Preserving Religious Tolerance: the Gift of South Australia

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Adelaide Holocaust Museum
24 May 2024

It is an honour to speak to the leaders of Adelaide’s Jewish community.

Just as there were Jews in Australia since the First Fleet, there have been Jews in South Australia since the foundation of the colony in 1836.

My own family story traces its roots to 19th Century Adelaide. Two branches of my family, the Levy and the Solomon families, came to the Colony of South Australia in the 19th century.

Let me say something of my Solomon forebears.

My great-great-great grandfather was Abraham Jacob Solomon who came to South Australia in 1849 aged 26 with his 20-year-old wife Julia Isaacs – they had married earlier that year in London.

Abraham was the grandson of a world-renowned matzah baker and Reader. A Reader is the person who leads the services – what today we would call in Hebrew Chazzan or Cantor.

Abraham was the first Chazzan at the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation.

He officiated at the consecration of the first Synagogue in September 1850.

He also worked as a mohel.It is said that from 1850-1876, Abraham performed over 150 Brit Milah ceremonies in city and country homes.

In the early 1850s he left Adelaide briefly for the Victorian Goldfields. On returning from the Goldfields he became a hotel and theatre licensee. His properties included the Victoria Theatre, the Austral Hotel, the Theatre Inn, Temple Tavern and Blenheim.

Abraham and Julia had 12 children – there wasn’t much to do in Adelaide in those days!

Henry “Harry” Solomon, my great-great grandfather was born on 12 October 1861 in Adelaide.  He was the sixth of 12.

The assistant Chazzan of the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation was Philip Phillips (my other great-great-great grandfather).

Philip Phillips’ daughter Hannah Anne (my great-great grandmother) married Harry Solomon on 11 August 1886 with the Rabbi of the congregation, Rev Abraham Boas, presiding.

Harry and Hannah had five daughters.

Their second daughter, my great-grandmother Julia Esther Solomon, after whom I was named, was born here in Adelaide on 3 February 1889.

So in some respects this is a homecoming.

The contribution of Jewish Australians

Of course South Australia produced more famous Solomons than Abraham and his family.

Chief among these was Vaiben Louis Solomon – no relation. To this day he is still Australia’s only Jewish head of government. 

He was premier of South Australia for a week in 1899.

Like Sir Isaac Isaacs he was a delegate to the Federal Conventions in the 1890s. He had a wide range of business interests in the Northern Territory.

Vaiben Solomon was one of several Jews who served in the first federal parliament in 1901, including Isaac Isaacs, Pharez Phillips, and Elias Solomon (a distant cousin of Vaiben).

This is extraordinary when you realise that at federation the Jewish population of Australia was a mere 15,000 people of a population of 3.8 million – or 0.4 of 1 percent of the population of Australia. 

Many Jews served in colonial parliaments.

Indeed, four years before the first Jew was admitted to the House of Commons, Sir Saul Samuel served in the first NSW Legislative Council in 1854 and in 1860 he became the first Jew in the British Empire to become a minister of the Crown.

In South Australia too, there were at least seven Jews who served in the colonial parliament here.

There has been a wonderful tradition of Jewish Australians serving the country in time of peace and time of war.

Most Australians can name Sir John Monash, but fewer can name the Jewish Australian VC winner Leonard Keysor, who won his VC at Lone Pine; or the distinguished Australian World War Two General Paul Cullen; or Private Greg Sher, who made the supreme sacrifice serving with special forces in Afghanistan.

I tell these stories because right from the beginning the Australian story has also been a Jewish story.

Australia is one of the few places in world history that has never discriminated against Jewish people. Jewish Australians have flourished and have always sought to give back to this wonderful country.

Of course, stories, freedom and contribution are not unique to the Jewish community. They are the bedrock of the Australia’s multicultural story.  When you give people freedom and opportunity they flourish and contribute – that is the Australian achievement.

South Australia was a place where multiculturalism flourished long before people thought of that term.

South Australia has no established religion. It was an experimental colony and was a place which welcomed religious dissenters. So every imaginable Christian denomination flourished – Methodists, Unitarians and Lutherans who had found persecution in other parts of the world were free to worship here.

As my own family story indicated there has been a thriving Jewish community since the foundation of the colony.

South Australia is also home to Australia’s first mosque, built by Afghan cameleers in 1882 in the South Australian town of Maree.

This religious tolerance and religious pluralism gave Adelaide the moniker “The City of Churches”.

Religious tolerance is South Australia’s achievement and it is Australia’s achievement. But that achievement seems more under threat now than ever with the rampant rise in antisemitism.

