Australian Notes

Australian notes

12 December 2020

9:00 AM

12 December 2020

9:00 AM

Covid-19 and anti-Semitism

In the face of rising anti-Semitism in Australia and the disruptive economic and social impact of Covid-19, the federal government should immediately establish the position of an Australian Commissioner for Anti-Semitism. Such a move would send an important and timely signal that Australia unequivocally opposes anti-Semitism and is committed to safeguarding the country’s Jewish community.

The creation of this new position, which should report directly to the prime minister, should also be accompanied by new anti-Semitism legislation to replace the currently inadequate Racial Discrimination Act.

With the outbreak of Covid-19, a new and potent danger has arisen for Australia’s Jews. Allegations that Jews created coronavirus and references to Covid-19 being the ‘Jew flu’ are examples of anti-Semitism being expressed online by some Australians during the current pandemic. Australian racists have been consistently posting comments and sharing images showing the coronavirus as a ‘Jew’, as well as accusing ‘the Jews’ of creating and spreading the virus and expressing the wish that all Jews die from the virus.

The Covid-19 pandemic may be new, but Jews have a long and tragic history of being accused of spreading deadly viruses.

A recent research paper by Federal Reserve Bank of New York economist Kristian Blickle is rekindling fears of another Holocaust. Blickle links the economic devastation caused by the Spanish flu to the rise of the Nazi Party. Blickle suggests that the Covid-19 outbreak might lead to another bout of political extremism around the world that would see the emergence of ruthless politicians and lawmakers. His thesis strikes a raw nerve as worries grow globally as to the long-term political effects of Covid-19 and the economic devastation it is wreaking worldwide.

No matter where Jews have lived, they have consistently been the target of varying degrees of discrimination, vilification, persecution and genocide. Racially tolerant, multicultural Australia has not been immune from anti-Jewish attitudes. A recent global survey by the US Anti-Defamation League found that Australia had more than 2.4 million people out of an adult population of 17.2 million (14 per cent) that harbour anti-Semitic attitudes. The same survey found equivalent figures of 9 and 11 per cent for the US and UK respectively.


Australian Jews are presently afforded ‘protection’ against anti-Semitism under the Racial Discrimination Act. These laws, which extend to all minority groups, forbid hate speech on several grounds. The Act makes it unlawful to publicly offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person because of their race, colour or ethnic origin.

Former judge, Ronald Sackville AO QC however, in a review of the Act acknowledged that there were difficulties with the current legislation and recommended that it be reformed or even replaced. He advocated at the very least redrafting the exemption provisions such that an equitable balance between the legislation and the values of freedom of speech be achieved so that the, ‘Jewish community…would continue to enjoy substantial protection against hate speech.’

Bluntly, the current Act is inadequate when it comes to anti-Semitic hate speech and Holocaust denial. It does not give Australia’s Jews effective protection.

New anti-Semitism laws should be enacted and administered by the Anti-Semitism Commissioner, that are designed to protect the rights of Australian Jews in perpetuity. These new laws should be modelled on the work of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). The IHRA is an intergovernmental organisation founded in 1998, which unites governments and experts to advance Holocaust education and remembrance worldwide. There are 34 member countries, including UK, US, Sweden, Spain, Italy and Israel that have adopted the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism with eight countries having enshrined it in law.

In a most important, but little-heralded move to combat anti-Semitism, Australia became the 33rd member of the IHRA in June 2019. Ms Lynette Wood, a career diplomat, heads up the Australian delegation.

The IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism states: ‘Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.’

Anti-Semitism cannot hide behind the right to freedom of speech. The IHRA working definition has been crafted to allow legitimate criticism of Jews, the Jewish religion and Israel. It accommodates the right to free speech. For instance, under the IHRA it is not anti-Semitic to criticise the Jewish religion, or the policies of Israel, but it is anti-Semitic to say that Jews are ‘bad’ people, or to ‘deny’ Jews the right to self-determination in the Jewish state, Israel.

The penalties imposed under the proposed new Australian anti-Semitic legislation should be severe. Significant fines and custodial sentences should apply. By way of example, in France, following the ‘Yellow Vest’ protests that morphed into anti-Semitic riots, new anti-Semitic laws have been introduced that punish the perpetrators of online hate speech with potential fines of up to 37.5 million euros.

According to the Gen 17 Australian Jewish Community Survey, Australia’s Jews consider Remembrance of the Holocaust and combatting anti-Semitism as the most important aspects of their Jewish identity. In other words, Australia’s Jews live in apprehension that the Holocaust may be revisited.

By enacting new, powerful anti-Semitic legislation administered by an Australian Commissioner for Anti-Semitism, Australia’s Jews will not live with the fear that a novel, deadly virus could lead to unforeseen political change and the emergence of a radical ideology that ends with extreme Jewish hatred and anti-Jewish violence.

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Marcus H. Rose is an investment banker and a former National President of Jewish National Fund Australia

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