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Jillian Segal appointed Australian anti-Semitism envoy as Albanese takes aim at declining social cohesion

Ellen Ransley
The Nightly
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has announced Australia’s first special envoy to combat anti-Semitism.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has announced Australia’s first special envoy to combat anti-Semitism. Credit: THOMAS PARRISH/AAPIMAGE

Anthony Albanese has taken aim at declining social cohesion as he announced Australia’s first special envoy to combat anti-Semitism.

Jewish lawyer and business leader Jillian Segal will be tasked with listening to and engaging with Jewish Australians and the broader community, against a background of anti-Semitism which she said had become “normalised” since October 7.

As Mr Albanese made the announcement at Sydney’s Jewish museum, he lamented the “quite shocking” lack of knowledge about anti-Semitism and the historical implications, and the increasing risk social media played in exacerbating racism and hate.

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Hitting out at the Greens for failing to make clear whether it believes Israel has a right to exist, Mr Albanese added that all Australians “regardless of their race or religion” should feel safe and at home in Australia.

“I have spoken with members of the Jewish community … right around Australia who had 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. Not acceptable, ever. And certainly not in Australia in 2024,” Mr Albanese said.

“We’re not having enough discourse in Australia which is civil, and the sort of slogans which are used have caused great damage and often come from a position of ignorance.

“What we need to do is to make sure that the conflict that is occurring in the Middle East, that has caused a great deal of grief for the Jewish community, for members of the Islamic and Palestinian communities — 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.”

Ms Segal, who has previously worked in the public sector as well as being a former president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry and chair of the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce, will attend the World Jewish Congress in Argentina next week.

She said anti-Semitism had “become normalised”, and warned that it “erodes all that is good and healthy in a society”.

She said it threatened not just the Jewish community, “but the entire nation”, and noted there was no “single answer to the perennial problem of anti-Semitism.”.

“Anti-Semitism is an age-old hatred. It has the capacity to lie dormant through good times and then, in times of crisis like pandemic, economic downturn, war — it awakens,” she said.

Executive Council of Australian Jewry president Jillian Segal
Jillian Segal has been appointed to address heightened levels of anti-Semitism in the community. (Dean Lewins/AAP PHOTOS) Credit: AAP

“It triggers the very worst instincts in an individual: To fear, to blame others for life’s misfortunes, and to hate. And it is often based on misinformation or inaccurate rumour, and it can spread from individual to individual to contaminate the collective, damaging life for the entire community and leading to violence, as we have seen.”

Federal Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, who on Tuesday said he was “proud to be Jewish”, said Jewish-Australians could feel more secure knowing the government had taken “concrete action” to target anti-Semitism.

He added that while one could criticise the Israeli government without being anti-Semitic, there were instances of the lines being blurred.

“When people are singling out Israel and applying a standard to Israel that they do not apply to other countries, then potentially there’s antisemitism going on,” he said.

The announcement was welcomed by the executive council, which is the peak national body of the Jewish community, who said Ms Segal would bring “deep knowledge of the issues”.

“We have seen anti-Semitism rear its ugly head on Australian campuses, in schools, in the media and social media, in the arts and culture sector and other parts of society,” president Daniel Aghion said.

Meanwhile, the Jewish Council of Australia criticised the announcement, expressing concern that having a specialised envoy would “increase racism and division by pitting Jewish communities” against Palestinian, Muslim, and other racialised communities.

It suggested the government would be better suited in addressing racism in a “principled manner” rather than “responding to lobbying”.

Executive officer Sarah Schwartz said she was also concerned “weaponising false anti-Semitism claims” would silence Palestinian supporters.

“We are concerned this anti-Semitism envoy will fail to distinguish between Jewishness and support for Israel. This risks erasing the large number of Jewish people in Australia who, like us, believe in Palestinian freedom and justice and are opposed to Israel’s violence against Palestinians,” she said.

But the announcement was welcomed by the Coalition and independent politicians.

In a joint statement, acting opposition leader Sussan Ley, immigration spokesman Dan Tehan and education spokeswoman Sarah Henderson said the appointment was “acceptance by the Albanese government that anti-Semitism is a real and present threat” across Australia.

“The Coalition welcomes any measure by the Albanese Government to bring attention to, and combat the rising tide, of anti-Semitism across Australia,” they said.

The trio said the government now needed to take “stronger” action, namely implementing the Judicial Inquiry into anti-Semitism on university campuses.

Wentworth MP Allegra Spender, who has been advocating for such an envoy for months, also welcomed Tuesday’s announcement.

“Australia is the world’s most successful multicultural nation, but social cohesion is being undermined by the rising threat of anti-Semitism,” she said.

“We cannot allow events overseas to divide Australians here at home.”

Mr Albanese confirmed he would soon announce a special envoy to combat Islamophobia.

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