Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

An antisemitic answer to the question: How long is a piece of string?

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A report last week by Barak Ben-Shem in the Times of Israel analysed an outbreak of antisemitic comments that followed an application by Jews to the local council in the small English town of Bushey, seeking permission to establish an "eruv". It recalled a similar occurrence in the Sydney suburb of St. Ives in 2010.

An eruv is a largely symbolic, practically invisible boundary demarcated with wire, poles, and existing power lines and walls. An eruv enables orthodox Jews to carry out certain mundane tasks in public on the Sabbath that would ordinarily be proscribed under Jewish law. For example, it lets them do things like pushing prams and carrying prayer books outside of their homes and Synagogues.

The reason for this is that for purposes of Jewish religious law, the wires turns the area into a "walled city", a status which in Jewish religious jurisprudence allows its Orthodox Jewish residents to act as if they are indoors rather than outdoors when applying religious laws related to observing the Sabbath.

News of the application prompted 150 non-Jewish residents to attend the relevant local council meeting and protest against the application on the basis that it would attract more Orthodox Jews to the area. The Jewish population of Bushey stands at approximately 11%

In the event, the council approved the request, but as Ben-Shem wrote:

This led to a continued fight by those residents of Bushey that really, really thought that many more Orthodox Jews entering the town would impact their lifestyle. To repeat the quote that one of them, Gay Butler, a retired teacher, gave the "York Press": "There is a strong village ethos in Bushey. It's not like Borehamwood, Edgware and Stanmore where eruvs have already been erected. There's a strong village identity here which may not be seen by outsiders, but which is very strong amongst residents." If that wasn't clear - was it clear, dear readers? - Ms. Butler added that "Representatives from the synagogue did not asses (sic) what Bushey was like before they proceeded." The local Rector of the Anglican Church, instead of calling for an end to these kinds of comments wished that those Jewish residents of Bushey who wanted an Eruv would reopen the consultation... John Dowdle, the chairman of something called the "Watford Area Humanists" commented, in a number of articles that appeared that claimed that the opposed Bushey residents would continue their fight, that "In Israel, people driving cars on Shabbat (Saturday) are subjected to stone throwing by ultra-orthodox religionists." Was that going to happen in Bushey, he wondered?

Moreover, as Ben-Shem noted, the Bushey controversy became an example of how issues involving Jews but completely unrelated to Israel can become fodder for others to further their own anti-Israel preoccupations:

In an article in the Watford Observer letting us know that the residents were "very saddened but not surprised", a John Dowdle commented (there is no proof it is the same John Dowdle, please note) that:

"The arrogance and ruthlessness displayed by the applicants in suborning local government officers and councillors will be cited as an example of the way in which one particular group uses its money and influence to get what it wants regardless of the impact upon others in the local community.

It also has a wider bearing.... This eruv development - fuelled by religious extremism and moneymaking - is but a carbon copy of the problems faced in attempting to secure peace in the Middle East, in particular attempts to resolve outstanding issues between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Both are symptomatic of the arrogance and ruthlessness of those parties who hold a supremacy of power and influence in both situations..

Maybe now people will have a better understanding as to why people such as myself side with those Palestinians seeking fairness and social justice."

Lo and behold, from not wanting Jews to move in to the area, a transition to the language and terms of the global BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] movement, in two steps. To be fair, it certainly SHOULD give our readers a better understanding to why people such as himself side with the Palestinians..."

On a pro-Palestinian blog, one hardcore activist, Stuart Littlewood, also saw an opportunity for an important anti-Israel teachable moment:

It seems that Jews in England can't abide their own religious laws any more than their brethren in Israel can cope with international and humanitarian law. Is this the thin end of a wedge to achieve annexation by the back door... lots of Little Israels in England‘s green and pleasant land? Bushey is already occupied territory, evidently. Whatever next?

