Senator Paul Scarr – Estimates questions to the Australian Human Rights Commission regarding action to combat anti-Semitism

Photo of Senator Paul Scarr
February 13, 2024

In that context, do you think that the Australian Human Rights Commission is doing enough at this extremely difficult time to combat the scourge of antisemitism?

Senator SCARR: Thank you, President. Before I ask these questions, I just want to emphasise—and I hope you would know—that I have the utmost respect for you, your good faith and your fierce independence, so please accept these questions in that vein. On 9 November 2023, more than 100 Australian Holocaust survivors issued a statement which talked about the explosive increase in antisemitism. Amongst what they said they stated:

On 7 October 2023, we witnessed the horrors of Hamas’ terrorist attacks in Israel and the resulting war, with its terrible loss of life. Since then, we have seen an unprecedented outpouring of antisemitism raging on our streets, on our television screens, on social media and in our universities.

Just this week the Executive Council of Australian Jewry issued a statement in relation to the publication of lists containing the names, faces and other personal information of hundreds of individuals whose only common trait is that they’re Jewish, and the releasing of that information. They said:

… we have endured difficult times and overcome many challenges, but never have we seen a period where so many in our community are so fearful for their physical security and loss of livelihood.

In that context, do you think that the Australian Human Rights Commission is doing enough at this extremely difficult time to combat the scourge of antisemitism?

Prof. Croucher : The Australian Human Rights Commission is focused very strongly on the racist attacks that we are seeing on our shores. The work that the commission has done, continues to do and has been doing for some years is very much focused on the increase in racist incidents, of which the antisemitic incidents that you refer to are a very strong example. Our work as the Human Rights Commission is to focus on all communities, of which the Jewish community is an important group and one that carries with it the legacy of the Holocaust to our shores. And our focus is very much around supporting communities affected by antisemitism. We have a range of initiatives that we’ve been embarking on with the Jewish communities as part of an overall approach to antiracism in our work. I would be very happy to detail some of those items, but I agree with you and concur in the feelings you expressed. The hurt that is felt in our community, the racism that we are seeing, is a central part of our jurisdiction under the Racial Discrimination Act and our broader mandates.

Senator SCARR: President, you gave a wonderful speech on 5 July 2018, which I found by entering ‘antisemitism’ in the search engine—and you can remember the speech—on the Australian Human Rights Commission website. In that speech you talked about the character of Shylock in TheMerchant of Venice. You talk about a play from Christopher Marlowe. You talked about the Nuremberg Laws. You talked about pogroms in Russia and Poland. And you had a personal touch when you spoke about actually visiting Dachau concentration camp. Why is it that, at this stage of an explosion in antisemitism—and all the senators here will have been approached by our friends in the Jewish community—that there are no current speeches like this being made—that is, the speech that was made on 5 July 2018? President, we need this speech now. This is when we need the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission to give this speech. This is the time. We’ve got the evidence and testimony of over 100 Holocaust survivors saying that they need to hear these words now, publicly, from the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, specifically addressing antisemitism. Why haven’t you given such a speech now?

Prof. Croucher : Thank you for finding it. I remember that speech well. It was themed around TheMerchant of Venice as part of a program. It was a very powerful speech. I’ve used that theme as well in launching an exhibition at the Sydney Jewish Museum, which was focused on the attacks on people with disability as well. It is something that I personally hold very dear, and my speeches have reflected that. From the perspective of the agency, our focus is on all communities. We have not only the antisemitic attacks—of which I have spoken, as you have rightly pointed out—but also rises in racism of different kinds: Islamophobia, anti-Palestinian racism, anti-Arab racism.

We have seen a spread of heightened attacks, which is unacceptable under our Racial Discrimination Act—or most of it would not be acceptable; it certainly can be challenged. Also that wider role that we have as an independent agency to reach out to all communities is partly why we have been funded by the Department of Home Affairs to conduct a body of work to engage with and support all affected communities, including the Jewish communities. But thank you for finding that speech; it is one of which I am very proud.

Senator SCARR: You should be proud of it, but the point I’m making is, when I enter ‘antisemitism’ on your website, the first thing that comes up is a speech given five years ago, and it is a beautiful speech. I raised yesterday with the Department of Home Affairs the fact that the government had put out a grant offering—I will just find the sum here—many millions of dollars, $25 million. The purpose and objective of the grant opportunity is to combat Islamophobia and support victims, develop communications to combat Islamophobia and racism, and mitigate the harms of misinformation and disinformation and narratives that impact communities. It lists other very noble attributes.

You know I’ve spoken here in this place about the scourge of Islamophobia. Do you think given the current situation the government should be considering a similar grant? Specifically, on the same terms, you could rewrite the terms and conditions of the grant and simply include ‘combat antisemitism and support victims, develop communications to combat antisemitism and racism, mitigate the harms of misinformation and disinformation and narratives that impact communities’. Do you think that should be a priority for government?

Prof. Croucher : The government priorities—you raised them. We have been provided some funding under the broad program of work in terms of overarching social cohesion programs. Our focus with the money that we have been allocated under that grant program is to continue to engage with and support all affected communities. So the parameters of what we do with it embrace all affected communities—Jewish communities, Palestinian, Arab, the Islamophobic network of people affected. When we get grants of that kind we make it crystal clear in our arrangement that the way that we apply that money within the parameters of the grant has to be consistent with our mandate, which is an inclusive, impartial mandate. So we will be continuing to focus on all affected communities, however the government specifies it in general language, which it has in this case, as you pointed out.

Senator SCARR: Thank you very much.

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