Does Australia need a special antisemitism envoy?

July 10, 2024
Jillian Segal is the newly appointed Special Envoy to combat Antisemitism.

Australia now has its first antisemitism envoy, a title that can be misread for darkly comic effect. But is there any need for one?

The Anthony Albanese government, harried by the opposition for “going soft” on pro-Palestinian protests and for allegedly wobbling on supporting Israel, has decided to bring in a touch of bureaucracy.

Albanese appointed Jillian Segal AO as Special Envoy to combat Antisemitism on July 9.

Segal is the immediate past president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, a body prominent in campaigning against giving platforms to pro-Palestinian voices and activists even as the vicious war in Gaza continues. 

When a government is in trouble, new committees are born, officials appointed and fresh positions created. Best to badge the effort with some lexical trendiness, ever important for the easily distracted.

On this occasion, “social cohesion” is the ephemeral term. In the words of Albanese, “There is no place for violence, hatred or discrimination of any kind in Australia”.

Call it tolerable muzzling or permissible dissent.

Albanese said “Australians are deeply concerned about this conflict [Israel’s genocide on Gaza], and many are hurting. In times like this, Australians must come together, not be torn apart.”

He went on to say that having “built our nation’s social cohesion together over generations [Australians] must work together to uphold, defend and preserve it”.

Albanese explained that the appointment of a special office with a singular purpose is intended to reflect a universal aspiration.

“Every Australian, no matter their race or religion, should be able to feel safe and at home in any community, without prejudice or discrimination.”

He then added this throwaway line: “We have advocated for a two-state solution on the world stage, at the United Nations.” 

He quickly turned to Segal’s specialised role, which will involve listening and engaging “with Jewish Australians, the wider Australian community, religious discrimination experts and all levels of government on the most effective way to combat Antisemitism”.

She will also keep company with “other Special Envoys to combat Antisemitism” in attending the World Jewish Congress to be held next week in Argentina.

Segal then spoke about the significance of her appointment.

“Antisemitism is an age-old hatred,” she explained. “It has the capacity to lie dormant through good times and then in times of crisis like pandemic, which we’ve experienced, economic downturn, war, it awakens, it triggers the very worst instincts in an individual to fear, to blame others for life’s misfortunes and to hate.”

Such comments convey a hermetic impression, one which resists explication on cause and effect. They serve to cauterise the grotesque nature of war and obscure the fury it engenders.

Ironically enough, Albanese’s announcement had the scouring effect on the very cohesion he was praising.

While also announcing that there would be a Special Envoy for Islamophobia, the details to “be announced shortly”, the concerns and fears of one group had been privileged over another.

The Australia Palestine Advocacy Network (APAN) responded that the appointment of “a taxpayer-funded special envoy on antisemitism” was “particularly concerning as it singles out antisemitism for special government investment and attention, while failing to address the increasingly frequent and severe forms of racism experienced by Palestinians, Muslims, First Nations people and other marginalised communities.”

APAN President Nasser Mashni said: “This seems to be yet another example of the Australian Government pandering to pro-Israel groups and pitting parts of the Jewish community against the Palestinian Muslim communities – and against each other – rather than working to realise equal right and justice for all.” 

Not too socially cohesive then.

APAN is also worried that the creation of a dedicated office to combat one form of religious and ethnic prejudice was at odds with the work to combat “existing systemic approaches to anti-racism” being undertaken by the Australian Human Rights Commission’s recently appointed Race Discrimination Commissioner.

To show that such concerns were not confined to non-Jewish voices, Sarah Schwartz of the Jewish Council of Australia’s executive office saw the appointment as needlessly provocative.

“We are concerned that an anti-Semitism envoy in Australia … will increase racism and division by pitting Jewish communities against Palestinian, Muslim and other racialised communities.”

The looming question about Segal’s appointment is what tangible effect it will have?

[Binoy Kampmark currently lectures at RMIT University.]

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