Pro-Palestinian activists rally outside the Sydney Opera House, Oct. 9, 2023. (Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)
Pro-Palestinian activists rally outside the Sydney Opera House, Oct. 9, 2023. (Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

After Oct. 7, Australian Jews grapple with a mass doxxing — and wonder what happened to their country

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(JTA) — SYDNEY — The shaming of hundreds of Australian Jewish creatives played out very much in public, with names and photos and threats, at least one targeting a child. 

Now, months later, it lingers in silences — friends unfollowed, musicians quieted, colleagues ducked.

In February, a number of prominent Jews who had expressed anguish over Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre had their personal information outed by pro-Palestinian activists in a doxxing incident that stunned the country. The “Zio600” list was meant to isolate “Zionists,” ostensibly in retribution for threats to the careers of Israel’s critics.

The subsequent harassment and isolation of those on the list transformed Australian Jews. It changed how the community, known for its disproportionate number of descendants of Holocaust survivors, views the land they love — a place they thought was far removed from the hatreds that plagued their forebears.

“This happened in Australia, lovely, innocent, innocent, bloody innocent Australia,” said Geoff Sirmai, a writer, actor and PR professional — and a child of a Hungarian survivor — who was on the doxxing list. He spoke as he watched winter harbor waters rustle seacraft, cradled by the Sydney Opera House and the Harbor Bridge.

Geoff Sirmai, an actor and a writer, poses in front of the Sydney Opera House, June 5, 2024. (Ron Kampeas)

The doxxing happened in “the country that our parents chose because it was so far away,” said Estelle Rozinski, an artist and the daughter of Polish survivors who was also on the list. 

Some of the most prominent targets of the doxxing described the fallout to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, along with their sense of having been betrayed not just by ostensible colleagues, not just by harsh critics of Israel, but by the country they call home.

The first shock

Lee Kofman, based in Melbourne, is celebrated in Australian literary circles for her candid writings on sex, women, relationships and writing itself, as well as for mentoring other writers. Her signature work is “The Writer Laid Bare.”

She found herself struck silent after Oct. 7. Kofman was born in the former Soviet Union, and before she ended up in Australia her family had emigrated to Ashdod, a port city not far from the Gaza border communities where Hamas terrorists massacred approximately 1,200 people. 

The murder of more than 360 people at the Nova music festival — and the failure of those in her Australian milieu to condemn it — traumatized her.

“When I was a teenager, I used to go to music festivals, like the Nova festival, so just the idea that some people didn’t care a bit, the people around me…” she said in an interview, trailing off.

She tells other writers that a sense of urgency is essential to writing. When it comes to the topics she writes about, she feels like she has lost that sense.

“I could write, I just didn’t feel like I should,” said Kofman, 50. “It just didn’t feel urgent anymore.”

The shock intensified on Oct. 9, when a show of support for Israel at the Sydney Opera House turned ugly. 

Jews were at the landmark to watch it bathed in blue and white light in what was supposed to be an emotional balm. Instead, they heard pro-Palestinian marchers shouting “F— the Jews” and “Where’s the Jews.” and burning flags. (Organizers of the pro-Palestinian protest condemned what they said was “vile antisemitism” by a a small group among them.) 

Police advised the Jews to disperse and to stay away. The sense of alienation deepened for those who had ventured out to find mutual support.

“The Opera House is iconic, it belongs to all Australians,” said Sirmai, 62, who was considering heading over to the memorial when his phone lit up with notifications of the unrest. “It’s a public place, and to be told to stay away for our own safety seemed wrong.” 

A police investigation afterward compounded the feelings of isolation. It rejected claims that pro-Palestinian protesters had said “Gas the Jews,” an indictable offense in Australia, saying that those who had reported the claim had actually heard “Where’s the Jews?” instead. 

That interpretation did not soothe Australian Jews.

“‘Where’s the Jews,’ if that was indeed what was chanted, is in many ways far worse because it shows a desire to menace, threaten and find Jews and no doubt do some horrible things if they were able to find them,” Alex Ryvchin, the CEO of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Coming together 

On Oct. 21 a venerable left-wing Australian literary journal, “Overland,” published an open letter admonishing the left-leaning prime minister, Anthony Albanese, and his Arts Minister, Tony Burke, for opposing a parliamentary motion to “condemn war crimes perpetrated by the state of Israel.” Both had been known for their pro-Palestinian sympathies.

Reading the letter and seeing among its hundreds of signatories people whom she knew and worked with, Kofman felt a sense of resolve. 

“It felt like what was urgent was to do some community work, and this is when I started the WhatsApp group” for Jewish creatives and academics to consult and commiserate, she said. That was Oct. 30. 

“I just lost faith because there’s so many people from the literary industry signing these really ignorant, not-based-on-facts, open letters even before Israel attacked Gaza — I just kind of lost faith in the whole enterprise of literature,” Kofman said.

