Pro-Palestinian protestors in front of the Sydney Opera House on October 9, 2023 (Richard Milnes/Alamy Live News)

I am a fifth-generation Australian and have lived my adult life in America, but if you ask me how I identify, I say: as a Jew. A Jew whose community has found a haven on the cliffs between the Pacific Ocean and Sydney Harbour. Australian Jews are small in number, don’t make a fuss or attract attention, are not visible in sports, entertainment, or politics. Hanukkah menorahs do not appear next to Christmas trees in public. We are quiet and scrupulously law-abiding. 

On October 9, 2023, the Sydney police issued a warning. Jews: Do not go to the city. Do not go to the Opera House. Stay at home. My mother and I were on our way to the Opera House when we saw the warning. We are Jews. We turned around and went home. 

That night, I invited a builder to our cellar to find out if we could shelter from an attack there. The builder looked around, pronounced that we were secure, and frowned. “What’s your worry?” she asked. “Won’t the police protect you?” I was puzzled; why did she think the police would do that?

The Sydney police warned Jews not to go to the city that night because a pro-Palestinian mob was marching from the Town Hall to the Opera House, and when the mob arrived at the white sails jutting into the harbour, they rioted, chanting “gas the Jews” and “fuck the Jews.”

Pastor Mark Leach, an Anglican church leader, picked up an Israeli flag and marched toward the mob. The Sydney police chased him away and he hid behind a car. The police did not stop the pro-Palestinian mob from its illegal gathering. Nor did they prosecute the incitement to violence in the chants, which they have the power to do under the law. 

Two days before “gas the Jews” was chanted at the Sydney Opera House, on October 7, Israel’s border with Gaza was breached by Hamas terrorists. They gang-raped women to death, tortured children before their parents and parents before their children, mutilated humans before and after murdering them. They filmed themselves in the midst of these deeds and broadcast their images. About 1,200 people were killed, with 254 people taken hostage into Gaza. At the Opera House and around the world, people were celebrating the atrocities against Israel before Israel had lifted a finger in response.

Sydney is far from Gaza as the crow flies. Most people come here to escape ancient feuds. My mother’s family arrived in Australia in 1857, fleeing persecution of Jews in Russia. My father arrived in 1957, having survived as a Jew under Hungarian fascism, Nazism, and Stalin’s communism. In Australia, both sides of the family flourished. My father, my daughter, and I all graduated from the oldest university in the country, the same university where my father taught mathematics for thirty years. I took off class for Shabbat and Jewish holidays. I wore a star of David over my clothes. I never got a whiff of antisemitism. 

The day after the Sydney police told Jews to stay home, I walked into the university from which we graduated and where my father taught. The campus is lush, with Oxford-like buildings nestled in parkland. Students come from around the world for the university’s beauty and prestige. That day, every surface was covered with posters in red and green and black, graphic and violent, stuck onto the famous walls and windows, the water fountains, and direction signs. From one side of the university to the other, under blossoming jacaranda trees, they were celebrating the murder and mutilation, rape and burning alive of Jews. When I asked if the posters were hung legally (a man was putting them up as we watched), security told me they weren’t legal, but nothing would be done till nightfall. 

I waited until dark; the posters didn’t come down. I waited again. I called for help. Who was dealing with this abomination? Who was removing it? And I received the customary non-answers, until I understood that nothing was going to be done and no one was going to do it. 

The speakers did not offer another place for Jews to go. Nor did they commit to moving back to where 'they' had come from.

A young Chabad student and I spent the next night taking down hundreds of posters. In the morning they were up again. At night we took them down. And so on, as words and images calling for the end of Israel and of Jews blanketed the university until summer in December, when the sticky mess was cleaned off by the authorities. The school is a destination for graduation photographs and weddings and it didn’t suit clients to have genocide in the background in green and red and black.

While we were busy with the posters, universities in Sydney hosted symposia on Gaza, beginning this way: I acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we meet. I pay respects to Elders past, present and emerging. Always is, always will be Aboriginal land. The speakers, all of European descent, denounced the colonization of Palestine. The flourishing Muslim population between the river and the sea are the only and true natives. Jews do not belong there, nor do they belong in Australia (where only native peoples belong). The speakers did not offer another place for Jews to go. Nor did they commit to moving back to where they had come from. The tones were not academic, but vituperative, a call to arms. No alternate views were offered.

What had the Jews of Sydney done to the mob calling for their gassing, to the academics calling for their expulsion? Germans in the 1930s endured economic collapse and mass unemployment, but Sydneysiders? They are among the richest people on earth, with full employment and fuller bellies, living between the harbor and the ocean. What excuse did they have to gas the Jews?

Sheikh Abdul Salam Zoud of Lakemba, a leading Sydney imam, called Jews the “criminal, barbaric, tyrannical enemy,” reminding his audience that “the Prophet Mohammad, the Righteous Caliphs…none of them conquered the world by peaceful means, negotiations, concessions or understandings. They conquered it through jihad for the sake of Allah.” I understood. That was the mob’s excuse.

