Anti-Semitism in Bondi is bad. But neo-Nazis turning up to protest is, well, not worthy of comment. Michael Brull reports on one of the more bizarre chapters in Sydney’s Jewish community history.
Here’s a weird thing. The mainstream Jewish leadership recently condemned Waverley Council for anti-Semitism, which basically wasn’t there. They made sure their voice was heard, and stood up for Jews in the Eastern Suburbs, who were allegedly discriminated against.
Then an assortment of Islamophobes proposed to hold a rally in Bondi. The supporters of the rally ranged from the far-right in the community, to neo-Nazi activists. The Jewish establishment mostly refused to say a word. Only a handful of leftist Jewish radicals expressed their fierce opposition to Nazis coming to Bondi. The leadership refused to say a single word about a convicted anti-Semite coming to protest in Bondi.
The imaginary anti-Semitism condemned by the Jewish Board of Deputies
Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe (FREE), led by Rabbi Yehoram Ulman, wanted to build a synagogue in Bondi. FREE first submitted their plan to Waverley Council in 2016. Whilst they were considering it, FREE then removed the application from the hands of the Council, and submitted it to the Land and Environment Court.
Waverley Council has had reservations about this project on that particular plot of land for “more than seven years”, according to Australian Jewish News journalist Joshua Levi. They wanted to “keep the site as open space, as it was when owned by the Maccabi Tennis Club until 2005”.
However, FREE’s application included a particular report, which ultimately caused the complications that underlay the public controversy. The report in question suggested it was possible that a car bomb with 500 kilograms of explosives could be detonated on the street. It also canvassed various other possibilities of explosives being detonated in the vicinity, as well as chemical and biological attack.
Levi reported that, “Communal leaders and security experts have expressed to The AJN absolute shock that FREE included the document. By identifying the risks, rightly or wrongly, the onus is then on FREE to address them.”
Levi went on to note that, “Waverley Council has been a partner for the Jewish community for decades and has approved dozens of security upgrades to Jewish sites within Waverley.” And they did not reject the proposal – the Land and Environment Court did.
On Wednesday, Waverley met with FREE, and indicated that they intend to reach an agreement. Levi concluded reasonably that the court’s decision “is not an attack on Judaism and it is not a win for terrorism, it’s a reflection of what happens when you tell the community that it is possible that they will be targeted by a 500kg car bomb, without offering any assurances about their safety or the fact that there has never been such an occurrence in Australia before”.
The communal body for Jews in NSW is the Jewish Board of Deputies (JBD). Its CEO is Vic Alhadeff. He responded to the original decision by claiming that it “sets a dangerous precedent”, is a “victory for terrorism” and so on. Rabbi Ulman claimed the decision “stands to stifle Jewish existence and activity in Sydney and indeed, by creating a precedent, the whole of Australia, and by extension rewarding terrorism”. A senior Jewish lawyer in Sydney observed that, “The only thing it’s a precedent for is the principle that if your application doesn’t include the required information it will be rejected.”
Another Jewish lawyer likewise summarily concluded that, “The whole issue is a beat up”.
Violent Neo-Nazis announce their support for Yemini’s protest
New Matilda has reported in the past on far right Melbourne Jew, Avi Yemini. Yemini tried to bring One Nation to the Jewish community in Melbourne, only to cancel the event in the face of public protests, and an unsubstantiated security threat. Yemini approves of Islam being described as a cancer, and wished Australia’s “immigration policy” had been set right so that “POS” Waleed Aly wouldn’t be on TV.
New Matilda editor Chris Graham covered a small sample of the hateful and racist commentary that followed. It is an entirely representative sample, other than the lack of violent rhetoric which often follows Yemini’s posts.
I conducted an email interview with Yemini in December last year. I asked him: “Suppose someone claimed that Judaism is a cancer and Jews should be banned from coming to Australia. Would you regard that position as offensive, or racist?”
His reply: “Yes.”
I asked if he considered it racist. He replied (edited for grammar and spelling): “I’d consider it anti-Semitic. Unless they’re opening up for an actual discussion where they want to talk about problems within Judaism.”
In response to the public outrage about the alleged oppression of Jews in Bondi, backed by segments of the right-wing press, Yemini announced a protest, complaining that Australia had “officially submitted to Islam”. He was the star of the coverage in the far-right and formerly pro-Nazi paper, The Daily Mail.
