Can you start by telling us how it was that Jews against fascism was formed?
In April 2015 Melbourne saw the largest street mobilisation of the far right for decades when Reclaim Australia held their rally. This was also one of the largest counter rallies that was held at the time. I think a number of us were pretty shocked not just by the comfort with which the organisers felt they could just arrive with a racist message in the heart of Melbourne, but with the arrival of out and proud neo-Nazis as back up support. On that day neo-Nazis came as neo-Nazis, they did not hide the fact – as they usually would: it was pretty distressing seeing swastikas on the street. But it also made it perfectly clear what we were up against. Neo-Nazis clearly saw this as an opportunity to build and consolidate their movement. Jews against Fascism slowly formed over 2016 in response to the various splitting and splintering of Reclaim Australia and the growth of the various far-right, fascist and neo-Nazi nationalist movements that grew out of it.
Why do you think it is significant to challenge fascism specifically from a Jewish platform?
Jews have experienced the logical end of fascism. We know where fascism takes us. One of the things that we have tried to emphasise is the importance of historical consciousness and of memory, whilst also elevating the voices of those experiencing the sharp end of racism and fascism today. Jews not only have a very important, indeed a vital stake in combating fascism, we have a heap of culture, politics and history that is entangled in this fight. By bringing our Jewishness to the foreground in anti-fascist work we seek to open space for others targeted by fascism and racism to formulate new, radical anti-racist political subjectivities. The rise of the far right has brought antisemitism back as a vital issue for the left. While we appreciate all the allies we can get in this fight, we’re not going to let non-Jewish people speak on our behalf or make us antisemitism into an abstract issue.
What do you hope to achieve with this group? What are some of your objectives?
For now it is pretty simple. This is to expose fascists, to isolate them, where possible refuse them a platform, to build and be a part of an anti-fascist movement. There is also an element that might have once been referred to as “consciousness raising”, we want to – and we think we have quite successfully in many ways – get people thinking about and acting on these issues. A couple of times we’ve been in the right position to call for and organise demonstrations against far right events in the Jewish community. We see mobilising a physical presence to challenge events like these as hugely important and we have been very successful so far. (see below)
We also want to create something of a home for lefty Jews to feel connected with their Jewishness, and to feel like they too can stretch Jewishness so that it is something that they too can wear. I guess presenting a model of Jewishness rooted in an uncompromising social justice ethic. We really want to be part of community, and the way we do that is not by looking at crusted on leadership, but by looking to ourselves and what we can create.
How antisemitic is the far right and fascist movement in Australia?
These things are a spectrum, but when you look the Islamophobia of these movements it is like they have modelled it directly and unselfconsciously on classic anti-Semitism: from international conspiracies, blood libels, accusations of corrupting culture, etc. Even when these movements are not speaking directly about Jews they need antisemitism, or something that looks like it, to be the engine for their racialised conspiratorial worldview.
What are your ideas around the best ways of defeating fascism?
In a way this is nothing new. As we said we are interested in ways of exposing and isolating fascists. Our Facebook page has been a good (and sometimes fun) platform for doing this. We are interested in ways of building and contributing to mass movements. We have a particular interest in working with other Jews to see what kind of magic we can make together. However, this, really, is only a part of our work and the work that needs to be done. The rise of fascism in Australia has not occurred in a vacuum, but has been bolstered, encouraged and fostered by systemic racism, particularly towards Aboriginal people, to refugees, to Black and people of colour, and Muslims. We see this day in day out in the words and actions of politicians, in the media, in the cops, in cultural institutions. It will be impossible to really defeat fascism unless we can in a very serious way build responses to this in our movement. White supremacy and white nationalism is bigger than the knuckledraggers that we meet in the street. As things stand this is probably the harder struggle we face.
Jews against fascism have been central in leading campaigns to prevent racists and fascists from having a platform, with amazing success. Can you talk a little bit about that?
