Rocks tossed through a kosher bakery’s windows, Sabbath worshipers harassed on the way to synagogue and violent attacks by bat-wielding thugs would seem to fit reports coming out of Europe amid growing concerns there of resurgent anti-Semitism.
But increasingly, such tales are coming from a less likely source, Australia, where the South Pacific nation’s 100,000 Jews are facing a wave of anti-Semitism that last year exceeded, by 8 percent, a previous record set five years ago.
The latest incident took place on Monday, when an Orthodox man described as visibly Jewish was attacked by three people who called him a “f—-ing Jew” in East St. Kilda, a heavily Jewish neighborhood in Melbourne. The man received slight injuries but was not hospitalized.
A total of 638 anti-Semitic incidents were reported in Australia between September of 2006 and September of last year, double the previous year’s total.
By contrast, anti-Semitic incidents in the United States declined by 12 percent in 2006 from the previous year, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Concern in Australia is so severe that the U.S. State Department’s special envoy to monitor anti-Semitism recently spent a week there to assess the situation.
“The majority are incidents of harassment, which is becoming commonplace,” said Gregg Rickman, the State Department envoy. “There are also incidents of people throwing eggs at Jews, throwing rocks at them and terrible vile things being yelled at them, such as ‘Hitler didn’t get all of you’ and ‘die Jews.’ ”
Just over half the country’s Jewish residents live in Melbourne, with another 45,000 in Sydney and the remainder in cities like Canberra and Brisbane.
The country is said to contain the largest concentration of Holocaust survivors outside Israel.
“The community is scared and wary of drawing too much attention to these incidents,” said Rickman in an interview on his return to Washington, D.C. “Most of these are crimes of opportunity but it crosses the line into a trend.
“I don’t think there was a person or family we talked to there who hasn’t experienced some kind of anti-Semitism, either themselves or someone they know. Some people take it for granted that when they are walking someplace they are going to be accosted and face insults or eggs thrown at them.”
The identity of perpetrators, he says, ranges from “young hooligans showing off for their friends to … right-wing supremacist movements." While the country has a large Muslim community, Rickman said he did not believe many of the incidents were related to the Middle East, although following the 2006 Lebanon war, "there was a spike [in anti-Semitic incidents] all over the world.”
Rickman said he was concerned that the number of anti-Semitic incidents may be even higher than those recorded because some the victims are reluctant to come forward.
“Being that there are so many Holocaust survivors, they are naturally reluctant to perhaps make it into something bigger,” he said. “They are naturally scared and mistrusting, and the police have to understand that.”
Rickman said the purpose of his visit was to “talk to the community and legislators and see what ideas they have and make suggestions based on what other countries are doing.”
Rickman, a former staffer on the House International Relations Committee who also led a Senate investigation of Holocaust survivors’ assets found in Swiss banks, said police were taking the incidents seriously.
“I met with police in New South Wales and in Victoria and with the federal police and they understand this stuff is now starting to become a problem. Hopefully these meetings will be able to convey that they need to start moving on this and not take a kind of ‘boys will be boys’ attitude.”
But Menachem Vorchheimer, an Orthodox man who was attacked by a group of drunken soccer players in a Melbourne Jewish neighborhood in October 2006, has less confidence in the police there.
He’s filed legal action before a tribunal of the Victoria Civil Administration as a result of the incident, because an off-duty cop was driving the bus carrying the soccer players.
The incident began when Vorchheimer, the son and grandson of Holocaust survivors, was walking to shul on Simchat Torah eve with his two young children and some of the players made such remarks as “Go Nazis” and simulated machine gun fire. When he confronted the men and asked the driver to intervene, one of the passengers grabbed his hat and yarmulke as the bus took off. When he confronted the bus a second time to get his yarmulke back, two passengers held him while a third punched him in the face.
Three men were charged and two of them fined for racist behavior in the incident, but the assailant who punched Vorchheimer was never identified.
An investigation by a police oversight panel found the constable, Terrence Moore, could have prevented the incident. A witness, Leon Yahunov, said in a statement that Moore told him not to call the police.
Vorchheimer wants Moore dismissed and the Victoria Police Department to set up a special unit to investigate hate crimes. “The ongoing nature of the violent attacks shows that the police still don’t understand the issue,” says Vorcheimer, who has dual U.S. and Australian citizenship and is now living in New York because of the effect the incident has had on his family. He may return in April for a hearing before the Civil Administration tribunal, but says he won’t go to Australia for good until the situation there improves.
“We want to go back in an environment that is conducive to change,” he says.