Michael – you are a fucking idiot and I’d love to smash your face with a baseball bat. Self-hating Jew, you are worse than the terrorists themselves.
– Jarryd Rubinstein
I’m pretty used to people disagreeing with me about Israel. I first got into angry arguments about Israel in high school. The anger in those arguments came from people furious that I didn’t accept official dogmas about Israel.
But even at Moriah – the Jewish school I went for all 13 of my schooling years – there were always people who didn’t want arguments to go too far.
When a tall boy pushed me around, another boy stood up for me. My defender was a right-winger, and when elections were being held in Israel in 2002, was most impressed by Ariel Sharon. But he recited the lines misattributed to Voltaire – ‘I don’t agree with what you say, but I’ll die defending your right to say it.’
The tall boy wound up apologising to me, because he thought he’d gone too far. When he called me an Arab lover, another kid expressed distaste.
There were other occasions where I was called an Arab, where people expressed disgust at my views. But I never felt unsafe, and I never thought it would go further than people being angry at my views.
It was disheartening and awful to be surrounded by such a chauvinistic atmosphere, but even so, it was within certain limits, which everyone seemed to understand.
On the July 16 last month, I got into an argument on Facebook with someone I used to go to school with, and vaguely know. He posted a status declaring that it was now official: anyone who disagreed with Israel was either anti-Semitic or ignorant. They could no longer hide behind their “peaceful” motivations (his scare quotes).
I responded with laughter. He sought a response, I replied with the current death toll in Gaza, citing UN statistics on civilians killed.
He told me the problem was Hamas, and I should go to Gaza.
This is someone I barely knew, and I lost interest quickly, so I unfriended him. I sent him links to things I’d written about Israel and Palestine in recent years, and didn’t receive a reply.
In the next few days, two other Jews who’d also gone to the same school messaged me.
The first one sent me first this message: “As a Jew, I feel a sense of pride that there are Jews like Michael Brull who – regardless of the validity of their arguments or conclusions – are dedicated (at quite a cost it seems) to asking questions and thinking critically about the conflict. That being said, I can understand the impulse to attack him. However, feel strongly that it is time to move beyond that sort of approach.”
He said that it was in the thread where I was attacked, and added “I remember a year nine or ten class where you were taking on the whole class. I admire your courage.” He went on to inform me that “In the thread, someone made a disturbing attack which is what prompted me to write what I did.”
I asked him to send it to me, but was not particularly concerned – I have been called a lot of names on the internet, and I imagined it was more of the same.
In a thread on the Australian Jewish News page, someone wrote to me that “you are a self-hating Jew, & disgustingly propagate filth against your own people! How do you sleep at night?!”
I suspected it was that kind of comment – and perhaps naively thought that that was what had disturbed the person who messaged me. I asked him to send pictures of the thread, which he said he’d think about, and never did.
On the same day, another person I know from school messaged me. He wrote: “Michael, I've just been alerted to that Facebook comment chain – I took a screen shot of what I consider a threat and I think he should be reported.”
I asked for the picture, and he said he’d send it – which he did on Friday the 29th last week. He asked “maybe keep me anonymous as I actually think perhaps the guy is capable of bad stuff”. The picture looked like this
Jarryd is the shirtless guy on the left. I was pretty shocked. Which was reflected in my immediate reaction:
what?? I know him from school, that dude is like… 24 likes?? what the fuck?? people were ok with that??
Jarryd also went to Moriah. The same Jewish school in the Eastern Suburbs. He is short – about the same height as me – but he was known, even in high school, for his enormous muscles. Those interested can see various videos of him on YouTube with his shirt off.
At a website called Jewish Thinker, there is a biography of Jarryd. He has “the Guinness World Record for the most consecutive muscle ups”.
Jarryd also served “in one of Israel’s most elite combat units, the only foreigner from his intake selected to do so. After a prolonged 16 month training period, his team became operational and conducted covert missions throughout Israel and beyond.”
J-Wire has an admiring story on his strength, mentioning his time with the Israeli army – among the places he served were in Nablus and Gaza.
I knew of Jarryd in school, and for a while was friendly with his younger brother. I used to go to the same gym as Jarryd. We were amiable enough, though I imagine not many people are unfriendly to him.
The thread has since been deleted.
Shaken by the 24 likes, I assumed that the Jewish community hadn’t changed so much that Jarryd’s comment would be considered acceptable elsewhere. People I know unsurprisingly expressed shock and dismay at Jarryd’s threat.
I hoped that it would be more widely condemned, so I reached out to community organisations and Jews who I hoped would be liberal-minded on the subject.
