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Lived experience, paranoia and slippery antisemitism

Australia’s first Special Envoy to combat antisemitism has her work cut out in dealing with the complexity and slipperiness of its modern manifestations.
Deborah Stone
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Star of David necklace, person wearing triangle necklace

This Star of David necklace is designed to be hidden behind a neutral triangle. It was created by Auri Jewelry Design after the October 7 massacre (Etsy).

Published: 11 July 2024

Last updated: 11 July 2024

A couple of weeks ago I tried to escape my world of Israel news and Jewish communal anxiety for a Sunday matinee performance of Sunset Boulevard. At the interval, I emerged in search of ice cream and instead found a pro-Palestinian protest.

The invasion to my precious moment of leisure made me feel uncomfortable. The repeated slogan “From the river to the sea” made me feel threatened, because I know there is no way Palestine reaches from the river to the sea without killing or displacing some 40% of the world’s Jews.

There is a world of difference between the discomfort and the threat.

There is also a good deal of subjectivity. I know other Jewish people who feel frightened by protesters in keffiyehs and a few who don’t think “From the river to the sea” threatens Jewish lives.

For every Jew who says, “It’s like living in the 1930s”, there’s another who considers his fellows paranoid. Most of us sit somewhere in between, aware of a degree of antisemitism we have never experienced before, but holding on to the belief that most Australians are not haters.

Australia’s first Special Envoy to combat antisemitism Jillian Segal will have her work cut out for her, not only in developing policies and programs to address the rising tide of antisemitism but also in dealing with the complexity and slipperiness of its modern manifestations. 

The tensions within the community are illustrated by some of the correspondence I have received as Editor of The Jewish Independent in recent weeks.

When we published a report on increasing campus antisemitism recently, it was met with concern by many, but also with scepticism by some from within the Jewish community.

One correspondent wrote to tell us he did not believe the Community Security Group, which compiled the campus report, could provide objective research.

“It has a significant vested interest in elevating fear of violence to the Jewish community as it provides security and similar services for a fee,” he wrote, noting that CSG had advised him to spend “vast sums of money” to upgrade security at a Jewish premise while local police did not think an upgrade was necessary.

A CSG spokesperson said the statistics were drawn from the self-reported experiences of Jews on campus. CSG has not responded to TJI on the question of vested interest.

Another correspondent criticised the report for including anti-Zionist slogans such as “Zionism is Terrorism”, “Kick Zionists off campus” and “Zionism is racism” as examples of antisemitism.

“If the incidents of abuse reported on include anti-Zionist language and images, serious dialogue needs to occur between these two groups to better understand that their personal identities as Jews are not being attacked. Rather, the military actions of the contemporary Israeli state are being critiqued,” she claimed.

Our report on the appointment of the Special Envoy also provoked mixed reactions. While many expressed relief that the federal government had finally responded to Jewish pleas for an envoy,  some suggested the creation of a special role and/or the appointment of a Jewish leader to the job would only fuel the stereotype of a powerful Jewish lobby.

The Jewish Council of Australia, whose raison d’etre is a fierce distinction between Zionists and Jews, put out a statement opposing the appointment, saying it feared the envoy would fail to distinguish between Jewishness and support for Israel.

“We are concerned that an antisemitism envoy in Australia, if it operates like other controversial antisemitism envoys around the world, will increase racism and division by pitting Jewish communities against Palestinian, Muslim and other racialised communities, and by weaponising false antisemitism claims to silence voices in support of Palestinian human rights,” said Executive Officer Sarah Schwartz.

The Council’s claim to be “an independent expert Jewish voice opposing antisemitism and racism” looks unconvincing in the light of its opposition to an envoy to combat antisemitism. If it cares as much about stopping antisemitism as it does about saying what it isn’t, surely it should endorse an envoy, albeit one with limited scope.

Neither the claim that antisemitism statistics are inflated nor controversy about defining antisemitism is new, but the extremity and ubiquitousness of anti-Zionism since the October 7 massacre has raised the stakes.

The IHRA definition of antisemitism attempts to address the thorny question of the line between criticising Israel and anti-Zionism that becomes antisemitic, identifying as antisemitic certain kinds of attacks on Israel including denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, applying double standards, and drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.

This definition has been widely accepted, including by the Australian government. It is appropriate that it should form the basis for research and the scope of the new Special Envoy.

A CSG spokesperson told The Jewish Independent that its university statistics were based on experiences of antisemitism as reported by Jewish students and staff, and inclusions were assessed in the context of the IHRA definition.

Such an approach is entirely consistent with contemporary attitudes to racism and discrimination, which prioritise the lived experience of victims. Those who tell Jews that what they experience is not antisemitism might consider whether they would tell a woman that she is not being sexually harassed or a gay man that he is paranoid about homophobia.

Lived experience is necessarily subjective. Crossing paths with a fellow student wearing a keffiyeh or sporting a “Free Palestine” t-shirt is not an experience of antisemitism. Being assessed by an academic in the same garb could certainly make a Jewish student feel unsafe. When attitudes to Israel become so hostile that Jews are afraid to disclose their identity or their attachment to the Jewish homeland, the same behaviours become more tellingly experiences of antisemitism.

The minority of Jews who reject Zionism as part of Jewish identity, represented by the Jewish Council of Australia, naturally reject the IHRA definition, excluding any attack on “Zionists” as an attack on Jews.

They represent a very small proportion of the Australian Jewish community. The Council currently counts 687 supporters, of whom 150 are anonymous. (The Council must be credited for transparency, unlike the far-right Australian Jewish Association, which claims a similar number of supporters but produces no evidence they exist.)

There is no question that the vast majority of Australian Jews identify strongly with Israel. Crossroads 23 showed 88% feel a high level of personal connectedness and 86% agree that the existence of Israel is essential for the future of the Jewish people.

Even those who have long defended the right of Jews to criticise Israel, who oppose the occupation, or who are sceptical about the level of Jewish fear in Australia are feeling unsafe.

Hostility to Israel means many Australian Jews now feel we can’t give a Jewish name, wear a Star of David or mention a family member in Israel without fearing we will be attacked as hated Zionists. Generations of Jews learned to name the cause of that fear as antisemitism.

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About the author

Deborah Stone

Deborah Stone is Editor-in-Chief of TJI. She has more than 30 years experience as a journalist and editor, including as a reporter and feature writer on The Age and The Sunday Age, as Editor of the Australian Jewish News and as Editor of ArtsHub.

Comments2

  • Avatar of Deborah Stone

    Deborah Stone11 July at 06:05 pm

    Your comment on the sample size is correct but ignores the validity of the survey’s statistical representativeness – as discussed in the full report by its author Professor Andrew Markus. The figures are now a year old but they remain the best evidence we have of communal attitudes.

  • Avatar of Leia

    Leia11 July at 07:57 am

    We don’t know that the ‘vast majority of Australian Jews identify strongly with Israel’ based on the Crossroads23 survey. That survey only had 1080 respondents, which is 0.91% of the Australian Jewish population. It may well be that they do, but we really need to stop using this survey to suggest it tells us anything much at all about Australian Jews.

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