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A City Divided

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17 December 2023, The Age, by Chip Le Grand

Before agreeing to come, the woman checked with her friends in Gaza to make sure. She was a Palestinian mum, living in Jerusalem, grieving the deaths of five members of her husband’s family killed by Israeli bombs. Was it OK for her to sit and talk with Jews? Her friends told her she should; after this war, you have to live together.

Ittay Flescher, a former Melbourne high school teacher living and working in Israel, explains there were about 40 people in the room, an empty dance studio above a West Jerusalem shopping centre, when the woman rose to speak last Sunday night.

Some, like the woman, were Arabs grieving family or friends killed in Gaza. Others were Jews who’d had loved ones killed or taken hostage by Hamas on October 7. Others had family members serving with the Israeli Defence Forces. Flescher, who writes for a Jewish newspaper and works for an interfaith organisation, was there to learn.

For 2 1/2 hours, he watched and listened as people on opposing sides of a horrific conflict shared stories of loss and suffering.

The session was part of an ancient Semitic custom known as Sulha, a form of restorative justice where communities gradually heal by letting those most affected talk things through. It left Flescher with a bittersweet thought as he walked down the stairs and out into the Jerusalem night. ‘‘If we can talk to each other here as Israelis and Palestinians, why can’t you do that in Australia?’’

He says: ‘‘I have been in dialogues with Palestinians and Israelis with very extreme views.

‘‘I have seen what happens over several hours of dialogue, how people soften their views and come to see the pain of the other, that the other side is not crazy, and that a bereaved mother is a bereaved mother wherever she is and whatever the colour of her skin. Where are the dialogue groups happening in Melbourne or in Sydney? We can’t kill each other to peace.’’

The war in Gaza has not killed anyone here. In so many other ways, it is tearing us apart.

Muslim leaders say the conflict is having a more profound impact on their communities than the fallout from 9/11. Jews are confronting a level of antisemitism not previously experienced in Australia and, within progressive circles and institutions, and even among some Jews, a wholesale revision of Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state. The greatest convulsions are being felt where so many Jews live: in the arts, academia, media and medicine.

Faced with these ructions, community leaders have abandoned efforts to bridge the divide. Instead, they have stopped talking. ‘‘On both sides, there is a sense of deep dismay, upset and betrayal,’’ says Islamic Council of Victoria president Adel Salman.

On this, he gets no argument from Rabbi Ralph Genende, a progressive Jewish leader who has severed ties with the Jewish Christian Muslim Association of Australia, an interfaith body he helped establish 20 years ago.

‘‘This has hit me personally in a very hard way,’’ Genende says. ‘‘For all of us involved in interfaith, this is a crisis. I believe that certainly here in Australia, we need to continue to talk, but it can’t be business as usual with people who still don’t have the courage to publicly condemn Hamas.’’

Salman’s response is blunt: ‘‘You can’t talk about October 7 without also talking about the decades of occupation and oppression of Palestinians.’’

One of the few points of agreement in this bitter schism is that the Australian government’s response, seen as too equivocal by Jews and one-sided by Muslims, has done little to reassure those whose sense of belonging has been shaken by events in the Middle East. Last week the federal government backed a UN resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. The opposition urged greater ‘‘moral clarity’’ in support of Israel.

‘‘It is expected that this would cause division,’’ says Mohammad Adiseh, a public policy expert who grew up in the West Bank and is now working in Australia with Project Rozana, which seeks to strengthen relations between Jews and Palestinians by improving healthcare in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. ‘‘What is surprising is that … they weren’t more prepared to deal with this. The role of the Australian government is not to solve the Palestinian/Israeli conflict but to make sure that social cohesion is protected in Australia.’’

What does that social cohesion look like, as war in Gaza rages into a third month?

A couple of weeks ago, Josh Wonder was making the short walk from his home to his lcoal synagogue when someone in a passing car leant out the window and screamed ‘‘Heil Hitler’’ at him. Wonder is an Orthodox, bearded and readily identifiable Jew. He wanted to shake the episode off but says it is not that simple.

