A century ago, Australia was a relatively tolerant society. Even so, Jews and Catholics were banned from Protestant-dominated gentlemen’s clubs in Sydney, Melbourne and elsewhere. In other words, discrimination against certain minorities became acceptable and fashionable. Consequently, it was rarely commented on or even noticed.

Today Australia is an accepting society which formally outlaws discrimination on the basis of race or gender and disapproves of intolerance towards minorities. Except, it seems, Jews and Catholics.

On the evening of Friday, July 1 – at the commencement of the Jewish sabbath – there was a demonstration outside the Max Brenner chocolate shop in Melbourne. This was part of the Boycotts, Divestment, Sanctions campaign against Israel. Demonstrators prevented customers entering the premises. The reason? The Strauss Group, the parent company of Max Brenner, supplies confectionary goods to the Israeli Defence Force.

There’s not much connection between buying hot chocolate on a cold winter night in Melbourne and the events in the Middle East – where Israel remains, with the possible exception of Iraq, the only democracy. Yet this was a violent demonstration. Victorian Police suffered three injuries and 19 protesters were arrested. Demonstrators called for the destruction of Israel and chanted: “From the river to the sea/Palestine will be free.” The protest was reported in the Herald-Sun but all but ignored by The Age and the ABC.

Michael Danby, the Labor MP for Melbourne Ports, put the matter in perspective when he commented: “These people are prejudiced fanatics who should look into their soul. While 1500 people are murdered in Syria, they launch their own sad little attack on a chocolate shop because it also has stores in Israel.”

Danby’s point about double standards is well taken. There is little doubt that most ABC and Age journalists would regard a violent boycott of a kebab shop, in opposition to Hamas rocket attacks on Israel, as both a provocation and newsworthy.

Then there are the historical parallels. In the mid-1930s, Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists used to go on rampages outside Jewish-owned shops in London’s East End – some were boycotted, others smashed up. The British government responded by implementing the Public Order Act. Mosley targeted Jewish traders because they were Jews. The BDS protesters targeted the Max Brenner chocolate shop because its parent company does business in the Jewish state of Israel.

The demonstration in Melbourne (there was also one in Sydney in June) has attracted little attention, apart from coverage by Andrew Bolt and reports in the Australian Jewish News. This suggests society has become complacent when the target of a protest is Jewish.

It’s much the same with traditional Catholics, such as Tony Abbott. Last week he was subjected to two negative advertisements: one by the Labor Party, endorsed by the ALP national secretary, George Wright; the other by the left-wing CFMEU, which was endorsed by the trade union’s national president, Tony Maher.

The Labor advertisement has Abbott being woken by an alarm clock and then going through his wardrobe to choose his attire for the day. Among the outfits rejected are a red pair of swimming briefs, bicycle clothing and a cassock with a crucifix on the front. Get it? Abbott, who trained as a seminarian, once thought about being a Catholic priest.

The CFMEU advertisement is more of the (sectarian) same. The Liberal Party leader is presented as one of the popes of old who rejected Galileo’s scientific findings. Abbott is presented as not merely someone who declines to believe that the world is round but a Catholic who wears a crucifix on his cassock.

I know and respect Wright. I doubt that the newly appointed ALP national secretary understands just how sectarian Labor’s advertisement is – or that such anti-Catholic material is capable of offending conservative Catholics who vote ALP. But that’s the point. Like pro-Israeli Jews, conservative Catholics are readily taken for granted.

As is its practice, Britain’s irreverent Private Eye publishes anonymous reviews. Whoever had the task of assessing the latest offering by the atheist A.C. Grayling made a perceptive point about modern Western manners. He or she pointed out that, for the likes of Grayling, Anglicans, Catholics and Methodists make easy targets.

The reviewer added: “The wise would quite like to be equally contemptuous of Muslims and Hindus, but these persons generally have brown skins and thus criticism of their religious beliefs is better avoided.” Australia’s very own born-again atheist Catherine Deveny admitted as much on Q&A in February when she said she was “flat out” attacking the “Catholic faith”.

Conservative Catholics are a large enough minority to look after themselves. However, there is reason to be concerned about the re-emergence of anti-Semitism in the West. Australia, New Zealand, the US and Canada have been relatively free of this blight in recent times. Not so Europe, including western Europe.

In his recent essay From Blood Libel to Boycott, Professor Robert Wistrich paints a disturbing picture of anti-Semitism in contemporary Britain. A similar case has been made by the British lawyer and historian Anthony Julius about the hostility to academic Jews exhibited by the University and College Union in Britain.

Wistrich asks the hard question: “Why is Anglo-Jewry the only important ethnic or religious minority in contemporary Britain that has to provide a permanent system of guards and surveillance for its communal institutions, schools, synagogues and cultural centres?” A similar question could be asked about Australia – both with respect to Jewish property and anti-Catholic sectarianism.

Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute.