Antisemitism is being politically weaponised against independent MPs who have called for humanitarian aid to Gaza, according to key members of the crossbench.

Since October 7, incidents of antisemitism and Islamophobia have dramatically increased in Australia, with the federal government taking certain measures, such as banning the Nazi salute, to curb antisocial behaviour.

But for some in the federal parliament, including independents representing electorates with large Jewish communities, the conflict in Gaza has reignited unsubstantiated claims of antisemitism lodged against them in the 2022 election, that they say are entirely politicised.

Nine federal independents, including all seven members of the group commonly referred to as the ‘teals’, signed an open letter on February 29 calling on the federal government to find a way to fund humanitarian aid to Gaza, after it paused funding to The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Funding stopped after the Israeli government made claims that 12 members of UNRWA, the UN organisation dedicated to providing humanitarian aid to Gaza, were involved in the October 7 terrorist attacks on Israel.

While funding was recently resumed, claims of antisemitism made against independent MPs remain.

Independent crossbenchers in parliament. Photo: supplied.

Independent MP for Mackellar, Sophie Scamps, who has been attacked for signing the February 29 letter, said most of the correspondence from constituents to her office showed support for humanitarian aid, with locals feeling “deeply upset about what’s happening over there”.

“If you have a concern about children dying in Gaza, does that mean you’re an antisemite? No. The discussion is far, far, far more nuanced than that,” Scamps told Central News.

“It is possible for people to hold both truths in your heart at the one time, to be deeply concerned about the future of the Jewish people and the nation [of Israel], but also deeply concerned at the same time for Gazans and the humanitarian crisis.

“I think calling anyone who has a legitimate concern an antisemite is incredibly destructive and I think it’s sad because it really does undermine the power of that word. There are people who are antisemites in this world, but to apply that to everyone who has a humanitarian concern absolutely devalues that word and undermines it.”

The letter, which also called for “justice” to be brought to those responsible for the October 7 attacks, and detailed attempts to legitimise Australia’s provision of aid to Gaza, became the basis of several claims of antisemitism against members of the parliamentary crossbench, including from former John Howard minister, Bronwyn Bishop.

Independent MP for Mackellar, Sophie Scamps: “Australians [are] sick of negative politics.” Photo: supplied.

On March 5, Bishop, who once held Scamps’ seat of Mackellar, appeared on Sharri Markson’s Sky News program, saying Scamps’ signature on the letter showed she was “part and parcel of the antisemitic movement”.

“Now she will cry ‘No, I’m not! No, I’m not!’”, said Bishop, “but if it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, I think it gets to be a duck.”

“I was incredulous,” said Scamps about seeing the footage. “I was absolutely incredulous because she had no basis on [which to make that claim]. So, it was just cut and dry defamatory. And she put herself in a terrible position by doing that. I mean, it was so slanderous and defamatory, it was ridiculous.

“I definitely think it was politically motivated.”

Scamps launched a legal challenge against Bishop, who later apologised on Sky for her statement, saying: “I should not have said that. Dr Scamps has called for funding to be restored to UNRWA by Australia, to address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. This does not make her an antisemite. I should not have suggested that, and I apologise to her for the offence, distress, and harm I caused her.”

Claims antisemitism is being ‘weaponised’ politically have been made numerous times since the lead up to the 2022 election.

In Wentworth and Goldstein, the seats with the first and third largest proportion of Jewish voters in the country respectively, independent candidates Allegra Spender and Zoe Daniel faced forceful accusations of antisemitism from Coalition politicians and sections of the media prior to the 2022 election.

Daniel, the independent MP for Goldstein and a former ABC journalist, was criticised for putting her name to a 2021 letter that called for improved balance on coverage of conflicts involving Israeli and Palestinian peoples, and supported journalists’ right to “express personal solidarity with the Palestinian cause”.

“There was a degree of, should I say, political motivation, which was not necessarily to do with the community, but was to do with politics in terms of looking into my background as a former journalist and what reporting I had done on these issues,” said Daniel, “that’s no surprise. It was certainly something that I would’ve expected.”

Daniel, who was working as a foreign correspondent in the US during several antisemitic acts of terrorism, including the 2018 Pittsburgh shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, said her view on issues relating to the conflict in the Middle East are reflective of her lived experiences, and her desire to balance empathy, humanitarianism and pragmatism.

“The issue is incredibly sensitive for obvious reasons, and the way that we talk about it within and without our communities needs to be extremely careful, because no matter what’s happening in the Middle East, what we really need to be most focused on is social cohesion and stability here in Australia,” she said.

“As someone who represents a large Jewish community, a lot of my concern has been about the safety and security of that community, but also the general level of anxiety, within the community, which I think is well founded. What we can do as representatives is to try to calmly address those issues without inflaming them.”

Independent MP Allegra Spender in parliament. Photo: supplied.

In New South Wales, Allegra Spender – who represents the country’s largest Jewish community – was targeted after revelations that a campaign volunteer had engaged with content that was critical of Israel on social media site X (then Twitter) and had been outspoken on issues relating to the legitimacy of the state of Israel.

“It was political,” said Spender, who defeated former Australian ambassador to Israel Dave Sharma in Wentworth at the 2022 election, “it was a political hit job, and that was very, very deliberate to undermine me.

“But I always think actions speak louder than words. I’ve been [representing Wentworth] for three years by the time we go to an election, I think I just have to be judged on my merits on that. I think it’d be incredibly hard for anyone to build a case to say I’m antisemitic.”

However, Spender’s signature on the February 29 letter regarding aid to Gaza caused issues in her community as well.

Spender “mutually agreed” not to participate at a luncheon celebrating the 25th anniversary of Courage to Care NSW, a Jewish anti-discrimination organisation. A statement from the organisation claimed that Spender’s signature on the letter calling for funding humanitarian aid in Gaza would be “distracting” to the mission of the organisation.

Spender maintained that she does not believe she will be perceived as antisemitic by her community.

“I’ve been pretty active trying to counter antisemitism,” she said. “So you know I’m not particularly concerned. People may or may not like what I’ve done on various things, but I think I’ve been pretty unequivocal in my stance against antisemitism and in my stance against any form of prejudice.”

Another claim that appeared in the 2022 election campaign came when Climate 200 convener Simon Holmes à Court, framed as the “puppet master” of the community independents, published a tweet referring to former Liberal Prime Minister Howard as the ‘angel of death’, a name associated with Nazi doctor Josef Mengele.

Holmes à Court maintained it was a reference to comments from a Liberal politician in The Saturday Paper criticising Howard as a poor campaigner in moderate seats.

Scamps believes that claims of antisemitism derive from a “traumatised” Coalition who are “scraping the bottom of the barrel” to criticise the independent candidates that hold seats the Coalition believes they deserve.

“There’s a lot of anger there,” she said. “And I do think that there’s a policy deficit from the Coalition.

“Australians [are] sick of those negative politics. What they want is solutions, and answers, and ideas, and future, and vision… not this kind of mudslinging negativity.”

Main image of MP Sophie Scamps supplied.