Like my friend in school, I thought that there would be plenty who would disagree with my political views, but still defend my right to express them.
I posted a comment on the wall of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ).
The Public Affairs Director of ECAJ, Alex Ryvchin replied promptly: “Threats or acts of violence against other people because of their political or religious views are morally wrong. Always. No ifs. No buts.”
I asked if he would comment officially, and he replied that “You can take that as an official response”.
So the leading communal representative body of Australian Jews has publicly and officially condemned Jarryd’s comment.
I would prefer if they had commented to their audience, rather than just me, but the condemnation is still there. Ryvchin and I have had strong political disagreements, but this did not prevent him from rejecting the threat of violence against me.
I similarly posted the threat on the wall of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, which is the state representative body. They requested clarification a few times. When I provided them with a picture they asked me to message them the context. I duly did so, and they have yet to comment, publicly or privately.
I also contacted Rabbi Benji Levy, who I went to school with. He is currently Dean of Jewish Life and Learning at Moriah, and apparently lives in a settlement in the occupied West Bank. He declined to issue any public comment on what Jarryd said.
I contacted Manny Waks. Manny has been brave and honourable in exposing and campaigning against child sexual abuse within the Jewish community. He founded Tzedek, and used to be a vice president of ECAJ. We have had strong political disagreements before. Nevertheless, he was decent and principled. He wrote:
While I disagree with Michael's views on the Israel issue, the abuse, intimidation and violent threat he received are disgraceful and must be condemned. What is most shocking is not that we have someone among us who resorts to such standards but that he seems to have significant support. Extremism is extremism. Not in my name. We must speak out.
His comment, received 27 likes additional to my own. Prominent Jewish lawyer, and former Wentworth candidate, George Newhouse was among those who clicked like.
So did CEO of Jewish Aid Australia, Gary Samowitz. Mandi Katz, who is Vice President of the New Israel Fund Australia (NIFA), commented “agree. that's appalling. I hope Michael has reported that to the police. Don’t know Rubinstein but people who do should call him on this.”
I have been strongly critical of NIFA. For example, it posted an article by the president of NIF, which claimed Israel’s “emphasis” in its attack on Gaza was “on attacking the terrorist infrastructure in Gaza”.
Despite our political disagreements, Mandi had no problem condemning Jarryd’s comment. The issue was plainly simple enough to some.
This was because The Age had run an op ed by a Jewish woman under a pseudonym. He explained that
By allowing the piece to be published anonymously (or pseudonymously in the online version) it feeds into a ridiculous stereotype that somehow Jews who speak critically of this war will be endangered. There are plenty of leftist Jews who are having their say in the media in all its forms. If you want to speak out, then be courageous enough to cop the counter-arguments and Facebook rants. You can be sure of one thing: Jews in Diaspora communities aren’t being violent against anyone nor importing the violence of the Middle East to our country.
Put aside if all this is implicit in The Age allowing a Jewish woman to write under a pseudonym. I messaged Mark with the picture of Jarryd’s comment and the 24 likes, and asked for feedback. He didn’t comment to me.
But he later posted in an already lengthy thread the comment, and wrote “This is disgraceful”. Evidently, he didn’t feel the need to alert more of his Facebook friends to his thoughts, or to revise his earlier comment about how perfectly safe the Jewish community is.
Mark didn’t weigh in again, until the time came to ridicule another left-wing Jew from Melbourne – a comment celebrated by another allegedly progressive Zionist, Nick Dyrenfurth.
Dyrenfurth did not comment on what Jarryd said. Mark then followed this up by again accusing the Jewish leftist of stereotyping Jews, among other sins.
I asked Mark if there was any inconsistency between his comment about how safe the Jewish community is, and the threat I received, about which he had been comparatively quiet.
Mark began to downplay the significance of Jarryd’s comment: nothing “justifies the comment that threatens to smash your face with a baseball bat. I would report that to the police, as apparently you have done. But what I won't accept is that Jews in the Diaspora have a culture of violence and that that is somehow equivalent to the threats we are facing in our country and in Europe from ISIS terrorism.”
No one mentioned ISIS or had made any such comparison.
He then explained that “I'm not overly worried about you getting smashed by this one body-builder in South Africa, but I would definitely report it to the police, or dare I say it, to CSG. What I am worried about is our schools, shuls and community buildings, not to mention our public spaces in Australia.”
Which, as readers can imagine, came as an enormous relief to me – I am quite glad that Mark isn’t “overly worried” about Jarryd smashing my face with a baseball bat. I expect Jarryd regularly visits Sydney and lives nearby, but happily enough, Mark is not too troubled by this.
