Australia appoints special envoys as antisemitism, Islamophobia rise over Gaza war

By Hilary Whiteman, CNN

Brisbane, Australia CNN  — 

The Australian government is appointing the country’s first envoys to fight antisemitism and Islamophobia in an attempt to prevent further fraying of social cohesion over the war in Gaza.

Announcing the positions on Tuesday, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said that conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Middle East had caused “a great deal of grief” for Jewish and Islamic communities in Australia.

“Australians overwhelmingly do not want conflict brought here. What they want here is harmony and for people to be able to get on with each other,” he said.

The appointments come amid protests in Australia and dissent within the ranks of Albanese’s ruling Labor Party over a war that has cost tens of thousands of lives and displaced more than 2 million people in Gaza.

More than 38,000 Palestinians have been killed since October 7, when Israel launched a devastating response to an attack by Hamas militants that killed more than 1,100 Israelis and saw hundreds of others kidnapped to Gaza.

The two sides remain locked in conflict amid deeply polarized protests around the world over how Israel is fighting the conflict in Gaza where millions of Palestinians are facing famine and Hamas continues to hold hostages.

Albanese said Tuesday that Jewish lawyer Jillian Segal had been appointed to consult Jewish Australians, experts and the wider community about ways to best address antisemitism.

“One of the things that I have found quite shocking is the lack of knowledge and experience about antisemitism and about where it leads,” Albanese said from the Jewish Museum in Sydney where he made the announcement.

“I have spoken with members of the Jewish community here, in Melbourne, right around Australia, who have not felt safe, members of the Jewish community whose children are worried about wearing their school uniform in our capital cities. That’s not acceptable,” he said.

Executive Council of Australian Jewry president Jillian Segal speaks during a media conference in Sydney on October 9, 2023. Countries around the world have reacted to a wave of attacks by land, sea and air carried out by Palestinian armed group Hamas that Israel says has claimed more than 700 lives. (Photo by DAVID GRAY / AFP) (Photo by DAVID GRAY/AFP via Getty Images)

The Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ), which represents the Jewish community, recorded a spike in antisemitic incidents from October to November 2023. The group said Tuesday reports of antisemitic incidents in Australia are still running 400-500% higher than before the conflict.

In some of the most high-profile incidents in Melbourne this year, windows were smashed on the office of a Jewish lawmaker and antisemitic slogans were written on a Jewish school.

The Australian government supports a two-state solution to the conflict in the Middle East and has backed calls for a ceasefire, the safe passage of humanitarian aid, and the release of dozens of Israeli hostages held by Hamas.

Albanese said a “special envoy for Islamophobia” will be appointed “shortly” in a similar role to work with the Muslim community to promote social cohesion.

Most countries recognize Palestinian statehood, and in May a United Nations resolution on Palestinian membership passed with the support of 143 nations, including Australia.

PERTH, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 28: Senator Fatima Payman is seen during a Pro-Palestine rally on October 28, 2023 in Perth, Australia. On October 7, the Palestinian militant group Hamas launched the largest surprise attack from Gaza in a generation, sending thousands of missiles and an unknown number of fighters by land, who shot and kidnapped Israelis in communities near the Gaza border. The attack prompted retaliatory strikes on Gaza and a declaration of war by the Israeli prime minister. (Photo by Matt Jelonek/Getty Images)

In recent weeks the government’s own cohesion has been tested by the resignation of a West Australian senator, who crossed the floor to vote with a rival party on the issue of Palestinian statehood.

“With a heavy heart but a clear conscience, I announce my resignation from the Australian Labor Party,” Sen. Fatima Payman announced last Thursday.

Payman, Labor’s first Muslim senator, voted with the Greens Party on a motion to recognize Palestinian statehood and threatened to do it again, breaking party rules.

She was indefinitely suspended from Labor’s parliamentary caucus and later resigned to serve as an independent, accusing her former colleagues of attempting to intimidate her – claims the party denied.

Protests against Israel’s actions in Gaza are continuing in Australia with four people arrested for climbing onto the roof of Parliament House last week.

University protests that saw hundreds of students pitch tents on campus grounds around Australia have since ended, with threats of expulsion for some students who took part.

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