An edited version of this article appeared in The Age – March 10, 2020
When ASIO Director-General Mike Burgess warned last week that neo-Nazis have emerged as one of Australia’s most challenging security threats, many Australians would have experienced a collective chill. It is hard to believe that in liberal-democratic, multicultural Australia, where many of our grandparents fought against Nazism during WW2, this abhorrent ideology is gaining local support, while seeking to terrorise their self-declared enemies.
According to Burgess, “small cells” of right-wing extremists were regularly gathering to salute Nazi flags, inspect weapons and spread their “hateful ideology”.
We have been increasingly seeing the deadly effects of right-wing terrorism around the world.
On February 20, a gunman killed nine people in two racially motivated shootings at shisha bars in Hanau, Germany.
Closer to home, in March last year there was the Christchurch terror attack in New Zealand by an Australian, which killed 51 people in two mosques.
However, it is worth recalling that Burgess also warned that “violent Islamic extremism”, such as Islamic State and al-Qaeda, remained ASIO’s top concern, with the number of terrorism leads doubling since last year.
While separate ideologies of hatred, both Nazism and violent Islamist extremism share similarities – they are hostile to democracy, human rights, the intrinsic value of life, and promote the hatred of certain ethnic groups – especially Jews.
This comes at a time of rising global antisemitism and antisemitic violence. For example, in the US there was the attack on the Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018 by a right-wing extremist that killed 11 people and last December’s attack on a kosher grocery store in New Jersey that killed four people, the attackers having links to the Black Hebrew Israelite group.
Many American Jews fear for their safety with these threats emanating from disparate groups. The changing climate was highlighted in August 2017 when hundreds of marchers in Charlottesville at a “Unite the Right” rally waved swastika flags and shouted “Jews will not replace us!”.
In Europe, incidents included last October’s attack by a right-wing gunman who attempted to break into a German synagogue and then killed two people and, in France, when Islamist terrorists killed five people in a kosher supermarket in 2015 and a Rabbi and three children at a school in 2012.
Just this month we have seen antisemitic costumes proudly worn at carnivals in Belgium and Spain, which are defended as humour. Meanwhile, according to a recent poll presented by the Action and Protection League, one in five Europeans believes that a secret network of Jews influences global political and economic affairs.
Meanwhile, in Australia there were 368 recorded antisemitic incidents last year according to an annual report by the Executive Council of Australian Jewry. Many were particularly shocked by the antisemitic incidents involving Jewish students at schools in Victoria and NSW which were reported in the media last year.
The Victorian Government has responded to these local and global incidents by making Holocaust education compulsory for year 9 and 10 students at public schools, as well as establishing a hotline for students and parents to report ethnic and religious vilification.
This is a welcome development which brings Victoria into line with NSW where Holocaust education is already compulsory, as well as the Australian National Curriculum, which also features Holocaust education.
Victorian teachers will also be supported by resources developed in coordination with the Jewish Holocaust Centre and Gandel Philanthropy, which has for many years sponsored annual visits by Australian teachers to Yad Vashem, the world’s foremost Holocaust education centre in Israel.
Indeed Holocaust education has become increasingly important as Holocaust denial and ignorance becomes widespread and survivors pass away. Polls increasingly show that people are unaware of this period in history. In January, a Pew Research Center survey reported that the majority of US adults do not know that approximately six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. A 2018 CNN poll in Europe found a third of respondents knew “just a little or nothing at all” about the Holocaust, while in France, nearly 20% of young adults between the ages of 18 and 34 said they had never heard of the Holocaust. Moreover, a 2019 survey reported that one in 20 British adults did not believe the Holocaust happened.
This Victorian initiative also comes after Australia became a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) last June. The IHRA brings together governments and experts to combat Holocaust denial and antisemitism, and to share best practice on Holocaust education and remembrance. Australia should also consider adopting the IHRA definition of antisemitism to assist in combating this hatred.
At a time of rising extremism, populism and the proliferation of “fake news”, education about the horrors of the Holocaust and the horrific consequences of racism, bigotry and prejudice are desperately needed to protect our society’s liberal-democratic values we so deeply cherish.
Sharyn Mittelman is a senior policy analyst at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council.