New Jewish Council seeks to draw a line between Jews and Israel

Wall with graffiti
Graffiti painted on a suburban wall in Melbourne last year.

Conflating Jews and Israel fuels antisemitism, argues a new Australian Jewish anti-racism advocacy group.

Sarah Schwartz and Max Kaiser are on a mission. They want to inject a new perspective into the Australian debate on antisemitism and Israel. “We’re concerned that any criticism of Israel or any sort of pro-Palestinian solidarity activity gets labelled as antisemitic, which cheapens the idea of what antisemitism actually is – which is hatred of Jews, or discrimination and hostility towards Jews,” they say.

“Jewish community organisations have conflated Israel and Jews, which makes people think they are the same thing. But they’re not the same thing. Israel is a state, and people are entitled to criticise any other country,” says Kaiser. “The conflation by the pro-Israel lobby and some Jewish organisations can fuel and lead to people making a conflation themselves, to blame all Jewish people for Israel’s crimes – which is antisemitic,” Schwartz adds.

Schwartz is a human rights lawyer and university lecturer, while Kaiser is a historian with a PhD on antisemitism and Jewish antifascism. The pair have long been frustrated at the tenor of public debate on Israel and antisemitism, and Israel’s response to the Hamas attacks of October 7 was the tipping point. Last week they launched the Jewish Council of Australia to provide a new and different voice on what has become a hot-button issue in Australian politics.

Its main focus will be on racism in Australian society. “We’re concerned about antisemitism and about the rise of the far-right and fascist politics, and also about broader issues of racism in Australian society, whether that’s Islamophobia, anti-Palestinian racism or racism against Aboriginal people,” Kaiser explains.

Schwartz, who works as a human rights lawyer, has an extensive background in social justice working on behalf of Indigenous Australians, though no formal advocacy experience in the Jewish community. Kaiser, who has completed a PhD on antisemitism, was previously a member of the Australian Jewish Democratic Society. Both are in their mid-thirties and based in Melbourne. They are backed by an advisory committee comprised of lawyers, academics, journalists and policymakers, most also in their thirties and forties.

As co-Executive Officers of the Council, Schwartz and Kaiser are the public faces of a body that represents a younger generation within the Australian Jewish community. The Council has been endorsed by publishing figure Louise Adler, an outspoken voice on debate over Israel, and human rights lawyer Professor Andrea Durbach, though neither is formally affiliated with the group.

“People get tarred with this antisemitism brush for making very legitimate points. It has the effect of shutting down legitimate, free speech.”

Max Kaiser

Everyone at the Council is working on a voluntary basis, there are no paid staff positions and the Council has no links to any other group here or overseas. “We’re not funded by anyone, which means we can be independent,” Kaiser told Plus61J. Last week they wrote an opinion piece in Nine newspapers outlining the Council’s views, which prompted offers of support from academics and former diplomats, he adds.

The initial spark for the Council came from Schwartz. “It was post-October 7, and we thought that some ideas that were being discussed in the mainstream media did not reflect our understanding of what antisemitism was,” she says. Their frustration had been building for some time but the war that began after October 7 was the catalyst.

Schwartz started talking with colleagues, including Kaiser, and the idea for the Council soon gathered momentum. “We are Jewish people and people who are descendants of Holocaust survivors or refugees from Nazism, and we take antisemitism very seriously,” Kaiser explains.

“People get tarred with this antisemitism brush for making very legitimate points. It has the effect of shutting down what is legitimate, free speech. People are being targeted and become afraid to speak out for fear of being labelled as antisemitic. That’s really damaging because we need to be focused on the legitimate examples of antisemitism because they do exist.”

Schwartz says: “None of us could ignore the fact that antisemitism is rising and racism is rising. There are neo-Nazis marching on the streets of Sydney and in Ballarat. It’s terrifying and those are things that we really want to work with others to address because it’s scary for all of us.”

“conflation by the pro-Israel lobby can lead to people making a conflation themselves, to blame all Jewish people for Israel’s crimes.”