Antisemitism – a threat to multiculturalism

Unfortunately, the level of antisemitism in Australia has been growing for several years. However, since 7 October it has been off the charts, with a 738% rise in antisemitic incidents.

The growth in antisemitism is fuelled by the failure of leaders to crack down on antisemitism when it first appears.

The failure of police to crack down on antisemitic protests at the Sydney Opera House, to the failure of the Prime Minister to clearly, unequivocally and singularly condemn antisemitism in all its forms has allowed those pushing a message of Jew hatred to continually push the envelope with no consequences.

This week we saw a new low with a bakery in Sydney producing cupcakes with a Hamas terrorist photo on it for 4-year-old’s birthday party. 

There should be zero tolerance and arrests for glorification of terrorism and an attempt to indoctrinate children.

And yet… every day’s news brings a story more sickening than the previous day.

The growth in antisemitism and the inability of leaders in our community to have the moral clarity to push back against it is a sign of a dangerous fraying of the Australian social fabric.

Australia’s domestic and foreign policy must be based on fundamental values. 

At home we need to stand with the right of law-abiding citizens to share the benefits of Australian citizenship. That includes the freedom to practice their faith and live openly as a member of that faith community, the right to live free from fear, and the right to participate in our public life, including the right to access an education free of harassment and intimidation on the basis of race or religion.

But since 7 October it has become harder for Australian Jews to enjoy those rights.

If abroad we are not willing to stand with other Western liberal democracies which believe in individual freedom and the rule of law, then we send a bad signal to the world that our foreign policy is not based on fundamental and enduring values but on the base domestic politics of the moment.

I believe that the failure of our government to show moral leadership and stand consistently with our friend and ally Israel – the only Western liberal democracy in the Middle East which respects the rule of law and the rights of women, LGBTI people and other minorities – is delegitimising not only Israel but the place of Jews in this country, and giving a wink and a nudge to those who wish to propagate antisemitism here.

When leaders send a signal that not all Australians will be treated equally, that only the rights of select minorities will be protected, then the whole notion of multiculturalism is stretched to breaking point.

That is what the rise of antisemitism is doing in our country today.


Ground zero for the failure of leadership is Australia’s universities.

In places like Adelaide where the Jewish population is very small, university leaders have an even greater responsibility to their Jewish students and staff who are particularly isolated by the antisemitic activity on campus.

And yet, whether it is in areas where there are small or substantial Jewish population centres, our university leaders are failing to create an environment free of harassment and intimidation of Jewish students and staff.

I have spent the last few weeks meeting with Jewish students and academics hearing about what life is like on Australia’s university campuses. The picture I have been presented with is depressing.

  • Vice Chancellors who have failed to take action to stamp out hate.
  • University encampments which have been allowed to run and fester.
  • Universities which have been unwilling and unable to evict
    non-students from their campuses, including professional agitators from far-Left organisations and people carrying Jihadi flags.
  • Jewish Students harassed and intimidated in lectures and tutorials.
  • Student learning and staff teaching interrupted by the antics and noise of protestors.
  • Complaints mechanisms that are mere tick-a-box exercises.
  • Jewish Students being surrounded by antisemitic material in university colleges so they cannot escape the hate even where they leave class.
  • Classes which have nothing to do with the Israel/Hamas conflict being hijacked and used to ventilate the academic’s personal politics on that issue.
  • Vice Chancellors implying that hate fuelled protests are just the price Jewish students have to pay for free speech – something they would never say when talking about other minority groups.
  • And a collective statement from 39 university Chancellors which was so weak it did not even mention the words “jew” or “antisemitism”.

One particularly chilling aspect of wilful blindness of universities is their failure to understand the antisemitic nature of the phrase “from the river to the sea”.

Imagine if a terrorist group in our country who committed terrible crimes started chanting:

  “From the Indian Ocean to the Pacific, Australia will be free of…”  and insert the name of the religion, the political affiliation, the sexuality or any aspect of identity that terrorists might want to eradicate.

That’s what the phrase “from the river to the sea” means.

From the river to the sea is a line that sends a chill because it’s spoken by murderers and parroted by people who know no better.

It’s a statement of intent to violently annihilate Jewish people from the land of Israel.

Some students might be caught up in the excitement of their first protest and not know any better. But the Vice Chancellors of our universities know better and that’s why their complicity is such a problem.

Judicial inquiry

It is for these reasons that I have been calling since last November for a judicial inquiry into antisemitism on our campuses.

We need a judicial inquiry on antisemitism because a judicial inquiry is the most authoritative form of inquiry. 