‘‘I am 43, I have grown up a religious Jew my entire life and I have never seen it like this,’’ he says. ‘‘You want it to be water off a duck’s back but in the end, every little violation is something which alienates you from the rest of society. I don’t get scared by it, but I definitely feel like I am living in a place where the tide is changing.’’

According to data kept by the Community Security Group, a Jewish-run organisation that tracks antisemitism, verbal abuse of Jews is one of the most common forms of hatred recorded since October 7. A spokesman for the company says people screaming ‘‘Heil Hitler’’ or ‘‘you f—ing Jew’’ at people on the street are garden-variety examples of what Jewish people are having to deal with.

Wonder is the general manger of Chevra Hatzolah, a Jewish community emergency response service in Melbourne. It is made up of volunteer responders, certified by Ambulance Victoria, who attend local car crashes, cardiac arrests and other emergencies before an ambulance arrives. Daniel Lowinger, a high school science teacher who volunteers for Chevra Hatzola, says the service is busier than it has been since the early months of COVID-19, with a spike in callouts to mental health emergencies.

‘‘Everything is more heightened, more intense,’’ Lowinger explains.

For Muslim Australians, many of whom are following the conflict through gruesome footage and witness accounts from Gaza on social media, the impact is unrelenting. ‘‘There is a deep, vicarious trauma that we are feeling because of what is happening to Palestinians,’’ Salman says. ‘‘If you are not from our background, you won’t get how visceral this issue is. People don’t want to enjoy themselves because they feel a level of guilt.’’

When seen through Palestinian eyes, the ructions within Australian society being caused by the war seem trivial. Hadil Albarqi left her home in Gaza to come to Melbourne four years ago on a scholarship program sponsored by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Her family is in Khan Yunis, a southern Gaza city that last week became the focus of the war. When Albarqi spoke to The Sunday Age, she hadn’t heard from her mother and brother for 12 hours. Her cousin and his wife and their children were killed when an Israeli strike hit their home, just around the corner from where her mother and brother are sheltering. She says she has heard nothing from friends who live in Gaza’s north. ‘‘I just need to know if they are still alive.’’

Albarqi says the Palestinian conflict is not with Jewish people but the state of Israel, which in the 32 years since she was born has rigidly controlled Gaza or kept it sealed shut. ‘‘We are never angry at Jewish people,’’ she says. ‘‘It is not about Muslims and Jews, it is about Zionism. Is it being antisemitic if you criticise Israel for their war crimes, for the killing of women and children and flattening Gaza? I don’t get it. It is fighting the occupation. If someone stole your land and destroyed your life, what would you do?’’

She says she has lost all faith in international law. ‘‘If these atrocities were happening against any European community, the international community’s response would be so different. It is just disgusting to feel like you don’t matter.’’

Jayda Abu Musa, a 32-year-old post-graduate student from Gaza, is a regular face at the weekly pro-Palestinian rallies that gather each Sunday at the State Library. Last Sunday, she arrived anxious and flustered. She has an eight-yearold daughter in Khan Yunis and had just seen a video, filmed by her sister, showing the ruins of an apartment block that had stood next to her daughter’s home. She lost family members when her parents’ home was bombed.

‘‘Basically, I am living my nightmare,’’ she says. ‘‘I wake up every morning hoping I don’t read news about my family.’’ She says that when she arrived in Melbourne last May, she was enraged to discover how normal life was beyond Gaza’s walls.

Depending on the kind of job you do and the social circles you keep, that normal life has been largely untouched by the war or had a wrecking ball swung through it.

Deborah Conway says the corrosive effect we are seeing from the Gaza war, particularly the way it has split theatre companies and newsrooms, and created an unwelcoming environment for Jews in creative industries, has been coming for a while.

Conway’s exploration and understanding of her own Jewishness is a prominent theme in her music and writing. A pop star of the 1980s as the lead vocalist of Sydney band Do-Re-Mi, she recounts in her memoir, Book of Life, her non-religious but observant upbringing in Melbourne, where Shabbat dinners were at grandma’s, Yom Kippur was celebrated with ‘‘shule crawls’’, and antisemitism was something she never encountered. ‘‘I don’t know that anyone can mistake it right now,’’ she says. ‘‘It is waltzing in a pink tutu with a flashing neon sign on its head.’’

