Mingled with the passion and fury of the British election campaign as Boris Johnson fights to save not only Brexit but his own job as Prime Minister is another issue provoking almost as much rage. Insidious, offensive as ever, oppressive to those on the receiving end, anti-Semitism is back in the news.
By Brad Norrington
The Weekend Australian
November 16, 2019
Yet most disturbing is how, after a long absence, this centuries-old hatred of Jews has found its way to mainstream politics with hard-left British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Yes, the alternative British prime minister, no less.
Corbyn stands accused by many, including British Jewry who loathe Johnson and normally would vote Labour, of failing to contain a problem of anti-Semitic views on his own side, of effectively fuelling them through inaction and denial.
It is not just his past denunciations of Israel and support for Libya’s tyrant Muammar Gaddafi or Gaza’s ruling Hamas that bothers Corbyn’s critics. Rather, it has been the Labour leader’s sustained refusal to deal with many remarks of an anti-Semitic nature in his own ranks. They include those from now-suspended MP Chris Williamson, and just days ago then Labour candidate Gideon Bull’s Shakespearean “Shylock” insult directed at a Jewish local council deputy.
What are British Jews to think about Labour and its leader? A recent poll found 87 per cent regarded Corbyn as an anti-Semite. Some outspoken British Jews have made it clear that, this time, they cannot bring themselves to vote Labour, their lifetime party.
Corbyn did, reluctantly, establish an inquiry into anti-Semitism in his party at one point — but it was panned as swift and selective. Investigating human rights lawyer Sharmishta Chakrabarti found no “systematic wrongdoing”. She then joined the Labour Party and Corbyn nominated her to sit in the House of Lords.
The rise, or rise again, of anti-Semitism is by no means confined to Britain. Australian academic Peter Kurti warns rising anti-Semitism in Britain, US and Europe risks becoming “commonplace” here too.
In a policy paper for the conservative-leaning Centre for Independent Studies, Kurti attributes the phenomenon to a particular racist mindset among adherents of the postmodern political left. “Increasingly the left has become obsessed with anti-Zionism, which can be a mask for anti-Semitism,” he writes.
Corbyn might be regarded as the model. But Kurti says the state of Israel and Jewish people more widely have become the standard target in Australia as well for leftists in what he brands a “toxic mutation of an ancient hatred”. He argues the left’s unrelenting support for the Palestinian cause, including seemingly unqualified demands for the creation of a Palestinian state, treats Israel as a remnant of Western colonialism to the point of rejecting its legitimacy as a state.
Kurti cites a rise in anti-Semitic incidents in Australia (366 last year or a 59 per cent increase across the previous 12 months as recorded by the Executive Council of Australian Jewry). He concurs with the ECAJ’s conclusions that these incidents stem from “left-wing rhetoric exaggerating the power of the so-called Jewish lobby”. The effect has been to “stoke far-right myths about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions”.
A series of anti-Semitic incidents occurred during this year’s federal election campaign, with the campaign corflutes of three Jewish candidates — Liberal MPs Julian Leeser, Jason Falinski and Josh Frydenberg — defaced with dollar signs, devil’s horns and Hitler moustaches.
Anti-Semitic emails were directed at another Jewish candidate, Wentworth independent Kerryn Phelps. Dave Sharma, the winning Liberal in the Sydney eastern suburbs seat, is not Jewish but his electorate has Australia’s largest Jewish community. Many of his campaign posters were defaced.
Leeser, the Liberal MP for Berowra in Sydney’s north, describes it as “singularly the dirtiest and nastiest election I can remember”.
“It really left a disgusting feeling. It’s so un-Australian,” he says.
Kurti, a senior research fellow at the University of Notre Dame Australia, attributes the Australian Labor Party’s shift away from wholehearted support of Israel in favour of trenchant criticism to the politics of party-held seats with large Muslim populations. Muslim voters in these seats are religiously and culturally conservative but also hostile to Israel and sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.
The ALP needs to hold these seats in Sydney’s west, Kurti argues, if it is to win government.
Yet the party’s primary vote has been falling, election after election. Labor is feeling the pressure of rising support for the Greens in areas where Palestinian support is overt and expressed through protests such as the international boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel.
