In a campus election at a major Australian university, a three-way contest led to vigorous, sometimes vicious, campaigning.
A combination of groups well to the left of the political centre had suffered a few recent setbacks but still acted as if they had a divine right to votes.
A diverse coalition of right-of-centre groups, including conservative Christians, Liberals and National Party types, saw disaffection with the increasingly extreme politics of the campus left as a foothold from which to mount a successful campaign.
The third group included a core group of four people aligned with centrist and centre-left political parties, predominantly concerned with issues directly affecting students rather than global ideological struggles – one of whom (me) was Jewish.
The result of that election was a surprising victory for the non-ideologues of the centre but, in retrospect, this was far less important than what occurred during the campaign.
As a pre-election climax was reached, and it seemed the centre grouping was gaining traction, leaflets were distributed around campus.
The Right’s leaflet referred to “the Jewish lobby”, with one of its leaders telling colleagues the centrist coalition was “a bunch of Jews”.
The Left’s warned students not to vote for “the Zionists and their allies”, which was an illustration of the racist mind-set of some so-called progressives.
Within hours of the Right’s leaflet appearing, some candidates it recommended sought me out and acknowledged that the reference to Jews was not just out-of-line but inexcusable. Some time later, the person who wrote and uttered the words apologised and said he had a changed his attitude.
To this day, only one of the numerous people associated with the Left’s quasi-racist tactic has expressed any, even minor, disassociation from it.
In the period since my campus years, anti-Jewish activity, sometimes masked as anti-Zionism, has moved from a phenomenon of interest mainly to its targets to a matter of global concern.
Over the last two decades, high level delegates have met in a number of European capitals to discuss ways of limiting the damage to the fabric of civil society which was coming from far-right racist and antisemitic groups.
In 2001, a conference which had its genesis in the global concern with that problem, the United Nations World Conference Against Racism, in Durban, South Africa, became a stage for overt anti-Jewish propagandising and bullying. This was led by some Arab dictatorships and Islamic and far-left polemicists, but included a great deal of compliance by groups with liberal credentials.
In this light it is shocking, but hardly surprising, to read about the way antisemitism is becoming institutional within the leadership of the UK Labour Party.
For decades, decent people have been in denial, opportunists have made political calculations and bigots who exploited these realities have moved from the sewers and gutters of politics into the centre of the action.
In a valuable summary of the situation published in the Jewish Chronicle, the authoritative academic David Hirsh identified overt and more subtle antisemites active in the Party – highlighting disgusting racist anti-Jewish bigotry on campus, in unions, in academia and even Parliament.
Hirsh notes that “there is a relentless and incremental deterioration in the ways in which Jews are imagined, described and suspected,” with antisemitism “an elite phenomenon” transmitted by people who “take the high moral ground.”
That piece will resonate for many in Australia.
Generations of decent people inspired by ideals of social justice have grown up in an environment where antisemitism, at least of the genteel variety, has been tolerated.
While the ALP here is led by people with genuine, real, demonstrable opposition to antisemitism, they do not operate in an uncontested battlefield.
Individuals with visions of personal aggrandisement, seeking to exploit prejudice they identify as coming from certain sections of the community inculcated with bigoted caricatures of Jews and Israel, have been given a free run for far too long.
We can see from the British reality what may happen if the battle is not fought, and won, before the virus of antisemitism spreads further.
This article is featured in this month’s Australia/Israel Review, which can be downloaded as a free App: see here for more details.