Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Further ‘Gas the Jews’ investigation calls, AJA mocks police finding

Jewish and Palestinian groups are calling for further investigation after NSW Police announced it has “no evidence” that pro-Palestinian protesters chanted “Gas the Jews” at a Sydney Opera House protest, while the publishers of the footage have declined to concede that the videos were inaccurate.

Three months ago, protesters assembled on the steps of the Sydney Opera House, which was lit up to mark Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel. After the protest, there were reports of anti-Semitic chants such as “Fuck the Jews”. At the time, one of the protest’s organisers, Fahad Ali, confirmed these accounts and said that the small group of protesters responsible was asked to leave. 

But it was the claim of another chant that caught the world’s attention amid rising levels of anti-Semitism. Videos shared by the Australian Jewish Association (AJA) to X, formerly Twitter, in the aftermath purported to show protesters — called a “Muslim mob” by the AJA — chanting “Gas the Jews”. Further footage of the same moment broadcast by Sky News’ Sharri Markson was also said to show the chants, with both videos captioned accordingly. 

These videos were viewed millions of times and uncritically reported in outlets ranging from Fox News to TMZ to The Monthly. While the other chants were clearly anti-Semitic, the claim protesters had chanted this specific Holocaust reference was legally distinct as it was likely to reach the criminal standard for incitement to violence. 

Now, NSW Police say a review of the audio, visual and acoustic evidence by a “preeminent” expert determined with “overwhelming certainty” that the video showed protesters chanting “Where’s the Jews?”, confirming Crikey’s investigations about police’s doubts about the videos

NSW Police Deputy Commissioner Mal Lanyon also noted that eyewitness accounts claimed they had heard the “Gas the Jews” chants, but weren’t able to identify anyone responsible. He was able to confirm that there were other anti-Semitic chants.

The Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) co-CEO Alexander Ryvchin reaffirmed his belief in the witnesses who claimed to have heard the chants but stressed that the exact words “is not the core issue”. 

“The core issue is that on October 9, before Israel had even commenced its military response, just two days after the greatest atrocity inflicted on the Jewish people since the Holocaust, a mob of thugs gathered at one of our nation’s most cherished sites to celebrate the mass slaughter and rape of Israelis, to burn Israeli flags and to chant threateningly towards fellow Australians,” he said in a statement shared to X. 

Ryvchin said the “Where’s the Jews?” chant was “far more menacing and directly threatening”. NSW Police told Crikey that it had legal advice that other chants did not reach the standard of prosecution, the same standard that “Gas the Jews” met, according to The Australian’s reporting.

Barrister for the pro-Palestinian protest organisers and former police officer Mahmud Hawila welcomed the findings, “even though it took 110 days to simply confirm what anyone with ears knew”. He called on NSW Police to investigate the videos, noting that it was an offence to give false or misleading information in the investigation of a complaint. 

“I imagine police, protesters and other affected communities will be looking very closely at this to detect whether any laws were breached, and carefully considering their options,” Hawila said.

Lanyon said that police continue to investigate offences relating to the protest.

Shortly after the protests, the AJA broadcast its role in turning “Gas the Jews” into a global story.

AJA president David Adler explained in an October Zoom meeting with an international counterpart about how the organisation had obtained the footage: “That was an AJA project. We got that out. Robert had one of his friends down at the Opera House incognito,” he said. 

AJA did not respond to a request for comment from Crikey and its videos remain online. However, the group did respond to the ECAJ’s statement on X by retweeting it with the words “100%”, and made multiple posts that joked about different things that the protesters might have said, such as “watch the news”, “go on cruise” and “look at the views”.

NSW Police told the media that the AJA’s video “had not been doctored” but instead was edited into a compilation. Another videographer who captured the protest, independent media outlet Consortium News’ Cathy Vogan, told Crikey that her footage captured at the same time suggested that audio had been synced up to different video, corroborating analysis from verification experts RMIT CrossCheck.

“It is also easy to match with other published images because I have almost the same shots, and sometimes the same people in them,” Vogan said, pointing out her footage shows the crowd chanting “Palestine is occupied” at the same time as the AJA’s purported to show them chanting “Gas the Jews”.

Hawila said it was important to know who had edited the AJA’s videos. “This amplified the damage. These questions need urgent answers to make many communities feel safer.”

In December, Sky News’ Sharri Markson broadcast footage that she claimed “proved” protesters had chanted “Gas the Jews”. Markson confirmed to Crikey at the time that the network had manually put subtitles on the raw footage. 

She said that it was “actually unbelievable” that Crikey was reporting on doubts about the videos.

Crikey’s ‘journalists’ and editors need to have a look in the mirror. The only comfort I take from such obviously anti-Semitic reports is that no-one reads your publication. You can quote me on that,” she said. 

Neither Markson nor Sky News responded to questions about whether they would issue a correction after NSW Police’s findings about the video.

One of the first public figures to raise doubts about the footage was NSW Labor MLC Stephen Lawrence, who said in a speech in late November that there were “real questions” about the footage. 

NSW Premier Chris Minns responded to Lawrence’s speech by declining to “endorse those views or comments” in an interview with Australian Jewish News. Minns also appeared to say that he heard the chant: “I’ll let police conduct their investigation however it certainly sounds like a despicable and racist chant to me,” he said.

The NSW government passed changes to hate speech and incitement to violence provisions in the Crimes Act in the weeks after the protest, and launched a review into the laws in January.

NSW Council for Civil Liberties president Lydia Shelly said she believed the “Gas the Jews” video claims prompted the changes to the Crimes Act as well as caused damage to the community.

“Regurgitating the serious allegation as a ‘fact’ ripped at the fabric of our social cohesion and caused unnecessary harm to vulnerable communities,” she said in a statement.

She also welcomed the hate speech review but said it should have come before the changes, not afterwards.

“The findings of the NSW Police investigation demonstrate that we must all take a more proactive role in ensuring that our civil liberties and parliamentary process are not disregarded when it is politically desirable to do so. Parliamentary processes exist to protect the public,” she said.

On Friday, Lawrence thanked NSW Police for its investigation in a post to Facebook and criticised the AJA for falsely captioning the video and sharing it on social media, “shocking the world and causing untold trauma and anger”. 

“The growing dangers of real-time disinformation influencing social and political developments is real and this is a powerful example and a cautionary tale. Unacceptable things occurred at that protest, but the scale, extent and truth matters, any suggestions to the contrary seek to diminish the significance of the Holocaust,” he said. 

Minns said in a statement to Crikey that his views on the “violent and racist” protest had not changed, but did not answer further questions about his comments specifically on the “Gas the Jews” chants or about the harm to the Palestinian community from the debunked viral videos. 

“Hate speech and racist language have no place in NSW. If those comments were made about any other group my reaction would be the same,” he said. 


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