JULY 29, 2019
In the minutes and hours after Australian Brenton Tarrant killed 51 people in two Christchurch mosques, the other users on 8Chan were busy replying on the thread he created on the website to announce the March 15 attack.
There was vitriol and violence and vile bigotry in the responses, and many cheered the killings.
But, in an environment where the actions were being celebrated as an attack on Muslims, a shift in opinion emerged.
Another anonymous user replied: “That’s a very good question.”
In the space of 90 minutes, the word Jew or various iterations of the word were mentioned 21 times in that thread, while Muslim appeared 16 times.
Australia’s Jewish community has been watching on with fear as the online hatred seeps into the real world, with the far right, which has long targeted Muslims, slowly turning attention to them.
One Jewish leader labels a spike in anti-Semitic graffiti as a “swastika epidemic”, while the most authoritative record of the issue — the annual Anti-Semitism in Australia report from the Executive Council of Australian Jewry — found a 59 per cent increase in incidents last year.
NSW Jewish Board of Deputies chief executive Vic Alhadeff says the “online world” is partly behind the “alarming spike in anti-Semitic incidents”.
“The terrorists responsible for the attacks on the Pittsburgh and San Diego synagogues were active on social media platforms frequented by neo-Nazis and alt-right ideologues,” Alhadeff says.
“Clearly, these platforms are not nearly as vigilant as they should be in filtering content, enabling vile discourse to poison the public space and incite violence and even terrorism without accountability.”
He says extremists are exploiting overseas conflicts to promote hatred and there are local neo-Nazi groups openly calling “for the murder of Jews and gays”.
The shift to real-world action did not come about by accident, according to a prominent Melbourne community leader.
“The white supremacists and the neo-Nazis have made a conscious decision to take their online activity to the real world, whether it is distributing Holocaust denial flyers or putting up swastikas,” says Dvir Abramovich, chairman of the Anti-Defamation Commission, an organisation set up to fight anti-Semitism and hatred.
“People are now sensing that there’s some kind of legitimacy.”
Far left and right
But some Jewish organisations say the far left also has been feeding anti-Semitic rhetoric.
Julie Nathan, an ECAJ researcher who produces the annual anti-Semitism report, says there are signs that the far left and the far right are feeding off each other.
“Many of the principal themes in these expressions of anti-Semitism, especially online, involve a cross-fertilisation of concepts between the political left and right,” Nathan says.
“For example, left-wing rhetoric exaggerating the power of a so-called ‘Jewish lobby’ has helped to revive and stoke far-right myths about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.”
Israel as the boxing bag
Although he is not named in last year’s report, repeated attacks on Canberra Rabbi Shmueli Feldman’s home and his Chabad ACT centre are detailed by Nathan.
“This anti-Semitism is from the far right, but it’s not just from the far right. It’s equally seen in the far left as well — and by religious extremists,” Feldman says.
“You see it, for example, with the Greens’ anti-Israel stance and that filters down to people now having Israel as the boxing bag for people with anti-Semitic views. A lot of them are ashamed to say that they’re anti-Semitic still, so they’re ‘anti-Israel’ or ‘anti-Zionist’ to an extreme degree.”
Little more than a week ago, Feldman was abused online when he took to a popular Canberra Facebook group to seek help to find the owner of a wallet found outside the centre. Within 16 minutes, someone replied: “A jew giving money back? Fkn stitch up.”
“I’m getting private messages from him calling me a ‘Zionist dog’,” Feldman says.
“This is the norm now, whereas people would hide behind fake profiles. But this is a real Facebook profile. There’s a Jew hatred there that’s resurfacing.”
Free speech as cover
For Abramovich, there are also links to the debate over section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which became seen as a battle for free speech.
Amid that debate, in 2014, then attorney-general George Brandis declared: “People do have a right to be bigots. In a free country people do have rights to say things that other people find offensive or insulting or bigoted.”
In some circles, the comments were seen as a reinforcement of liberal ideas and the highlighting of long-held rights.
For some, however, it was seen as an invitation.
“People have, in a way, been empowered to say the most nasty and ugly things under the guise of freedom of speech. That’s unleashed all these dark forces,” Abramovich says.
“I’m not saying people who express opinions are bigots, but it’s allowed those who are usually lingering in the dark corners of our society to come forward under the banner of free speech and attack — whether it is Jews, it is Muslims or it is minorities.”
Added to this is the rise of social media.
