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Australia has its first antisemitism special envoy, with an Islamophobia special envoy to follow. What will this mean?

The Albanese government has named Jewish lawyer and businesswoman Jillian Segal as the county’s first antisemitism special envoy. The appointment was made in response to rising incidents of violence against Jewish people against the backdrop of the Gaza war. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the government would also soon appoint an Islamophobia special envoy.

So what are these roles and why are they needed?

When overseas wars reach Australian shores

Overseas conflicts often lead to tensions within diaspora communities. The Israeli–Palestinian war, due to its global symbolic importance and high death toll, is creating significant strain worldwide. Australia is not immune to this, and there have been ongoing incidents and friction that have the potential to fracture Australia’s multicultural society.

Since October 7 and the subsequent war, documented incidents of hate have dramatically increased, globally and in Australia. These have included antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents ranging from verbal abuse and graffiti to extremely serious incidents of physical assault.

This in turn has led both communities to feel traumatised, unsafe, and frustrated with the government’s inability to protect them. On top this, there is the feeling in both communities that these problems are not being taken seriously.

While antisemitism and Islamophobia were both tracked in Australia long before October 7, the recent escalation in Israel and Gaza has seen reports increase dramatically. The creation of antisemitism and Islamophobia envoys is one of the ways the Australian government is trying to address this delicate situation.

Antisemitism special envoys are not an invention of the Albanese government. They exist in many countries, including Canada, the United States and Germany.

In Australia, the antisemitism envoy’s responsibilities will likely include recommending stronger anti-vilification laws and better reporting of hate crimes. This will also likely include better support for hate crime victims, leading education and advocacy activities to combat anti-Jewish sentiment, and attending international conferences to discuss antisemitism with other global envoys. The envoy will report directly to the prime minister and the minister for immigration, citizenship and multicultural affairs.

Contestation around the nomination

Segal is the past president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ), an umbrella organisation for more than 200 Jewish organisations across Australia. The ECAJ has a broad national reach and more members than any other Jewish community organisation, considering the membership of its affiliates.

However, some Jewish voices have vocally opposed the ECAJ and its positions in support of the military operations in Gaza, which Segal has publicly endorsed multiple times. For this reason, smaller-scale Jewish community organisations such as the Jewish Council of Australia have criticised her appointment, saying it “risks breeding divisions”.

Another key point of contention is whether anti-Israel positions should be considered antisemitic. The ECAJ adopts the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism (adopted by 44 countries globally, including Australia), which includes both incidents targeting Jewish identity and those targeting Israel using antisemitic themes, such as drawing comparisons between contemporary Israeli policy and that of the Nazis.

Some, including pro-Palestinian voices and critical voices within the Jewish community, criticise the IHRA definition of antisemitism, accusing it of being used to silence legitimate criticism of Israel. Supporters of the IHRA definition argue such criticism is permissible, but not when it uses antisemitic tropes or dehumanisation. The debate is highly contentious.

Where is the Islamophobia envoy?

Like the antisemitism envoy, Islamophobia envoys are not an invention of the Albanese government. Canada has a special representative for combating Islamophobia, and earlier this year, a UN general assembly resolution requested a special envoy to combat Islamophobia.

However, while Albanese announced one would be appointed soon, it’s been “more of a challenge”, and at this stage, the envoy has not been announced.

The reasons for this “challenge” were not explained by Albanese, so we can only speculate as to the reason behind the delayed announcement. It may be because it’s harder to identify a body that represents Muslim communities with a national reach comparable to the ECAJ. The ECAJ’s structure, with state-based constituents and affiliate organisations, has provided the Jewish community with a clear point of contact for the government and other stakeholders.

While there are national bodies such as the Australian National Imams Council (ANIC) and Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC), they operate both structurally and in practice quite differently to ECAJ. This means the Albanese government would have needed to consult more widely to get a truly representative insight into who the diverse Muslim community would support in the role.

Whatever the reason, the lack of announcement of the Islamophobia envoy alongside the antisemitism envoy risks giving the impression to Muslim communities that the government is not being evenhanded with both groups, a sentiment that is already felt by some.

However, the Albanese government would say such a conclusion is incorrect, and that although the government wanted to announce both envoys simultaneously, the antisemitism envoy was appointed now because of the upcoming World Jewish Congress in Argentina. In addition, Segal was secured months ago (her appointment was first flagged by Sky News in April, and the Islamophobia envoy will be announced soon as they are confirmed.

It serves no-one’s purpose to pit antisemitism and Islamophobia against each other, as both are manifestations of hate – and often perpetrated by the same individuals. Certainly, the war in Gaza complicates and heightens these matters, and navigating these complexities is precisely what the antisemitism and Islamophobia envoys will need to do.

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