Only a judicial inquiry will achieve the cultural change that is needed not just on one campus but across the university sector.

Only a judicial inquiry will have the necessary powers to summon witnesses, search and seize documents, cross examine university leaders and provide an independent, impartial, and safe environment to allow Jewish students and staff to come forward without repercussions.

We have judicial inquiries when have been systemic issues over many years and where there has been a failure of leadership with significant consequences for the reputation of Australia.

Such conditions exist today in the university sector.

Over the last few weeks, I have been consulting with the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, the Australian Academic Alliance Against Antisemitism, the Australasian Union of Jewish Students and other bodies within the Jewish community. 

I have even had a meeting with Universities Australia.

And I have had non-Jewish university executives from a range of institutions contact me to tell me that I am on the right track.

Terms of reference

I have listened closely and have put together terms of reference which I believe will address the issues which have been raised with me.

Two weeks ago I announced that I would bring forward a private members Bill for a judicial inquiry into antisemitism on Australian university campuses

And today I announce the nature of the terms of reference for this inquiry.

The Judicial inquiry into Antisemitism on University Campuses will report on:

1. The incidence of antisemitic activity on Australian university campuses including, but not limited to, instances where harassment, intimidation, violence, advocacy or glorification of violence and/or support for listed terrorist organisations has occurred both before and after the 7 October 2023 terrorist attacks in Israel.

      2. The responses of Australian universities to the rise of antisemitism on campus, including whether the actions taken by university regulators, university leaders (including governing bodies and Vice-Chancellors), student and staff representative bodies, student clubs and organisations, and other groups on campus to protect Jewish students, staff and visitors have been adequate.

      3. Specifically whether universities have:

      a. taken appropriate steps to recognise the specific and unique nature of antisemitism, understand how it manifests in modern times, and publicly reject it in all its forms;

        b. adopted and implemented an appropriate definition of antisemitism for all purposes such as the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition.

        c. put in place arrangements to deal with antisemitism on campus, including the adequacy of university policies and rules, the nature and extent of their enforcement, disciplinary procedures, complaints-handling processes and any differences between the approach to antisemitism and other forms of discrimination;

        d. put in place adequate measures for the security and safety of Jewish students, staff and visitors, including in relation to physical safety, the display of cultural and religious symbols, and actions taken by universities to bar or expel people from campus for antisemitic activity;

        e. adopted policies and procedures to prevent staff or students engaging in antisemitic discrimination or vilification including, but not limited to, engaging in de facto boycotts against collaborating with Jewish or Israeli academics and institutions, or Jewish students or staff;

        f. taken steps to ensure that antisemitic content is not included in course and teaching materials, or delivered during lectures, tutorials and other classes; and

        g. provided adequate support arrangements for staff and students experiencing antisemitism, both on and off campus; and

        4. Any other related matters.

        5. In making its recommendations, the Commission should have regard to:

        a. any institution-specific or sector-wide policy changes necessary or appropriate to combat antisemitism;

        b. any legislative or regulatory changes necessary or desirable to better protect Jewish students, staff and visitors on university campuses from antisemitism including clarifying the power of universities to expel and exclude people from campus;

            c. any arrangements for educating proponents of antisemitism against this form of discrimination;

            d. any legislative, regulatory or policy changes necessary or desirable to enable sanctions to be imposed on academics, staff and students and organisations which engage in antisemitic conduct;

            e. any legislative, regulatory or policy changes necessary or desirable to enable sanctions to be imposed on universities that do not take adequate steps to address antisemitism;

            f. any powers of ministerial intervention that may be necessary to ensure that antisemitism on campus is addressed appropriately

            Drafting of the Bill for an inquiry is now well advanced and I look forward to presenting the Bill to Parliament in these winter sittings.

            This Bill is a test for all members of the parliament about whether they take the ugly rise of antisemitism on our university campuses seriously.

            I want to commend Opposition Leader Peter Dutton and the Shadow Minister for Education Senator Sarah Henderson for their moral clarity on this issue and for supporting the idea of a judicial inquiry.

            Last week, Peter Dutton and Sarah Henderson wrote a letter with several cross benchers in both the House and Senate to Prime Minister Albanese calling for a judicial inquiry into antisemitism on campus.

            To date the Albanese Government has not adopted the judicial inquiry as policy and I call on them to do so.

            Why the Australian Human Rights Commission is wrong for this task

            Instead, the Government has asked the Australian Human Rights Commission to conduct a general inquiry into racism, including antisemitism and islamophobia, on campus.

            There are two problems with this.

