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Israel Hamas WarAnalysisAustralia

Jewish community turns inward, imprisoned between two wars

Without acknowledgement of Israel's pain, and their own, it is hard for Jews to open their hearts to Palestinian suffering.
Michael Visontay
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not listening facing away

Published: 1 April 2024

Last updated: 1 April 2024

There are two wars being fought over the Middle East. One of them is on the ground in Gaza, between Israel and Hamas, with tanks, rockets and artillery. Israel is engaged in what many describe as an existential battle against an enemy determined to destroy it. This war has taken the Middle East into uncharted territory. No-one can predict which direction it will take and when it will end.

The other war being fought is in public arenas all around the world, between people expressing support and hostility on various sides of the conflict in Gaza. These combatants use words, photos, posters, physical and digital intimidation. The battles have claimed many victims on all sides, some of whom will be scarred for many years, if not life.

The second war is unprecedented in its scale and depth. Not even September 11 prompted so many proxy wars and divisiveness around the world. There have been several grave casualties of this war: one of them is the erosion of civil discussion. People find it almost impossible to discuss Israel-Hamas without flinching and walking on eggshells. Exchanges of views are seen as throwing of grenades.

One of the reasons for this is the tidal wave of hostility that has been directed towards Israel and Jews, the reflexive sympathy for Palestinians that was not balanced by any similar feelings for Israelis – from certain politicians, NGOs and progressives and the sense of entitlement shown by pro-Palestinian supporters in expressing not just solidarity, but physical intimidation of Jews and Israeli interests in Australia.

It began in the immediate aftermath of October 7 before Israel had responded to Hamas’s attacks, and in the early days of the IDF offensive in Gaza. The hatred was ignited by the march from Sydney Town Hall to the Opera House – where demonstrators, according to NSW police, chanted “where are the Jews?” not “Gas the Jews” (are the police serious?), then spread as’ ‘Freedom for Palestine banners’ quickly removed the word Hamas from public display, Jewish people and causes were singled out and cancelled, and Israeli hostages’ families ambushed.

The huge difference between the number of Australians who have engaged with this war compared with other conflicts distant from Australia, such Russia-Ukraine, Afghanistan and Iraq, Sri Lanka and the Rohingya, is a measure of the underlying hostility towards Israel and Jews within the broader community.

The intensity of the immediate post-October responses has led Australian Jews to one visceral conclusion: “they all hate us”, and that genuine discussion was pointless. It has made them reject the possibility that they could have civilised debate or disagreement with people who criticise Israel or support the Palestinian cause.

The hostility has made it virtually impossible for Jews to engage with legitimate criticism of Israel and empathy for Palestinian suffering.

For many, the eruption of hostility confirmed their pre-existing belief that criticism of Israel was antisemitism in disguise, and it also made progressive Jews doubt their political sympathies with left-leaning organisations and friends.

In turn, Jews across the social and political spectrum have turned inwards, seeking solace amongst themselves, too uncomfortable to discuss the subject with non-Jews because they are always worried that their support for the other side might disguise anti-Jewish hostility rather than considered arguments. Instead, many Jews now exchange messages of solidarity and links to podcasts that validate their own fragile feelings.

I must admit that I find it hard to criticise my fellow Jews for this behaviour. I feel the same discomfort, the same urge to turn inwards. I used to think that community leadership complaints about antisemitism were a case of crying wolf. Now I think I was wrong.

However, through not wanting to hear, through being afraid of what might be said, many of us have become deaf to views, arguments and ideas that may express legitimate criticism of Israel, or genuine support for Palestinian people, that express empathy for the mass deaths they are experiencing in Gaza, that express outrage at the Israeli army’s treatment of civilian prisons, the posting of ugly videos on Tik-Tok, the slowness in delivering aid to starving civilians, and for much more.

They have become deaf to legitimate criticism of the Israeli government’s handling of the war, of Benjamin Netanyahu’s use of war to delay his own trial for corruption, deaf to legitimate solidarity for Palestinian suffering and aspiration, to the sincerity of calls for ceasefire, even if those calling for a ceasefire don’t know how to answer the question: “and what about Hamas?”