Sarah Schwartz

Does the Council concede that some attacks on Israel are driven by antisemitism and not by what the Israeli government does? Kaiser and Schwartz acknowledge that there are people who are antisemitic and do not like Jews, and that there are some instances where people criticise Israel out of an antipathy to Israel rather than a solidarity with the Palestinians.  “But it’s a small minority of people,” Kaiser adds.

“Support for Palestine in Australia has been huge and all across society, with 50,000-plus people attending rallies, and a diversity of local groups voicing their support. That is not antisemitism.

“We aim to provide a voice that can interrupt the very loud messaging coming from the most representative organisations about what is in the interests of the Jewish community. There are multiple Jewish communities and people do disagree.

“The Jewish community organisations don’t represent all Jews. Some people are very pro what’s going on right now, but there’s a whole bunch of people who are critical, and we really want to make sure that the diversity of the Jewish communities is being reflected in public debate.”

So how does the Council respond to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism? “We have an issue with the examples attached to the IHRA definition which equate criticism of Israel with antisemitism. No state is above criticism. Our simple definition is that antisemitism is hatred, hostility, prejudice or discrimination against Jews because of their Jewishness,” says Schwartz.

“It’s not racist to critique a state, such as Australia, for being racist. Israel shouldn’t be uniquely exempt from this kind of critique.” 

Sarah Schwartz

What about the IHRA assertion that denying the right to a state discriminates against Jews as compared to other peoples who have states? “It’s not racist to oppose the idea that a group has a ‘right’ to a nation state which prioritises their rights over others. Jews, including those in Israel, have a right to safety and security, as do all people.

“But many Jews don’t think a ‘Jewish State’ can achieve this. It’s not racist to critique a state, such as Australia, for being racist or having fundamental structural inequalities that should be dismantled. Israel shouldn’t be uniquely exempt from this kind of critique.” 

And their response to the cases of doxing, boycotts and threats against Jews generated by the left? “We reject all forms of racism and strategies of individual intimidation. If we condemn the targeting and doxing of these individuals, then we must also condemn these behaviours by members of the leaked chat group. This group engaged in the kind of intimidation and incitement that has long been used as a strategy to try to silence Palestinians and their supporters,” says Schwartz.

“We ourselves have experienced this from parts of the pro-Israel lobby. The assembling of this list of individuals, who are predominantly Jewish, for targeting, can encourage antisemitism and induce fear. We also can’t ignore the anti-Palestinian and anti-Black racism present in the leaked chat logs and the wider context of a plausible case of ongoing genocide against Palestinian people.”

Are they only concerned with antisemitism which occurs on the right or from the left as well? “We are concerned that there is antisemitism on the left. In our experience, though, given people on the left are in principle against racism, their antisemitism often comes from ignorance rather than malice. It is part of our work to address this ignorance.”

Beyond the discourse on antisemitism, the Council has not adopted any positions on broader issues around the Middle East. “Everyone comes from a place of wanting freedom and equality for all people in the region,” Kaiser says, “but beyond that, we don’t have a formal position about a two-state solution or other future for the Israel-Palestinian conflict.”

As for Hamas, both Schwartz and Kaiser are appalled by the attacks of October 7. “I don’t know any person who condones what happened. It’s horrible,” says Schwartz. However, they argue that Israel, in its conduct of the war against Hamas, has been found to be plausibly in violation of the genocide convention by the International Court of Justice.

“We are against the war, we are for a permanent ceasefire – for an end to the violence and the killing.”

Max Kaiser

“We are against the war, to put it very simply. And we are for a permanent ceasefire – for an end to the violence and an end to the killing. That sums up our position,” says Kaiser.

But after that? What is their position on Hamas? “That’s not strictly in our purview,” he concedes. “We have not come to a particular position about Hamas.”

While it’s still early days, they say that in time, the Council may also write papers and research reports on antisemitism for public policy and debate. “Our group have day jobs but down the track, it’s something we’ve been talking about.”

In their article published last week, they wrote that they expect a backlash. Certainly, there will be demands for the Council to clarify its position on the right of Israel to exist, Hamas, and the future of the land “between the river and the sea”.