Elections are usually a time of colourful candidates and robust debates, of tedious ads and glittering promises. However, the 2019 Australian federal election campaign was marred with an unusually high number of incidents of racism and bigotry directed towards candidates. Candidates of Aboriginal, Asian, Jewish and Arab-Muslim background were targeted.
Major “Moogy” Sumner, a South Australian Senate candidate for the Greens, and an Aboriginal man, had one of his election corflutes daubed with the words “Kill All Abos” across the image of his face, and his name was crossed out. Another candidate of Aboriginal background, Jacinta Price, Liberal candidate in the Northern Territory, was called a “coconut” (“black on the outside and white on the inside”), a slur used against Aborigines who are considered too assimilated or sympathetic to Australia’s predominantly Anglo-European culture.
George Hua, a Liberal candidate in Melbourne, of Chinese ethnicity, had his campaign poster defaced with the words “NO CHINA” and his face crossed out. Anne Aly, a Labor candidate in Perth, of Egyptian Muslim background, was the subject of flyers which used, what it claimed, was her full name in Arabic, in order to heighten the claim that she had “Voted to weaken our borders” and “Proposed Blasphemy laws like Saudi Arabia: Aly proposed to extend racial laws to cover religions to prevent any criticism of Islam.”
Several candidates of Jewish (or presumed Jewish) background were also targeted due to their ethnicity. These included Josh Frydenberg in Melbourne, Julian Leeser and Jason Falinski, both in Sydney, all sitting Liberal MPs. Their *corflutes were defaced with antisemitic graffiti, which included swastikas, Hitler moustaches, dollar signs and devil’s horns. A non-Jewish candidate, Dave Sharma, the Liberal candidate for Wentworth in Sydney, which has a large number of Jewish voters, had a Hitler moustache daubed on his posters.
Another Jewish candidate, Kerryn Phelps, an Independent MP for Wentworth, and a doctor, was subjected to a vicious display of hate through a barrage of thousands of antisemitic and homophobic emails. The campaign was composed of a series of six different forms of emails which were sent to people from Melbourne to the Gold Coast and beyond, not just to voters in Wentworth.
One email, dated 15 April, accused Phelps and the Jewish community of “spreading measles and many other diseases,” a trope from medieval times. It claimed that Phelps was “bringing in thousands of sick kids from refugee camps ― full of diseases ― into Australia, and plans to spread the plague to every corner of Australia so she can make a fortune treating patients.” Another email, dated 26 April, called for more swastikas to be painted around the Wentworth electorate as “the Jews are afraid of swastika … don’t vote for any Jewish candidate like Kerryn Phelps.” Murals at Bondi Beach had been defaced twice in 2019 with multiple swastikas.
An email, dated 5 May, falsely claimed that “Kerryn Phelps has been disqualified from election, she is a Jew … don’t vote for Jews like Kerryn Phelps, they are ALL automatic Israeli citizen.” Another email, dated 7 May, claimed that “the Jews are sitting on our heads … stop the Jew to spead [sic] the measles …” The email, dated 12 May, again falsely claimed that “Kerryn Phelps … is in jail … she is Jew … her fellow unvaccinated Jews spreading measles across country … When Dave Sharma is elected, we can all put up swastikas everywhere and celebrate legally! Seeing swastikas everywhere in Wentworth [sic], Jews and gays will behave themselves … don’t vote for Jew/Gay, they spread measles/AIDS all over the place.”
The insidious and false claims in the graffiti and emails were disturbing. The target was all Australian Jews, not just the candidates. In response to these attacks, Julian Leeser noted that antisemitism and its various expressions and stereotypes were not always recognised by non-Jews. Leeser stated:
A number of people didn’t understand the meaning of the dollar signs being painted on my face ― a number of educated, thoughtful, non-Jewish people. We may need some new thinking in that space because educated people who are not Jewish don’t necessarily see things that [Jewish people] see. We’ve grown up with [these things] in a particular cultural milieu by being part of the community and carrying the history of being a Jewish person.
While swastika graffiti featured prominently on election posters of Jewish candidates, it also appeared on posters of some non-Jewish candidates, notably Greens candidates. Why does targeting Jews and non-Jews with the same symbol evoke different responses? Non-Jewish Greens candidates were not being targeted with swastikas due to their ethnicity, whereas Jewish candidates were.
