Australia’s Refusal to Build Synagogue Victory for Terror

August 6, 2017

4 min read


Calling it a potential terrorist threat, an Australian court ruled that a proposed shul is too dangerous to be built.

Just one day after Australian security forces foiled a major terror plot to bring down a passenger jet, an Australian court handed a resounding victory to other would-be terrorists who seek to destroy Australia’s open way of life.

The scene of this triumph for terror is unlikely: Bondi Beach, the Sydney suburb that is known the world over for its beautiful beaches and fun lifestyle. Bondi is also home to a vibrant Jewish community. About 50,000 Jews call New South Wales, which includes Sydney, home. Several synagogues exist in the area, and local leaders have expressed hopes to build a new Jewish community center in the area.

Many Jews in the Sydney area hail from the former Soviet Union. To better serve this population, Rabbi Yehoram Ulman, who works in a local Chabad synagogue, applied for permission build a new synagogue, to be called The Friends of Refugees from Eastern Europe, or the FREE Synagogue, in Bondi Beach.

An artist’s impression of the synagogue development in Wellington Street, Bondi.

The local planning group, Waverley Council, objected to the planned synagogue on a number of grounds. One concern was that the new synagogue would be a target of terrorist threats. The Council theorized that the planned synagogue would pose a threat to “nearby residents, motorists and pedestrians”.

Seeking to assuage the Council, Rabbi Ulman commissioned a risk assessment from a terrorism expert. The results were concerning but not insurmountable, the report concluded. The proposed synagogue would hardly be a major security threat; it “does not raise concerns as to the safety and security of future users of the synagogue, nearby residents, motorists, or pedestrians in Wellington Street” where the building was to be built.

Following the report, Rabbi Ulman had architects modify plans for the synagogue to take the terrorism expert’s recommendations into account. But these were blocked by Waverley Council. No synagogue design seemed to satisfy the Council and the planning dispute went to Court.

As part of its case, Waverley Council warned the Court that “strong anti-Semitic undertones pervade much of ISIS’s online presence and literature.” Instead of taking a strong stand against this sort of racist intimidation, the Council seemed to argue that attacks on Jews are inevitable, telling the court that ISIS’s Jew-hatred has “manifested itself in both attacks and prevented attacks that have been aimed at Jewish communities in various parts of the world.”

Waverley Council’s promulgation of ISIS propaganda seems to have worked. On Wednesday, August 2, 2017, the Land and Environment Court decided that the proposed synagogue, which it called “a potential terrorist threat”, was too dangerous to be built. Without lifting a finger, would-be terrorists the world over scored a resounding victory, stifling Jewish expression and marginalizing Australia’s Jews.

Rabbi Yehoram Ulman with local MP and now Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in 2006.

“The decision is unprecedented,” Rabbi Ulman warned after the Court’s decision. “It’s implications are enormous. It basically implies that no Jewish organization should be allowed to exist in residential areas. It stands to stifle Jewish existence and activity in Sydney and indeed, by creating a precedent, the whole of Australia, and by extension rewarding terrorism.”

The word terrorism comes from a Latin term meaning “to frighten.” Terrorists not only aim and kill, they also sow fear, dividing societies and eroding our sense of solidarity. Terrorism must be defeated on multiple fronts: by security services, militarily, and also in the public sphere. We each score a victory over terrorists when we refuse to be cowed.

Australia’s Land and Environment Court is correct in one observation: tragically, Jews have been a particular target of ISIS and other terrorist groups. The way that Bondi Beach and other institutions treat Jews is thus a litmus test: will they stand up to terrorism and proudly uphold the principles of liberalism and freedom, defending their Jewish communities? Or will they effectively cooperate with terrorists, doing ISIS’s and other terror groups’ work for them, and abandon the Jews in their midst?

After a terror attack in London that left five people dead, Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull tweeted “We will never ever let the terrorists win. We will defeat & destroy them on the battlefield, we will defeat & defy them at home”.

It’s time to take Prime Minister Trumbull’s words to heart. It’s time to stand up to terrorism, time to defend our values that terrorists seek to destroy, time to start speaking up for the rights of Jews and others to live in peace. Only that will bring true security to Australia and beyond.

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