Strange bedfellows

Pro-Israel lobby groups embolden far-right extremists in ways that make us all less safe

This week’s Senate inquiry into right wing extremism in Australia has shed important light on far right and neo-Nazi organising across the country. The risk posed by far-right extremists to all racialised groups, and to our collective human rights, is something which must be taken seriously by all levels of government. 

We should also be concerned about the extent to which dehumanising rhetoric is being normalised by pro-Israel lobby groups, which partner with the far right, use pejorative language against Palestinians, and attempt to drive a wedge between Jewish, Muslim and Palestinian communities.

Right now, neo-Nazi groups are building chapters in regional centres. They are funded by the far-right internationally, are fundraising to build a rural homestead base for a ‘White Australian Community’, and have been training themselves for what they imagine to be a violent race war. As my colleague, historian and Jewish antifascism expert, Dr Max Kaiser, told the Committee “it is not a question of if a mass casualty event is on the horizon perpetrated by people associated with these groups; it’s a question of when.”

In its own 2023 report on antisemitism, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) – a Jewish roof body and staunch Israel lobby group – highlighted two key threats to Jews in 2023; the emboldening of the neo-Nazi movement, and anti-Jewish conspiracy theories about the Voice referendum. 

However, after the October 7 attacks on Israel, and in the midst of Israel’s mass-slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza, it classifies anti-war university students, stickers calling for boycotts of Israel, protest chants and scarves worn in solidarity with Palestinians, as the biggest threats to Jews.

Groups like ECAJ try to shut down Palestinian voices through the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which has been roundly rejected by scholars of antisemitism and human rights bodies, as well as its own drafter, due to its use in suppressing legitimate criticism of the Israeli state. 

In an embarrassing turn of events, ECAJ co-CEO Peter Wertheim AM told the inquiry that none of their reports on antisemitism have anything to do with the IHRA definition, despite them having consistently used the definition since 2016 and consistently conflating support for Palestinians with antisemitism. Because ECAJ are the only body producing statistics on antisemitism, we simply don’t have accurate data on the extent and causes of antisemitism. This lack of accurate data makes it difficult to assess the extent of threats to Jewish safety.

Equally concerning is the alliances these groups are willing to make with the far-right. The most obvious example is through the promotion of anti-antisemitism rallies organised by Never Again is Now – a Christian Zionist fundamentalist group whose key organisers are openly Islamophobic, transphobic and Christian supremacists and who work in league with far right individuals and groups such as Avi Yemini and Rebel News. Concerningly, during the inquiry, Chair of the Committee, Senator Paul Scarr stated that he and his colleagues had attended these rallies.

The Australian Jewish Association, a group which continues to be platformed in right-wing media, and to host events with Liberal politicians such as MP Dave Sharma and Senator Henderson, has been broadly denounced as an extremist group aligned with messianic Israeli settler movements. Tomorrow, the AJA are hosting an event with the fascist Israeli politician Moshe Feiglin who has invoked Hitler in advocating for the ethnic cleansing of Gaza and has called Palestinians ‘parasites’.

This dehumanising rhetoric has become normalised by other pro-Israel groups. One co-CEO of ECAJ, in an interview on Sky News, suggested Palestinian refugees coming to Australia did not hold values compatible with Australian values and had an inherent hatred of Jews. The Chairman of AIJAC, Mark Leibler, stated on Q&A, that “Palestinians … they celebrate when people are hacked to death”. 

All of this is a symptom of a very worrying drift to the far right by pro-Israel Jewish leaders who rely on anti-Palestinian racism to justify their support for Israel’s slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza. Their rhetoric emboldens racists and neo-Nazis, who use the same dehumanising language against Jews, Muslims and Palestinians. Lobbying for politicised definitions of antisemitism have meant that politicians and anti-racism bodies have stagnated on addressing rising hatred. All of this makes us less safe and more susceptible to far-right extremism.

Sarah Schwartz is a lawyer, lecturer and the Executive Officer of the Jewish Council of Australia.

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