Melbourne synagogue evacuated on Shabbat as pro-Palestinian rally held nearby

Synagogue’s president and rabbi say police, security team told worshipers to leave mid-service; clashes between Palestinian supporters, pro-Israel demonstrators erupt hours later

Australian police use pepper spray during clashes between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel demonstrators in Melbourne's Caulfield neighborhood, November 10, 2023. (Screenshot X, Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Australian police use pepper spray during clashes between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel demonstrators in Melbourne's Caulfield neighborhood, November 10, 2023. (Screenshot X, Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

JTA — A synagogue in the Australian city of Melbourne was evacuated on police order on Shabbat as pro-Palestinian protesters demonstrated nearby.

The Friday evening Shabbat services were halfway over at Central Shul in Caulfield, a heavily Jewish neighborhood, when the police and synagogue security team advised everyone to leave as a precaution, according to a letter from the synagogue’s president and rabbi on Sunday. About 150 people were present at the time, they said.

“A synagogue is a safe haven, a place of refuge, calm and peaceful, filled with prayer, song and inspiration. Shabbat, by its very definition is a day of rest, reflection and serenity,” they wrote.

“Sadly, this Friday night, for our community, that feeling of refuge, calm and serenity was shattered. The freedom to practice our religion without fear or intimidation was jeopardised.”

Hours later, violence erupted between pro-Palestinian protesters and a pro-Israel faction in adjacent Princes Park, where a previously scheduled rally had been relocated in part because of its proximity to a burger shop that had burned in a fire earlier that day. Local authorities said they had no evidence that the fire was spurred by racial animus, but the Palestinian-Australian shop owner said he thought his business had been targeted after he was filmed leading chants at a different pro-Palestinian demonstration.

About 400 people were involved, 200 on each side, according to local police, who used pepper spray to break up the fight. Police said one man was pepper-sprayed and removed from the area under breach-of-peace provisions and another man reported receiving minor injuries after being hit by a rock. They said they would review security camera footage to see whether any other criminal offenses had taken place.

The violence comes amid a spate of incidents in Australia related to the Israel-Hamas war. Immediately after Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel, in which terrorists killed some 1,200 people and took at least 240 hostage, participants in a pro-Palestinian rally in Sydney chanted “Gas the Jews”; the local government apologized. Last week, a Jewish man in Sydney said he had been hospitalized after being attacked when he removed a pro-Palestinian poster. And on Saturday, a woman was caught on tape yelling, “F— the Jews” after a pro-Palestinian rally in the Sydney suburb of Coogee.

On Sunday, separate rallies to free the 240 people Hamas is holding hostage and to call for a ceasefire drew thousands of people in Sydney.

Melbourne had been comparatively quieter until this week. Now, police say they plan to increase patrols in Caulfield, home to about 40% of the Jews who live in the city of 5 million.

James Paterson, a lawmaker from the center-right Liberal party, was among a number of local politicians to denounce the incident and the choice of location for Friday night’s demonstration.

“Of all the places in Melbourne to hold a pro-Palestinian rally, they chose Caulfield. In a park next to a synagogue. This is a calculated attempt to intimidate the Jewish community with predictable consequences,” he tweeted. “And on Shabbat. Victoria Police never should have allowed this protest to proceed and must use the full force of the law to crack down on those responsible for these violent scenes.”

Local Jewish leaders also expressed distress about the incident. “There is something very wrong in this city,” tweeted Dvir Abramovich, chair of the Anti-Defamation Commission. “Scenes I never imagined I’d see. Princess Park. Caulfield. Melbourne will never be the same.”

The synagogue president, Phil Goldman, and rabbi, Shmuel Karnowsky, said in their letter that they were proud of how quickly and without protest their

But, they wrote, “it left a terrible feeling in our hearts. To think that here in Melbourne, we might feel so threatened that we could not complete a Friday night Shule service, is unacceptable. There is understandably a huge sense of disappointment, frustration and anger. It cannot happen again.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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