The deafness has led to a seemingly irreconcilable dilemma: the outpouring of hostility and toxic targeting has made it virtually impossible for Jews to engage with the merits of legitimate criticism of Israel and empathy for Palestinian suffering. This perverse dynamic is probably too convoluted for most non-Jews to appreciate. But its existence leads to significant flow-ons.

First, if all criticism or support for the other side is deemed illegitimate, then unwavering support for Israel becomes a defence that requires no self-examination.

Second, it has robbed many Jews of the ability, or inclination, to confront inconvenient ideas. And there are many. One revolves around the elimination of Hamas, a bedrock issue since the start of the war. As we read about Israel targeting the Al-Shifra hospital again because Hamas has regrouped and re-entered the complex, a question looms large – if Hamas is back in numbers, how effective has the ground offensive been? Can Hamas be wiped out or only subdued? And what of the hostages, of whom only a couple have been rescued? Does any or all of this call for a rethinking of strategy?

Jews are craving acknowledgement from non-Jews of the legitimacy of their anxiety.

Another question relates to aid. The UN and other NGOs are invoking the spectre of famine in north Gaza, a prospect that must surely sicken every decent-minded person, no matter how staunch their support of Israel. If the military campaign results in famine, then it is time to ask whether Israel must do more to avert such a catastrophe.

The person who is central to all these challenges is Benjamin Netanyahu and it feels like many in the Jewish community are taking their lead from him: focus on one outcome and ignore collateral suffering.

In this context, the recent campaign in Sydney to target Federal MP Allegra Spender over her signing of a letter supporting Australia’s re-engagement with UNWRA was symptomatic of the mindset. Spender has been one of Australia’s most outspoken defenders of Jews. The fact that certain community figures could not accept her having sympathy for Palestinians as well as Israelis says a lot about the mentality that has taken hold.

The circuit-breaker to this inward spiral is acknowledgement. Jews are craving acknowledgement from their non-Jewish friends of their anxiety, its causes and its legitimacy. If they spell this out and see that it has been received, then two crucial paths open up:

First, a bedrock of understanding be laid down, which will help neutralise anger and mistrust - an essential pre-condition for civilised exchange.

Second, Jews can then open their own hearts and minds to views that differ from theirs, whether they are couched in criticism of Israel or sympathy for Palestinians.

These conflicts are not going away soon. The residue will be deep and long-lasting. In one sense, the equation is obvious. Israelis are suffering, Jews are suffering and Palestinians are suffering. Mutual acknowledgement is the starting point to recognising the suffering of others. The first steps are fraught but what is the alternative? Locking ourselves in a psychological silo, where no-one else will be there to listen. That is a recipe for perennial victimhood. 

About the author

Michael Visontay

Michael Visontay is the Commissioning Editor of TJI. He has worked as a journalist and editor for more than 30 years. Michael is the author of several books, including Who Gave You Permission?, co-authored with child sexual abuse advocate Manny Waks, and Welcome to Wanderland: Western Sydney Wanderers and the Pride of the West.


  • Avatar of JGelman

    JGelman3 April at 04:08 am

    I do not read your article in the same way as other commentators do. I read it as a plea to move away from a zero sum game and as Steven Spielberg recently said ‘radical intolerance leads a society to no longer celebrate differences but instead to conspire to demonise those who are different to the point of creating the ‘Other’ … and the dehumanisation of any group based on their differences, is the foundation of fascism’. I suggest this is relevant intra and inter community groups. We would do well the pause and reflect.

  • Avatar of Ian Ossher

    Ian Ossher3 April at 01:07 am

    It is indeed troubling times. And yet this war can only be fought by Israel on their terms and their way. And yes, the eradication of the terrorists that threaten peace every day. Israel dropped the ball on their security and learned the lesson to never let terrorists evolve to this barbaric and murderous degree again. It’s been a pretty powerful lesson which has driven them to be so determined in this war. And after all, who can blame them. And all the while Israel is at war, the terrorists are waging their own PR war, fabricating, insinuating and pushing through a narrative that makes their brutal attack of innocents on October 7th all but disappear.

