Gaza conflict shouldn't spill into Sydney hatred

Gaza conflict shouldn't spill into Sydney hatred

Recent events have demonstrated that the head of multicultural agency must tread warily when advocating for any one ethnic community, writes Kirsty Needham

When a Ukrainian Catholic Church was sprayed with racist graffiti in Lidcombe in Sydney’s west, Vic Alhadeff was swiftly onto the media to raise the alarm.

As chairman of the NSW Community Relations Commission, Alhadeff led the NSW Government’s condemnation of the attack in June, which he said echoed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attack on the Ukraine.

Conflict of interest: Vic Alhadeff became the focus of Muslim community resentment after describing Hamas as a ''terror organisation’’.

Conflict of interest: Vic Alhadeff became the focus of Muslim community resentment after describing Hamas as a ''terror organisation’’.

‘‘It is deeply disappointing that some have seen fit to import overseas conflicts and hatreds into our country and onto our streets,’’ Alhadeff said in a statement.

Earlier in the year, Alhadeff had been praised by NSW Labor for his ‘‘eloquent and dignified’’ words opposing the federal government’s proposal to weaken section 18C of the racial discrimination act. The high profile new chairman appeared off to a strong start.

But when the turbulence of world affairs swept into Sydney for a second time – as conflict between Israel and Hamas exploded in the Middle East after the execution of three kidnapped Israeli teenagers, and Israel unleashed its bombardment of Gaza – Alhadeff was among those fanning the hatred.


It is not surprising that an email issued by Alhadeff in his capacity as chief executive of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies expressed Israel’s line on ‘‘the Hamas terror organisation’’. He has been a high-profile advocate of Israel for decades, and is paid to do so.

As has been repeatedly said since Alhadeff’s resignation from the NSW government commission, in the fallout from those comments, the problem is with wearing two hats.

The important role played by the Community Relations Commission in multicultural Sydney, that was handled so deftly by Stepan Kerkyasharian for 25 years until his resignation last December, is a delicate one.

There is no doubt that Alhadeff, through his work at the Jewish Board of Deputies, has been an enthusiastic advocate for interfaith harmony, and bringing young Sydneysiders of different cultural backgrounds together to increase understanding. He has constantly spoken out against racism.

But he does so from the perspective of trying to reduce anti-Semitism, amid an apparent increase in vilification, and last year’s awful physical attacks on a Jewish family in Bondi.

The Community Relations Commission’s role is to represent all in the wildly mixed bag of multicultural backgrounds that make up the NSW population.

Kerkyasharian was the son of Armenian genocide survivors who spoke Turkish, and carefully avoided being drawn into simmering hostilities between the two groups over history.

Alhadeff’s appointment had raised eyebrows from the start. Then Premier Barry O’Farrell was close to the Jewish community, having recently been awarded the Jerusalem Prize by the World Zionist Organisation and relaunching the NSW Parliamentary Israeli Friendship Group.

But even within the Jewish Board of Deputies, questions were asked about how an inevitable conflict of interest between the commission and the Jewish community would be dealt with.

O’Farrell’s solution was to split the commission’s leadership into two roles: Alhadeff as the chairman, and Hakan Harman, a Turkish-born public servant, as chief executive.

Both Muslim and Jewish communities would be represented.

This attempt at balance failed. Alhadeff energetically pursued the intersecting interests of NSW’s ethnic groups and the Jewish community – primarily opposition to the Abbott government’s repeal of 18c – in the media spotlight. Harman quietly went about reviewing the work of the commission. While of Muslim background, he wasn’t closely involved with Sydney’s increasingly aggrieved Muslim community.

With Alhadeff gone, Harman will step into a more public role for the commission.

Alhadeff’s downfall was partly bad timing, said one insider. His email preceded a massive escalation of the Gaza conflict, and horrible daily images on Australian television screens of injured and dead Palestinian children. ‘‘He became the live local person to hurl rocks at,’’ said the source.

That’s not a position any multicultural agency head should ever place themselves in.

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