How COVID brought to light the ugly face of Australian anti-Semitism

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The growing importance of anti-Semitic incidents during the COVID pandemic may leave you wondering: has anti-Semitism always been part of the Australian social fabric, or are we facing a grim new trend?

Members of Melbourne’s Jewish community have been subjected to a wave of anti-Semitic abuse in recent weeks, following violations of public health orders by ultra-Orthodox Jewish worshipers.

And Victoria’s proposed law to ban Nazi symbols – a first for a state or territory – further reinforces how anti-Semitism is becoming an increasingly visible problem in Australia.

Understanding the origins of modern anti-Semitism requires reviewing the history of Australia. Both anti-Semitism and right-wing extremism are linked to the rise of nationalism from the colonial era into the 20th century.

For this reason, it is impossible to tackle anti-Semitism without also taking into account the colonial history of Australia marred by white supremacy.

How COVID plots fuel anti-Semitism

We recently saw federal and state politicians warn of rising rates of anti-Semitism, but one can’t help but wonder if these comments are lip service.

After all, what is the point of acknowledging anti-Semitism without taking meaningful steps to prevent it?

Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg denounced the rise of anti-Semitism in Australia.
AAP / Mick Tsikas

Consider the following: In 2004, the Federal Parliament expressed its

unequivocal condemnation of anti-Semitism, violence directed against Jews and Jewish religious and cultural institutions, and all forms of racial and ethnic hatred, persecution and discrimination on ethnic or religious grounds, regardless of the when and where they occur.

Despite this, anti-Semitic incidents persist: graffiti on Jewish businesses and kindergartens, threats against synagogues and bullying of Jewish children.

The Australian Jewish Community Executive Council publishes an annual report on anti-Semitism in Australia. In the 2020 report, he found a 10% decrease in reported anti-Semitic incidents from the previous year – likely attributable, in part, to COVID lockdowns.

At the same time, however, there has been an increase in serious incidents, such as physical assault, verbal abuse and bullying.



Read more: New research shows religious discrimination is on the rise around the world, including Australia


These figures should be taken with caution. The report does not distinguish between legitimate criticisms of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and anti-Semitism. He also cites a problematic and contested definition of anti-Semitism as a guiding concept.

Nonetheless, the increase in serious incidents speaks to a dangerous anti-Semitic sentiment fueled by COVID-19 propaganda that Jews are “responsible for the coronavirus.”

This conspiracy theory, which originated in far-right corners of the internet, quickly became mainstream, circulating on forums and social media. Now, anti-Semitic signs and behavior are appearing more and more during anti-containment and anti-vax rallies across Australia.

For example, stickers were placed around Melbourne at rallies for “freedom” last month bearing a Star of David, 911 numbers and a QR code. Once scanned, it led to a website that blamed the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the Jewish people.

An anti-vaccine group called White Rose, meanwhile, has covered Melbourne’s Jewish quarters with stickers bearing swastikas and the words “No Jab, No Job”. The group compared the mandatory vaccines and blockages to the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany in the 1930s.

And a recent investigation by The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and 60 Minutes revealed the extent of neo-Nazi operations in Australia, including links between COVID disinformation and conspiracies.

A brief history of the Australian Jewish community

The history of the Australian Jewish community dates back to the beginning of white colonization and the colonization of this continent. National Archives records show that at least eight of the 571 convicts in the First Fleet were Jewish.

While the first waves of free Jewish settlers were largely English-speaking, Anglo-Saxon, and loyal to the “motherland,” subsequent Jewish migration came largely from Germany during the Gold Rush and as a refugees from Tsarist Russia.

After that, the next great wave of Jews emigrated from Europe in response to the rise of fascism.

The Anglo Jewish community, which had largely assimilated by World War II, feared that the position of the Jewish community would be adversely affected by these refugees from Eastern Europe who could easily be marked as “foreigners” due to of their language, their clothes and their manners.

Jewish migrants arriving in Australia in 1939.
Jewish migrants arriving in Australia in 1939.
National Library of Australia

These concerns were rooted in the historic anti-Semitism of politicians and unions. As historian Malcolm J. Turnbull writes:

sections of the labor movement promoted stereotypes of Jews as manipulative bankers, usurers and profiteers.

And describing the experiences of the first Jewish settlers, author Rodney Gouttman writes

the negative cultural connotations of the word “Jew” encouraged many Jews to avoid it as a descriptive term for themselves, and “Hebrew congregations” became the preferred name for their religious collectives.

It may seem contradictory that Jews, some of whom came to Australia as part of a colonial project, experienced hatred based on colonial racism. However, this is an integral part of the experience of the Jew who is always a foreigner, needing to assimilate but always seen as “other”.

Is Australia doing enough?

To answer this question, we must recognize that anti-Semitism cannot be dissociated from other forms of colonial and racial violence and xenophobia.

When we talk about white supremacy and anti-Semitism, we have to talk about racism in all its forms.

In a 2017 study, a third of respondents said they had experienced racism at work.

The Mapping Social Cohesion Report 2020, meanwhile, found that 37% of those polled had a negative opinion of people of Muslim faith, compared to 9% who had a negative attitude towards Jews. This report demonstrates the urgent need to fight anti-Semitism alongside other forms of racism.



Read more: We have been tracking anti-Semitic incidents in Australia over four years. This is when they are most likely to occur


Recently, the Australian Jewish News ran an opinion piece calling on the government to appoint an Australian commissioner for anti-Semitism.

This position would ideally be accompanied by new legislation targeting anti-Semitism to compensate for what the editorial called “inadequate” protections under the Racial Discrimination Act.

But this approach separates the plight of Jews from all other minorities facing daily violence and discrimination. As Alana Lentin, a specialist in racial criticism, says,

the rise of anti-Semitism like racism above all racisms […] restricts solidarity between Jews and other racialized people, thwarting a fuller understanding of race as a colonial mechanism and technology of power for the maintenance of white supremacy.

So, to fight anti-Semitism, we need to do two things: understand the Jewish presence in Australia in relation to the country’s brutal colonial history, and understand anti-Semitism alongside other forms of racial violence.

In these times of urgency, we must take a united approach to respond to the increasing rates of white supremacy and racial violence. Without serious efforts to tackle the problem of racism as a whole, gestures like banning the swastika are unlikely to have much material impact.



Read more: It’s not just about the rise of anti-Semitism: why we need real stories for better Holocaust education in Australia



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