‘I’m Jewish, but I am scared to show it’: Melbourne’s Jews respond to Israel attacks

By Lachlan Abbott, Nicole Precel, Melissa Cunningham and Marnie Vinall

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Benji van der Plaat says he is afraid to be a Jew at the moment. He’s one of many Jewish Australians this masthead spoke to in the community’s Melbourne heartland suburbs of Caulfield, Elsternwick and Balaclava who opened up about their fear that the violence rocking Israel and Gaza could spread.

On Wednesday morning, the mood was sombre in the usually lively Carlisle Street, Balaclava, which is full of kosher restaurants and Jewish bakeries, delis and grocers.

Shop owners stepped out from behind counters to hug and console customers, some of whom arrived at their stores in tears.

Emotions were also running high among traders, who expressed fear and anger about a rise in antisemitism.

Local Jewish community member Benji van der Plaat Credit: Eddie Jim

The owner of one Jewish bakery, who did not want to be identified, said she called the police this week after she saw footage of protesters chanting anti-Jewish sentiments in Sydney.

A few kilometres away, van der Plaat said he was left so shaken by reports of a car full of young men driving around South Yarra on Tuesday night and yelling out the window: “Where are the Jews? We want to kill the Jews” that he locked the door of the falafel store he works at in Elsternwick early that night.

“I’m Jewish, but currently I am scared to show it just because I don’t know who is on the street,” van der Plaat said. “I have always felt like I was safe in Australia, but now I don’t really feel safe anywhere.”

The 21-year-old has friends living in Israel and fighting in the army there. Like him, they are only in their early 20s. He fears for what the future holds for them.

“It is very scary,” van der Plaat said. “Everyone is so sad. We are all struggling. To see innocent people being used as human shields in Gaza … there are no words. It is just horrific. These are human beings.”

On top of the falafel shop, Israeli national Moran Susan was packing his bags to return home and fight in the war.

Moran Susan from Israel has been on a working holiday in Melbourne for about a month, but now he has to cut short his plans and go back home to join the military.Credit: Eddie Jim

The Israel Defence Forces soldier arrived in Melbourne just a month ago with dreams of a year-long adventure travelling around Australia and in South-East Asia.

When news of Hamas’ attack on Israel began lighting up his phone at the weekend, Susan was paralysed by shock and grief. Several of his friends in the army have already been killed.

“There is so much sadness, but also a sense of anger at what is happening,” the 22-year-old soldier said. “I have so many confused feelings about what’s going to happen in the future. All I hope is that peace can be reached as soon possible. All I know in my heart is that I have to return home.”

Rabbi Gabi Kaltmann turned his phone off on Saturday to observe the Sabbath – the Jewish day of rest, when some Orthodox Jews refrain from the labours of everyday life, including using technology.

Rabbi Gabi Kaltmann speaks at a synagogue in Melbourne’s inner east on Tuesday.Credit: Jason South

Kaltmann knew something was wrong only when he saw a tense security guard at his inner eastern Melbourne synagogue that night. He asked why the guard looked on high alert.

The guard explained to Kaltmann that Hamas militants had launched an unprecedented surprise attack into Israel from the Gaza Strip, killing hundreds of Jewish civilians. Hundreds of Palestinian civilians have now died after Israel responded.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Kaltmann said. “We are rocked to the core. We’re sitting here in shock and disbelief. We’re over 13,000 kilometres away. We all have family – brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts. They’re all in bomb shelters. I have a cousin that’s kidnapped – unaccounted for. They have no idea where she is.”

The rabbi turned his phone back on at the end of the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah on Sunday night, and it has not stopped lighting up since.

“There’s a sense of shock, disbelief, heartbreak, but most of all, just a huge amount of fear and anxiety …,” Kaltmann said.

Rabbi Kaltmann.Credit: Jason South

Australia historically has had one of the highest concentrations of Jewish Holocaust survivors outside of Israel.

