The Last Word: Numbed by Numbers
Dec 17, 2020 | Jeremy Jones
We have a proud history in Australia of nominating or electing Jewish Australians as Governors-General, military leaders, senior members of Parliament and in many other positions which, for much of history and in many places, were not available to the best candidates if those candidates happened to be Jewish.
That said, there have always been antisemitic elements in Australia.
These include individuals or organisations with broad racist agendas which included Jews among the nominated undesirables, and some others which direct their animosity specifically towards Jews, drawing on a historiography of hatred from essentially European Christian sources.
In recent times, we have seen antisemitism imported from countries and cultures spreading well beyond Europe including, but not limited to, those whose cultural wellsprings are Arab or Muslim.
It is never easy to measure the amount of anti-Jewish activity or the extent of adherence to antisemitic beliefs.
The peak organisation of the Australian Jewish community, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ), has applied a uniform analysis of data collected on antisemitism for over 30 years, compiling and issuing comprehensive annual assessments. I was their author for more than 20 years, with the most recent reports compiled by Julie Nathan.
We both have attempted to document a phenomenon that goes well beyond physical incidents, with consideration also of antisemitism in public discourse, the activities of organisations which are specifically antisemitic or include antisemitism in their activities, and analyses of broad ideological trends.
When the first Annual Report was issued in 1990, there was general shock across the community to learn that Jewish Australians reported they had been victims of assault, harassment, intimidation or vandalism at a rate of more than ten times per month.
Ten years later, this figure had risen to close to one report every day – of incidents ranging from physical assault, arson of synagogues, threatening telephone calls and abuse shouted at people walking to and from houses of worship.
The annual totals of incidents have fluctuated greatly, but over 30 years there have been almost 12,000 reports received by the ECAJ, including more than 750 which have involved physical assault or property vandalism, and more than 2,000 involving face-to-face harassment.
In the most recent report, much public commentary revolved around the facts that the 331 reports received in that reporting period were fewer than the 368 the year before, and the total was 14% below the average of the previous 30 years.
One of the problems in compiling these statistics is the way abusive, threatening and intimidatory emails have been reported and recorded, as this seems dependent on people’s filters as much as on the actual activity in this area.
If email reports are treated separately, we see that the 2020 figure was actually 11% higher than the previous 30-year average – which might be a more realistic representation of overall activity.
The fact that there were any incidents at all should have been a matter of serious concern and a clarion call to immediate action.
There is no objective way the lower figure can be seen as a sign of something happening which is right – just that slightly less wrong seemed to have been reported.
When the figure is divided into attacks as against threats, the total of attacks, 188, was a worrying 40% above the average of the previous 30 years.
Face-to-face harassment reports were 91% above the previous 30-year average and hate mail incidents, although below average, were at the highest level since 2009.
There is an ongoing discussion and debate on the level of physical antisemitic activity, as against rhetoric and belief, present in Australian society. But we should never forget that each and every incident is a stain on our society nor that, in a “below average” year, no two days pass without a Jewish person being targeted and having their quality of life diminished simply for being Jewish.
This is completely unacceptable and something which should always be high on the agenda of our legislators and educators.