IN the face of rising antisemitism in Australia and the disruptive economic and social impact of COVID-19, the Federal Government should immediately establish the position of an Australian Commissioner for Antisemitism. Such a move would send an important and timely signal that Australia unequivocally opposes antisemitism and is committed to safeguarding the country’s Jewish community.
The creation of this new position, which should report directly to the Prime Minister, should also be accompanied by new antisemitism legislation to replace the currently inadequate Racial Discrimination Act.
With the outbreak of COVID-19, a new and potent danger has arisen for Australia’s Jews. Allegations that Jews created coronavirus and references to COVID-19 being the “Jew flu” are examples of antisemitism being expressed online by some Australians during the current pandemic. Australian racists have been consistently posting comments showing the coronavirus as a “Jew”, as well as accusing “the Jews” of spreading the virus and wishing that all Jews die from it.
A recent research paper by Federal Reserve Bank of New York economist Kristian Blickle is rekindling fears of another Holocaust. Blickle links the economic devastation caused by the Spanish Flu to the rise of the Nazi Party. Blickle suggests that the COVID-19 outbreak might lead to another bout of political extremism around the world that would see the emergence of ruthless politicians and lawmakers.
His thesis strikes a raw nerve as concerns grow globally of the long-term political effects of COVID-19.
Racially tolerant, multicultural Australia has not been immune from anti-Jewish attitudes. A recent global survey by the US Anti-Defamation League found that Australia had more than 2.4 million people out of an adult population of 17.2 million (14 per cent) that harbour antisemitic attitudes. The same survey found equivalent figures of nine per cent and 11 per cent for the US and UK respectively.
Australian Jews are presently afforded “protection” against antisemitism under the Racial Discrimination Act. These laws, which extend to all minority groups, forbid hate speech on several grounds. The Act makes it unlawful to publicly offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person because of their race, colour or ethnic origin.
That is all well and good. However, to protect the important value of free speech, the Act sets out certain exemptions. Under section 18D, offensive and racially based material (Holocaust denial, antisemitic incitement etc) is permitted provided the person communicating the material has acted “reasonably and in good faith”.
Bluntly, the current Act is inadequate when it comes to antisemitic hate speech and Holocaust denial. It does not give Australia’s Jews effective protection.
New antisemitism laws should be enacted and administered by the Antisemitism Commissioner that are designed to protect the rights of Australian Jews in perpetuity. These new laws should be modelled on the work of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).
The IHRA is an intergovernmental organisation, which unites governments and experts to advance Holocaust education and remembrance worldwide. There are 34 member countries, including UK, US, Sweden, Spain, Italy and Israel, that have adopted the IHRA definition on antisemitism with eight countries having enshrined it in law.
In a most important, but little-heralded move to combat antisemitism, Australia became the 33rd member of the IHRA in June 2019. Lynette Wood, a career diplomat, heads up the Australian delegation.
The IHRA working definition of antisemitism states: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
The penalties imposed under the proposed new Australian antisemitic legislation should be severe. Significant fines and custodial sentences should apply. By way of example, in France, following the “Yellow Vest” protests that morphed into antisemitic riots, new laws have been introduced that impose penalties that punish the perpetrators of online hate speech with potential fines of up to 37.5 million Euros.
According to the Gen 17 Australian Jewish Community Survey, Australia’s Jews consider remembrance of the Holocaust and combating antisemitism as the most important aspects of their Jewish identity. In other words, Australia’s Jews live in apprehension that the Holocaust may be revisited.
By enacting new, powerful antisemitic legislation administered by the Australian Commissioner for Antisemitism, Australia’s Jews will not live with the fear that a novel, deadly virus could lead to unforeseen political change and the emergence of a radical ideology that ends with extreme Jewish hatred and anti-Jewish violence.
Marcus H. Rose is president of Letter of the Law Inc, the Australian chapter of globally renowned Israeli law firm Shurat Hadin, and a former national president of Jewish National Fund Australia Ltd (JNF Australia).