Conway says the progressive left has adopted a false narrative about Israel. It holds that Israel, instead of a democratic state established around the ancient site of Judea to provide a haven for Jews after the Holocaust, is the illegitimate, colonial-era occupier of Palestinian land. Despite the problems with this construct – such as the erasure of a Jewish connection to Israel that stretches back 1000 years before the birth of Christ – it provides a helpful, whoto-hate guide.

‘‘The oppressed/oppressor paradigm that the woke see everything through doesn’t fit for Israel/Palestine,’’ Conway says. ‘‘At the moment, the progressive left are incredibly loud and they see Israel as colonisers, as an apartheid state, as racist and oppressors. It is very easy to fall behind that and slam Israel for doing what any nation state would do: protect its citizens against barbaric attacks.’’

Another powerful driver is the unfiltered way we are consuming images of a war that began with Hamas’ atrocities in southern Israel on October 7, and has since resulted in the deaths of nearly 20,000 Palestinians. If the Arab Spring gave rise to the global influence of Twitter, this war has unleashed the full power of social medial algorithms to curate how we understand awful events.

Adina Bankier-Karp, a research affiliate with the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation at Monash University, says this push-pulls people to take a strident position on the war and, in some cases, fall into a hatred of Jews. The Executive Council of Australian Jewry published on Friday a report showing that in October and November, there were 663 reported antisemitic incidents in Australia. In the corresponding months last year, there were 79.

‘‘Antisemitism is like any other kind of prejudice,’’ Bankier-Karp says. ‘‘It’s a pernicious weed that is nourished by the dark slime of misinformation and intolerance from which no one benefits.

‘‘Why is the current scale of antisemitism so great? We used to inform ourselves about current events mainly via mainstream media. These days, anyone with a smartphone is a self-styled social justice warrior, albeit untrammelled by ethical considerations and standards of journalistic rigour. Relying on social media to understand current events, without critical thinking or careful fact-checking, exposes people to the risk of being dangerously misinformed.’’

In the nation’s playhouses, actors, producers, writers and front-of-house staff have donned keffiyehs to demonstrate their opposition to the war in Gaza, and solidarity with three Sydney Theatre Company actors who caused a furore by wearing the Palestinian symbol during the curtain call of last month’s opening night of The Seagull. The actors’ protest triggered the resignation of three Jewish board members from the Sydney Theatre Company foundation and laid bare the fault line between people who work in our theatres and the prominent Jewish families and philanthropic foundations whose donations help keep them in jobs.

Similar tensions prompted Bug Weather, a small collaboration of flower growers and soap and ceramic makers in western Victoria, to boycott the Footscray Arts Makers Market. On Instagram, the group pointed to the ‘‘Zionist philanthropists’’ who support the community market: publisher Schwartz Media, law firm Arnold Bloch Leibler and the Gandel and Besen family foundations. ‘‘We refuse to participate in events that artwash genocide,’’ the group declared.

The pre-Christmas trade of large retail businesses connected to Jewish figures – Spotlight, Anaconda, Dick Smith, Chemist Warehouse and Kogan – have been targeted by anti-Israel boycott campaigns, along with producers of hummus and bakers of bagels. An Israeli street food restaurant in St Kilda was bombarded with a flurry of negative online reviews early in the war. There has been such a run on Palestinian resistance symbols that Kufiyas Australia ran out of stock two days after it received a shipment of 450 new scarves from Hebron.

Media companies have been dragged into this cultural fray, after more than 300 journalists put their names to an open letter that demanded that newsrooms couch their reporting of the conflict within a prescribed, pro-Palestinian context and treat Israeli government claims with the same scepticism as those made by Hamas. The letter, which originated in concerns ventilated in a WhatsApp chat group shared by journalists working across the ABC, The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and elsewhere, prompted Age editors to ban any signatories from reporting on the conflict. Morry Schwartz, Australia’s most prominent Jewish publisher, stood down last week as chairman of his own media company. Although he did not disclose his reasons, he has been targeted by a particularly nasty social media campaign.

