Opinion: Hamas-Israel war: Peter Dutton seeks to lament community friction, while also cementing it

Opinion: Hamas-Israel war: Peter Dutton seeks to lament community friction, while also cementing it
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
Sunday 19 November 2023

By Mark Kenny

A version of this article was originally published by The Canberra Times.

Recent months have been rather clarifying for modern Australia. They have revealed how far we have progressed from the bigoted attitudes of the past.

Not for us the backward xenophobia, racial stereotyping and casual discrimination of our parents' and grandparents' generations, right?

Unless, well ... unless these unenlightened negatives were not so much defeated as deferred.

Remember, just weeks ago - with the honourable exception of the ACT - Australians told our land's original inhabitants their violent dispossession had done no harm, to sit back down and get with the program. Then we moved on.

As that played out came the astonishing inhumanity of the Hamas attacks of October 7 causing the highest Jewish death toll since the Holocaust. It brought forth Israel's pulverising aerial bombardment of Gaza, a denial of water, food, medicines and fuel, and a massive ground assault.

Our responses to these hideous events? At official levels, an asymmetric valorisation of the Israeli state, while in the community, a surge in racism with Muslims abused in the street, girls insulted for wearing the Hijab and a sickening upwelling anti-Semitism greater than anything since before WWII.

In both formalised politics and the mainstream media, partisan individuals set traps for their opponents aimed at positioning them as either good (unhesitatingly pro-Israel) or, if they opposed the starving and carpet bombing of civilians (soft on terrorism, anti-Semitic and/or pro-Hamas). Complexity, history, geography and religion, all shoehorned into this infantile framing.

The net result has been the dumbing down of public discussion and the drumming up of latent attitudes not openly expressed in half a century.

Any balanced and conscientious assessment of the situation in the Middle East would take into account historical theft, discriminations since, realities on the ground and current atrocities. It would also consider the likely ramifications, for all sides, of ongoing fighting up to and including war crimes, cognisant of soaring civilian deaths and the fact violence begets violence.

Our refusal to canvass these dimensions and to facilitate a safe space in which to do it, has been a destructive political exercise, not a constructive analytical one.

Where analysis strives for understanding by weighing the moral, legal and strategic contingencies between Israel's "right to defend itself" on the one hand, and its disproportionate response to Hamas's butchery on the other, the political imperative seeks only to arrive at a position and declare it.

Eschewing complexity it demands the validation of one side via the vilification of the other.

Little wonder we see the fracturing of social cohesion that Peter Dutton both warns of and yet openly harvests. The parallel with his performance on the Voice is stark.

Dutton's thunderous conflation in Parliament of Anthony Albanese's culpability for rising anti-Semitism, the unrelated High Court ruling against indefinite immigration detention, and the PM's (then) impending absence on APEC business, was a brazen ploy. It sought to lament community friction, while also cementing it.

The proof of Albanese's leadership failures, Dutton charged, were the divisions in Labor itself. But were those "divisions" or merely accurate reflections of the suffering on all sides.

As government and opposition leaders expressed unflinching solidarity with Israel, projecting the country's flag on national monuments, Arab and Muslim Australians felt invisible, their lives less sacred than Israelis.

Within a week of the Hamas attack, ASIO director general Mike Burgess issued a statement none-too-subtly reminding politicians to avoid "inflamed language".

ASIO's careful monitoring had shown the conflict was "resonating in the Australian community", leading to "the potential for opportunistic violence with little or no warning".

The stakes were high.

Just hours after the obscene slaughter of October 7 pro-Palestinian demonstrators had surged toward the forecourt of the Opera House with some clearly ecstatic pro-Hamas supporters chanting "gas the Jews" and "kill the Jews".

Perhaps tolerance of this disgrace emboldened others to march through the streets of predominantly Jewish Caulfield in suburban Melbourne 10 days ago in a manner clearly designed to threaten and intimidate.

Should we be surprised by these divisions? The tenor of the Voice debate had become far uglier than expected, a deliberate choice of the "no" campaign.

The lesson here is that even in ostensibly sophisticated democracies, foul racial and religious prejudices lie dormant ready to be capitalised on.

Jewish leaders cite genuine fear amid racist graffiti attacks on business and residential properties and synagogues. Abuse on public transport has become common emanating from both sides.

Julian Leeser, a federal Liberal who staked his career on backing the Voice, warns it is a very serious situation, telling Nine Media's Matthew Knott fear is at a level not seen before.

In Britain and America, similar hatreds and actual violence has surfaced.

Writing in the Jewish Chronicle, the progressive British author Jonathan Freedland asks: "Does any of us under the age of, what, 80 remember a darker time to be a Jew?" Yet Freedland also cautions Jews not to assume all marchers for Palestine are anti-Semites.

For Australians, the retort to his rhetorical question is not simply to hit back that it has been a dark time to be a Palestinian since 1948, which is true, by the way. Rather, it is to find a way to carry the pain and fear of both expat communities, simultaneously.

For Australian political leaders, Dutton included, that means putting Australian social cohesion ahead of the political dividends of greater polarisation.

Mark Kenny is a professor at the ANU Australian Studies Institute and host of the Democracy Sausage podcast.


Updated:  20 November 2023/Responsible Officer:  RSHA Director/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications