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Monday, 22 March 2004
Page: 21512

Senator STEPHENS (3:50 PM) —I too rise to speak today about the issue of anti-Semitism, and I am very pleased to see so many young people in the gallery who will perhaps learn a little bit about anti-Semitism in our society through this debate on a matter of public importance. We are here today to talk about the threat that it poses to the cohesion of our society, and I want to remind the Senate of the long history of anti-Semitism and the way that it can influence people to express hatred and carry out violence against Jewish people. Even here in Australia, where we pride ourselves on our communal harmony and religious freedom, there are individuals and organisations who spread intolerance and bigotry in our society. There has recently been an alarming rise in the incidence of violent anti-Semitic acts. The Executive Council of Australian Jewry, the ECAJ, keeps records of all anti-Jewish acts of vandalism, violence, intimidation and harassment reported by Australian people each year. Up to 2002 the annual average number of reported incidents was 279. How extraordinary then that in 2003 the ECAJ received an unprecedented 481 reports.

Here are some of the statistics complied by Jeremy Jones from the ECAJ database for 2003. There were 36 reports of physical violence and property damage, against an average of 23. They constituted the third highest total ever received. There were 58 reports of face-to-face harassment, including assault, compared to an average of 24. Threatening and abusive telephone calls were reported 23 times and there were 48 reports of anti-Semitic material sent through the mail. Anti-Semitic graffiti is on the rise. There were 64 reports of this as against an average of 36 reports. And leaflets, posters, stickers and emails were the subject of 252 complaints last year, against an average of 79. Consider for a moment what these figures mean in people's lives. There were 481 reported anti-Semitic incidents and there were 481 or more distressed recipients of such abuse. What can these people think when they hear Australia referred to as a lucky country, the land of a fair go?

The outlook has certainly not improved. The latest figures from Jeremy Jones of the ECAJ show that in the first 10 weeks of this year 70 reports had already been received. Some examples of those include seven swastikas and the words `kill Jews' burnt into the lawn of a government building using weedkiller, an incendiary device set off outside a synagogue, windows in a synagogue being smashed, people arriving at a synagogue being repeatedly subjected to anti-Semitic taunts, and several physical attacks on individuals. This offensive behaviour in Australia took place against a backdrop of massive increases in reports of harassment and attacks on Jews in Western Europe. Senator Mason referred to some of those in his speech.

Next year we will be celebrating the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. It would be wonderful to think that anti-Semitism was behind us but in fact the opposite is true. A recent manifestation of this anti-Semitism in Europe included fans at a soccer match in Belgium waving Hamas and Hezbollah banners and chanting, `Jews to the gas chamber.' And in Switzerland a woman was recently attacked for wearing a small Star of David necklace. Synagogues, cemeteries and Jewish institutions in Germany have been desecrated. In France there have been so many attacks on Jews in recent months that the chief rabbi has urged religious boys and men to wear baseball caps instead of yarmulkes in public. And in a leading Greek newspaper a journalist wrote that the Jews `have vindicated the persecutions of the Nazis'. The journalist continued, `They deserve such an executioner'—as Hitler—`since they proved to be murderers themselves.'

In the light of these developments it is very important that we express our unequivocal condemnation of anti-Semitism and that we denounce violence directed against Jews and Jewish religious and cultural institutions. In fact, we must denounce all forms of racial and ethnic hatred, and persecution or discrimination on ethnic or religious grounds, whenever and wherever it occurs. Anti-Semitism is described as discrimination against, or denial of, the right of Jews to live as equal members of a free society. What I have recently come to appreciate is the extent to which anti-Semitism is flourishing, not just against Jews as individuals—for example in education, housing or employment—but also against the Jews as a people. This is very evident in public calls for the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people by terrorist organisations like Hamas. We also see it in the fatwas issued by radical Islamic clerics that proclaim it to be a religious obligation to destroy Israel and kill the Jews.

This genocidal anti-Semitism is very disturbing, but even more disturbing to me is the insidious anti-Semitism happening at all levels that is met with silence and even indifference. An example of what I mean is that the UN Commission on Human Rights singled out Israel for a country specific condemnation even before the annual session began. And 30 per cent of all the commission's resolutions condemned Israel while major human rights violators were immune from any criticism. I wonder how many members of this chamber are aware that Israel's humanitarian aid agency, Magen David Adom, is excluded from membership of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Unfortunately, such insidious racism is not unknown here in Australia. For example, in May 2002 two Australian academics called for an academic boycott of Israel. Their statement, issued in the Australian newspaper and Arena magazine, was signed by over 90 academics from a range of disciplines. In it Israelis are described as evil and immoral oppressors guilty of `crimes of war, massacres and colonization'. And the Palestinians are portrayed as defenceless innocent victims. It goes without saying that in a democracy there must be room for different opinions, and indeed in any informed debate we would expect to hear differences aired by our academic leaders. What a tragedy and what an offence to the sincere efforts of so many to find a peaceful resolution to the hostilities that the complex political situation in the Middle East should be reduced to such simplistic stereotypes.