The appeal to condemn Israel did not shock Jewish creatives as much as the letter’s language, and its blitheness about Oct. 7.  

“Stop the genocide in Gaza,” was its headline, with the sub-headline “Artists Against Apartheid.” There  was a single reference halfway through the letter to the Oct. 7 massacres, which it described as “armed attacks” that should be seen in the context of Palestinian suffering.

Kofman’s group soon burgeoned to 600 members, some added by friends without being asked. The chat was private and members were explicitly asked not to share its contents. Its first mission was a public response to the Overland letter.

Lara Goodridge, a rock violinist with an international following, designed a website and Sirmai organized outreach to the media. It went up on Nov. 7, a month after the attack.

It addressed “Fellow Australian creatives and academics,” and expressed heartbreak over the massacre and the Palestinians killed in the Israeli response. Then the signers turned to their colleagues and peers.

Some colleagues had reached out privately to empathize, it said, “but in the public arena, as far as our industries are concerned, silence and justifications often prevail.”

The co-editor of Overland, Jonathan Dunk, mocked his magazine’s Jewish critics as “those comfortable of Melbourne with the blasphemous temerity to claim themselves made ‘unsafe’ by a slogan or a poster.”

He praised “the humbling courage and eloquence of the many progressive Jewish activists who refuse to let Israel act in their name, which has truly exemplified the greatest of human moral potential.”

The WhatsApp group did not flag. It became a forum for sharing uncomfortable work experiences, ugly street encounters with protesters, and incidents of antisemitism.

There were consultations about how to explain the war to friends and colleagues who were blaming Israel. For Goodridge, it was a means of coping.

Lara Goodridge, a musician, poses with your dog, Ziggy, in a cafe in Sydney, June 7, 2024. (Ron Kampeas)

“It was a lifeline to a lot of us,” said Goodridge, 52. “I very quickly became very vocal. I needed it. I really needed it. I’m in the arts world. I’m a violinist and singer, and I had already started to try to counter the narrative out there.”

Sirmai recalls anxious gossip about what was happening to Jews in the arts community, including speculation that an Australian production of “Rent” would strip the Jewishness out of Mark Cohen, a character Jewish writer Jonathan Larson based on his friends. (The musical opened in March, and Mark Cohen remained Jewish.) 

“Most of it was expressions of support and sympathy for each others’ experiences,” Sirmai said.

And there were consultations about how and whether to complain about public figures who were attacking Israel. One discussion focused on Clementine Ford, a feminist writer and a strident critic of Israel.  

Not long after the attacks, Ford derided Jewish feminists who solicited their peers for condemnation of sexual violence committed on Oct. 7.  “I don’t care that you felt betrayed or let down, and I especially don’t care that you want to have a big crybaby rant,” she said on Instagram in December

Sirmai, who had authored a popular book about consumers’ rights, had the same publisher as Ford, called Allen & Unwin. 

“She’s attacking Jewish women in the most vicious language possible, and what do we do about that?” he said in the interview. “And I put my hand up” on WhatsApp “and I said, ‘Ah, actually, you know, I’m with the same publisher. I wonder what they would have to say.’”

He never did call Allen & Unwin, he said. “Not that I did anything with that, but it just occurred to me,” he said.

A few people were venting, Kofman said. “It was a very small portion of the chat, plus we did this as individuals,” she said. “It wasn’t a coordinated attempt.” 

On Feb. 1, Ford told her followers on Facebook that “there have been some really diabolical and coordinated campaigns being run in secret by people determined to silence the voices of pro-Palestinian people.” 

The second shock

“I was one of the people that they identified in the photos,” said Lucy Taksa, a professor of management at Deakin University in suburban Melbourne. “They used my title, as well as my name.”

On Feb. 7, Ford had posted a link on social media and a QR code to what she called a “leaked zionist group chat.” She wrote, “If you want an insight into how coordinated efforts are to silence Palestinian activists and their allies, you can read the leaked chat here.” 

The link opened up some 900 pages of WhatsApp conversations. There was a spreadsheet listing names and job titles and quotes from the WhatsApp group, meant to be seen as incriminating. There were about a hundred photos gathered from public media of the WhatsApp participants. 

Sirmai, Taksa, Goodridge and Kofman were among the top targets.

Ford has hundreds of thousands of followers across platforms, and other anti-Zionist activists also posted the link, which had already been in circulation.

The harassment was immediate, reaching not just the top targets but anyone on the list. One family shut down their Melbourne area shop and went into hiding after they received a message with a photograph of their child saying “I know where you live,” The Jewish Independent reported. The shop was daubed with antisemitic graffiti.

Other families in heavily Jewish neighborhoods were seeking homes elsewhere, the Herald Sun reported.

