Hugo Wolfsohn as to how he felt being a Jew in England in the late 1930s. At the time, remnants of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists were wont to march through London’s East End aimed at intimidating the local Jewish community.
Over the years, Australia has had its small Nazi or neo-Nazi groups, along with anti-Semitic organisations such as the League of Rights. However, none of these groups has presented or currently present a continuing serious physical threat to Jewish Australians, unlike some extreme Islamist groups today. Moreover, today the green left is also deeply opposed to Israel and its supporters, and gives an unwarranted legitimacy to the extremists.
Recent coverage in The Australian illustrates the problem. Last Saturday, Cameron Stewart reported that Peter Wertheim, the co-chief executive of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, expressed concern at the lack of proper response by authorities to a radical imam who has urged Australians to unleash jihad.
On Monday, Stewart wrote that two Jewish community leaders had been sent threatening images including the words: “We are coming for you soon, from western Sydney.” On Tuesday, Alexi Demetriadi reported that a radical Muslim cleric had continued to recite Islamic parables about “killing Jews towards the end of times”. And there is more.
The evidence suggests the Albanese government understands the real problem – judged by its actions rather than its words. On October 19, various ministers announced a total of $50m funding committed to “the safety and wellbeing of all Australians”.
There was $25m provided to the ECAJ “to improve community safety measures across Australia”, particularly schools. And $25m to Australian Palestinian, Muslim and other communities to be used to support a range of “safety, security, mental health, cohesion and education objectives”.
Clearly, the Albanese government considers that Jewish schools are in greater danger of physical attack than Muslim schools.
Sure, life is not easy for most peaceful Muslim Australians. But it is foolish moral equivalence to equate their lot with Jewish Australians who no longer feel safe in their own country.