A criticism of Israel may well be legitimate but all too often it becomes a vehicle for anti-Semitism. I want to alert all Australians to the danger of blurring the distinctions between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism and alert them to the dangers of implicit and explicit national stereotyping and prejudice. These are likely to encourage and provoke the hostility to the Jews that is, as I have said, already on the rise. I am not for one moment suggesting or implying that Israel is somehow above the law or that Israel should not be held accountable for any violations of law. On the contrary, Israel—just like Australia and every other country—is accountable for any violations of international law or human rights. And I am not suggesting that the Jewish people are entitled to any privileged protection or preference because of the horrors of the holocaust. All I want to see is that those values that we in Australia hold dear—a fair go, justice, equality and respect—are applied to Israel and to Jewish people everywhere, because we cannot allow any people to be singled out for differential and discriminatory treatment.

It is our responsibility as members of this parliament and members of the human community to do what we can to prevent that. As Canada's Minister for Justice, Irwin Cotler, reminds us:

... history has taught us only too well, while the persecution and discrimination may begin with Jews, it doesn't end with Jews.

What can we learn from history about how such discrimination takes hold? The terrible injustices I have been talking about did not just happen; they had their genesis in the culture that produced the perpetrators. In the words of Professor Fouad Ajami:

The suicide bomber of the Passover massacre did not descend from the sky; he walked straight out of the culture of incitement let loose on the land, a menace hovering over Israel, a great Palestinian and Arab refusal to let that country be, to cede it a place among the nations, he partook of the culture all around him—the glee that greets those brutal deeds of terror, the cult that rises around the martyrs and their families.

Attitudes and values are cultivated in a society, and it is essential that we cultivate the right ones here in Australia. We know from our studies of early childhood that children are not born with the ability to hate. In fact, they cannot even learn it until they are at least three. Prime Minister Howard may publicly deride the so-called political correctness of our public schools, but the danger of such dismissive remarks is that they can lead us to overlook the fact that it is indeed imperative to teach our children from their earliest days to respect all human life and to detect and reject racism in all its forms. To quote the Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, `The opposite of education is not ignorance, but indifference.'

The promotion of social justice should be a core value in all our schools, public and private. To turn a blind eye to anti-Semitism—to laugh off intolerance of racism and injustice as political correctness—is to condone it and to allow it to grow unchecked. Anti-Semitism must always be publicly condemned so that we can build an aware community free of prejudice. To quote Jeremy Jones again:

In 2004, individuals and groups which promote anti-Jewish prejudice and carry out acts of violence, vandalism and harassment directed at the Jewish community in Australia must be clearly and unambiguously told that they are opposed by all decent, moral Australians.

And I would add to that, any time we detect a racist remark, an anti-Semitic slur or even a joke that trades on racist stereotypes, we should all choose to express our opposition rather than remain silent. I for one am prepared to be accused of having no sense of humour, if the alternative is to allow the seeds of hatred and injustice to spread in our society.

Of course, in Australia we are more fortunate than in many other nations because of the open and positive dialogue among Jews, Christians and Muslims. We must all work to maintain this dialogue. We must recognise that one aspect of our ethos—our easygoing nature—can lead us to feel comfortable with a position that does not set out to actively harm or injure Jewish people. This attitude is not strong enough for the situation we find ourselves in. We need to be much more alert to the danger of harming minority groups by our indifference or our ignorance. National stereotyping, both implicit and explicit, is a form of prejudice, and it is likely to encourage and provoke the hostility to the Jews that is, as I have said, already on the rise. We cannot appear to be willing to tolerate anti-Semitism or any other form of racism.

Yesterday, 21 March, was Harmony Day, so this is an appropriate time to take a stand against anti-Semitism—and indeed against any form of racism, prejudice and intolerance—and by our words and actions put into practice the best Australian traditional values of justice, equality, fairness and friendship. In conclusion, I thank the Senate for the formal adoption of the motion that I placed on the Notice Paper on 10 February. The motion expresses Australia's concerns about the issues I have spoken about this afternoon and explicitly encourages those who represent Australia here and overseas to use their influence to oppose anti-Semitism and to promote efforts to foster harmony and tolerance for all.