This past August, while on a lecture tour in Australia, I was asked to deliver a sermon about the Torah portion Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8) at a small, tranquil synagogue in the Sydney suburb where I was staying, Bondi Beach. I walked to the synagogue with my kippah-wearing host, Michael Mizrahi, along with his wife and enchanting small children. It was a pleasant stroll in lovely weather.
Bondi Beach is a unique place. Its beach is the most popular and glittering of cosmopolitan Sydney's many waterfronts. The hordes of young people who come to Australia to work over the summers dream of being able to live in the neighborhood, which is not cheap. Jews, mostly from Hungary, settled there after World War II, and amid the kosher butcher shops, synagogues, delicatessens and boutique specializing in Israeli wines one also finds many night clubs, bars and coffee shops catering to the surfers and blonde women who populate Sydney's beaches. How natural that the Chabad-Lubavitch movement chose to locate a center there as well. In my many travels over the last 30 years, rarely have I seen a place where salted fish and surfers coexist so happily.
Having spent many years abroad as an Israeli journalist and diplomat, I often encountered anti-Semitic incidents and covered them. It's hard to expect a Jew approaching the sixth decade of his life to remain innocent. But there was something innocent and fascinating, almost otherworldly, in that family Shabbat morning stroll, wearing kippot, as if we were in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.
"There is no danger?" I asked Michael as we passed a crowded cafe.
"Look around you," my host said. "This is a place where Jews and non-Jews have lived together for years. A kippah is part of the scenery."
Except that reality has a habit of intruding. Despite the great distance, Australia is aware of what is happening in the rest of the world. Perhaps this is why, at the entrance to a larger synagogue near the one I visited, a security guard was stationed. A Jew must always fear the worst, so much more so if he arrived here from Hungary, Germany or Poland. To tell you the truth, after the pleasant morning walk, the guard struck me as nothing more than a decoration.
And perhaps because of those pleasant memories, I was stunned by what happened over the weekend in that same tranquil and enchanting place, Bondi Beach, stronghold of Sydney Jews. A group of worshippers returning from the evening prayer service was attacked by a gang of Australian youth, some no more than 18 years old, right in front of one of the popular hotels. This didn't happen in some alley but on a major street, in a country where people fear getting into trouble with the police, who are reputed to be tough. Some of the people from the synagogue ended up in the hospital with serious injuries. As if we were living in Europe in the 1930s.
When Shabbat was over I spoke with friends who live nearby. One of them told me the authorities had labeled the crime an act of anti-Semitism but he thought it was hooliganism by drunk youths, of whom there is no shortage in that neighborhood at night. Except that most of my friends, including those in Melbourne and Perth, on Australia's western coast, were shocked by the incident.
I was curious as to the attackers' identities. Were they Muslims who lived in several Sydney neighborhoods I had visited, importing the Middle East conflict Down Under, as they have done in Europe? Not at all. They were local youth, I was told. And this may be the most dangerous thing. While we fear that Muslim communities around the world will import the conflict to their new countries, the radical Right thrives and renews its anti-Semitic doctrines.
My lectures in Australia were meant to persuade the community to come to Israel's aid. Once again it was proven, for the who-knows-what time, that helping Israel is helping Jews as a whole.
How ironic that just Sunday night, the first Jewish students house was dedicated in Berlin? In part, the students' house will be dedicated to pro-Israel activity to counter the anti-Israeli current in the city, as I was told by those promoting the project. How fortunate that there is an even more thriving project known as the state of Israel. If the wonderful and warm Australian Jewish community invited me next year to speak on precisely the same Torah portion, I would merely quote the first verse, Deuteronomy 26:1: "Ki tavo el haaretz" ("When you come to the land.")