They lit Sydney Opera House in blue and white. And then...

Josh Frydenberg on a visit to Yad Vashem  credit: Personal photo
Josh Frydenberg on a visit to Yad Vashem credit: Personal photo

The eruption of antisemitism in Australia moved Josh Frydenberg to make a documentary to combat the hate. The former treasurer in the Australian government talks to "Globes" about politics and the Jewish community, and his optimism about Israel.

In the two days following the October 7 attack by Hamas on southern Israel, monuments and public buildings around the world were lit up in blue and white, among them the Eiffel Tower in Paris, 10 Downing Street in London, the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, and the Empire State Building in New York, Along with them, the most iconic building in Australia, the Sydney Opera House, was also lit up in Israel’s national colors. What happened next was hard for many Australians to comprehend. Violent anti-Israel and antisemitic demonstrations erupted on the site, accompanied by the burning of the Israeli flag and cries of "Fuck the Jews." In the following weeks, the demonstrations spread to other parts of Australia, such as to Caulfield, a largely Jewish suburb of Melbourne, and included vandalism, harassment, and threats.

Josh Frydenberg, a former treasurer in the Australian federal government, and currently chairperson of Goldman Sachs in Australia and New Zealand, was shaken by the extreme sights and sounds that he witnessed, and decided to do something. He created a documentary film on the antisemitism running riot in Australia, with the title: "Never Again: The Fight Against Antisemitism." The film was broadcast at the end of May on the Australian Sky News network, and made waves in the country. In an interview with "Globes" from his home in Melbourne, Frydenberg admits, "The antisemitism that we've seen in Australia since October the 7th has been unprecedented, in both the scale and its frequency. I, like so many other Australian Jews, was shocked and scared."

What was the aim of the documentary?

"The purpose of the documentary, and indeed my motivation for doing it, was to get a message out to the rest of Australia about what was occurring in their country, in their time."

How was the connection made with Sky News?

"I approached Sky News, and to their credit they saw the merit in it straight away. And Sky News is part of a broader network that involves News Corp. (controlled by the Murdoch family, which is considered politically right-wing, H.W.) in Australia. And News Corp. owned a number of newspapers. So the whole weight of the organization got behind the documentary. And that was very important in sending the message far and wide across the country."

In the documentary, Frydenberg interviews prominent figures in Australia, among them Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, and two former prime ministers, John Howard and Julia Gillard. Alongside them, the film features Holocaust survivors, students, young people, and Jewish artists who have been exposed to violence, threats and personal attacks.

One of the most interesting interviewees is Israeli Arab journalist Khaled Abu Toameh, who said that when Israel is attacked, he too feels threatened. "We (Israeli Arab society - H.W.) believe in the wonderful things that Israel stands for: a strong economy, democracy, freedom of speech. We don't take these things granted, and if Israel were an apartheid state I would not be permitted to purchase a house in a Jewish neighborhood, and if Israel were an apartheid State my daughter would not be permitted to study in a Jewish college or university, and it doesn't really help me, the Arab-Israeli citizen of Israel, to delegitimize Israel."

"Total failure of leadership"

As in Europe and North America, in Australia too the antisemitism that has burst forth now is labelled "the new antisemitism," coming from the left-wing of politics. In Australia, this mainly means the Australian Greens party, which takes an anti-Israel stance and has even given legitimacy to the dangerous demonstrations that have broken out in the country. "The Greens party (the third largest political party in Australia by vote, H.W.) doesn't hold power, the balance of power, in Australia, but it is still influential in the debate," Frydenberg explains.

A month ago, it was actually a member of the Senate from the ruling Labor Party, Fatima Payman, who accused Israel of committing genocide in the Gaza Strip, and concluded her speech with the statement "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free." She even went against her party’s stance and voted in favor of a motion sponsored by the Australian Greens declaring an urgent need "for the Senate to recognize the state of Palestine." The Senate, however, by a substantial majority, condemned her statement "denying the right of Israel to exist," and Prime Minister Albanese suspended her from the Labor Party, which she has since quit.