What really worries him is the threat to “public spaces” and so on. He didn’t bother to explain why – I guess these places may have received threats, or they may have been considered at risk of receiving threats.
Whatever the case, they are plainly undeserving of violence.
Mark went on to explain that in my own way, I am “vicious” too.
Interestingly, Mark went on to speak about a “toxic atmosphere” that I “and the Right regularly contribute to”.
Strange how before the Jewish community was a perfectly safe place to disagree, and now it’s toxic, and somehow Jarryd and I are approximately equal or otherwise comparable in our contributions to making it difficult to discuss Israel.
Mark went on to ridicule my alleged proclivity to comparing myself to “Solzhenitsyn facing expulsion to the gulags of suburbia”.
I suppose he forgot completely – or by then regarded as trivial and irrelevant – the fact that Jarryd would love to smash my face with a baseball bat, and 24 people clicked like.
Funnily enough, when Mark and I were on the same panel at Limmud Oz, he claimed that he was “crucified” for having a public panel with Palestinian advocate Samah Sabawi.
For the most part, I think of Jarryd’s comment as an aberration. Years ago, I had a cider bottle thrown through my window in Bondi. We imagined that the most likely provocation was a sticker on my car that said “free Palestine”.
When Independent Australian Jewish Voices was launched, Peter Slezak received a death threat on the phone, which he passed on to police.
I have mostly dismissed those who claim it requires courage for Jews to criticise the Israeli government.
I think it takes a certain thickness of skin, and a willingness to alienate friends and family within the community. These kinds of social sanctions, in my view, are not unbearable costs, they are simply unpleasant.
Abuse can get ugly. For example, Austen Tayshus messaged one Jewish leftist with the following comment:
In my view, none of this is unique to the Jewish community. In Australian history, there were white people who spoke out against brutalities committed against Aboriginal peoples, and they faced professional costs and social sanctions. For example, Henry Reynolds wrote that Robert Short incurred an “amount of obloquy, hatred and ill will… inconceivable to any man living in England”.
He wrote to a friend in Melbourne: “I made a thousand enemies, active and unscrupulous but scarcely half a dozen friends… it closed against me in Queensland every avenue for advancement and every channel for employment.” David Carly was assaulted and jailed for his efforts.
I had a bit of an expectation that after word of Jarryd’s comment had circulated that I would receive a rushed and insincere apology.
Jarryd is a Vice President of Noble Group in South Africa. It is ranked 76 on the Fortune 500. I would expect a company that size would not feel entirely comfortable with that kind of threat being issued by one of its senior employees.
I would think that people with that kind of corporate respectability would wish to distance themselves from the kind of comment Jarryd made.
I contemplated messaging Jarryd, but suspected his views remained unchanged. How would I persuade him that he should not smash my face with a baseball bat?
I think my face is pretty amazing, but he may not regard this as a good enough reason not to smash it. I made a statement to the police about Jarryd’s threat, and intend to get an AVO taken out.
What is interesting to note is that basically all of the major Jewish institutions and organisations have written about this issue – except that they complain about Jews being threatened for supporting the Israeli government.
For example, in this column AIJAC explained that Jews were afraid to be Jewish, in the face of intimidation and so on, and condemning and opposing such offensive behaviour “is the responsibility of our leaders, our thinkers and of reasonable people”.
In another column, the Anti-Defamation Commission explained that “Jews are increasingly feeling insecure about their safety”, and we must “be mindful of the perils of unchallenged extremism and of words that stoke the flames of intolerance and division”.
In another column by Jeremy Jones, he explained that it can’t just be Jews speaking up about threats to Jews: there needs to be “unambiguous, authoritative condemnation of such behaviour by political, religious and other leaders”.
In short, all the Jewish leaders and organisations which constantly call for everyone to condemn threats and violence and intimidation have suddenly gone missing in action.
Some have expressed condemnation of the comment, personally, to me, but evidently regard the action they should take in this instance as wildly different to the action they should take if a non-Jew was threatening a Jew.
Supporters of Israel must be allowed to feel safe, but evidently my sense of safety is not quite so pressing an issue.
I do not intend to let Jarryd’s comments affect what I think or say about Israel in the slightest.
In the words of William Lloyd Garrison, “I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch”.
I will change my mind if I am persuaded the evidence supports a contrary view. I will not be intimidated by thugs.
For those who are not in the Jewish community, who are not familiar with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I hope that you will take this as a spur to learn about the issues, because in my view, Australia is an accessory to serious and egregious human rights violations in Palestine.
To those who read this, who are not Jewish, who know that what Israel is doing is wrong, but don’t say anything about it: what’s your excuse?