Musicians who belonged to the WhatsApp group suddenly lost gigs. Artists lost commissions. An art school’s website was peppered with anti-Israel comments.

Police opened investigations. The links to the documents were killed. “Breach of terms of service — harassment, invasion of privacy,” one host site said. Mark Dreyfus, the attorney general whose father was a refugee from Nazi Germany, introduced legislation to ban doxxing.

Ford defended the doxxing as just desserts for people she said were planning to harm the careers of Israel critics. “People whose livelihoods and professional reputations are mendaciously — and successfully — targeted in secret by others invested in silencing their criticism of a genocide are entitled to defend themselves,” she told The Age. (The leakers have yet to be identified.)

Some of the doxxed took to social media to apologize to the pro-Palestinian figures who said they were targeted.

Ginger Gorman, an author who has covered online harassment, said she joined the group but soon muted it. “Once I was made aware that there was bullying and harassment within the group — namely the targeting of specific public personalities — I left,” she said on X on Feb. 5 — two days before the general release. She said not leaving earlier had been a “mistake.” 

Gorman sought to explain her few remarks appearing in the WhatsApp exchanges, which had drawn rebukes from peers she said she respected. In one exchange in the WhatsApp group, she sympathized with a woman who described extricating herself from an anti-Israel protest in Caulfield, a Melbourne suburb with a substantial Jewish population. 

“I hope you’re ok,” Gorman had written. “Sounds scary.”

“I wanted to support someone in clear distress,” Gorman said on X. “Now I’m being accused of believing Arab men are scary. I see now how some people may have construed my message this way, but it could not be further from my values.”

The repercussions could be intensely personal. Taksa, whose research covers the intersection of business, unions and Indigenous communities, called a meeting of a team she belonged to authoring a research project on Aboriginal land rights and the railways. She told them she had been doxxed and that it could affect the research.

Most of her colleagues, including indigenous people on the panel, were sympathetic, she said. But one, who was Jewish, was livid. “I was not supporting anti-colonialism,” she quoted him as accusing her. The next day he emailed her quoting not just her remarks in the spreadsheet but elsewhere. He had searched for her name in the 900-page document.

“I was incensed,” she said. Taksa, 65, had arrived in Australia as a toddler from Poland in 1961, and her family — with relatives still in Poland — had closely followed news of the intense period of Polish anti-Zionism and antisemitism in 1968. Her colleague’s stridency, she said, reminded her of the intimate betrayals of that time.

“The childhood echoes of this list of Jews were profound. That they had trawled this list was the worst thing,” she said. She wrote to her research team, offering to withdraw. Her supervisor, who was not Jewish, said the team wanted her to stay. She did.

Taksa said she was targeted for suggesting, in response to the Overland piece, that members who were academics could raise the issue with the vice chancellor (equivalent to a dean or a president) of their academic institution, as many of the signatories of the Overland letter were also academics. Critics cast Taksa as seeking terminations; she said she was recommending a routine means of addressing concerns.

“I have been writing to vice chancellors complaining about treatments of every underprivileged person for my whole career,” she said. “Gender issues, treatment of Muslim students, refugee scholarships.”

A sense of otherness

Australian Jews have long said that this was the land of opportunity, the far country, stripped of hate and history, flat with light and land and bright with promise.

There are Australian jokes and there are Jewish jokes, and there is one Australian Jewish joke that has been told many times: A refugee from post-Holocaust Europe lands in Melbourne and is sent to a work detail. A foreman approaches and asks in his thick Australian accent, “Did you come to die?” The refugee, incensed, straightens up and says, “I came to live, to start anew!” The foreman looks puzzled. “Did you come today, or yesterday?”

This was the cliche absorbed by the second and third generations of Holocaust survivors: Australia was a safe, boundless space for Jews. They number about 120,000, concentrated mostly in Melbourne and Sydney. 

Now, Sirmai says, he has a sense of otherness. He recalled a meeting that organizers of the Jewish open letter had with Burke, the arts minister, after Oct. 7. As he was leaving the meeting, he saw a group wearing keffiyehs heading in, but didn’t think it was untoward; Burke was getting the range of opinions.

At least, until Burke’s aide called him and told Sirmai the minister had met with his “opposite number.” “Are you saying we’re anti-Palestinian?” he said he asked her. “Because that’s not what we were representing.” She backed off, but the tenor of the meeting had changed for him. “After all of that, they didn’t get it.”

The cliches about Australia now seem dated, never really true, Jews said recently at Shabbat and holiday dinners, and over coffee.

“I’m understanding for the first time in my life what antisemitism really looks like, and that it’s alive and well, and how it can happen,” Goodridge said. “I’ve been saying to people, this is our time to understand it. And every single generation of Jews have understood, have had this moment. This is just our time.”

