It was well before sunrise on a February morning at Bondi Beach. A handful of walkers, joggers and runners were on the sand, while a few bodies were moving inside the cars which had been parked overlooking the beach during the night. Something stirred in the shadows and I slowly approached, when I made out the shape of a fox. In my countless morning and evening visits to the beach, this was a first.
Two mornings later I arrived at the beach after the sun had risen. I noticed unusual activity – council workmen on a Sunday. As I came closer, I saw that they were hard at work assessing what was needed to be done to repair damage done by a different feral creature – a person who had vandalised murals by spray painting swastika graffiti. The fox aroused curiosity and a little caution. The graffiti attracted politicians who took the opportunity to condemn graffiti, and swastikas specifically. The swastikas caused distress, if not fear, among members of the local Jewish community and others for whom daubing swastikas says much more than simple vandalism.
With contrasting images of the ugly swastikas and the beauty of the silver seas of the Pacific Ocean, I headed to the Sydney Jewish Museum, the remarkable educational institution in inner-city Darlinghurst. The occasion was the launch of a book which told the story of the early life of Lena Goldstein, one of the Museum’s guides. Lena, who was present at the event, recently celebrated her 100th birthday, having lived for close to seven decades in Australia. As a young woman, she had survived the Nazi genocide in Poland due to a combination of good luck, good sense, good timing and what she, and many others regard as miraculous events. The book was written by Barbara Miller, an important if underrated figure in the campaign for fair treatment for Australia’s Indigenous population, a committed Christian and genuine activist for reconciliation between many different groups within the broad human family. The event was full of good humour and passion, underlined by the immense sadness at the tragedy which befell so many under Nazism.
For many years, I have been quite public in my support for an expansive immigration policy and policies of maximum compassion towards refugees, asylum-seekers and others whose fate is in the hands of Australian officials. When, some time ago, I very publicly disagreed with claims that our detention facilities were facsimiles of Nazi concentration camps, one ABC commentator broadcast that I was the examplar of a person who had lost compassion. Not because I altered my actions but because I didn’t support distortions of fact in the interests of The Cause. Now, at a time when the Australian public was being challenged as to whether it would place more trust in doctors or politicians to act responsibly and fairly in the case of asylum-seekers under Australia’s protection, we witnessed the spectacle of an AMA activist, Dr Peter Bauert, proclaiming that the lives of those on Nauru were worse than the subjects of Nazi brutality and murder. Apparently oblivious not just to his intellectual offensiveness but to outrages against history and moral decency, he then tried to dig his way out of his hole by claiming his problem was his inability to properly (mis)represent an important philosophical work – Victor Frankl’s Search for Meaning.
Meanwhile, an editor at MIFKAF (Media I Formerly Knew As Fairfax) decided that the most important op- ed on Donald Trump’s State of the Union address was an intellectually and politically lightweight essay on the theme of the reaction of American Jews to a few sections of the President’s phillippic. The author of the piece, whose career highlight was an innings with a minor league national cricket team, has a horrific track record of distributing not just anti-Israel libels but attacks on Judaism per se. Before giving him eagerly-contested print real estate for his opinion on how Jews feel, it would have taken about 15 seconds of online research to determine that he has regularly breached the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism with his grab bag of slurs and is particularly notable for his claims that Israel acts in ways worse than the Nazis.
Before the week was out, swastikas were back in Australian newspapers with the reports that Assad shill and sometime academic Tim Anderson had been dismissed from his post at the University of Sydney. Having no qualms about attacks on the free speech of those with whom he disagrees, Anderson had used his own freedom to promote the specific form of antisemitism which Conor Cruise O’Brien called anti-Jewism – the invocation of the slur that Israel and Jews behave in the manner of Nazis. Whether or not, as with Dr Bauert, his defence is that he merely failed to communicate properly his misunderstanding of not-all-that-complicated ideas, his loss of employment trails well behind the loss of respect others would have had for him.
The feral fox was a curiosity – the feral graffitist a representation of pathetic human behaviour. The vandal who attacked the murals has rightfully been widely condemned, but far more harm to Australians’ wellbeing and sense of community is caused by journalists, doctors and academics who disregard common decency and use offensive symbolism without regard to the damage they do to our society.