'I have never seen our community so fearful and so shaken'

Post-Oct. 7 antisemitism upends an Australian Jewish community with Holocaust history

Accused of being nefarious lobbyists, Aussie Jews are shaken by increasingly bold displays of hatred amid the ongoing Israel-Hamas war

An early 2024 pro-Israel rally in Melbourne, Australia. (Courtesy of Lillian Kline)
An early 2024 pro-Israel rally in Melbourne, Australia. (Courtesy of Lillian Kline)

MELBOURNE — A list of Australian Jewish creatives in a private WhatsApp group was made public in February. The group, formed in the aftermath of the October 7 massacre in southern Israel, sought to facilitate discussions among Jewish artists and writers on how to address the increasing antisemitism and anti-Israel bias originating from within the arts community in Australia.

Among others, Australian author and commentator Clementine Ford shared a link to the list on her Facebook page, along with a group chat log. The shared link included a spreadsheet containing social media account links and another file containing photos of over 100 Jewish individuals.

The repercussions were immediate: Members of the 600-strong group were doxxed, received abusive messages and one family had to go into hiding after receiving death threats.

Jewish group member Lillian Kline was shocked. The 49-year-old mother of four lives in Melbourne and works in investment and philanthropy. She is very cognizant of how good Australia has historically been to her family, who fled there from Eastern Europe following the Holocaust.

Kline’s grandparents, like many other Holocaust survivors, chose Australia because it was situated far from Europe. Although a small Jewish community existed in Australia before the war, a significant influx of Jews, particularly survivors, arrived after World War II and established schools and synagogues in the post-war period.

“My grandparents chose Australia because like many other Eastern European Jews, they looked to Australia as the goldine medina,” she told The Times of Israel, using the Yiddish expression for “golden country.”

“My zeide [grandfather] famously told us that upon disembarking from the ship in Port Melbourne, he picked up a newspaper that had a cricket player on the front page. He showed it to his two daughters proudly exclaiming, ‘Look at what makes front page news here. We chose the right country!’” said Kline.

But an atmospheric shift following the October 7 onslaught is particularly concerning for the Jewish community where nearly everyone has a close relative who sought refuge in Australia after surviving the Holocaust. The anxiety is palpable, as there are growing concerns about the enduring safety of the haven that Australia has historically represented.

Until now, many would have considered the circulation of a list targeting Jews for punishment for support of the State of Israel to be inconceivable.

While WhatsApp groups such as the one targeted have been characterized as nefarious lobbying efforts by pro-Palestinian activists, Kline, a co-initiator of one of the groups, denies such claims.

Lillian Kline at an early 2024 rally in Melbourne, Australia, in support of Israel. (Courtesy)

“In the immediate aftermath of the October 7 massacre, together with three other amazing Melbourne Jewish women, we spearheaded a Jewish grassroots activist community of approximately 700 Jewish professionals,” she said. “Many, many Jewish members of the community were deeply impacted by the events either directly through family or friends in Israel, or simply by virtue of being a member of the world Jewish family we feel we are.”

“The WhatsApp group started as a way to support one another and share grief and quickly mobilized into activity around how to combat the explosion in antisemitism we and our families were all experiencing,” said Kline.

The resulting threats and intimidation faced by many members of the group have been devastating for some members.

“These were private conversations never intended to be shared,” said Kline. “The double standards and hypocrisy we have witnessed since the publishing of these Jew lists is profound. Jews chatting in private WhatsApp groups have somehow described as ‘nefarious lobbying’ where other similar activity by pro-Palestinian activists is seen as legitimate advocacy, activism, protest and resistance.”

Naive bubble burst

Keren Zelwer, a 47-year-old speech pathologist and mother of three, shares a family history shaped by the need to escape antisemitism. In the 1930s, her paternal grandparents sought refuge from Polish antisemitism, while her maternal grandparents, survivors of the war in Siberia, eventually settled in Australia after being denied entry to British Mandate Palestine on the Exodus ship.

Zelwer has clearly noticed the rise in antisemitism in Australia since the war began.

Keren Zelwer at an early 2024 pro-Israel rally in Melbourne, Australia. (Courtesy)

“To be honest, I was probably a bit naive as to how much antisemitism there was before October 7, as it was more below the surface,” Zelwer said. “This really exploded after October 7 to a degree that I haven’t seen before. No longer is it shameful to weaponize the Holocaust against Jews, and it’s something that isn’t hidden, particularly online. I’m particularly shocked by the way that anti-Zionists are holding Jews to a different set of societal rules and expectations than anyone else by claiming that Zionists using legitimate forms of activism is somehow wielding Jewish power.”

