Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - The crisis in the Middle East is having a spillover effect in distant Australia, where Jewish and Muslim communities are closely monitoring the policies of their government and media, while keeping a wary eye on each other.
Protests in support of the Palestinians have turned violent, and a number of Jewish institutions have been attacked or vandalized in recent days.
Politicians have called for restraint while anti-Israel demonstration organizers have distanced themselves from unruly protestors.
Spokesmen for Australian Muslims say they differentiate between Australian Jews and Israelis, but when pressed one conceded that many Australian Jews were "Zionists," a term he clearly intended to be derogatory.
"The Jewish community here is fully behind Israel," agreed Colin Rubenstein, executive director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC).
Around 120,000 of Australia's 19 million people are Jews. The Muslim community comprises mostly citizens of Arab extraction, including Lebanese (152,000), Egyptians (66,000), Iraqis (18,000) and Palestinians (6,000).
As Israel continues its military operation aimed at rooting out Palestinian terrorists from West Bank towns, both communities say the Australian media has been biased in favor of the other's viewpoint.
'The media has shown considerable [anti-Israel] bias and distortion compounded by CNN and BBC," Rubenstein said, adding that there had been fair reporting from some Australian correspondents based in Israel.
Geraldine Jones, president of an Internet-based organization called Jewish Ozzies International Network (Join) agreed.
"Almost all reporting of the Arab war against Israel allows no distinction between the deliberate murder of [Israeli] civilians and the inadvertent harm done to [Palestinian] civilians in a military action," she said.
Justifying suicide bombings
But for Keysar Trad, spokesman for the Muslim Mufti of Australia, the opposite is true.
Not only were the Australian media not giving the issue sufficient exposure - when compared for instance to the coverage of the aftermath of last September's attacks - but they were also largely biased in favor of Israel, he said.
"There are elements of bias. You cannot equate the actions of a suicide bomber with a full-scale military attack," said Trad, who also serves as a spokesman for an association representing Australians of Lebanese extraction.
Asked whether his organization and Australian Muslims in general distanced themselves from Palestinian suicide bombings, he equivocated.
A meeting of senior Islamic clerics in Beirut several months ago had ruled virtually unanimously that "when your land's under occupation, your homes are being demolished, you have basically no hope of survival, they regarded this kind of action [suicide bombings] as legitimate means of liberating your territories," Trad said.
"They regretted the risk it posed to civilian lives, but would not condemn it ... the Muslim community in Australia would have to accept the finding of these scholars because they were Islamic scholars of the highest caliber."
He added: "But the Muslim community in Australia does not advise anyone to go and perform these acts."
Trad said Australian Muslims should make their views known clearly but peacefully.
During a rally by Palestinians and supporters outside the Israeli Consulate in Sydney on Saturday, around 50 protestors out of a group of several thousand stormed a police line, hurling projectiles and injuring two policemen. Protest organizers condemned the incident.
Half a dozen synagogues have been vandalized, and Jewish leaders say there has also been a surge in incidents of hate mail.
Asked whether he thought the Mideast conflict would seriously damage relations between Jews and Muslims in Australia, Trad said he did not think so.
"We've always called on Muslims here to make the distinction clear between Jews who are Zionists and Australian Jews who have no connection with Israeli violence."
He acknowledged, however, that many Australian Jews were "Zionists" and held views supportive of Israel that Muslims could not agree with.
Muslims in Australia are deeply unhappy with the government's approach to the situation in the Middle East.
Like President Bush, Prime Minister John Howard -- a firm ally of Washington in the war against terrorism -- has refrained from the type of condemnation of Israeli actions that has been heard from Arab and European capitals.
This week Howard agreed with an interviewer who asked whether he thought Israel's military operation had been an "over-reaction" to Palestinian terrorism. But, he added, it was an "understandable over-reaction, given the character of the terrorist attacks visited upon the cities and the people of Israel."
He also expressed support for Bush's handling of the situation.
Rubenstein of AIJAC noted approvingly that Howard had consistently blamed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for not stopping terrorism, and for refusing former Prime Minister Ehud Barak's unprecedented offer in 2000 of more than 90 percent of the disputed territories, including part of Jerusalem.
From Trad's perspective, Howard's stance was disappointing.
"He's most definitely taking sides in the conflict and he's not treating civilians on both sides as being equal," he said.
Howard's comments were obviously "mirroring those made by the Bush administration. There's a concern about whether we're being governed from Canberra or the White House."
Asked what Australian Muslims would like Howard to do, Trad said he should follow European Union leaders' example, demand that Israel stop its military operation, and issue a strong reprimand to the Israeli ambassador.
Howard, visiting London Tuesday for the funeral of the Queen Mother, is expected while there also to discuss the Mideast crisis with Prime Minister Tony Blair and other leaders attending the ceremony.
E-mail a news tip to Patrick Goodenough.
Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.