THE prominent Muslim doctor targeted in a campaign of intimidation for his involvement in a humanitarian charity that brings Israelis and Palestinians together to help sick Palestinian children says his support of the organisation is now “much stronger than it has ever been”.
Dr Jamal Rifi, who is seen as a leader within Sydney’s Muslim community, was forced to turn to NSW police after being threatened, attacked online and called a Zionist collaborator due to his work with Project Rozana.
The organisation, founded by Melbourne Jewish businessman Ron Finkel, transports ill Palestinian children to Israel for treatment in addition to facilitating the training of Palestinian doctors at Israeli hospitals.
Rifi is on the board of the organisation and spoke at its recent Hand in Hand fundraising dinner in Sydney late last month.
“On the night, it was such a happy atmosphere and we saw people from all different walks of life, shoulder to shoulder and they’re coming for a good cause,” he told The AJN.
“I just could not enjoy that night because I knew what’s been breaking outside and I was very disheartened by it.”
Rifi said the trouble started weeks before the dinner when invitations were being sent out.
“Some people got told of it, they started to agitate and then they sent it to Hezbollah in Beirut … they wanted people to reject what we are doing,” he said.
Rifi said he has endured online abuse “for years” due to being a moderate voice and standing against Islamic State.
“I always had the policy of ignoring them,” he said.
“I know that it did affect my kids, my family. We talked about it and we knew that actually we are on the right path, we’re doing the right thing, no matter what these people will do.
“Except when it came to this stage, for them to label me as working with an entity of the enemy and a collaborator against my own people … that will increase the risk to my life.”
Rifi said he became involved with Project Rozana after hearing former NSW governor Dame Marie Bashir recount her visit to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, where she saw Israeli and Palestinian children being cared for equally.
“I started to actually investigate Project Rozana and I spoke with people in my community and I spoke with people actually in Palestine itself. Because I knew that for me to be involved in such a project, I needed to be on a solid ground, because I knew this will happen,” he said.
“At our organisational table there is no room for politics. We only talk about practical ways of ensuring our humanitarian work will benefit the Palestinians and the Israelis at the same time.”
He said not only is his support of the charity much stronger, but “also the level of support in the Australian Muslim community is much stronger that it’s ever been”.
“Everyone knows about it. Everyone talked about it. And everyone knows what we are trying to achieve,” he said.
“They gave us actually free publicity. At my expense, but let it be.”
He added, “This campaign is not directed just against me, but also directed against the principle and the glue that binds us together as Australian citizens.
“Indirectly they are putting our social cohesion and social harmony at risk. Because if religious leaders are going to start to be afraid of meeting each other, that’s a recipe for disaster.”
Rifi has received support from the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, with president Lesli Berger telling The AJN, “The most disturbing aspect of these reported threats is that they are blatant attempts to quash not only positive Jewish–Muslim relationships, but a medical project which provides life-saving treatment to Palestinian children and elevates the health standards of Palestinian society.”
He has also been backed by NSW Labor MPs Jihad Dib and Walt Secord, in addition to official Palestinian Authority representatives in Australia and the Arabic language paper El Telegraph.
Finkel told The AJN, “We’ve had the privilege of working with a lot of people who define themselves as Palestinian by what they’re trying to build and not what they’re against.”
Of those making the threats, he said, “They have no comprehension of what it means for a mother to be denied the possibility of lifesaving treatment for her innocent child.”