An Australian council has banned the construction of a synagogue in Bondi because it could be a terrorist target, in a shock move that religious leaders say has caved in to Islamic extremism and created a dangerous precedent.
The decision, which has rocked the longstanding Jewish community in the iconic suburb, was upheld in court this week as the nation reeled from the alleged airline terror threat and debate raged over increased security measures at airports and other public places.
The Land and Environment Court backed the decision by Waverley Council to prohibit the construction of the synagogue in Wellington St, Bondi — just a few hundred metres from Australia’s most famous beach — because it was too much of a security risk for users and local residents.
Jewish leaders are shocked the decision appears to suggest they cannot freely practice their religion because they are the target of hate by Islamist extremists — and that the council has used their own risk assessment of the threat posed by IS against it.
The head of the local Jewish community said the council and the court had effectively stifled freedom of religion and rewarded terrorism.
“The decision is unprecedented,” Rabbi Yehoram Ulman told news.com.au.
“Its implications are enormous. It basically implies that no Jewish organisation 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.”
The synagogue is in the heart of Australia’s most iconic suburb and just a few hundred metres from the world famous Bondi Beach. Photo: Dylan Robinson – Source: News Corp Australia
NSW Jewish Board of Deputies chief executive Vic Alhadeff told news.com.au he had never heard of any other religious group being denied a place of worship just because they were targeted by outside extremists and that the move was a dangerous precedent.
“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,” he said.
“This simply shows how we’re all losing our freedoms. Those who want us to be afraid are winning, and this ill-conceived judgment represents a dangerous precedent.”
Ironically, the council and the Land and Environment Court appeared to use the proposal’s own risk assessment and security measures in the proposed design — including using setback buildings and blast walls — as evidence the site was too much of a security risk.
Yet in a classic catch-22, the council also said if the design was changed to boost security this would be unacceptable because it would be too unsightly.
“The proposed development should be refused as the site is not suitable for the proposed synagogue use as the Preliminary Threat and Risk Analysis relied on by the Applicant raises concerns as to the safety and security of future users of the Synagogue, nearby residents, motorists and pedestrians in Wellington Street and the physical measures proposed to deal with the identified threats will have an unacceptable impact on the streetscape and adjoining properties.”
An artist’s impression of the synagogue development in Wellington Street, Bondi. – Source: Supplied
The Friends of Refugees from Eastern Europe, the Jewish group that appealed the council decision in the Land and Environment Court, argued the Preliminary Threat and Risk Analysis it commissioned from a terrorism expert did not indicate any risk to local residents or passers-by and was only about the security of those using the synagogue — who were used to the threat of violence.
Its evidence, as summarised by the court decision, was:
“The PTRA concludes nothing more than stating:
“The PTRA does not raise concerns as to the safety and security of future particularly users of the synagogue, nearby residents, motorists; or pedestrians in Wellington Street.”
Rabbi Yehoram Ulman with local MP and now Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in 2006. – Source: News Limited
But in the judgment handed down by the Land and Environment Court on Wednesday, Commissioner Graham Brown said the risk assessment was inadequate and upheld the council’s decision.
“It would seem that a more sophisticated risk assessment process could be required for matters such as a potential terrorist threat,” he found.
Rabbi Ulman said the decision “came as surprise and shock to the entire Jewish community” but was even more scathing about the council, warning it had threatened the future of Jewish life in Australia.
“By pulling the terror threat argument they have shown that they are completely out of touch both with the reality and with needs of their constituency,” he told news.com.au.
“They have effectively placed in jeopardy the future of Jewish life in Australia.”
A Waverley Council spokesperson noted the court had supported the council’s position, which was supported by several residents’ concerns.
“The ruling follows Council’s presentation of evidence to the court in support of refusal of the application, based on:
· The proposal does not respond to the context, character and streetscape of the area or provide sufficient residential amenity
· Unacceptable amenity impacts such as adequate solar access, noise and loss of privacy; and
· The site is unsuitable for a synagogue because of the potential risk to users and other members of the general public.
“A number of residents agreed with the contentions raised by the Council and provided additional evidence against the development of the site.”
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