I guess we really found our feet when local Jewish fascist Avi Yemini decided he wanted to bring Pauline Hanson and Malcolm Roberts to Caulfield to speak to Jews. We organised a demonstration that promised to follow the event anywhere it decided to go. As a result of our work the organisers got cold feet and cancelled the event. This was helped along by mates in the broader anti-fascist movement, as well as the broader Jewish community who were pretty happy to tell Hanson and Roberts to bugger off. We’ve had similar success when Yemini was planning to protest over a shul construction denial in Sydney where he’d made a weird connection with Muslims and he wound up begging his neo-Nazi mates not to come. There was also an event held by some far-right “respectable racists” called ‘The Threat of Islam to Jews’ where we had two conservative Jewish groups cancel the venue bookings for event because it ‘fomented hatred and fear’. In the end they had to hold the event in secret – we had someone leak us the info an hour or so before the event but it was too late by that point to do anything. When Yemini organised a rally to “Make Victoria White Again’ (or whatever it was about) we were really proud of the numbers we – both Jaf and the Australian Jewish Democratic society together – were able to bring and to march behind our banner, both from within the Jewish community and the broader anti-fascist solidarity movement. These are all small wins, but they are wins nonetheless.
Is there a strong history of Jewish involvement in anti-fascist movements?
Indeed there is! Jews were involved inter alia in fighting fascism in the Spanish civil war, in defeating Oswald Mosley and the BUF at the battle of Cable Street, and of course fighting against Nazis in Europe a multitude of ways including the famous Ghetto revolts. In Jews Against Fascism we take particular inspiration from the Melbourne based Jewish Council to Combat Fascism and Anti-Semitism, a left wing Jewish antifascist body formed in the early 1940s that combined practical monitoring and exposure work with public advocacy, propaganda work and campaigns in alliance with left wing groups and civil society to combat fascism, authoritarianism, racism and colonialism. The Jewish Council understood th
at a Jewish fight against antisemitism could not be solved by nationalism it could only be solved by joining with non-Jews in a common fight against the international system that produces fascism and racism.
That brings me onto the next question, from your experience and online presence, can you tell us your experience of antisemitism? Where its coming from and how does it manifest amongst different political and cultural communities?
We have been involved in the left for a good period of our lives and have indeed come across small instances of what could be deemed lazy antisemitism and insensitivity there. This is not something to be ignored and any left movement worth its salt needs to address this. To be honest though these instances pale in comparison to the type of organised antisemitism propagated by the far right. Modern racialised antisemitism should be understood as a political movement and worldview with roots in 19th century Europe. Anti-Jewish prejudice is of course much older than this but modern antisemitism is different because it involves 1. the racialisation of Jewish people 2. Jewish people as central to a conspiratorial worldview, and 3. antisemitism as the basis of a racist, anti-democratic, irrational and illiberal political movement. Low level antisemitic views, including stereotypes about Jews are relatively prevalent across different political and cultural communities in Australia. The root of these ideas and their weaponisation however is in the far right.
One of the arguments often used by the far right is freedom of speech. What is your response to that?
They are not actually interested in free speech. If they were they would not sustain ongoing campaigns against people – Muslims in particular – exercising their free speech. If they were they wouldn’t be sooking every time we turn up and protest outside their event. I’m not sure about everyone involved but we probably take a view that limits on free speech is something that governments do. If you want to to say hateful things then they cannot expect us to be tolerant, or to tolerate that. We will speak back. And we will be disrespectful and impolite and obnoxious when we do.
I don’t know where they got the impression that we were free speech warriors, but they do seem to think our activism is hypocritical for some silly reason or another. What they have done is appropriated a ‘free speech’ discourse for a hate speech platform, as if their struggles to bash Muslims were in some way equivalent to civil rights marchers in Selma, or anti-Nazi organisers of Berlin. They call us fascists regularly, as if the defining element of fascism is getting in someone’s face when they are being racist. This kind of infantile, narcissistic understanding of fascism is so outside of the earth’s orbit as to be farcical.
In what ways can people get involved and support the work that you do?
We are really keen to build networks with other anti-racism activity, and particularly other networks of Jews in Australia and internationally out there doing good work. We’d love to sit down with different groups to see how we can best work together (even if we don’t always agree!). Otherwise people can support Jews against Fascism by liking and sharing our posts on Facebook, or if they are really keen to make a small donation (we will send stickers! Message our page for more info).
What’s your advice for people working to stop the growth of the far right in Australia?
Come together. Inspire your mates. Be creative. Work with other groups. Be a part of mass movements. Find people with similar interests. Don’t forget the systemic sources of fascism.
Thank you JaF for your time, and keep up the great work!
You can keep up to date with what trouble Jews Against Fascism are causing by following their Facebook page. Please see here.
Jews Against Fascism speech at counter protest to Avi Yemini
This article has been published in the AJDS magazine Just Voices, Issue 14, Nov. 2017: Antisemitism.