Melbourne’s Jewish community is centred on the inner south-east. The Victorian state seat of Caulfield alone is home to 20,000 Jewish people.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese affirmed Labor’s commitment to Israel during a speech to the community during a visit to the nearby St Kilda Shule on Wednesday afternoon.

The 2021 census found Victoria had more Jews than any other Australian state at 46,645, although that does not include Jewish people who marked “no religion” on the census.

On Tuesday, police confirmed they were investigating reports a man was subject to antisemitic threats in Toorak Road, near Williams Road in South Yarra about 4pm.

“There is absolutely no place at all in our society for antisemitic or hate-based behaviour and Victoria Police is committed to responding to any such acts,” police said.

Australian Jewish leaders have been on high alert for antisemitism amid the Israel-Hamas conflict, particularly after some protesters chanted antisemitic slogans at the Sydney Opera House earlier this week.

A number of schools were reviewing or cancelling planned trips to Israel and the Community Security Group, which consults on security for Jewish schools and institutions, has raised its national threat level to severe, although it said in a statement this was precautionary rather than due to any specific threat against Victoria’s Jewish community.

Defence Minister Richard Marles said the government was considering measures to increase security for the Jewish community in Australia.

“We are looking very closely at what needs to be done in terms of additional security, particularly around Jewish schools,” Marles told radio station 3AW on Wednesday.

In an inner-south household in Melbourne, a man who asked not to be identified said his Israeli wife and two-year-old daughter were not coping. They have family in Israel.

“Every single day it gets worse and worse. I can’t stop crying. My wife is a mess; it’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to her in her life,” he said.

He said his wife was staying home because she was worried about a rise in antisemitism.

Israeli flags were dotted around Caulfield Park on Tuesday morning. Vicki Lustig, a Jewish Australian who grew up in Caulfield, took a photo as she walked past with her dog.

“I think it’s important for people of Israel to see that there’s support around the world,” she said. “It’s not just an isolated thing.”

Vicki Lustig walks past Israeli flags flying in Caulfield Park.Credit: Jason South

Lustig said Victoria’s Jewish community was united but still stressed.

“[We’re] very worried. Everybody I know has someone who they’ve heard of that is missing or affected.”

Marles and Deputy Premier Ben Carroll were among hundreds at the Caulfield Hebrew Congregation in a show of support for Australia’s Jewish community on Tuesday night.

Atida Lipshatz was also there.

She has four children – two of whom live in Israel and serve in the defence force. Her daughter and son-in-law have also been called up following the attacks.

“It’s a tough time seeing the brutality and evil that’s going on,” Lipshatz said.

Melburnians walk past a Jewish flag flying on Tuesday.Credit: Jason South

“I’ve lived in Caulfield all my life, and to contrast between our life here, and then picturing [my daughter] having to get on a bus and go through a war zone to get to where [she] is going to be serving, was really tough, as a mother.”

She has been in contact with her daughter but not her son, who is “in a very dangerous position”.

“I try and be strong for them because when I did eventually speak to my daughter, I was bawling my eyes out, and she was being strong for me, and I thought, ‘I need to be strong for her,’ ” Lipshatz said.

Other Melbourne Jewish institutions also held vigils this week.

One Jewish early learning centre conducted a prayer circle with three and four-year-olds on Tuesday. They held hands with solemn faces and sang.

The principal of Melbourne Jewish school King David, Marc Light, said it was with “utter heartbreak” that they witnessed the weekend’s attacks. He said the school had met with students to offer emotional support and share in prayers for peace.

“With total shock and disbelief we have learnt of murders, kidnapping and injuries on an unprecedented scale,” he said.

In an address to students and staff, Mount Scopus principal Rabbi James Kennard said it was the most terrible day in Jewish history since the Holocaust.

“Many of us will have family and friends in Israel, many of our staff members will have family members in Israel. Israel has called up their reserves. Hundreds of thousands of men and women, including my son,” he said.

“We don’t know what the future holds for them.”

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