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Scourge of antisemitism must end

Mar 6, 2024 | Rabbi Ralph Genende

Pro-Palestinian rally in Melbourne, Victoria (Image: Alamy Live News)
Pro-Palestinian rally in Melbourne, Victoria (Image: Alamy Live News)

The Age – March 5, 2024

 

I grew up at a time when antisemitism was retreating – at least in public expression. Democracy and liberalism appeared to be dominant and spreading. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama spoke confidently about the “end of history”.

Since October 7, I have keenly realised that history has apparently reverted back to the most primeval of times. I sadly appreciate the fear felt by my mother, who as a young girl, had acid thrown at her by antisemitic teenagers in Lithuania. I understand, in a new way, my father’s sonorous silence at the incomprehensible loss of his mother, brothers, and sister and so many family members in the Holocaust.

I certainly never expected to feel this way in Australia. I had, after all, left racist, apartheid South Africa to live in a society that championed justice, equality and safety for all. Yet this all changed while watching a mob outside the Sydney Opera House on October 9 burning flags and shouting obscenities against Jews.

It can’t get much worse than this, I thought, for Australia’s Jews. But then we witnessed the violent pro-Palestinian provocateurs in my own Melbourne suburb as we welcomed in the Shabbat. Surely, this was the worst it could get – but then the protesters outside the Melbourne City Council meeting last month shredded my heart yet again.

Many Jews already felt insecure when wearing a kippah or Star of David in public and have avoided doing so. Like so many, I have been befuddled at how anti-Israelism has swiftly segued into anti-Judaism, and the targeting of individual Jews. I feel deep sorrow that Melbourne’s proud Jewish community is being intimidated by mobs, graffiti, and anti-Jewish words.

Jews stand accused of using money and power to manipulate and exploit Melbourne City Council and politicians, of spreading their “tentacles” into the arts and music world. Suddenly, Jewish philanthropy towards hospitals, theatres and galleries is presented not as charity, but cynical manipulation.

Polarisation and extremism, the toxic twins of our age, are now treated as celebrities.

Jewish Australians who attended the Melbourne City Council meeting – in which the council voted against a proposed motion calling for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war after almost two hours of public submissions followed by another two hours of council debate – didn’t come to belittle and insult their detractors, or shout anti-Islamic tropes. Yet they still needed police protection just to exit the building as epithets about “rich Jews” were aimed at them.

They almost all acknowledged the huge and distressing loss of life in Gaza; they certainly didn’t celebrate the killing of innocents, as Hamas supporters have done here and in the Middle East.

The Jewish community feels deep despair and sorrow at the terrible loss of life and destruction in Gaza including the loss of life around aid trucks a few days ago. Yet we also recognise that when faced with a diabolical enemy seeking to destroy you, your family and your people and which has a flagrant disregard for the lives of its own people, then you are in an impossible situation. If you stand up against your aggressor, you are seen as an aggressor; if you back down and proclaim a ceasefire to save the innocents so often being used as human shields, you will again become their target. This is no fantasy – Hamas has stated numerous times it wants to repeat October 7, again and again.

Hardly any of those who spoke in favour of the council resolution acknowledged the terrible price that Israel is paying for a war it didn’t start – in the loss of its citizens, its soldiers, the tens of thousands of displaced people and the trauma of a society which has witnessed savage barbarism and the captivity of hundreds of its innocents.

I draw comfort from the members of Melbourne City Council who not only recognised the acute suffering of the Gazan population, but also of the people of Israel, and especially the deep angst of Melbourne’s Jewish community in the face of vituperative antisemitism being experienced at our university campuses, schools, businesses and on the streets of Melbourne. Sadly, the exponential rise of antisemitism continues to significantly outstrip the horrible increase in Islamophobia.

Noble pronouncements about peace from any town or city in Australia will not bring real Israeli-Palestinian peace any closer. However, we do have a proud record of multiculturalism and interfaith engagement in Melbourne. To listen to the other is the beginning of repairing the bridges that have been broken.

We all need to lower the heightened temperature of our discourse and reduce the anger and outrage on social media. The intimidation of Jews and those who support them should be totally unacceptable for any civil society.

The evasive comments of The Islamic Council of Victoria and its president, in its failure to simply acknowledge the savagery of the outlawed Hamas and its unprovoked attack on Israel on October 7, increases rather than reduces the hatred on our streets. Another lost opportunity to show leadership rather than obfuscation.

Despite the excruciatingly deep divide between Jews and Muslims, I continue to believe that the warring sons and daughters of Abraham can once again find a way to reject the toxicity of religious extremism and restore the ways of peace and harmony in both of their great traditions. Isaac and Ishmael did it centuries ago – surely we can do it again!

One of the enduring words of Judaism is “hope”. We remain a people of hope despite centuries of suffering. As the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said, “Optimism is the belief that the world is changing for the better; hope is the belief that, together, we can make the world better. It needs no courage to be an optimist, but it takes a great deal of courage to hope.”

Rabbi Ralph Genende is Senior Rabbi of Jewish Care Victoria and of Kesher, The Connecting Community, and is Interfaith and Community Liaison at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council.

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