Australian municipality: Don’t blame us for banning synagogue on terror grounds

A municipal council in a suburb of Australia’s largest city said it was not to blame for a decision to ban the construction of a synagogue because it could become the target of a terrorist attack.

In a statement Friday, the Waverley Council asserted that the decision to reject the synagogue was made by a local land use court, which said the congregation had not addressed the security concerns raised by the congregation in its development application.

“Waverley Council did not refuse this development application,” the council said. “It was a decision of the Land and Environment Court and confirms that a synagogue is a permitted use at this location.”

The Chabad congregation, known as Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe, or FREE, sought to build a synagogue near the popular Bondi Beach in suburban Sydney. It called the application’s rejection, on the grounds that it posed a “potential risk to users and other members of the general public,” a reward for terrorism.

Illustrative image of Bondi Beach, January 2009. (CC BY-SA Liz Lawley, Flickr)

According to the council, FREE submitted a risk analysis report prepared by a counterterrorism consultant as part of its development application. The report described a number of potential risks and threats to the synagogue. The council noted that FREE sought a ruling from the Land and Environment Court, which ruled that the potential risks were not sufficiently addressed.

“The Waverley community is enriched by our diverse faiths and places of worship, including our synagogues,” the council said in its statement. “Waverley Council has a strong history of partnerships with the Jewish community and will continue to work closely with the Jewish community and Jewish organizations.”

One of Waverley’s three Jewish councilors, Leon Goltsman, told JTA: “The record shows exactly how much this council actually does for the Jewish community, and it’s distressing the way mainstream media is so quick to jump onto a story without first researching the facts.”

Community leaders were nevertheless shocked by the decision, with a FREE spokesman calling it “unprecedented.”

“Its implications are enormous,” the spokesman, Rabbi Yehoram Ulman, told news.com.au. “It basically implies that no Jewish organization should be allowed to exist in residential areas. It stands to stifle Jewish existence and activity in Sydney and indeed, by creating a precedent, the whole of Australia, and by extension rewarding terrorism.”

Other Jewish leaders echoed the alarm, calling the decision unacceptable and disturbing.

Peter Wertheim, the executive director of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, told the Times of Israel the decision was “perplexing as it is concerning.”

“The threat of Islamist terrorism is directed at everyone, not only the Jewish community. Are we going to stop building churches and Hindu Temples in our suburbs, simply because they might become the targets of Islamist terrorists? Are we going to stop building mosques simply because they might become the targets of anti-Muslim extremists?” he said.

Wertheim suggested that “the correct way to deal with threats from terrorists is to take sensible security precautions, but otherwise maintain our way of life” and predicted that “the owners of the site will not give up, and will use every legal means available to pursue the project.”

Jeremy Jones, the director of International and of Community Affairs for the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council said it was “a despicable way to address serious issues of terrorism and anti-Semitism.”

“This issue will not end here, given the way it appears to fly in the face of religious freedom, human rights and common sense,” he said.

Vic Alhadeff, chief executive of the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies and chair of the Community Relations Commission (screen capture: YouTube/desitvaustralia)

Vic Alhadeff of the local regional Jewish organization, the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, echoed those feelings when he said “it’s a very sad day for Australia if an established community, which needs a house of worship, is refused permission to build it because of fear that others may pose a threat.”

“In today’s climate, many communities are required to take security precautions, as are public institutions such as police, emergency departments, government buildings and a range of other facilities,” Alhadeff said. “The ruling sets a very dangerous precedent.”

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