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Down under, a furor over a Jewish publisher’s attack on boat people, Muslims

SYDNEY (JTA) – An article on illegal boat people by the publisher of Australia’s main Jewish newspaper has ignited a storm of protest, with some critics savaging it for “vilifying Muslims” and promoting “xenophobic, Islamophobic and heartless sentiments.”

Titled “Curb your compassion,” Robert Magid’s article published in the Aug. 3 Sydney and Melbourne editions of the Australian Jewish News argued that illegal Muslim boat people are queue jumpers who deprive sanctuary to legitimate refugees.

“The Jews who fled the Holocaust fled certain death,” he wrote. “I doubt whether there is a single boat person in that position. Some may have fled a war zone or limited economic opportunities while others are seeking an easy life.”

Magid, a multimillionaire property developer who bought the newspaper in 2007, also accused illegal immigrants of “destination shopping” and suggested — despite the “collective memory of Jews’ attempts to escape the Holocaust” — that Jews curb their compassion toward boat people.

He also linked asylum seekers to terrorism, suggesting that Muslim boat people could increase the risk of potential terror attacks.

“If al-Qaida or another jihad organization wished to create a network of terrorists in Australia, undocumented illegal immigration would ensure the Australian authorities had no way of verifying their bona fides,” he wrote.

The backlash to Magid’s article exploded in the blogosphere, with the vast majority of comments blasting what David Zyngier, whose mother survived Auschwitz and arrived here with no papers in 1949, described as Magid’s “anti-Jewish sentiments.”

On Aug. 6

Australian Jewish News publisher Robert Magid stirred controversy with his article arguing that Muslim boat people deprive sanctuary to legitimate refugees. (Australian Jewish News via AJDS)

, an open letter initiated by the left-wing Australian Jewish Democratic Society accused Magid of engaging in “group vilification and dog whistle politics??” against Muslims. The letter called for an apology “to all the victims of persecution who arrived by boat.”

An online petition accrued more than 375 signatories as of Tuesday, along with a deluge of withering comments such as “anti-refugee sentiments have no place in my Jewish identity” and Magid used “fear, misinformation and biased language to vilify.”

Magid, meanwhile, is standing by his article, saying he believes that most Jews agree with him but “don’t have the guts” to say it.

The uproar was picked up by the mainstream media. Crikey, an independent online news agency, published a report Tuesday carrying the headline “Jewish paper speaks ‘hate’ against Muslims, boat people,” and Australia’s multicultural broadcaster SBS aired a report on the fallout.

The refugee debate in Australia is a political hot potato and border protection is a polarizing issue. The debate reignited in late June when about 100 boat people from Afghanistan drowned after their boats sank off the Australian coast.

Australia received 11,800 claims for asylum in 2011, according to the United Nations, compared with 441,000 claims across the globe. More than 50 boats carrying more than 4,000 asylum seekers have been intercepted by Australian authorities this year, Reuters reported.

Most of those seeking asylum are from Afghanistan, Iran and Sri Lanka.

Jewish officials avoided entering the fray over the article. Danny Lamm, president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, said that “The ECAJ stands by all aspects of its longstanding policy on refugees and asylum seekers.”

The council’s resolution supports the processing of asylum seekers “in a spirit of compassion” and urges Australians to engage in dialogue “in a considered and respectful manner and without resorting to pejorative generalizations.”

One insider, who declined to be named, said Jewish leaders were reluctant to weigh in because of Magid’s influential position as publisher and because of the sensitivity of the subject matter.

But Arnold Zable, an award-winning author and refugee advocate who says he is alive today because his mother was a queue jumper, described Magid’s article as “one of the most ill-informed, factually inaccurate pieces on asylum seekers” he has ever read.

“Refugees and asylum seekers are only doing what we would do in their shoes, what Jews … have done for centuries,” he said. “They are some of the most vulnerable, oppressed and traumatized peoples of our times.”

Mark Baker, director of the Australian Center for Jewish Civilization at Monash University in Melbourne, agreed.

“Tens of millions of people have faced death by genocide and war in the years since the Holocaust, yet for Robert Magid, people who risk their lives to escape crisis zones are deemed to be unworthy of our compassion,” he said.

“Our values and historical experience call on us to stand on the side of refugees. How often have we [Jews] escaped perils by pursuing illegal immigration routes in order to survive and start a new life?”

The Union for Progressive Judaism’s Religious Action and Advocacy Center skewered Magid’s generalizations.

“We believe that efforts to lump together asylum seekers, refugees and terrorists and suggestions that label them all as deceitful and criminal are both sad and inaccurate,” it said in a statement.

But a blogger defended Magid’s argument by saying there must be a proper vetting process for refugees.

“I’m not saying that every foreign national is a hate-filled religious fanatic, but they do exist (just look at the European Union),” the blogger wrote. “The vetting process exists precisely for that purpose, so that actual refugees get in.”

In a rebuttal to Magid, Melbourne’s Ralph Genende wrote on Galus Australis, an online Jewish magazine, “Unlike Robert Magid, I do not believe there are limits to compassion. I take pride in being part of a people who put people and compassion first.

“Australia, like Israel, is a society built on migration, and if you absorb your migrants with compassion and skill you build a stronger society both economically and ethically.”

Responding to the torrent of criticism, Magid said, “It’s not a question of who’s more compassionate. The Jews who had the gas chambers behind them would have gone to any country. I feel a hell of a lot more sympathy for people starving in Darfur.

“These are the people who should have first priority, not people who have the money and cunning to jump the queue.”

Magid added that Israel has the same problem; he lived there for a period.

“It’s resulting in a lot of racism in Israel,” he said. “I think most Israelis would agree with me.”

Among the few who publicly defended Magid was the newspaper’s editor, Zeddy Lawrence, who said Magid’s article was “just one viewpoint among many we publish, most of which actually tend to be a little more ‘compassionate’ than his.”

Lawrence said Magid’s article was in response to a piece published in the newspaper two weeks ago by Lawrence’s brother, Jeremy, the rabbi of Sydney’s Great Synagogue, who wrote, “How can we be silent as lives are lost on immigration boats bound for Australia?”

The rabbi continued: “It is surely incumbent upon us to acknowledge a humanitarian responsibility to offer safe passage and a haven to those who cannot wait.”

George Fink, a refugee from Vienna, said he was “desperately sad” that Magid had made such “an uncharacteristic and flawed attack” on refugees, since Magid himself was a refugee who was born in China and his (now deceased) parents — Ira, a Peace Now activist, and Isador, a member of the board of governors of the Jewish Agency — fled with the family from Shanghai to Melbourne.

Australia has absorbed some 740,000 refugees and humanitarian asylum seekers, including about 35,000 Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe, according to the Refugee Council of Australia.