The Nazi style of the swastika differs from the Hindu original and is a specifically anti-Jewish symbol. From 1910 onwards, Guido von List, a nationalist ideologist, declared and taught that the swastika symbolised “the purity of Germanic blood and the struggle of the ‘Aryans’ against the Jews” and that “someday Jews would be castrated and killed under the aegis of that ancient sun-symbol.” The swastika was adopted by Hitler’s Nazi party and then by Nazi Germany which rounded up and murdered six million Jews.
The devil’s horns that defaced Frydenberg’s posters have a long antisemitic history. The belief that Jews have horns (and sometimes even hooves and tails) has been a staple of Christian antisemitism since the Middle Ages. The idea probably derived from Christian texts referring to Jews as the “synagogue of Satan” (Revelation 2:9 and 3:9) and as belonging to “your father the devil” (John 8:44). Historian Norman Cohn has noted that one of the imposed “badges” that Jews were forced to wear by Christian authorities in medieval times, in order to identify them as Jews, was the horned hat. A law was passed to that effect in Vienna in 1267, and there are other examples.
The idea that Jews had horns was revived in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, particularly in Czarist Russia. Sacha Baron Cohen, in the 2006 movie Borat, satirised the persistence and prevalence of this myth when he mockingly portrayed some modern day Americans willingly joining in to singing a song he had made up: “Throw the Jew down the well, so my country can be free, you must grab him by his horns, then we have a big party.”
The stereotype of connecting Jews and money is well known. It originated in the multiple restrictive laws Jews were forced to live under in Europe for hundreds of years. Jews were prohibited from owning land or working in trades. Often the only occupation available was the one forbidden to Christians , lending money at interest. In some cases, individual Jews were compelled to become money lenders. Such an odious occupation was fraught with great dangers, especially if the borrower was powerful or influential and was unwilling or unable to pay back the loan. The lender and/or Jews in general would then be accused of some heinous, entirely fabricated crime in order to create a false pretext for not repaying the debt.
Time and again Jewish communities were attacked and often massacred, such as occurred in York in 1190, when Jews were burned alive. In English literature, the caricature of the “money grasping-Jew” is well known through the fictional characters of Shylock and Fagin, which has embedded the racist stereotype into English culture.
The fact that Josh Frydenberg is the nation’s Treasurer could provide a possible reason for the dollar signs being painted on his campaign poster; however, antisemitic intent is a more likely reason. When a second Jewish MP and candidate, Julian Leeser, also had dollar signs graffitied on his posters, the antisemitism was unambiguous. As Leeser explained:
The $$ refer to old antisemitic lies of an international Jewish banking conspiracy; that Jews have control of the world’s money supply. These sentiments were used by Nazis and others who have sought to spread hatred of Jews for centuries.
Even in contemporary Australia Jewish school children have had coins thrown in front of them by other pupils, often along with the chant “Jew! Jew!”
The accusation that “the Jews” are diseased and spread the plague originates with an Egyptian priest, Manetho, in ancient Alexandria in about 250 BCE. As an Egyptian nationalist, he was so outraged over the biblical account of the exodus of the Jewish slaves from tyrannical Egypt, that he fabricated the story that the Jews were expelled from Egypt due to being leprous. This falsehood spread throughout the Greek and Roman empires, down to modern-era antisemites.
The Black Death that killed tens of millions of people, a third of the population in Europe, from 1347 onwards was often blamed on the Jews. A myth was developed that the plague was caused by an international conspiracy of Jewry to poison and destroy Christendom. The Jews were accused of poisoning the water-wells. In frenzied retaliation, whole Jewish communities throughout Europe were slaughtered ― more than 200 Jewish communities. We now know that the bubonic plague was caused by plague-infected fleas on rats. But the trope of Jews as well-poisoners and plague-spreaders remains alive even today.
The use of tropes and stereotypes about Jews having horns, or spreading disease, or being connected to money in the context of a federal election campaign in Australia, and the deployment of Nazi symbols against Jewish candidates, created a toxic undercurrent of Jew-hatred which is unusual in Australian politics. Many non-Jews may not be familiar with these tropes and their murderous history, but most antisemites and Jews are.
In this election campaign, the fact that many candidates were targeted due to their race, ethnicity or religion is of major concern. It shows that racists and bigots feel that it is now acceptable to engage in such behaviour. Racists and bigots are much more likely to speak publicly and act on their hatred when they sense the societal atmosphere is amenable to such ideas and acts. The threat to Australia’s future as a cohesive, peaceful and prosperous society should be obvious. It should be equally obvious that the threat needs to be called out from the top, by political and civil society leaders across the board.