In the film, Albanese agrees with Frydenberg when he says that the phrase "from the river to the sea" is violent, and declares: "there’s no place for it on out streets." Human Rights Commissioner Lorraine Finlay admits shortcomings. "I certainly accept that everybody including the Human Rights Commission, including myself as human rights commissioner, needs to do more," she says. They take responsibility.

Frydenberg: "What's been lacking is action to back up the words. There has been a comprehensive failure of leadership, both political, but also institutional. I mean, if you look at the universities, you've got chancellors and vice chancellors who failed to close down the encampments, who failed to take concerted action against those who were harassing Jewish students. A failure of the Australian Human Rights Commission to take action when clearly behavior was unacceptable."

Sometimes, Frydenberg says, the source of antisemitism is simply ignorance. "You get more and more people who don't understand the meaning of the slogans that they're chanting. ‘From the river to the sea. Palestine will be free.’ Most people can't tell you which river and which sea. When they talk about being an anti-Zionist, they can't tell you what a Zionist is. It's one thing to criticize Israeli policies, which, as you know, most Israelis do, and very, very openly. It's another thing, though, to target the Jewish community, which is what has happened in Australia."

Gillard, who was prime minister of Australia from 2010 to 2013, points out in the film that because of the exposure of young people to social networks, ""they develop views about this which are unbalanced and really not informed by the history in any way".

Son of a Holocaust survivor

In one of the most emotional scenes in the film, Frydenberg tells the story of Maggie and Joshua Moshe, who were recently forced to close their business, a colorful gift shop in Melbourne, because of vandalism and personal attacks. They relate how they have even received messages wishing for their five year-old son to die. "I just also really don't want to leave here, because I've put a lot of energy and time into this place and this business, and to have it ripped away from us like this is just horrible and unfair and uncalled for, and it helps no one," Maggie says in the interview, and Frydenberg struggles to hold back the tears and hugs the couple.

The personal details of Joshua, who also works as a musician, were exposed along with those of 600 other Jewish Australian artists, who opened their own WhatsApp group, which turned the lives of many of them into a hell. "I've been explicitly told to make a choice. If you want to be a Jewish creative in Australia you must be vocally anti-Israel or else you will not be accepted," Joshua says in the film.

You were very moved at meeting Joshua and Maggie.

"The story is very painful. I mean, it's a young couple who've done nothing wrong, who've been targeted simply for being Jewish. But they've opened a new business, and they're doing very well."

Frydenberg comes from a Holocaust survivor family. His mother was a Jew of Hungarian origin who came to Australia with her family after the war, but many of his relatives did not survive ("I lost many relatives in the Holocaust"). His father’s parents came to Australia from Poland in the 1930s.

Have you personally experienced antisemitism?

"Not a lot. When I was campaigning you would often see my pictures, my posters, daubed with swastikas or Hitler moustaches."

Defaced Frydenberg campaign posters  credit: Personal photo
 Defaced Frydenberg campaign posters credit: Personal photo

Frydenberg has relatives in Tel Aviv, and he has visited Israel many times. Two of his visits here, however, were in traumatic circumstances. The first of them was in 1997, when he came to participate in the Maccabiah Games as a tennis player, and was witness to the terrible disaster of the collapse of the bridge over the Yarkon River when the delegations were marching over it on their way to the opening of the games in the Ramat Gan Stadium. Four of the Australian delegation were killed in the disaster, and dozens more were injured. The young Frydenberg ran to the spot to help in rescuing his friends, and was even documented in a famous picture carrying one of the delegation members on a stretcher. "I remember that incident well," he says. "We heard cries, we ran to the place and saw the destroyed bridge and the people shouting for help."