Yemini’s protest didn’t garner any support from Jewish organisations in Sydney. But he did get some strong support from elsewhere.
Meet Neil Erikson, a Facebook personality who describes himself as a journalist. with some 8000 followers.
Erikson posted a three minute video announcing that he would come to the rally, and hoped that his followers would too.
Erikson said that “many other Patriots” would also attend the rally, and those at the Nationalist Uprising Facebook page were interested.
Nationalist Uprising is mostly a mouthpiece for Erikson, and has some 70,000 followers.
Erikson was convicted but not jailed in 2014 for his anti-Semitic harassment of a rabbi. He explained that he thought his threats were funny. Erikson has been a member of a variety of neo Nazi groups, such as Blood and Honour, and Nationalist Alternative. He was in the United Patriot’s Front, before leaving and denouncing them as neo-Nazis.
Erikson presents himself as a reformed Nazi. He admits that from when he was about 16, he began involvement in the Nazi movement for more than a decade. As a now supposed moderate of the far-right, he spends a lot of his time on the internet trashing Muslims, Islam, the Left and so on. Some may think that he has seen the error of his ways. Yet only two years ago, he explained frankly to Blair Cottrell that this was a ruse.
He said: “My personal opinion is stick to the Muslim shit and Cultural Marxism for max support, do Jews later you don’t need to show your full hand.” Erikson also apparently welcomes violence against the left.
On the day I write this, news broke that a neo-Nazi in the US drove a car into a crowd of anti-fascists, murdering a young woman. Erikson posted a video of the car crashing into protesters, with a series of happy faces. He seems to be delighted by the Nazi murdering a non-violent leftist protester, and injuring numerous others.
Cottrell is the leader of the United Patriots Front (UPF), which Erikson used to be a member of. Cottrell is also a neo-Nazi, who wishes Hitler’s picture was “hung in every classroom and every school, and his book should be issued to every student annually”. Cottrell doesn’t like Jews very much. Or Muslims. Or women. He is also a convicted felon, who was imprisoned for 19 months for burning down his ex-partner’s house. He also stalked a man who he blamed for the breakdown in his relationship, obsessively waiting for him with knives, threatening him with a tomahawk, and throwing Molotov cocktails at his house.
Erikson and Cottrell faced charges for a small UPF protest in 2015, which caused $1,100 of damage to Bendigo Council property. Cottrell also agreed with Erikson’s advice on “do Jews later”.
He responded: “Yeah good advice and that[‘]s my current attitude as well[.] It will take years to prepare people for the Jewish problem. If any of us came out with it now we would be slaughtered by public opinion.”
Ralph Cerminara too has been in a variety of far-right sects – like in the Monty Python movie, they constantly fall out with each other and form smaller sects to oppose each other.
Cerminara used to be in the UPF – like Erikson, Cerminara now claims to be shocked by the presence of Nazis there. He is also in the Australian Defence League (I think he still is – it’s hard to keep track of all these micro-racist sects). Cerminara seems to enjoy filming himself provoking brawls.
In 2014, Cerminara went to Lakemba with a friend from the ADL. The police were “satisfied that they did so to cause unrest in Haldon Street”. They made “religiously motivated comments”, starting a brawl. Two of the three people in the brawl were injured. The two men from the ADL were charged with affray and behaving in an offensive manner.
In January 2016, another brawl occurred. This time outside an anarchist bookstore in Newtown. Four men were involved. Two were Cerminara, and another gentleman from the anti-Islam movement. They were charged with affray, and Cerminara’s associate was charged with being armed with intent to commit an indictable offence.
Cerminara, too, clicked that he was attending Yemini’s protest in Bondi. As did another gentleman who had as his Facebook display picture a UPF image.
The strange (lack of) response to Nazis coming to Bondi
Theoretically, all of this should have been straightforward. There was no real issue of anti-Semitism from Waverley Council, as the Jewish News reporting demonstrated. Yet suppose that there were people who were ill-informed about this issue. Those concerned about the alleged anti-Semitism from the council should have been even more concerned about the protest. Protesters with neo-Nazi backgrounds, with records of violent behaviour and anti-Semitic harassment were coming to a community with many Jews. Surely it would have been easy to get those concerned about anti-Semitism to denounce the Nazis, and express concern.