An end and a beginning

The WhatsApp group lives on, smaller — no more than 250, with members vetted. Some folks didn’t transfer, heeding pleas from family who feared the exposure brought on by the February doxxing.The doxxed described a turning inwards, relationships ending and others beginning.

Goodridge belongs to a number of bands, and has played Carnegie Hall and topped the Billboard charts with them. Seeing some bandmates’ social media reactions to what was happening in Gaza, and outed as a top WhatsApp group contributor, the relationships no longer seemed sustainable. A bandmate asked her to prove that there was sexual violence committed on Oct. 7. 

“Their unwillingness to really listen, that’s become untenable. I can’t get on stage with them — and probably nor them me — with an open heart,” she said. “It’s been devastating.”

So she’s taking a break from those bands that may last six months, or may last longer. And she’s begun playing Jewish music and Jewish events. She judged a Jewish day school music contest. She relearned standards like “Jerusalem of Gold,” and she learned recent songs, like Israel’s entry this year to Eurovision, “Hurricane.” 

“I feel really heimish, it’s a really homey community,” she said, employing a Yiddish term.

Sirmai used to love to walk the stately campus at the University of Sydney, the continent’s oldest, and modeled on Britain’s classical universities. It was where, 40 years ago, he came into his own: a performer, a personality. For years he headlined poetry readings at alumni events, and narrated early music concerts. “I was the ‘naughty bard,’” he said.

Now he can’t stand the place, which has been carpeted with pro-Palestinian encampments and a university leadership that has said it will consider joining the movement to boycott Israel.  

“I just feel I don’t want to go on campus,” he said. Using a Nazi term meaning “cleansed of Jews,” he said, “It feels like you know … Judenrein.”

He also has started reading the papers owned by Rupert Murdoch, the Australian impresario of right-leaning media. “It’s turned us all in a weird way towards the right,” he said of the doxxing fallout. “Which is, you know, uncomfortable and annoying.”

Goodridge is trying to get offline. She said she is sure she’s lost followers because of her stridency.

“All my posts used to be really fun, and I went through a period… Look, I probably also lost a lot of followers that I didn’t even notice,” she said.

An off-the-record panel on the doxxing took place at Limmud Oz, the Australian branch of the Jewish study conference movement. Some described guilt at being spared retribution because they had not joined the WhatsApp group. Others spoke of “shadow doxxing” — the sense they were losing work because of the exposure.

Ben Adler, who leads a klezmer band, Chutney, was outed, but his band’s music was already firmly ensconced in the Jewish community, so he didn’t feel much fallout, he said in an interview after the panel. 

Still he wondered if there was an effect: Chutney filmed a video in an inner-city Sydney neighborhood, a klezmer cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” mashed with Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” He notified the neighborhood’s council, telling them they were free to promote the video, which cast its streets as mysterious and sexy.

Chutney, a Klezmer fusion band led by Ben Adler, upper left in the vest, performs at Limmud Oz in Sydney, June 9, 2024. (Ron Kampeas)

“‘Amazing. Wonderful. Congratulations. So excited for you. We’d love to share thanks for reaching out,’” was the reaction he described. “Nothing but positive energy.” Then he heard nothing for six days. “I get an email back saying, ‘Our policy is that we can’t support bands that haven’t played at our festivals.’ It was a very formal, very dour tone.”

He was left wondering. “Is what they’re saying accurate? Or is there some subtext there that they looked us up?”

Taksa quit her academic union, which she said was becoming inhospitable, and joined a new group, the Australian Academic Alliance Against Antisemitism, which provides support to students and staff across the country who face antisemitism, and which was formed a month after the Oct. 7 attacks. 

“I’m now connected to Jewish academics across the country and in my university that I never knew existed. I would never have sought them out under different circumstances,” she said,

Kofman no longer writes the books that earned her fame and a feminist fan base, such as “The Dangerous Bride: A Memoir of Love, Gods and Geography,” recounting her explorations of polyamory.

“Now I’m about to start writing two books, one is a novel and the other a memoir and they both examine what it means to be a Jew today,” she said.

She said she too has shifted communities — to the degree that a novelist and memoirist whose mother tongue is Russian and who writes in Hebrew and English has a community. She said she can no longer count on her literary peers.

“I just kind of feel like some of these people now, they don’t really care if people like me die or get raped,” she said. “It just really made me feel homeless.”

And she ducks events, knowing what many of those likely to attend believe based on their social media posts.

A woman who Kofman had seen online seeking to contextualize the Oct. 7 attacks came in for a hug at a party recently.

“She gave me a hug and kiss and she was trying to talk to me and being super nice to me,” she said. “It was just all very weird and uncomfortable, and I just fled.”

Ron Kampeas

Ron Kampeas is the D.C. bureau chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.