    The IDF, the most scrutinised army in the world, and Israel, the most UN sanctioned state in the world gather evidence rather than disclose it as a running commentary. It was some time before the released a body of images, videos and coronial reports to the massacres of October 7th. At the time, confronting reports that this never occurred. Their strikes are mostly precision, fighting an enemy, terrorists, who glory in their civilian deaths, who hide in tunnels, behind women and children and who have powerful friends and media apparatus who spread lies to further hate of Jews and Israel. It’s always Israeli bombardments killing civilians. What about Hamas and Islamic Jihad and misfired rockets, or human shields as they hide in schools and hospitals, or murdering civilians who won’t stay as civilian collateral. The Hamas PR, or UNWRA, or Al Jazeera, accuse Israel at every opportunity. But they are promoters and facilitators of this terrorist violence. Yet the world will believe them. The UN, run by despots, dictators and autocrats, believes them. It’s a sham world so let’s not get sucked in. Don’t engage with the pro-Palesinian cohort because you cannot win the opposing ideologies. Because anti-semitism needs very little to raise its ugly head. Unless you are prepared to go to Israel and pack food and clothing for soldiers, do their laundry or visit the wounded in hospitals, nothing you do here will change anything. Anti semitism will flourish and Israel will do what it has to to protect its people and no government can stand in its way.

    Think, for just one moment, if an attack like that which occurred on October 7th, which, by the way, is not the only attack Israelis endure year in and year out, were to happen in Darwin, or Melbourne, or Sydney, or anywhere else in Australia. Think of what action the Australian Defence Force would take against an enemy that carried out so brutal, so barbaric and so murderous an attack on our shores. And where that would lead us and our allies before judging what Israel is doing in self defence.

  • Avatar of Jeff Loewenstein

    Jeff Loewenstein2 April at 12:28 pm

    It is perhaps ironic – and certainly sad and tragic – that in the very same issue where the death of Zomi Frankcom is reported, this piece is singularly absent of any reference to sympathy towards the plight of the Gazans and the Palestinians in the West Bank. Where is “humanity” in all of this? – be they Jews, Palestinians, Christians, coloured white… or whatever? The Jewish community can’t simply revert to the now rather tedious reflex of “look what happened on 7 October” – and ignore what is the ongoing unrestrained slaughter of men, women and children in Gaza by Israelis forces ….the Australian Jewish community’s compatriots. Remember the Jewish community regards and pronounces that Israel is the homeland. Trying to juggle this argument or that proposition, this way or that, as this piece seeks to do, does no service to the Oz Jewish community, let alone address why it is that Israel and some members of the community are the subject of anti-semitism. The locked on solidarity with Israel without any public acknowledgement by the community’s Jewish leaders of what Israel is doing in Gaza being unconscionable, leads to your average punter out there, all too sadly, seeing Jews and Israel as one and the same thing. We have conflated anti-semitism and criticism of Israel as effectively the same thing – as have, now, our detractors! Hence, the attack on Jewish individuals.

  • Avatar of Dennis Altman

    Dennis Altman2 April at 11:48 am

    Michael: you write that the huge engagement of Australians in this conflict compared to others is “a measure of underlying hatred towards Israel and Jews”. But in the other conflicts you mention there was no sense that our government sided with, say, Russia in Ukraine or the Myanmar government’s persecution of the Rohingya. Despite some attempt by Labor to criticize Israel the passion of many of the Palestinian supporters I know comes from fury at the way sections of the media and the federal Opposition seem willing to defend any action of Israel–there is no parallel in any of the other conflicts you mention.
    I am in contact with Palestinians who feel just as strongly as you suggest do many Jews that their grief is unheard–and if supporters of Israel have been harassed so too have supporters of Palestine, who have far less access to establishment figures and media than do the apologists for Israel

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