Despite some sensationalist headlines, there is no data to support the claim that antisemitism in Australia is “sharply increasing” or even “on the rise”.
But, while Australia is a tolerant, multicultural society, it is folly to ignore the reality that there are numerous antisemitic groups and individuals working vigorously to harm what they perceive to be Jewish interests.
It is not easy to measure and assess antisemitism in Australia, but quite easy to make false or misleading statements about what is a real issue and should be treated as a genuine, serious problem for policy makers.
One excellent source of material is the statistics on antisemitic attacks and threats, recorded diligently by the Executive Council of Australian Jewry since 1989.
Across all categories, which include violence and vandalism, face to face harassment, graffiti, hate mail, telephone threats, emails and miscellaneous incidents, the 2016 total was under 60% of the average of the previous 26 years.
When one excludes emails, which have proven difficult to tally in a consistent manner and which have distortions for a number of reasons, the total is 180 incidents, compared with an annual average of 237, or 32% below average, and the figure was identical with that of the previous year, which was the lowest tally in 11 years.
However, the two categories which were above average were those of the most serious incidents, with assaults and vandalism 36% above average and face-to-face abuse, also 33% higher.
In this tally were some very serious incidents of assault, property vandalism and ongoing intimidation and harassment.
Even here, though, the data does not indicate a new negative trend, as the total for “attacks” (as distinct from threats) was 20% below the average of the previous ten years.
One important factor which needs to be taken into account in evaluating this information is that the Jewish community devotes considerable resources, in time, expertise and finances, to making communal institutions and events secure.
For good reason, threats of violence, which can come from far right, far left, Islamists and political extremists, are taken seriously.
Also, there are a great many incidents which may be antisemitic but are not included in these tallies as there is insufficient evidence as to the motivation and intent of abuse, threats, vandalism or assault.
This “physical” world is complemented, in the lived experience of Jewish Australians, by an on-line environment in which overt anti-Jewish manifestations abound.
In discussion groups, on platforms designed to encourage comments on public affairs matters, on Facebook and Twitter, it seemed as if every repulsive bigot had been handed a megaphone and was using it to defame, insult, harass, intimidate and/or threaten Jewish people.
Antiquarian antisemitism, medieval malice and pre-modern prejudice provided sources for cocktails of condemnatory caricatures.
Classic religious anti-Jewish slurs, from Christian and Islamic traditions, appeared alongside Nazi depictions of Jewish racist characteristics and Stalinist slurs on Jewish alleged political machinations.
It is not a problem restricted to far-right wing extremists – the left has a serious anti-Jewish element within it – nor to Muslim radicals, Christian fundamentalists or others who might be considered outside the mainstream.
These didn’t simply appear in the sub-strata of cyberspace inhabited by self-reinforcing bigots, but in moderated platforms hosted by major media outlets and by some elected members of parliament.
This is where online and offline worlds collide – with institutions and individuals in positions of influence facilitating, if not de facto endorsing, the hatred.
Experience over many years has taught us that antisemites in Australia do not need much encouragement to bully and harass, but also that strong political leadership has a chilling effect on their activities.
I hope that, in the year ahead, political, cultural and religious opinion leaders will have the wisdom and dignity to constantly, consistently assert that racism, including antisemitism, is completely unacceptable in modern Australia.