The Eruv schemes rely on there being no grounds for refusal under Planning Law. But would the Jewish state grant Christian and Muslim communities such planning privileges and similar boundary marking in Tel Aviv or Israeli-annexed Jerusalem? I don't think so...it smacks of psychological warfare aimed at making non-Jewish communities feel vulnerable and unsafe. Presumably the aerial boundaries will be expanded as the ‘ingathering' proceeds and uncomfortable non-Jewish residents are driven out. How long before those who complain about this creeping annexation of their neighbourhoods, however "symbolic", are smeared with the anti-Semitic label? When I was a boy living in Finchley, the bus route to the West End of London ran through Golders Green. Even in those far-off days it was a standing joke that you needed your passport for the trip. How much worse it must seem today now that Golders Green is pegged out with a demarcation boundary of 5.5 metre poles strung together with fishing line.

The whole affair recalls a similar planning application in 2010 by Jewish residents in the Sydney suburb of St. Ives to the Kur-in-gai local council which also gave rise to expressions of antisemitism (in contrast, the application for an eruv in Sydney's east went smoothly).

One Kur-in-gai councillor who questioned why the council had spent $174,000 cost in court costs to fight the application put forward by "a non-profit organisation, a community group" prompted his colleague to comment, "Jewish, non-profit? Come on."

The councillor's response stimulated ABC Radio National's "World Today" to run a story on August 30, 2012 looking at why the comments were perceived by Jews as offensive.

Over 2010/11, Channel Nine's "A Current Affair" program covered the eruv issue twice and allowed antisemitic comments on its website.

And the show's website certainly sensationalised the issue. The program's webpage for the report of June 30, 2010 - provocatively entitled "Jewish holy enclave" - featured and still features a picture of five ultra-Orthodox Jews in prayer with a caption "A group of Orthodox Jews in St Ives is planning to erect a 20km physical boundary." The eruv is certainly not a "physical boundary" - it is almost indistinguishable from normal power lines that are everywhere and the eruv would benefit modern-Orthodox Jews too.

As the Australian Jewish News reported on March 29, 2011 in response to the second "A Current Affair" report:

A majority of postings on the [Channel Nine] site were from viewers against the establishment of the eruv, but some went further than merely expressing their opposition.

"That's a green light for the Muslims to bring in sharia law," wrote one person. "Claim back Israel before you claim St Ives."

Another posting said there was no room for Orthodox Jews in Australia if they needed an eruv. The writer said: "I can't believe this is really happening in Australia!! If these people want to follow there own traditions, then go back."

A third posting said, "The Jews have to abide by the Australian way of life and respect that. Not good enough. Get out." Another wrote, "Goodbye Australian culture if this is allowed."

A fifth posting claimed, "Start with a string, follow with an MP and end up with a wall soon enough. Send them back to Israel before it's too late."

It is astonishing how derivative these antisemitic responses are - the same tired accusations made against Jews that they demand special privileges, wield excessive power, and unless they completely blend in are deemed to threaten "Australian culture."

Of course, the fact that eight Jews were part of the human cargo forcibly brought on the First Fleet in 1788 to Australia, and so have been part of "Australian culture" from the beginning is probably beyond the comprehension of these writers.

Although it does not appear that anti-Israel campaigners bought into the St Ives incident, the Bushey case is also instructive in highlighting, if not explaining, the complex interaction of antisemitism and anti-Zionism.

Assessing the tally of antisemitic incidents in Australia for 2010, including the eruv incident, AIJAC's Jeremy Jones noted in the Australia/Israel Review (Nov. 2010) how "a common nonsense spouted by individuals and organisations who seek to delegitimise, defame or destroy the standing of Israel is the claim that Israel's behaviour/existence is the principal cause of antisemitism."

The reaction to eruv applications, both here and abroad, shows that there remain significant instances of antisemitism that have nothing to do with either of the two sources that generally get the most attention - neo-Nazis and other right-wing extremists on the one hand and anti-Zionist activists, both in the Middle East and the West, on the other. Furthermore, the pretence of the latter group that they are only concerned with Israel, its policies and "Zionism" can often be exposed as false for many of them when issues like the building of an eruv, which have nothing to with any of these, come up.

- Allon Lee

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