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Monday, 22 March 2004
Page: 21515

Senator RIDGEWAY (4:05 PM) —I rise to speak on behalf of the Australian Democrats in wholeheartedly supporting the condemnation of anti-Semitism and violence against the Jewish people both here in Australia and abroad. Though the persecution of Jews has a long history, I am personally reminded of the events of 6 December 1938, in which a Victorian Aboriginal man, William Cooper, led a deputation from the Australian Aborigines League to present a petition to the German government through its consulate in Melbourne, condemning the persecution, violence and intimidation being carried out against German Jews leading into World War II through the practices of Kristallnacht. This is particularly important to me because, as far as I am aware, the first group in this country to protest the German government's treatment of the Jews was from Aboriginal people—a little-known fact but for the dedication of a plaque unveiled at the Melbourne Holocaust Museum in December 2002 to commemorate the protest.

I join with the Jewish community again in the spirit of that endeavour to condemn many of the acts of violence, persecution and intimidation against Jewish people and to acknowledge that particular suffering. What more evidence is needed that such events from our past are not contained by the historical periods in which they occurred but live on in the way we continue to see present-day manifestations? I would also like to celebrate and put on the record the remarkable strength of the human spirit, which has seen the Jewish people time and time again rise above those frightening histories, and how it continues to play out in our daily lives. This is a particularly important matter of public importance because, in many ways, it provides us with the opportunity to dispel many of the myths that have been allowed to gain legitimacy because of world events over the past few years.

Unfortunately, many modern tragedies which political affiliations and niceties prevent us from discussing openly give licence to other things being said within our community—namely, the rise of anti-Semitism. It is now reported that attacks against Jews in this country are comparable to those of 15 years ago. In particular, I am personally incensed that there are reports of 27 attacks, 18 of those being from within my own state of New South Wales in the past six months, ranging from assault, denial of services, vandalism of private property and synagogues to the circulation of anti-Semitic material.

I was disturbed after having spoken to the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation Commission, which is well known within the Australian community, about the range of incidents in New South Wales, particularly in the last three to four months: in Vaucluse, a Jewish man was assaulted by having a glass bottle smashed over his head; in the Co-op Bookshop in Sydney, a Jewish woman was denied service; and a synagogue in the northern suburbs of Sydney was graffitied. A range of other incidents highlight the fact that much of what is being borne out in our community is simply the result of a gross distortion of reality.

Unfortunately, within the last 54 years there has been a calculated worldwide inundation of misinformation about Jewish people in all parts of the world, not just in relation to Israel. A clear affinity has developed between events connected with the Israel-Palestine conflict and the number and severity of anti-Jewish attacks all over the world. Many of the activities described as a criticism of Israel do have anti-Semitic undertones. In many instances, criticism of Israel does turn into unbridled attacks against Zionism and, implicitly, Jewish people. I wish to pay respect to the Jewish community of Australia and, more particularly, the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation Commission for taking it upon themselves to promote those values integral to a tolerant and understanding society. Members of that organisation are present in the President's gallery.

Many of the activities we have witnessed in more recent times raise questions about the leadership obligations that we have as politicians and the need to deal with these issues and give the message loudly and very clearly as to what is expected within a fair and decent society. No Australian should feel under threat of abuse, be spat on, be assaulted or have their synagogues or private property abused just because they happen to be Jewish. As Australians, we pride ourselves on democracy and its fundamental freedoms. Most of all it means that we have to uphold the rule of law and guarantee that there is a right to freedom for every citizen in this nation without fear or favour.

It seems to me that intolerance as a global struggle is exacting a requirement that we not vilify people for who they are, taking precise action and guaranteeing punishment for evil deeds, not just because they happen to resemble someone else. I am proud to give my full personal support to the Jewish community in Australia. It is far easier to fall on the negative side of the ledger, to look for those things that are different and to continue to espouse the negative things in order to demonise people on the basis of their religious beliefs or characteristics. We also need to keep in mind that, whilst we as a nation have led the way in many respects on human rights and stamping out racism, discrimination and anti-Semitism, it comes back to the fact that these values which we promote so openly and dearly as part of what makes up the character of Australia ought not be deserted in these difficult times. It is times like these when we call upon those values to remind ourselves that Australia as a nation has certainly been there to support Israel and the Jewish people time and time again. With recent world events, there is no question that these things ought not continue in the way that they have.

In many respects, we have to give leadership in a country with people from over 140 different cultural backgrounds. It is always going to be a difficult question of how to share power. It is quite problematic in practical terms because the wishes of the dominant culture will always take precedence. It puts an onus on us. This is coupled with the lack of understanding that many people have about other cultures and the potential for fear and resentment. This is what has been shown in the political debate over the past four years. However, saying that, I believe many Australians from all walks of life do appreciate the value of difference. It is important that we as a community and as political leaders spread the message of tolerance—but much more than that, understanding. We also, as political leaders in this country, have to lead Australians to move beyond tolerance towards a more united Australia when we see these things being acted out within our own communities, whether that be in New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania or any other state or territory in this country. Unfortunately, there are many examples of intolerance that have plagued our society. In recent times this has been especially visible against Jewish Australians, and I think we ought to be mindful of that.

Finally, whilst much of the question of anti-Semitism is driven by world events and the politics of the Middle East, that ought not detract us from making a commitment to ensuring that lasting peace and reconciliation are achieved. If you go by the polls that were conducted last year, the majority of ordinary Israelis and Palestinians were keen to move forward and start developing a way of being able to cooperate with each other. We have an obligation to support those processes. Most of all where violence is occurring, violence itself will not justify the outcome. It ought to be condemned and, if that leads to anti-Semitic behaviour, we ought to condemn that too. It does not contribute to a cohesive national society.