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Antisemitism on the Rise Down Under

Australian Jews are targeted by boycotts, harassment, and intimidation. Is this the end of a golden age, or just a blip in a long and overwhelmingly positive history?

by
Nomi Kaltmann
July 05, 2024
The slogan ‘Zionism Is Fascism’ is sprayed on the electoral office of Australian federal Labor Party Member of Parliament Josh Burns in the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda after police said at least five people smashed windows and painted slogans on the walls, on June 19, 2024

WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images

The slogan ‘Zionism Is Fascism’ is sprayed on the electoral office of Australian federal Labor Party Member of Parliament Josh Burns in the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda after police said at least five people smashed windows and painted slogans on the walls, on June 19, 2024

WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images

Throughout its history, Australia has been overwhelmingly good to its Jewish community. From an original group of eight Jews who arrived on the First Fleet in 1788, the community has grown to more than 100,000 today.

“Historically, there was hardly any issue of antisemitism here,” said Yossi Aron, the religious affairs editor of the Australian Jewish News, who has published several books on the history of Australia’s Jewish community.

Significantly, the country welcomed thousands of Holocaust survivors after WWII. Among them was Berysz Aurbach, who sought refuge in Australia in 1947 after witnessing the tragic loss of nearly all his family. Aurbach, now 103, is one of the last remaining survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. And, he told me, he has never experienced any antisemitism in Australia. “There are good people in Australia,” he said. “They always want you to be a good citizen. If you are bringing good things to Australia, they leave you alone.”

A quick look at Australia’s Jewish communities shows that they are exceedingly vibrant, with dozens of Jewish schools, cultural organizations, synagogues, and kosher restaurants. Being Jewish in Australia has never been seen as a bar to success, with Australian Jews occupying senior positions in government, including treasurer, attorney general, and governor general.

Since Oct. 7, however, Aussie Jews have been shocked by an explosion of antisemitism, including doxing, boycotts of Jewish businesses, and violent attacks. One of the most troubling incidents occurred when a WhatsApp group dedicated to combating antisemitism in the arts had its information leaked and compiled into a “Jew List.” This spreadsheet was created with the intention of boycotting and harassing Jewish artists.

Although isolated antisemitic incidents are not new here, when Melbourne’s Mount Scopus Memorial College, one of Australia’s largest Jewish day schools, had the graffiti “Jew Die” scrawled on its fence in late May, the incident was so shocking that Prime Minister Anthony Albanese weighed in with a statement on X, noting: “No place for this in Australia or anywhere else.”

“Is this something new?” Aron asked about the new wave of antisemitism in Australia. “Or is this something that was under the covers the whole time? That’s a very difficult question to answer.”

Jeremy Leibler, the president of the Zionist Federation of Australia, believes that Australian Jews are experiencing a seismic shift. “I believe that the golden age for global Jewry has likely come to an end,” he said. “In Australia, we have seen a dramatic rise in antisemitism in almost every part of society.”

Leibler, who doubles as a partner at Arnold Bloch Leibler, one of Australia’s most prestigious law firms, recently helped draft a submission to Australia’s government that weighed in on a parliamentary review. His focus? The urgent necessity to overhaul laws about doxing—the intentional online exposure of an individual’s identity, private information, or personal details without their consent—especially considering the disproportionate impact on Jewish individuals in Australia post-Oct. 7.

“I believe that the government announced the review in good faith and intends to make necessary changes so that this sort of behavior is clearly unlawful and real action can be taken to protect the individuals impacted,” Leibler said. “However, at this stage the consultation period is still underway so it is too soon to know where it will land. But I remain optimistic.”

Josh Moshe, the 33-year-old grandson of Holocaust survivors, was born in South Africa, grew up in New Zealand, and moved to Australia in 2010. He is currently an acclaimed Jewish saxophonist living in Melbourne. Alongside his wife, Maggie, he operated a well-known gift shop in Thornbury, a trendy enclave in the city’s northern suburbs.

“For most of the time I’ve lived here, I’ve felt like [Australia] is peaceful, quiet, and relaxed,” he said. “As for being a Jew, its fine. No one cares if you’re Jewish or not.”

However, all of this rapidly changed for Moshe after Oct. 7, after he was added to the WhatsApp group that was doxed. The backlash against him and his family was swift. “We were sworn at, the shop was graffitied with ‘Glory to Hamas,’ and we were told to ‘F off—we don’t want Zionists in Thornbury,’” he said.

Thornbury doesn’t have a large population of observant Jews, so Moshe, bewildered by the hostility directed at him and his family, believes that his family was unwittingly thrust onto the front lines of the conflict. “We were the only more or less observant Jews in the northern suburbs with a public profile,” he said. “Those factors meant we were heavily exposed and vulnerable to this sort of attack. It’s a very anti-Zionist area. I always knew that, and I always felt that. I was more or less happy living there for a while. But I also think that’s why we were the most exposed.”