Over the months since the chanting at the Opera House, there have been varied attacks against Jews in Australia. In Melbourne, small Jewish businesses have been targeted and destroyed. A man was murdered on his way to synagogue. The Palestinian flag was raised instead of the national or the native Australian flag on major government and academic sites. Melbourne and Sydney teachers staged walkouts from schools, taking their students to rallies holding violent anti-Jewish slogans. Preschool children went on an excursion to the university to chant “intifada” with the pro-Palestinian encampment. No other cause has warranted this devotion, not Afghanis expelled by Pakistan into the hands of the Taliban nor the ISIS reign of terror in Syria. 

This is not the Australia I grew up in. It is frightening and puzzling. Also, deeply familiar. My father tells us stories of his Hungarian childhood as testimony and warning: the stones thrown at Jewish boys on the way to school, the prohibition on Jews doing business or shopping in the market, the ghetto where Jews were stuffed until they were sent in cattle cars to death. Then, after the war, the hiding and faking under Communism so the authorities would not discover my father was as an observant Jew. These things could never happen here, we thought.

But after October 7, violence has erupted against Jews over the world as if it belonged, as if it were normal. Which it is. Violent antisemitism, in a thousand guises and with a thousand excuses, is the human condition. Which is how the State of Israel came to be born, so Jews could live outside the human condition of antisemitism. 

They welcomed me as mourners do at a shiva house—everyone is welcome to comfort the bereaved.

In January I visited Jerusalem. My sister lives there, and I wanted to find out how she was, and how my other sisters and brothers, my people, were. I wanted to see them. Because those women raped and those babies mutilated, they are flesh of my flesh.

The last day of the visit, my sister took me to the south of Israel, where I witnessed the devastation of our communities, and, in response, the devotion of the children of Israel to one another. At a crossroads at the entrance to Gaza, the Shuva family has built a way station to anyone who comes, where they offer hot food, clothing, shelter, music, and conversation. A circle of people was playing guitar and singing, their red-haired baby passed from arm to arm. Young people sat on low benches talking quietly, and when I asked to join, they moved their seats, welcomed me, a stranger. They welcomed me as mourners do at a shiva house—everyone is welcome to comfort the bereaved. 

The next day I wrote a note to Kfir, the youngest hostage held by Hamas in Gaza, and fastened it to his photograph on the ramp down to the plane leaving Israel. I flew south. Deep south, into the summer of Sydney, and on landing, I walked into a fifth-grade classroom. On the board I wrote the Hebrew aleph bet and the children copied. I taught them about the holiday that was coming up, Purim, when the megalomaniacal Haman convinces a king to issue a decree of genocide against the Jews of Persia, which the wise Jewish Queen Esther thwarts. I then taught them about the next holiday, Passover, when a megalomaniacal pharaoh of Egypt tries to eliminate the children of Israel by enslaving them and throwing their boys into the river. Which God thwarts, delivering them to freedom with an outstretched arm.

At the end of term, I received a note from a young woman of Syrian heritage, my student from university. I felt compelled to check on you, she wrote, and see how you, as a Jew, are feeling. With Iran and Hamas festering, there’s a sense of fear around us, even here in Sydney.

It was the first message I’d received from anyone since October 7 asking how I, as a Jew, was feeling.

I was curious about opening a dialogue with you, because there’s no point talking to people who have the same views as me. I want to take action and not be just another voice on social media taking sides. Maybe I’m coming to you because I want to get in touch with my own story as a Syrian Australian woman and finding it so difficult to speak out. I’m feeling an enormous amount of pain with the images coming out of Gaza when there’s no view from the Jewish side. I want to work out how as Australians we can bring more light, more understanding and connection, and was keen to hear where you stand in relation to the war with Hamas if you see me as a safe person to share that with.

I had nothing ready-made to say to her. Since October 7, I have migrated inwards, an idea a Ukrainian Jewish refugee introduced to me. Migrating inside our bodies, our homes, our people. 

Australia has such an important role in bringing more light. If we’re living here and have the safety and privilege of Australia with these humanitarian rights to share. I’m putting myself out there in the hope of being able to channel the feelings of powerlessness. We can only use our voices and set an example of how to move through these things. The mindless barbaric ideology of Hamas and these horrible horrible acts done in the name of God, it’s just disgusting and it’s not something I want anywhere close to home, I want it eradicated. It has no place in Australia.

Soon my Syrian student and I will sit down to dinner. We will exchange words of empathy and care. We will deplore the hatemongers. And we will not defeat antisemitism. Because defeating antisemitism is not my student’s task, nor is it the task of the Jews. It is the task of Pastor Mark Leach, carrying the Israeli flag, and a few righteous others. My task is to plant trees, build houses, and to teach my children about the exodus from Egypt, and the miracle of Purim in Persia, and the miracle of Hanukkah against the Greeks, and the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, and the Crusades, and the Spanish expulsion and Inquisition, and—

The atrocities of Hamas. 

Who speaks about ancient Egyptians except museum curators and Jewish children? Who will remember Hamas except the Jews? 

Teaching children. That’s the task of Jews. 

Because antisemitism is ineradicable. Even in Sydney. And so are the Jews. 

Viva Hammer, formerly of the Joint Committee on Taxation in the U.S. Congress, is currently at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute of Brandeis University, where she is completing a book, Child Desire: Large Families in a Small Family World.

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