‘No, of course not,’ replied a friend when I voiced the query. ‘It’s just seen as a Jewish concern.’
Just a Jewish concern? The comment bothered me. Would Catholics leave First Nations people to fend for themselves against sustained racist slander? Or accept Islamophobia outbursts as free speech?
How, then, should we respond to the fact that the organisers of AWW knowingly invited two writers with a track record of inflammatory tweets that mobilised a series of anti-Jewish tropes with a lethal history. These included derogatory generalisations about Israeli Jews as a group (‘terrorist, genocidal nation’, ‘neo-Nazi pigs’, ‘spawned by devils’) and the old smear about Jews having ‘an unquenchable thirst’ for innocent blood. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was blamed for Russia’s led invasion of Ukraine. Lest anyone missed the fact that Zelensky happens to be Jewish, he was labelled ‘a depraved Zionist’.
As one Jewish leader commented (Sydney Morning Herald 28/2/2023): ‘Australians rightly place a high value on the right to free speech, and have long recognised that the proper limits of that right are exceeded when it is exploited to disseminate racism and hate propaganda, whether emanating from the far right or the far left. Neither is acceptable’.
Little wonder that a number of writers and sponsors pulled their support from the event in protest. The free speech argument implicit in the words of the AWW director, advocating ‘conversations with substance’ and ‘truths we feel are debatable’, crumbles in this case, especially when, as already observed, there were no Israeli writers invited to balance a program featuring multiple Palestinian writers, of whom two are at the heart of the controversy.
Diversity and debate are noble ideals; but there has to be diversity of representation in order to have a debate. For most reasonable people, tweets like ‘f–k Israel’ or that call an innocent Jewish civilian murdered in a terror attack in Israel ‘human garbage’, are an abuse, not an exercise, of the right of free speech.
Many will agree that this kind of public discourse is unacceptable. Do we then relegate the matter to ‘a Jewish concern’? Not our Catholic business? Not our fight? Let’s table a few reasons why what happened at the AWW is indeed a Catholic issue, our business, our fight.
First, Catholic social teaching. We Catholics live by principles that uphold the life and dignity of the human person and solidarity for the common good. Jewish lives matter. All lives matter. The lesson of history is that dehumanising language directed against Jews, or any group, is the starting point of terrible evil. Catholics have a moral responsibility to call it out.
Second, antisemitism is a devastating fact of Christian history and decisively rejected by the Second Vatican Council (Nostra Aetate, 4). Among the offending comments mentioned are those that reignite anti-Jewish tropes found in medieval Christendom, depicting Jews as bloodthirsty child killers and ‘devils’. These dark chapters of Christian history must sensitise us to antisemitic myths when they reappear in present-day guises.
Third. It’s local. AWW has imported to Adelaide the alarming global rise in antisemitism fuelled by toxic social media feeds. Nothing could be more corrosive of Australia’s peaceful multicultural, multifaith society.
Fourth, as I write, it is Lent. Soon it will be Easter when we celebrate the transformational fruits of our weeks of prayer, repentance and renewal. But what good is that if, after centuries of Christian hostility toward Jews, we shrug our shoulders when Jews are being slandered on our watch?
What can be done, then? Certainly, we could raise our concern with the South Australian Government, a sponsor of AWW. At the very least, we can make this a teachable moment, by teaching our children or students that it is okay to argue passionately about international conflicts, but that derogatory generalisations about entire nations and faith communities are another thing altogether.
Urge them to be courageous; to speak the truth. Teach them that Catholics care about antisemitism, that it makes our list of social justice priorities. For us, it’s never ‘just a Jewish concern’.
Teresa Pirola ThD is a Sydney-based freelance writer and faith educator