When Sheikh Tajeddine El Hilaly delivered a public address in Sydney in 1988 accusing Jews of unimaginable evils, responses came loudly and clearly. Government leaders, senior bureaucrats, journalists and religious figures had no hesitation in declaring his speech repulsive, repugnant and unacceptable.
While he had his apologists, better known for their antagonism towards Jews than for their concern with the reputation or welfare of Muslims, the overwhelming reaction was to assert that he had embarrassed himself and his office as a religious leader.
Some years later, when it was revealed that bookstores serving the Australian Muslim community were selling overtly antisemitic books, some of which were framed in a quasi-religious form but others, such as the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, serving no role other than to defame Jews, Australian Muslim leaders were in the forefront of public condemnations of such businesses.
These, and other examples of racist and bigoted behaviour directed at groups such as Asian, Arab and indigenous Australians, have been an unfortunate part of Australian life, as they have been part of the experience of many nations.
The fact that there are individuals who hold and act with vitriol on prejudice has been accepted as a part of a diverse society.
For that reason, the response and reaction to racism has been seen as a more important indicator of the health of the society, than the racist acts.
So how healthy is Australian society right now?
Over the past two months, there have been reports of individuals taking part in demonstrations in major Australian cities chanting overtly antisemitic slogans.
There have been many obscene abuses of Holocaust imagery, designed not only to bully and harass Australian Jews but to effectively sanitise Nazism, in placards and speeches, at rallies and in tsunami proportions on social media.
Anti-Jewish assaults, graffiti at a Jewish school and intimidation of primary school children have received prime-time media coverage.
A tabloid feature, with which I take major issue in other respects, revealed the public display of anti-Jewish literature in the Sydney suburb of Lakemba.
In another major newspaper, an article and an accompanying cartoon which were widely perceived as being complementary, mixed anti-Israel ignorance with anti-Jewish imagery.
The responses and reactions?
Well, the Lord Mayor of Sydney did not feel it necessary to dissociate her city from open racism in its streets.
Politicians, religious leaders and others who marched alongside the open bigots didn’t feel an urge to publicly, unambiguously condemn antisemitism.
The Federal and State bodies with responsibility to promote harmony, which so often condemn acts of racism, were mute.
When it came to issues of assault, vandalism and harassment of children, condemnations were forthcoming, from the Prime Minister down.
Strong political statements were issued and media coverage was, by and large, of a type which implied disgust at brutish and cowardly perpetrators.
The display and sale of anti-Jewish literature was condemned by a number of commentators, although generally in an “of course it is bad” tone rather than as suggesting purveyors of hatred should have some consequences for their actions.
Shamefully, the local Member of Parliament and the Mayor rationalised and excused the sale of the books, which effectively made it more difficult for other local community figures to have their voices heard.
The newspaper which published the article and cartoon subsequently apologised for the cartoon, although even some of the crude imagery found apologists in the Australian media. The columnist tendered his resignation after discussions with the newspaper’s management over his behaviour after he received criticism.
On the general issue of antisemitism in Australia, I have been overwhelmed by personal, sometimes semi-public and public, messages of concern and of support from Muslim, Christian, Bahai, Sikh, Buddhist and Hindu Australians.
The lack of reaction to hate in the streets and on social media, however, suggests that the civic, government or religious bodies, which have so much generally to say about the health of Australian society, do not see any serious problem with open intimidation and prejudice – as long as it is directed at Jews.