            The first is the problem which seems to have bested the Labor Party. They cannot talk about antisemitism as a standalone evil. They always have to paper over it by including other forms of hatred with it in order to give themselves some sort of political cover.

            On the political Left, antisemitism has become the hate that dare not speak its name.

            While of course I decry any racism against any student on our campuses, the level of antisemitism on our campuses before 7 October was bad and it had been drawn to the Education Minister’s attention previously. However, since 7 October there has been an exponential increase in antisemitism and Australians look with horror at the inability of universities to deal with it.

            It is for this reason that antisemitism on campus deserves a
            standalone response.

            Rather than recognising that antisemitism is a distinct problem which reflects broader social evils, the Minister for Education has sought to lump it into a review which was in response to the Universities Accord report – which itself doesn’t mention antisemitism.

            The Universities Accord was more concerned with prejudice against First Nations people. While an Australian Human Rights Commission inquiry might be an appropriate place to deal with prejudice against First Nations People, the Minister could not have found a worse body to deal with the issues of antisemitism than the Australian Human Rights Commission.

            This is the second problem with the Government’s approach.

            The Commission’s role is to deal with racism in our country. It administers the Racial Discrimination Act, which applies to Jewish Australians. However, in almost eight months since 7 October, the Commission said nothing about the rise of antisemitism in our community despite an increase of over 738%. 

            The Commission has said nothing about

            • the antisemitism faced by Jewish students on campus which has been in the newspapers every day for months.
            • the convoys of hate which drove through Jewish suburbs.
            • the demonstrators that sought to target the Melbourne hotel where families of the 7 October terrorist attacks were staying.
            • the Jewish man kidnapped and assaulted with a hammer in Melbourne by anti-Israel activists.
            • the doxing of Jewish artists, creatives and small businesspeople.
            • the explosion in antisemitic graffiti and online Jew hatred since that time.
            • the exclusion of Jews from the Sydney Opera House on 9 October.

            The Commission was more concerned with putting out a statement in the wake of the 9 October Opera House protests defending the rights of protestors.

            In March the Commission did make an oblique reference to “antisemitism” but it was in a statement condemning a possible Israeli ground assault on Rafah. That release contained no mention of the word “hostages” or indeed the word “Hamas”.

            The Commission also has issues with its staff and contractors who are openly hostile to Jewish people.

            One Commission staff member wrote the following on her social media:

            • “Looking at Israels psychopathy, October 7 would make a little more sense to you all”.
            • “Israel colonial violence is illegal immoral and illegitimate. Resistance is the only legitimate form of violence”.
            • She described Hamas as “an effective political player in the struggle against apartheid, repression and colonisation” which has “achieved remarkable success in preventing Israeli violence in Jerusalem and freeing Palestinian hostages abducted by Israel.”
            • Referring to Jewish people she wrote “what are they without Zionism. If we take it away, their violence their toxicity their racism, what is left of them as a people?”

            And in January the President of the Commission received an anonymous letter from Commission staff that reads like Hamas talking points, calling on the Commission to take a tougher stance against Israel.

            It is not only staff. The Commission has contracted also with an organisation to deliver so-called anti-racism programs.

            That organisation is headed by a person who was engaged in doxxing of Jewish artists, creatives, and small businesspeople. When doxing Jewish creatives, she said “let the f…ing Zionists know no f…ing peace.”

            On October 12 – four days after the 7 October terrorist attacks – the organisation posted on Instagram “We stand in solidarity with Palestinians against their occupation under colonial settler apartheid regime known as ‘Israel’”.

            Given the Commission’s failure to do its job in calling out the rising antisemitism in our country and the apprehended bias and systemic racism towards Jews of its staff and contractors, no Jewish Australian can expect they will get a fair hearing from this Commission.

            It is for this reason that I believe the Australian Human Rights Commission is the most inappropriate body to conduct an independent inquiry into antisemitism on campus.


            That’s why, as a former university administrator and as one of the few Jewish Parliamentarians in this country, I am calling on the Government to join with the Opposition and cross benchers in both Houses to support a standalone judicial inquiry into antisemitism on campus.

            A judicial inquiry is the best way to deal with antisemitism in an authoritative, independent and systemic fashion, in a manner which should change the culture of our university campuses

            Then and only then can our universities return to being what they should be: places of teaching, learning, and research where all Australians regardless of their background can feel welcomed. Places of robust debate and exchange of ideas free from harassment, intimidation or the actions of outside bullies.

            If we can achieve that then we are honouring the traditions of religious tolerance pioneered here in South Australia that welcomed my family six generations ago and, hopefully, will continue to welcome waves of Abraham and Julia Solomons for the next six generations too.

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