By Ben Doherty
Fear drives Jewish students to go to school in plain clothes as Palestinians face being defined by an extreme minority gone viral
It is a conflict at once distant and excruciatingly near.
For the Jewish Australian and Palestinian Australian communities, the horrors of the past week have scarred deeply.
Families mourn the loss of loved ones killed, pray for the safe return of those missing, and fear the catastrophe of an escalating conflict.
Communities hope against hope for peace.
A plea for humanity
Nasser Mashini, president of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network, speaks at the end of a day of almost constant talking – to members of his community, to journalists, to ministers and MPs that might take his call.
“This is all I can do,” he says, exhausted, “to try to humanise our people and hope that somebody with some morality in power might hear.
“As a community we’ve never felt less Australian. Even more than that, not that we’re not Australian, but we’ve been ‘othered’ to such a degree and excluded, that our suffering and our humanity has been disregarded. We have been dehumanised.”
In Melbourne, Rabbi Gabi Kaltmann of the Ark Centre, is similarly overwhelmed. He has a bank of missed calls, and text messages queued up in his phone, a list that grows ever longer.
“I have congregants calling, wanting to talk about it, to scream, to cry,” he says. “I have multiple congregants who haven’t left their house.
“We are not OK, as a community, psychologically, we are not OK. People are not coping, but we are rallying our community, we are calling each other, looking out for each other.”
‘Each day we all suffer’
Mashini says the Palestinian community in Australia feels deeply connected to the Palestinian homeland: “Every Palestinian lives with that disconnection – there’s a string from our heart back to our house and our land.” But, he says, the civic space for Palestinians to protest, or to mourn for their people, feels small, feels constricted, and is shrinking.
“By the end of this war, thousands of Palestinians will have been killed, the overwhelming majority of them will have been civilians: nobody’s going to light up a building for us.”
“How can he say that?”
Organisers say Monday’s march in Sydney was overwhelmingly peaceful, inclusive, and family friendly. When a small minority began chanting vile and violent, antisemitic slogans on the forecourt of the Opera House, those voices were silenced from within the march itself.
But it is video clips of those frenzied minutes that have gone viral online, and been replayed on news bulletins.
Being defined by a ragged, extreme minority is a curse that strips context and nuance. It makes finding understanding harder.
“People are struggling to cope, people are keeping their kids home from school,” Mashini says.
“Each day, we all suffer.”
In Melbourne, Rabbi Kaltmann says Jewish schoolchildren are going to school in plain clothes, rather than their uniforms, because they fear being targeted. There are young people in his community “addicted to the news, constantly refreshing their phones, and then broken by what they have seen”.
“As Jews, trauma is not foreign to us. But we are in shock now, this has rattled us as a community to the core.”
Kaltmann has three siblings currently in Israel: one who is trying to find a repatriation flight, two others – including one who lives close to Gaza border – who want to stay. A cousin was believed kidnapped, and hope held for her return. Her body has since been found.
“We are all suffering.”
Dr Randa Abdel-Fattah, writer and sociologist at Macquarie University, says members of Australia’s Palestinian community “have never felt so traumatised”. Palestinian families in Gaza are “under siege”, facing relentless bombardment, and a total embargo on food, water, electricity and medicines.
“And … in Australia – and this makes it even more traumatic – we have been completely abandoned by governments, by mainstream media: our grief, mourning, freedom struggle is not considered worthy of acknowledgment or support.”
Abdel-Fattah says the conflation of support for Palestinian liberation with that of violence or of Hamas is “a deliberate campaign” to undermine and delegitimise the Palestinian cause.
“There is an agenda, framing resistance as terrorism, conflating anti-Zionism with antisemitism, and to portray any support for Palestinian liberation as dangerous, threatening, supporting violent terrorists.”
She says the response to the current conflict had Palestinians in Australia questioning their place in the country.
“Australia likes to market itself as a multicultural society when it suits it.”
Multiculturalism, she argues, cannot be superficial.
“You can’t just take us for our food, and leave everything else: you have to accept, nurture, embrace our trauma, acknowledge the pain that we are in: we are living here while our homelands are being burned and bombed.”
Gathering for hope and solace
Sydney’s Jewish community gathered in a park overlooking the sea on Wednesday night: in hats and sunglasses to guard against the glare of the setting sun, scarves to protect from the wind. Many were draped in blue-and-white flags.
“Our hearts are full of pain and agony,” David Ossip, the president of the Jewish Board of Deputies, told those mournfully, resolutely assembled.
“We are gathered as proud Australian Jews, as Zionists, in sheer horror at what has befallen our people. We gather here … to strengthen one another, to fortify one another, and to publicly send a message that will travel across the vast oceans to the land of Israel. That though we may be far away, our hearts and our prayers are with the people of Israel.”
The NSW premier Chris Minns spoke, conceding that Jews in Australia feared for their own safety, as well as for those caught in the conflict on the other side of the world.
Police had warned Jewish people to stay out of Sydney city on Monday night – when a pro-Palestinian protest was planned – told they should not go to a place in their own home. In separate incidents, a man in Sydney’s east was charged for making antisemitic threats to a group of teenagers, and three men were charged after allegedly performing Nazi salute outside Sydney’s Jewish Museum.
The seaside event ended with the community singing, together, Oseh Shalom, the lyrics of which roughly translate as “may the one who creates peace on high bring peace to us and to all Israel”.