Reports from Australian Jewish organizations confirm that concerns about rising antisemitism are well-founded. The Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) published a report in September 2023, predating October 7, highlighting that even prior to the outbreak of the war, antisemitism in Australia was on the rise. Its 2023 report noted a 120 percent increase in assaults (from five to 11) and a 100% increase in vandalism (from 11 to 22 incidents) year over year.

Given recent widely reported attacks on Jewish businesses and individuals since October, it’s anticipated that next year’s report will reflect a further escalation in incidents, including assaults, threats against Jewish businesses and violent protests.

If you want an insight into how coordinated efforts are to silence Palestinian activists and their allies, you can read…

Posted by Clementine Ford on Wednesday, February 7, 2024

“I have never seen our community so fearful and so shaken. Every conversation I have, including with Holocaust historians and survivors, is punctuated by utter disbelief,” said ECAJ co-chair Alex Ryvchin. “Perhaps one of the most notorious incidents has been the publication of a ‘Jew list’ containing personal information of hundreds of Jewish artists and academics leaked from informally organized WhatsApp groups by lay people across Australia,” he said, referring to the informal Australian Jewish WhatsApp groups who had their chats leaked, leading to doxing, threats and loss of income.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (center right) visits the St. Kilda synagogue in Melbourne on October 11, 2023. (James Ross/Pool/AFP)

New politicization of antisemitism

While historically antisemitic incidents in Australia have been infrequent, they have occasionally occurred. Menachem Vorchheimer, a 50-year-old community advocate, secured the country’s first conviction for antisemitic assault in 2006. While walking to synagogue on a Friday evening, he was attacked by members of the local Ocean Grove Football Club, who were on an end-of-season trip and were being driven around the highly Jewish Melbourne suburb of Caulfield in a bus by an off-duty policeman. Vorchheimer’s successful prosecution made headlines and contributed to raising awareness about antisemitism in Australia.

Although Vorchheimer successfully obtained convictions against the individuals who assaulted him in 2006, shedding light on antisemitism in Australia, he is currently dissatisfied with law enforcement’s response to rising antisemitism in Australia since October 7. His discontent primarily arises from the perceived inadequate handling of present threats by Australian law enforcement.

“I think the difference between [2006] and now, is that the politicization of antisemitism is greater than at any point in my living memory,” he said.

Members of the Australian Palestinian community carry a large Palestinian flag as they march with others holding placards and banners during a protest in central Sydney on March 3, 2024. (David Gray/AFP)

In the past few months, while active on Twitter, Vorchheimer has received death threats for openly supporting Israel. Despite filing formal police reports months ago, he has yet to receive any response from law enforcement.

“Both at a Federal and State level [within Australia] they have tools available to them, but they are not adopting a zero-tolerance approach,” he said.

Tammie, last name withheld, at a pro-Israel rally in Melbourne, early 2024. (Courtesy)

Delayed and slow responses from law enforcement are becoming increasingly evident in various sectors across Australia. Tammie, a 45-year-old pro-Israel advocate and philanthropist in Melbourne, requested that her last name be withheld due to online threats she received because of her pro-Israel work.

“I was unprepared and dismayed by the absolute explosion of blatant Jew-hatred following October 7 in this country,” she said. “More worryingly was observing how unprepared and indecisive our government and police have been combating this scourge in our society,” she said.

Tammie’s family history is also rooted in the aftermath of the Holocaust, making her vigilant against antisemitism. Born in Vienna post-Holocaust, her mother came to Australia at 6 months old, while her father, born in Israel to Holocaust survivor parents, moved to Australia at the age of 6. Both families chose Australia as a welcoming haven for rebuilding their lives.

For now, Tammie is monitoring the situation closely.

“There is no question that if the [Australian] government of the day became too antisemitic, I would leave. My grandparents made the mistake of staying too long in Europe in the 40s and it cost them dearly,” she reflected.

Amid the challenging and uneasy time for Australian Jews, Jeremy Leibler, president of the Zionist Federation of Australia, finds a glimmer of hope. While recognizing the increasing antisemitism in Australia, he also observes support from unexpected quarters, indicating that the unabated hatred has inadvertently sparked a counter-response.

“This hate has backfired in two ways. Firstly, rather than being intimidated into isolation, the antisemitism has actually strengthened the Australian Jewish community’s identity and connection to Israel,” said Leibler.

“Secondly, I have been inundated by messages from non-Jewish Australians who tell me they’d never really seen antisemitism before, but now they understand what Jews are facing… if this terrible situation has a plus side, it’s that the usually hidden hatred of the antisemites has been exposed to those willing to see it,” he said.

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