“We have the internet and social media, which has created this amazing tool — but, on the other hand, has provided a super-highway for the bigots and for the alt-right and the racists to create echo chambers,” Abramovich says. “But it has also given them a platform, with YouTube and Twitter and Facebook. With all these different platforms, suddenly they’re able to disseminate their ideology inexpensively, instantaneously and often anonymously. So we have these trolls who would never say it to your face but suddenly they’re able to spread their tentacles.”
The message boards of the notorious Daily Stormer website contained threads dedicated to Australia and Australian cities, allowing those with neo-Nazi interests not just to meet online but to also organise physical meetings.
On platforms such as Gab and 8Chan, derogatory language to describe Jews and pro-Nazi content have become commonplace.
“Many organisations and individuals use two or more online platforms, (like a) website and Facebook, Twitter/Gab, and videos,” Nathan wrote in her last report. Some of the rhetoric is now reaching the offline world.
“I’m receiving reports from children in Canberra’s public and private schools. Children as young as seven have been told by their classmates that they don’t want to be their friend because they are Jewish,” Feldman says.
“Children as young as 11 are being taunted in the playground by other children with slurs like ‘We love Hitler’, ‘Heil Hitler’ and things of that nature.”
For some, the issue at schools extends further than the attitudes of students.
After The Australian revealed this month that a Year 12 sample assessment claimed Israel persecuted Arab families and demolished their homes because of their Muslim faith, Australian Jewish Association president David Adler called on Victorian Education Minister James Merlino to “take action and ensure those responsible for such blatant anti-Israel activism and anti-Semitism are removed from the education system”.
Concerns also have been raised about the creep of anti-Semitism into universities.
Alhadeff says there is evidence that anti-Semitism is rising “across the board, from the tertiary sector and schoolyard to the workplace and online space”.
“Just this week we received a call from a student looking to switch universities because she has copped relentless anti-Semitic abuse,” he says. “Two weeks ago I met with the pro vice-chancellor of one of our major universities to discuss the rise in incidents on that campus.”
Much of the increase in last year’s anti-Semitic incidents is attributed to the work of a group called Antipodean Resistance, which places stickers and posters showing anti-Jewish or neo-Nazi messages in public places, including university campuses.
The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which advocates a boycott of Israeli products, has also had a strong presence on university campuses.
Feldman says there is a difference between being anti-Israel and anti-Semitic, but many people are both.
“You have people who are authentically anti-Israel, because of what they are fed on the news, who don’t hate Jews,” he says. “There are people in the community who are sympathetic to what they view as the underdog — the Palestinian cause — and it doesn’t cause them to hate me.
“But for the most part, the emboldening of hate is there and people are becoming much more vocal about it.”
Graffiti attacks also targeted Jewish political candidates during this year’s federal election.
Swastikas and Hitler moustaches were drawn on Liberal MP Julian Leeser’s campaign material. Two Labor candidates were forced to quit after being accused of anti-Semitism, while the Greens were also criticised for its stance on Israel.
Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg had a campaign billboard vandalised with Nazi symbols and now is having his eligibility to sit in parliament being questioned by a Labor member who authored a book called The Holocaust Denier.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison hit out this month.
“The scourge of anti-Semitic graffiti that we’ve seen in Melbourne just this year, it is absolutely sickening and disgraceful,” he said on July 18.
“And for a Holocaust denier and an anti-Semite to seek to progress that agenda by pretending to have some sort of constitutional purity on Josh Frydenberg, I’m just going to call it out for what it is.”
Gail Mason, a criminologist from the University of Sydney, has been researching hate crime in Australia for 20 years and is pleased that politicians, police and the public are beginning to see how much of a problem it is.
Although she does not focus on anti-Semitic crimes, Mason says little data exists to show whether hate crimes are becoming more common — but adds that she does not believe it is falling.
“I do think we are seeing greater recognition of the problem now,” Mason says.
“I don’t think it’s anywhere near the same understanding that you get in a country like the United Kingdom or the US.”
Yet the fear caused by hate crimes is still very real for some in our community.
In Melbourne, cafe owner Aliza Shuvaly, whose mother-in-law is a Holocaust survivor, found someone had scrawled the words “The Holocaust is a lie”, along with a swastika, on the fence outside her cafe in Chadstone.
Days later, she found the words “The Holocaust didn’t happen but it should have” spray painted. Again, a swastika was painted next to the words.
“It reminded me, just before World War II was starting, the Germans used to write on the shops and the homes of Jewish people,” she says.
“I couldn’t believe it connected me straight to the Holocaust, even though I wasn’t there.”