The second traumatic visit was last March, when he came with a delegation of Australian journalists and politicians to visit Kibbutz Be’eri, the north of Israel, and Yad Vashem. Inspired by that visit, Frydenberg wrote an article in "The Australian" newspaper entitled "Hamas’s intentions are clear. It must be comprehensively defeated."

"So that was very moving. I went I went to Kibbutz Be’eri, I went up north, I went to Yad Vashem and to the Western Wall and the Dead Sea. And, you know, Israel is obviously a country that's traumatized, a country that is politically divided, but also a very resilient country that is united, it seems to me, in what the objective is from here, namely the defeat of Hamas and the restoration of security in the north. So I actually left Israel feeling more encouraged, despite the challenges, about how your country will come through it."

Do you see the waves of antisemitism encouraging emigration to Israel?

" I think Australia offers great opportunity for the Jewish community. And Australia has been a wonderful country for the Jewish community to contribute to the betterment of the country. We've had two governors general, the chief of our highest court, our greatest soldier was a Jewish person called Sir John Monash. I do think the Jewish community can have a very strong future in Australia. But that means combating this radicalism and this antisemitism and this misinformation, and helping Australians understand."

What’s the solution to rising antisemitism around the world?

"The solution is obviously to combat antisemitism by calling it out and stamping it out, and to try to convey the facts of the situation, because many people misunderstand the current conflict. They misunderstand the strategic dynamic playing out, the fact that more moderate Arab states are actually seeking to normalize ties with Israel and are also worried about extremism in their countries.

"You've seen those relationships that Israel has with Jordan and Egypt and Morocco and Sudan and Bahrain and UAE, even though there's been a lot of tension in those relationships after October 7th, so far those relationships have held.

"People have to understand that, as I say in the documentary, Israel was not established because the Holocaust happened. The Holocaust happened because Israel was not established. And it's really important that people realize that the Jewish people have had a connection with the land of Israel for more than 3,000 years. As former secretary of defense and secretary of foreign affairs Dennis Richardson said in the documentary, the notion of Israel as a colonial apartheid genocidal state is one of historical fantasy."

Richardson also mentions in the documentary the assistance in intelligence that Israel has given Australia over the years, that has even saved lives. He also said that had Australian experienced an attack such as that of October 7, his advice to the government would have been to go after Hamas as much as necessary.

As a former treasurer, do you have an explanation for the fact that, despite nine months of war, Israel’s economy has proved fairly resilient?

"You have a diversified economy, but you also have a very strong high tech sector. We've seen a number of companies have continued to invest despite pressure on them from abroad. And that's because companies can understand where the best and the brightest minds can be can be found. Any country that fights a war is going to see its economy facing challenges, but Israel’s economy is diversified with a very strong productive and export-orientated technology sector."

You were in politics for twelve years in a series of senior posts on behalf of the Liberal Party, and you were thought to be in line to become its next leader, but in the elections of 2022 you lost your seat. Do you miss it all?

"I thoroughly enjoyed my time in politics. It was a great privilege to be the treasurer of Australia during the pandemic. And I maintain an interest and connection with politics. But I'm also enjoying the private sector very much, and I'm enjoying the opportunity to spend more time with friends and family."

Do you have a concluding message for the public in Israel?

"There is a silent majority of people in countries like Australia who understand the dangers of antisemitism and where it can lead. They recognize the inherent strength of Israel's democracy, its economy, and the important contribution it makes to the rest of the world. They understand the difference between good and bad. Israel has many friends in Australia, and the Jewish community has many friends."

Since this interview was conducted, the Australian government has appointed Jillian Segal, a lawyer and businessperson and the immediate past president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, as its special envoy to combat antisemitism and preserve "social cohesion".

Published by Globes, Israel business news - - on July 11, 2024.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2024.

Josh Frydenberg on a visit to Yad Vashem  credit: Personal photo
Josh Frydenberg on a visit to Yad Vashem credit: Personal photo
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