Criticism of Israel is ‘not always’ antisemitic, Australia’s attorney general says

Australia’s attorney general has said some forms of criticism of Israel can be antisemitic, after the government appointed a special envoy to combat rising levels of hatred against the Jewish community.

Peak Jewish groups welcomed the appointment of Jillian Segal AO, who is a lawyer and the immediate past president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry. But some progressive Jewish advocates have raised concerns in light of Segal’s past comments opposing a ceasefire in Gaza.

Related: Michaelia Cash calls for focus on antisemitism in Labor’s new hate speech law

Since the Hamas attacks on Israel on 7 October 2023 and the Israeli military bombardment of Gaza, community groups have documented a steep increase in both antisemitism and Islamophobia.

The government plans to soon appoint a similar envoy to combat Islamophobia.

The attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, told the National Press Club on Tuesday he was proud to be Jewish but had observed “a shocking rise in antisemitism in Australia”.

Dreyfus said Segal’s appointment as special envoy to combat antisemitism was “concrete action” to address the problem. When asked whether he believed criticism of Israel was antisemitic, Dreyfus responded: “It absolutely can be – not always.

“I criticise the government of Israel from time to time. I don’t think I’m antisemitic. Other people criticise the government of Israel and I don’t think they’re antisemitic.

“But when people are singling out Israel and applying a standard to Israel that they do not apply to other countries, then potentially there’s antisemitism going on.”

Pressed to elaborate on where he drew the line, Dreyfus said potentially antisemitic examples included “when people deny to Israel its right to exist” or “when people criticise Israel in a way that they would not dream of applying to another country”.

Visiting the Sydney Jewish Museum to announce the appointment on Tuesday, Anthony Albanese said it was wrong to hold Jewish Australians responsible for the actions of the Netanyahu government.

“I have spoken with members of the Jewish community here [in Sydney], in Melbourne, right around Australia, who have not felt safe – members of the Jewish community whose children are worried about wearing their school uniform in our capital cities,” the prime minister said.

“That’s not acceptable – not acceptable, ever, and certainly not in Australia in 2024.”

The prime minister said he had been shocked by “the lack of knowledge and experience about antisemitism and about where it leads”, noting that the Sydney Jewish Museum documented the murder of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust.

Segal said “the rapid dissemination” of material on social media “means that antisemitic ideas that once took years to spread can instantly be conveyed and absorbed”.

She said her first official commitment would be to exchange ideas with other countries’ envoys on combating antisemitism at the World Jewish Congress in Argentina next week.

“We have been blessed to live in a country with no history of antisemitic laws or institutional persecution of Jewish Australians but the world is changing,” Segal said.

She said the 7 October Hamas attacks “changed our world” and had seen antisemitism “become normalised”.

Segal said there was “no single answer to the perennial problem of antisemitism, but the creation of this role shows a determination by the government to confront this evil”.

The ECAJ, the peak representative body of the Australian Jewish community, welcomed the appointment and said its immediate past president would “bring deep knowledge of the issues and immense energy to the role”.

“We have seen antisemitism rear its ugly head on Australian campuses, in schools, in the media and social media, in the arts and culture sector and other parts of society,” the new ECAJ president, Daniel Aghion KC, said.

But the Jewish Council of Australia, a relatively new group of Jewish Australians who are critical of the Israeli government, said it was “concerned about the appointment of a pro-Israel advocate to this position”.

Related: A fresh Jewish voice: the new Australian group opposing antisemitism – and Israel’s conduct

“We are concerned this antisemitism envoy will fail to distinguish between Jewishness and support for Israel,” said the group’s executive officer, Sarah Schwartz.

“This risks erasing the large number of Jewish people in Australia who, like us, believe in Palestinian freedom and justice and are opposed to Israel’s violence against Palestinians.”

Segal told a vigil in Sydney in November for hostages still held by Hamas: “There can be no ceasefire until every hostage has been released.”

Segal joined with the president of the Zionist Federation of Australia in November to criticise the foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, for saying “we all want to take the next steps towards a ceasefire” in Gaza. They said unless Hamas was removed from power, a ceasefire would endanger Israel.

In 2021, Segal welcomed “a watershed” moment when the Morrison government embraced the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism.

One of the drafters of the IHRA definition argued in 2019 that rightwing Jewish groups had “weaponised” it.

The IHRA states that manifestations of antisemitism “might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity”, but adds that “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic”.

It outlines contemporary examples of antisemitism, including “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, eg, by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour”.

Segal told reporters on Tuesday the IHRA definition was “a useful tool” but she would avoid commenting on potential legislative changes until she had had time to “do a serious review”.

The ZFA welcomed Segal’s appointment as “timely given the spike in antisemitism we’ve seen over the last nine months”.

The president of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network, Nasser Mashni, said the government should work to “realise equal rights and justice for all” rather than “pitting parts of the Jewish community against the Palestinian and Muslim communities – and against each other”.