In our universities, the war has coincided with most students being away from campus. The flashpoints so far include an anti-Israel boycott campaign against the University of Melbourne because of a research collaboration it has with Lockheed Martin, a weapons and technology company that supplies the IDF, and students wearing keffiyehs or carrying protest signs at graduation ceremonies.

The university says 51 of an estimated 7000 graduating students donned scarves this month. Under university policy, students are free to wear keffiyehs under their academic gowns.

Noah Loven from the Australasian Union of Jewish Students says Jewish students are being offered de-escalation training to prepare them to return to campus next year. ‘‘Our priority is making sure that Jewish students are safe and secure,’’ he says. ‘‘We are definitely preparing for incidents to occur.’’

The conflict has also found its way into Australia’s doctors’ surgeries. A delegation of Jewish doctors met last week with Human Rights Commissioner Lorraine Findlay to raise concerns about the way antisemitism has seeped into their workplaces through social media accounts of colleagues who have adopted a vehemently anti-Israel line.

In one instance, three doctors quit a Melbourne medical practice after a senior colleague questioned if Hamas really wanted to kill Jews and presented a ‘‘deep dive’’ into the conflict’s history based on a polemic by feminist writer Clementine Ford. Australian Jewish Medical Federation president Jack Green says there has been a plethora of hateful comments posted by health practitioners.

One of the most hurtful things for Australian Jews since the war began is the way the language of the Holocaust – genocide, pogroms and concentration camps – has been appropriated by pro-Palestinians and turned against Israel. ‘‘We sorrowfully know what genocide is,’’ says Rabbi Genende. ‘‘What is going on in Gaza is terrible, but it is not genocide.’’

Yet, within the Jewish community and particularly, among younger, progressive Jews, there is renewed questioning of the discriminatory and, at times, dehumanising treatment of Palestinians that preceded this war, and whether a state that prioritises the rights of one racial group above another should be supported by anyone.

Sarah Schwartz, born into a Jewish family in Sydney, was raised to believe in Zionism, Israel and the values of Judaism. ‘‘I was taught that Israel was a place of pride and somewhere that was needed for Jewish people to be safe,’’ she says. ‘‘I was taught that after the Holocaust, the Jews needed Israel. That is something I just accepted. I didn’t learn much about Palestinians. They weren’t people who really existed except to threaten our safety.”

At some point in her 20s, Schwartz’s ideas started to shift. She started learning about the flipside of Israel’s creation, the violence by Israeli militias, the displacement of Palestinians and the way they have been treated. She began to meet and befriend Palestinians. When she enrolled in Harvard Law School for postgraduate studies, she shared a house with a brilliant Palestinian scholar, Rabea Eghbariah, whose doctoral thesis examines the way Israel’s legal regime severs the connections between Palestinians and the land. She also discovered a rich intellectual history of Jews who opposed Zionism.

Schwartz says she was devastated by the October 7 attacks but is no longer a Zionist and no longer supports Israel. On most Sundays, you will find her marching through Melbourne with other members of the Loud Jew Collective, a group formed in 2021 to provide a political and social home for Judaism outside of Zionism. ‘‘There are more and more Jewish people, particularly in this moment, turning their backs on Israel,’’ she says. ‘‘They are calling for a ceasefire, calling for an end to genocide and calling for Palestinian freedom and liberation. I don’t think a state like Israel, which gives Jewish people certain rights and does not give Palestinian people those rights, has the right to exist in that form.’’

Ittay Flescher, the former Melbourne teacher living in Israel, says if people want the war in Gaza to end, they need to stop seeing the conflict in binary terms and making demands on just one side to yield. He offers the same advice for Jews and Muslims living in Australia.

‘‘After this war ends, there is still going to be 120,000 Jews in Australia and 800,000 Muslims,’’ he says. ‘‘They are going to have to ride the train together, be on the bus together, to go to the same takeaway shops and to the footy together. You have to share your cities in the same way we have to share Jerusalem.’’

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Article source: The Age | Chip Le Grand | 17.12.23

2024-05-08 07:04:10.000000