As the doxing campaign against him gained traction, Moshe found out that the worst was yet to come.

“People were attacking my [online] music profile. Then attacking my business and then Maggie’s personal profile, even though she wasn’t in the [WhatsApp] group,” he said. As part of this harassment, their 5-year-old son received death threats. “Then people started tagging the band I was in [on social media]. Instead of coming to speak to me, [the band] publicly fired me via an Instagram post.” Moshe is now suing his former bandmates for defamation related to that post.

After months of sustained abuse, Moshe and his wife decided to close their shop and move it to a suburb close to Melbourne’s Jewish heartland.

“A few of our suppliers have been supportive, but, yeah, the vast majority of our customers, and other shops in the strip [in Thornbury] were very quiet and some of them even joined in on the pile-on,” Moshe said. “It was shocking to see how quickly; … seven years of being neighbors and being business associates counts for nothing.”

The antisemitism faced by the family has garnered significant attention in Australia, featuring prominently in the media. It was even highlighted in a documentary aired on Australian television, hosted by former Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, who is one of the country’s highest-profile Jewish figures. The documentary explored the growing issue of antisemitism in Australia.

“I know [participating in the documentary] it has every chance of further damaging my music career, but on the other side, I have to speak about what’s going on,” said Moshe. “We wouldn’t tolerate this with any other ethnicity. In honoring the memory of my grandparents and their families, I am compelled to speak about this rising hatred despite the further backlash I will receive.”

There’s no consensus what the growing feeling of unease among Australia’s Jewish community represents. Is it the end of the golden era for Jewish people in a country that has historically been welcoming? Or is it a minor blip in relations?

“In 1945, the Jewish demographer Joseph Gentilli had predicted that by the 21st century, there would be almost no Jews living in Australia,” said Suzanne Rutland, a professor emerita at the University of Sydney. “This prediction has proved to be totally false because of the influx of immigrants, particularly after the end of the Second World War with the Jewish Holocaust survivor migration. Hence, as an historian, I do not believe in making predictions.”

While stories like what happened to Moshe and his family are horrific, they appear to be limited in scope, and there are no widespread reports of other Jewish owned shops closing, mass emigration, or schools shutting.

“I see a lot of rising anti-Israel and anti-Zionist sentiment, but I don’t see that as antisemitism. I don’t think it is the same thing. I’m not seeing the conventional tropes, such as spilling over into public and explicit accusations of Jews controlling this and that,” said a Jewish Australian academic who asked to remain anonymous, concerned that speaking out publicly like this may lead to backlash or even doxing. “There are many families in Melbourne who have been directly impacted by the Holocaust—either as survivors or as their descendants—and the Jewish community is particularly sensitive about antisemitism. But in their anxiety, people are perhaps not recognizing what a government or political machine that is against Jews actually looks like. It would look completely different from what we have in Australia today. But I have learned that people don’t want to hear this view. My opinions or historical perspectives can trigger them, so often I find it safer to keep my views to myself.”

David Slucki, associate professor at the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation at Monash University, tends to agree. “We are understandably hyper-vigilant” in Australia, he said. “So, when the situation globally is heightened, the way it is, it’s not surprising that people might see it as an existential crisis.”

However, Slucki, who is a Jewish and a Holocaust historian, questioned whether this current feeling of heightened stress for the community represents the existential crisis that some see it as. “There needs to be more nuance around the conversation,” he said. “Our governments at the local, state, and federal level come out regularly in support of Jews and against antisemitism, which is something we have rarely seen throughout history. They don’t always get it right, but they are clearly seeking ways to address rising antisemitism. And yet I routinely hear people talk how similar the current situation is to 1930s Germany. As a historian of a Holocaust, I [find] that sentiment very troubling.”

While Australian universities have had pro-Palestine encampments, Slucki, who works on campus every single day, does not feel that they have the same sting as their American counterparts. “I can’t speak for all universities, but I know that Monash has worked really hard to maintain a safe environment,” he said. “The university administration takes antisemitism and discrimination very seriously and has been consultative with me and leaders within the Jewish community. In my own work as a director of ACJC, I have felt colleagues on campus to be very collegial. I’ve seen a willingness from my colleagues who have sharp disagreements to talk and engage. In some ways I’ve seen the best of the academy [since Oct. 7.] There is unquestionably antisemitism in Australia, but I still feel like, on balance, things will settle, and it will still feel like a pretty good place to be Jewish.”

Despite the hardships that are currently facing the Jewish community, when I asked 103-year-old Aurbach if he wanted his children and grandchildren to leave, he responded quickly and without hesitation: “I want them to stay in Australia.”

Nomi Kaltmann is Tablet magazine’s Australian correspondent. Follow her on Twitter @NomiKal.

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