More of the Australian experience later — including a recorded spike in graffiti attacks, online abuse and aggressive protest activity emanating from university campuses.
Kurti, meanwhile, notes that postmodern anti-Zionists invariably insist their target is neither Jews nor ordinary Israelis but the state of Israel and its government’s policy of “promulgating illegal, coercive and dehumanising treatment of Palestinians”.
This distinction between anti-Jewish remarks and admitted left-wing criticism of Israeli government policy becomes unsustainable, Kurti argues, when the underlying world view of the postmodern left is that “the state of Israel is illegitimate and should not exist”.
Kurti traces this postmodern leftist view to its origins in Soviet-inspired Cold War criticism of Israel that has continued into this century, based on regarding Israel as a hegemonic power closely allied with the US.
He says such fervent communist anti-Zionism has promoted defamatory theories of “a global conspiracy funded by Jewish money” that is committed to “wreaking political and economic havoc in Western countries”.
While anti-Semitism across Europe was perpetrated by the Nazis’ far right nationalist regime with the Holocaust and all its horrific consequences, Kurti argues that (despite evidence of Jewish hatred among modern right-wing supremacist groups) the prevalent “toxic mutation” of the phenomenon comes from the left. Post-Soviet anti-Semitism lives on in parts of Europe, influenced in part by the attitude of resident pro-Palestinian Muslims.
In the US, Kurti highlights how four first-term Democratic members of congress — the so-called “Squad” of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley — have “quickly become the focus of concern about this rise of US postmodern anti-Semitism”.
“The confluence of Islam and the politics of identity have been particularly powerful in driving anti-Semitism on the American political left where contempt for the US has commingled with a rejection of Israel — which is considered one part of the bitter legacy of Western imperialism in the Middle East.
“The enthusiastic support shown for Israel and for Jews by President Donald Trump serves only to fuel the US left’s postmodern anti-Semitism.”
Kurti admits that “for the most part” the Labor Party in Australia has been spared the “travails” of its British counterpart or the US Democrats. However, he insists voices critical of Israel and suspicious of supposed Jewish influence in finance, politics and the media have become increasingly prominent among the nation’s left.
In a report for the ECAJ last year, Julie Nathan catalogued numerous remarks and responses from those on the political left that focused on supporting Palestinians and criticising Israel. Among them she included comments by former NSW Labor premier Bob Carr and NSW Greens MP Tamara Smith.
It is Carr’s position that has caused particular dismay among Australian Jewish community leaders because of his influential Labor elder status, and his unflinching support for Israel and the Jewish community in years past. He once ran a group called Labor Friends of Israel.
Carr declined to speak to The Weekend Australian about any alleged rise in local anti-Semitism or to address Kurti’s assertions. But he is known to be fierce in rejecting as “rubbish” any suggestion his views might be anti-Semitic.
Despite having emerged as the lead advocate of changing his party’s policy platform — away from full-throated support of Israel to a future Labor government endorsing the immediate recognition of a Palestinian state — Carr has argued his position is a reasonable one, totally within the ALP mainstream and community sentiment. He claims to have spoken out more out of frustration at the lack of progress in negotiations to achieve a two-state solution.
The ALP did subsequently change its platform as Carr wanted with a unanimous party conference vote. Bill Shorten, a firm supporter of Israel, was among those backing the resolution (despite perhaps some earlier hesitation). It was moved by prominent frontbenchers Tony Burke and Penny Wong.
A look at census data suggests why Labor, in raw electoral terms, might have been concerned to break with 40 years of unqualified support for Israel. Key NSW Labor seats such as Watson, held by Burke, and McMahon, held by another prominent Labor frontbencher, Chris Bowen, have large voting populations with Arab ancestry. The figures are 18 per cent for Burke’s seat and 13.2 per cent for Bowen’s seat. Only frontbencher Jason Clare’s seat of Blaxland is higher with 19.5 per cent.
By comparison, Australia’s largest Jewish population in Sharma’s seat of Wentworth is 12.5 per cent (0.8 per cent Arabic) followed by Michael Danby’s former Labor seat of Melbourne Ports with 9.9 per cent (0.6 per cent Arabic).
