When Goodwill is a Worse Threat than Hatred
In the past year 284 anti-Semitic incidents were reported in Australia, the second-highest on record, according to an analysis just released by the Executive Council of Australian Jewry. These ranged from physical assaults and vandalism through to intimidating letters, emails and telephone calls, although as ECAJ acknowledges, none of the incidents caused serious harm or damage.
Nevertheless, if previous experience is a guide, these figures will be publicly deplored but secretly welcomed by the anti-discrimination industry, as further evidence of the need for more resources and stronger laws to combat prejudice and ethnic hatred. We can expect to hear pious refrains of the kind beloved by the Human Rights Commissioner, that 'racism is a continuing stain that has discredited much of our history and continues to infect our present.'
Perhaps it is cold comfort to those who have been attacked or harassed, but what the figures really show is just how insignificant a phenomenon anti-Semitism is in contemporary Australia. Even if each of the 284 incidents was perpetrated by a different pathetic individual, only 1 in every 65,000 Australians felt impelled to assail a Jew. My ancestors in Eastern Europe would have thought themselves blessed to be living in such an inconceivably tolerant country.
Jews have lived in Australia from the very earliest days of European settlement. Around a dozen Jewish convicts were on the First Fleet in 1788, and the first free settlers came some twenty years later. Facing few of the barriers to their participation in political, social and economic life that then existed in nearly every other country, they prospered.
A small but steady stream of Jewish immigrants continued to arrive, and by the end of the nineteenth century synagogues were to be found in all capital cities and many regional centres. Although it is impossible to know the exact number of Jews now living in Australia---and as is the case with many other ethnic or religious groups there are considerable differences of opinion about how Jewish identity should be defined---estimates suggest it is somewhere between 100,000 and 120,000.
Most Jews happily acknowledge the openness and tolerance of Australian society. During the outburst of breast-beating from mainstream Christian churches in the Bicentenary year of European settlement in 1988, the Jewish faith was one of the few to unequivocally celebrate Australia's achievements.
A prayer composed by Rabbi Dr Porush, Minister Emeritus of the Great Synagogue, and read in synagogues around Australia began as follows: 'Lord of the Universe, with hearts full of joy and gratitude we come before Thee in celebrating the Bicentenary of Australia, to pray for the welfare and happiness of this great country and to give thanks unto Thee for the manifold blessings we have enjoyed therein since its foundation'. Maybe I am being unfair, but this does seem to contrast strongly with the sentiments that were then emanating from spokespeople for bodies such as the Anglican and Uniting Churches.
Yet at the same time, the highly accepting nature of Australian society is also a matter of concern to a number of Jews, who fear---quite unjustifiably, I believe---that it will ultimately lead to the disappearance of the Jewish community in this country through assimilation. The importance of 'resisting assimilation' was an issue for Australian Jews long before the introduction of political multiculturalism in the late 1970s. Intermarriage is a particular cause of distress, even though it can also bring new members into the community.
This creates a paradoxical situation---one that is faced by a number of ethnic groups in a society that is genuinely tolerant. Certain community leaders seem to feel more threatened by the absence of any real prejudice than they would by at least a modicum of external animosity.
They respond in a variety of ways. Some 'find' anti-Semitism where it does not really exist, triumphantly claiming that their 'discovery' is evidence of the 'racist undercurrent' hovering just below the surface of Australian society.
One of the more ridiculous assertions of this kind was made earlier this year by Peter Wertheim, President of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies. He told a meeting of Anglican and Jewish leaders that Christian missionising to Jews was 'abhorrent' and that it served to 'sustain the virus of anti-Semitism in the bloodstream of Christian life'. I hold no particular brief for missionaries of any kind, but such comments are simply absurd.
An alternative tactic is to caution that however favourable things appear at present, they might suddenly change, with Australia becoming a hostile and unwelcoming place for Jews. I first heard such warnings as a young teenager at high school in Melbourne, from religious instruction teachers worried about the consequences of Jewish boys dating non-Jewish girls. Even then, such warnings struck me as being quite fanciful. Tolerance and a sense of decency are deeply ingrained in the Australian national character, and it would take a great deal to dislodge them.
In my experience even Australians who might make disparaging generalisations about particular ethnic or racial groups can behave in surprisingly amiable ways when coming into contact with individual members of these groups in everyday work or social settings. In other words, the unfavourable stereotypes do not predetermine the actual behaviour---they are often held lightly, and kept in check by the strong sense that everyone deserves to be given a 'fair go', no matter what their background.
So instead of concentrating on the negatives, assisting the ethnogogues and their supporters with a vested interest in greatly exaggerating the amount of racism and prejudice in Australia, we should turn the tables on them. The real question is what is it about Australian culture and institutions that has led to a level of openness and tolerance matched by virtually no other country? Strong anti-vilification laws and a vocal and over-funded anti-discrimination industry are almost certainly not the answer.