White supremacy and extreme ideologies are still present in regional communities, and a "whole-of-society" response is needed to stamp it out, Anti-Defamation Commmission chair Dr Dvir Abramovich said.
Speaking to The Courier after delivering the inaugural Marcus Stone Memorial Oration at the historic Ballarat Synagogue in the Victorian Central Highlands, Dr Abramovich said the state was at an "inflection point".
A number of troubling incidents in regional Victoria have provoked outcry, including a neo-Nazi gathering in the Grampians National Park in early 2021, and a Nazi swastika flag flying in Beulah, north-west of Melbourne, in 2020 - in Ballarat, anti-Semitic graffiti was seen briefly with anti-lockdown slogans on a prominent billboard last year.
"Jews in Victoria, but also across the nation, are feeling more vulnerable, are not feeling safe, and we have an increasing number of Jews who are concerned about wearing anything that would physically identify them as Jews," Dr Abramovich said.
"There was a report recently showing that almost a quarter of all Australians don't know about the Holocaust.
"Nazism didn't die in the bunker with Hitler, neo-Nazism and anti-Semitism are alive and well in Victoria, it's not history, it's current news."
Dr Abramovich pointed to recent anti-lockdown protests being "infiltrated" by known white supremacists, who hope to expose new followers to more extreme ideologies and accelerate real-world action as an example, and described the internet, and particularly social media, as a "superspreader of hate".
"People are frustrated, they're angry, they're hurting economically, they're looking for a scapegoat, and the natural scapegoat is always the Jews," he said.
"We saw that in anti-lockdown and anti-vax groups, on Telegram or Parler, we saw the infiltration of anti-Semitic individuals and movements hijacking the agenda, saying COVID-19 is 'an invention by the Jews', or 'it's part of a world conspiracy to dominate the world' - what we're seeing is the normalisation of anti-Semitism."
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Dr Abramovich said the "problem from hell" of anti-Semitism and white supremacy should be clearly identified and called out, with extra enforcement powers, education, and a "renewed sense of civic duty".
"That idea that Nazism, that white supremacist ideology, is slowly diminishing from the collective memory, and that's why it's becoming more and more acceptable to talk about the white race, about being 'proud to be white', about excluding anyone who's different," he said.
"We have to remember that the Aryan ideology was not targeted just at Jews - Jews were the primary victims, but it was the Roma, the homosexuals, dissidents, the disabled, anybody who was deemed undesirable, and unworthy of life.
"This is a whole-of-society threat, and when you listen to the fantasies of Australian neo-Nazis, they talk about a fourth Reich, they talk about an Australian Hitler, they talk about establishing death camps like Auschwitz in Melbourne - the worst thing you can do is not take them at their word, they're very serious.
"We saw it with Christchurch, and as I keep saying, we do not need a Christchurch in Ballarat to take this seriously."
Ballarat's historic synagogue has stood for 161 years and there has been a Jewish community in the city since the gold rush - synagogue president John Abraham said it was a "big history".
"At one point in time, in the 1880s, we had about 1000 Jewish people in Ballarat, and they've spread far and wide over the years, but there's always someone coming back and having a connection," he said.
"The diaspora of the family reach has been extraordinary.
"(Today's address from Dr Abramovich) was about remembering Marcus Stone, and his son Bernard did the introduction today - he was the president of the synagogue from the mid-1950s to about 1980, he also conducted the services over that period, and he was instrumental at a time when we had very few Jewish people come to attend services.
"He was also part of the Ballarat establishment, he was a soldier in the Second World War, rose to the rank of major, took an important part in the local RSL at the time, and was part of the Bridge Street Traders, which was the centre of retail in Ballarat."
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