It irritates Carr’s Israel critics most, for a man who served out his political career as Australia’s foreign minister in the Gillard government after a decade of leading the nation’s largest state, that he has resorted to what they consider to be some very intemperate, unhelpful language to prosecute his case on Israel and Palestine.
When Carr spoke two years ago as a “special guest” of Anthony Albanese and Burke at a NSW ALP federal electorate council meeting in Sydney’s inner west, he lashed out at Israel’s “cruel” and “foul” occupation of Palestinian land. He criticised Israel’s “ruinous path” in rejecting the creation of a state of Palestine. He also criticised his successor as foreign minister, Liberal Julie Bishop, for failing to criticise Israeli settlements on Palestinian land that were “all illegal” and growing at such numbers that they were “planted in areas never contemplated”.
Quoting Israeli critics, and then agreeing with them, Carr said the left-leaning Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz had “correctly” called Israel an “occupying power”. He added that the occupation was “getting crueller” for suffering Palestinians who “must be first and foremost in our concerns”.
Carr’s most vociferous critic inside his party has been Jewish former MP Danby. Danby did not respond to The Weekend Australian’s request for comment but previously has accused Carr of having “no shame” and stopping at nothing to “defame Israel or the Australian Jewish community” while pushing his “obsessions about unilaterally recognising Israel”.
NSW Jewish Board of Deputies chief executive Vic Alhadeff says there is evidence of increased anti-Semitism in Australia. Alhadeff argues the problem is exacerbated when leaders in positions of power — whether in the classroom, the pulpit or the parliament — fail to call out bigotry, thus sending a message that “such conduct is acceptable and giving licence to others to do the same”.
According to Alhadeff there has been a “sharp spike” in anti-Semitic incidents in recent months. Reports of such incidents used to cross his desk once a fortnight, he says, but just last week his organisation was called on to respond to three incidents in just three days.
“It’s happening predominantly in the tertiary sector, at high schools and even at primary schools, where young children have racially abused Jewish classmates with appalling slurs,” he tells The Weekend Australian.
“The good news is that the majority of education authorities are keen to explore constructive ways of responding to these incidents. We saw a recent example at TAFE NSW, where a Jewish student suffered a litany of threats and racist abuse over a two-year period.
“TAFE subsequently devised and implemented an outstanding 10-point protocol governing staff and student conduct and installing a range of complaint mechanisms.”
Alhadeff says social media is a “toxic device” for anti-Semitism. He reminds those who host such platforms of their obligation to monitor and filter content they carry. He sees the primary sources of such objectionable material as the far right and Islamic extremists. “While most Australians stand with us in condemning vile anti-Semitic conduct in all its forms, it is emanating increasingly from the far right, from Islamist extremists, from those who don’t stop to consider the hurtful and offensive impact of what they are saying and doing.”
Sharma, who was Australia’s ambassador to Israel before entering politics, says he has followed closely how anti-Semitism has become more pronounced globally, and spread to Australia.
He believes an increase in anti-Semitic activity, while observable among Greens and the fringe left, has not taken hold within the Labor Party or among trade unions. He regards Carr’s position as “mainstream Labor Party”. He disagrees with large parts of Carr’s comments, but does not regard them as anti-Semitic.
Sharma has noticed the rise of local anti-Semitism especially among left-wing activists on university campuses where pro-Palestine, anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments are blurred, following the lead of counterparts in Britain, the US and Europe.
“I disagree that to be pro-Palestine you must be anti-Israel,” Sharma says. “But sections of the left are going so far as to challenge the legitimacy of Israel.”
The Liberal MP gives as an odious example how hundreds of university students protested against former Israeli deputy prime minister Tzipi Livni when she visited Sydney in August and addressed youngsters at the Jewish Moriah College in his electorate.
Sharma says it was offensive, ignorant and plain absurd to target Livni as someone with “impeccable peace credentials” who had served in the Olmert government and been part of efforts, sponsored by then US secretary of state John Kerry, to reach an Israeli settlement with the Palestinians. According to Sharma, Jewish Australians feel less confident about their future when they see graffiti such as swastikas painted on signs at Bondi Beach in the heart of Wentworth.
Anti-Semitism, he says, needs to be stopped early. “It is very chilling when incidents happen at schools because that’s where it starts — symbols and gestures have an unnerving effect.”