Not so much. Leftist Jewish activists attended the FREE synagogue to ask Rabbi Ulman to distance himself from Yemini and the neo-Nazi protesters. He refused. I asked the peak body for Jews in Australia, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry for comment. They referred me to the JBD. I asked the JBD for comment. Their response in full: “We believe it is counterproductive”.
I asked if they had a comment on people like Erikson coming to Bondi to protest. They didn’t respond.
I contacted Leon Goltsman, a Liberal Jewish Councillor on Waverley Council. He was anxious to explain that he had “no objection to the shul [synagogue]”, and hadn’t been “given a chance to vote on it”. He wished they hadn’t gone to the L&E Court. Asked about the protest, he said, “I’ve always been in favour for people to express themselves whichever way they see fit.”
In response to repeated queries about Erikson specifically, Goltsman replied, “What it comes down to is that I have faith in our community and believe they will behave themselves in a respectable and considerate manner.”
Essentially, those of us on the left in the community were somewhat isolated. It turned out, the Jewish establishment was unconcerned about Nazis coming to Bondi. A petition urging Rabbi Ulman to distance himself from Nazi protesters gathered a meagre 277 signatories.
However, the online agitation seems to have had some effect. Yemini eventually made a video where he addressed his critics among the “antifa groups” and “far left Jews”. Yemini said that Erikson is a former Nazi, who has “reformed”. Neil Erikson that the conversation is being made about him, so he backed out of the rally. Yemini urged Nazis not to attend his rally.
Neo-Nazis and/or face coverings will not be tolerated at my Rally for Bondi Synagogue this Sunday.I hope to see you all from 3.30pm.
Posted by Avi Yemini on Tuesday, August 8, 2017
Erikson made his own video where he explained that he wasn’t going to go to the rally because “a lot of left, lefties and certain people putting pressure on certain people to stop me from going”. He said that leftists were trying to make the rally “about me” to destroy Yemini’s rally. This was because, as he put it, he is a “reformed Nazi”. He concluded that “Certain people on the left” are “trying to intimidate certain individuals within the Jewish community”.
It seems likely that this response came from a small group of Jewish activists in Sydney and our supporters among Jewish activists in Melbourne who organised against Yemini’s rally. No communal organisations got on board, the Daily Mail wasn’t interested in breathlessly reporting on our perspective. After Yemini’s protest was cancelled (due to an agreement being reached by FREE and Waverley), 2GB radio invited on Yemini to discuss the issue. Ben Fordham claimed a “huge rally” was planned. In fact, about 120 people clicked that they were attending – it is likely fewer would have shown up. Yemini garnered no support from communal organisations. Unless you count the Institute of Public Affairs, the right-wing corporate “think tank” which endorsed his protest.
Australian Jewish News the exception
The Jewish News is the only media that has covered the controversy about the synagogue accurately. It is also the only media that has reported critically about the rally. The editorial expressed concern about Erikson, noting some of his anti-Semitic record. It noted that “Erikson was not the only supporter of the planned protest whose associations should spark our concern.”
The editorial cautiously said that:
“While the passion infusing [Yemini’s] advocacy for Israel and the community are commendable, and while there is no question that others within Australian Jewry share his views, comments that he and others have posted on his Facebook page reveal a tendency towards the far right that does not sit comfortably with a people who have traditionally been first in the far right’s firing line.”
It went on:
“Just as we call for moderate mainstream Muslims to speak out against radical Islamism, so too moderate mainstream Jews must ensure that their voices are not drowned out in the public sphere by those on the fringes.
The issue of the FREE shule is a case in point. There had already been enough misinformation spread about it, without it then being hijacked by those with a radical agenda.”
The Jewish News should be commended for its reporting on this issue. Yet it is hard not to notice that their opposition to Nazis protesting in Bondi was isolated. Jewish organisations that are not shy about making their voice heard on anti-Semitism – including about the rejection of the synagogue application – apparently couldn’t take a position on Nazis coming to Bondi.
Media figures like Ben Fordham, Rita Panahi and Andrew Bolt took a(n ill-informed) position on the synagogue issue – but not on neo-Nazi protesters coming to a suburb full of Jews.
I don’t really know what to say. I have found this affair dumbfounding. I understand that Islamophobia is controversial in Australia, given widespread animus and suspicion towards Islam and Muslims. Yet I imagined that opposing neo-Nazi thugs would be straightforward. Somehow, it wasn’t.
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