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Multiculturalism has failed the Australian Jewish community

Henry Pinskier
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Multiculturalism has failed the Australian Jewish community

Published: 1 December 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

The test of the success of multiculturalism is how the 'street' reacts and Australian Jews do not feel safe.

This week, Pro-Palestinian protesters blocked families of kidnapped Israelis entering a Melbourne hotel. In One Voice community festival has been cancelled. The State Library of Victoria is avoiding promoting a Hebrew manuscripts exhibition. What has happened to multiculturalism?

“I have principles, but if you don't like those, I have others!” An old friend, a Jewish East Londoner with whom I bonded with over our love of the Fitzroy AFL football club, was fond of the classic Groucho Marx saying. It was a simple philosophy that I think he learned over a long career, helping him get by as a working-class Jewish boy in the rough and tumble of East London and then in a very interesting business career in Australia among many colourful characters.

His anecdote got me thinking about people in Australia who ostensibly espouse progressive views and about multiculturalism and the Jewish community in Melbourne and in Australia.

Melbourne has always prided itself as being the multicultural capital of Australia. We were a shining example of the success of the official government policy of multiculturalism. So many different ethnic groups that have come to settle here – creating a literal melting pot – whereby Australia successfully absorbed so many people from so many different nationalities.

Multiculturalism is underpinned by two simple principles: That we collectively have a responsibility for the welfare of all citizens and respect them irrespective of their race or religious background; and multicultural policy extols the virtue of a diverse immigration policy and encourages ethnic and religious expression.

As former Human Rights Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane has argued, multiculturalism represents something more than celebrating the exotic cuisines migrants bring with them to these shores – as delicious as a Thai or Middle Eastern meal is. Our diversity makes the whole stronger. 

Which brings me to the barbaric attacks in Israel carried out by the Hamas organisation on October 7. Over 1200 mostly Israeli Jews but also Arab Israelis and foreign nationals were savagely murdered, raped or taken hostage by Hamas terrorists, who filmed the attacks, posted them on social media and phoned parents in Gaza in glee to “celebrate” the atrocities they had carried out.

Yet within 24 hours of Jews being massacred in Israel, vicious hate erupted against Jews here in multicultural Australia. Beginning on October 8, we witnessed vile public antisemitism, threats against Jews on social media, hate sermons delivered against Israel but also the Jewish diaspora, “kill Jews” graffiti daubed on private residences, intimidatory protests outside of synagogues, Jews falsely blamed for arson, signs depicting Jews as garbage, school children being counselled to hide obvious signs of their Jewishness on public transport and much more. Many Jews unsurprisingly recall the parallels with the Kristallnacht pogrom of 1938.

It’s almost like the massacre by Hamas on October 7 has been cancelled. Jewish organisations are being forced to deploy more security outside schools and places of worship, and at other community facilities such as in aged care homes and junior sport.

Is this really our multicultural Australia?

Pro-Palestinian protesters in Caulfield in November (Simon Shluter)
Pro-Palestinian protesters in Caulfield in November (Simon Shluter)

Indeed, many Jews are asking whether Australia is even a safe place for Jews anymore and if not, where to go? This was unthinkable just a few short weeks ago. Is this an overreaction?

The Australia that Holocaust survivors like my parents came to, in order to get as far away from Europe as possible, seems to have radically changed. This is the Australia where so many Jews like my own family have deeply engaged in so much of Australian life - including many progressive causes where Jews have been at the forefront – such as the Voice referendum, where three electorates in Melbourne and Sydney with the largest Jewish populations each voted Yes.

Progressives have been the major drivers of multiculturalism, feminist struggles, same sex marriage and LGBTQ+ rights. Yet some activists drawn from these social movements are demonising Jews as “white”, “colonialists”, supporters of apartheid, abettors of genocide, and call for the end of the Jewish state. There is a deafening silence when it comes to the crimes of authoritarian regimes in Arab countries, Iran, and Africa, many of whom support Hamas.

What’s been so sad as a proud left-wing social democratic Jew has been the non-response, the equivocation, the “whataboutery” rhetoric and, yes, the antisemitism from so many individuals and so many organisations who profess to be progressive, supporters of multiculturalism and tolerance of faith communities. So many Jews such as myself and our family believed that we had such common cause.

So many Jews from the secular to the religious - including rabbis Ralph Genende and Gabi Kaltmann - have involved themselves so deeply and over such a long period of time with Interfaith programs between Jews, Muslims and Christians.

What more progressive multicultural project could there be than the meeting of three major faiths to break bread and share themes of understanding and tolerance - only to find that on the days that mattered to the Jews of Australia, their “friends and allies” in interfaith were nowhere to be found. Worse, their organisations failed to condemn and barely acknowledge the massacre.

As a former Victorian multicultural commissioner said to me, “I can’t believe the absence of leadership across all sections of our community. Not a word. People went into hiding!”

Antisemitism is the oldest hate and extends from the hard right to the hard left. Surely the test of the success of multicultural policy in Australia is how the “street” reacts. In this case the answer is obvious. Antisemitism is dramatically worse in Australia than ever before.

Despite decades of multicultural policy, multiculturalism has failed the Jewish community and Australian Jews don't feel safe.

To paraphrase my Londoner Jewish friend, “Progressives have principles but when it came to Australian Jews it seems they had others.”


Anti-Israel protesters in Australia block hotel entrance of hostage families (Jerusalem Post)
In response, the delegation sought assistance at the local police station.

Nazi salute to be banned as federal government changes mind (SMH)
Australians will be banned from making the Nazi salute in public after the federal government reversed its position on the issue amid pressure from the opposition and Jewish community groups.

Police send controversial Opera House protest video for independent review (SMH)
NSW Police have sent a video of a pro-Palestine protest at the Opera House in October for independent expert analysis amid questions about whether a grossly offensive antisemitic chant was uttered by participants.

Sydney Theatre Company is under fire after three actors staged a gesture of Palestinian solidarity (ABC)
The STC has issued a formal apology after three actors wore Palestinian keffiyehs during the curtain call of its opening night performance of The Seagull.

NSW Premier Chris Minns warns Labor MP over late-night Israel speech (SMH)
The MP had accused Israel of ethnic cleansing and claimed political and media elites were perpetuating a “one-sided alternative reality” by blindly supporting the Jewish state while ignoring its alleged war crimes.

South Australia to ban Nazi symbols and salutes (SMH)
It is set to join most states in Australia in banning Nazi symbols and salutes in public.

About the author

Henry Pinskier

Henry Pinskier is Chair of the John Curtin Research Centre and a Former Vice President of the Victorian Labor Party and ALP Life Member.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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