A group of drunken youths accused of chanting anti-Semitic abuse at a busload of Jewish primary school students had engaged in an opportunistic attack and had not considered the consequences of their actions, police say.
Jewish leaders, however, say they are “deeply concerned” at the attack as it came after a spike in anti-Semitic incidents following the outbreak of war in Gaza.
Five youths, aged between 15 and 17, were arrested in Rose Bay in the early hours of Thursday morning but were too drunk to be interviewed at the time, superintendent Jason Box, the Eastern Suburbs local area commander, said.
Police are still searching for one boy following the incident on the route 660 school bus, which was travelling between Maroubra and Bondi Beach on Wednesday afternoon.
Superintendent Box said he did not believe the alleged offenders had specifically targeted a bus of Jewish children, aged between five and 12.
“Once they’ve got on this bus, I believe that they’ve then seen the target audience and that’s encouraged their behaviour. I do not believe it was targeted,” he said.
“I know international incidents at the moment do cause concern, but in my opinion it is isolated and random and I’m hopeful that everything will be put in context for this incident.”
A statement from the Executive Council of Australian Jewry said: “We as a community are profoundly troubled by this latest event and the sequence of anti-Semitic incidents that has preceded it.
“The gravity of this incident should not be underestimated.”
The previous incidents included a visiting Rabbi from Israel being set upon outside a Perth shopping mall by youths shouting anti-Israel slogans, and anti-Semitic graffiti being spray-painted on a wall of Carmel Jewish School, also in Perth. In Melbourne, a Jewish man was called a “Jewish dog” and beaten on a street by two men, the statement said.
The youths involved in Wednesday’s school bus incident were dressed in school uniforms and produced bus passes to board the bus, police said.
Superintendent Box said the bus driver did not appear to be aware of what had occurred.
Police allege the offenders got on the bus on Darley Road in Randwick about 3.50pm and, as the bus travelled towards Bondi, they racially taunted and made physical threats to the children, who were from Jewish schools in Sydney’s eastern suburbs – Mount Sinai College, Emanuel School and Moriah Collegen.
A spokesman for the State Transit Authority said the 660 bus served a range of schools.
“The route goes past a few schools but any school student can get on, it’s not exclusive in that way,” he said. “The students who boarded the bus were certainly allowed on board.”
He said the STA were assisting police and had turned over the CCTV footage from the bus.
Sources have told Fairfax Media the footage reveals little. It shows the alleged offenders all standing in the middle of the bus. It also shows a woman, possibly a mother, hammering on the doors of the bus.
One parent, Jackie Blackburn, later told police that the offenders were drunk at the time and yelled insults such as “kill the Jews”, “free Palestine” and “Heil Hitler” during their assault, which one police officer described as a “horrific” incident of bullying and intimidation.
Mrs Blackburn told Channel Nine that her eldest daughter, aged 12, was distraught when she phoned her from the bus and described how the teens were threatening to slit the children’s throats.
“I was actually chasing the bus, I was just saying to the kids ‘Where are you? Where are you?’,” Mrs Blackburn said.
Superintendent Box said the 25 children on the State Transit Authority bus were not physically harmed, but were traumatised by the event.
He could not say whether the alleged offenders had been at school that day, or where they were from.
The alleged offenders got off the bus on Bronte Road at Bondi Junction, police said. A number of children called their parents, who met them at Bondi Junction and called police.
Superintendent Box said at 3.30am on Thursday, police were called to Rose Bay over an “unrelated incident”, which he would not elaborate on.
An officer who went to the scene allegedly then recognised the five teenagers from the bus CCTV footage. They were arrested and taken to Waverley Police Station, but Superintendent Box said they were not in a state to be interviewed.
“They were released into the custody of their parents and guardians this morning due to their intoxication,” he said. They were expected to be interviewed on Thursday afternoon. No charges have been laid.
Superintendent Box appealed for the one remaining teenager to contact police.
All three schools and the Executive Council of Australian Jewry all declined to comment on how many students had stayed home on Thursday and how the school communities were responding to the attack.
Victor Dominello, the Minister for Citizenship and Communities, said he was “deeply disturbed” by the incident. Mr Dominello said public abuse and intimidation on the grounds of race or religion was “deplorable”.
Vic Alhadeff, chief executive of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, said he visited some of the school children and their families shortly after the incident occurred on Wednesday afternoon.
“I have to say that the children were traumatised,” Mr Alhadeff said.
“This is unacceptable. It is not what we do in Australia. We live in a country which comprises 200 different cultures and groups, and that diversity is what makes us the richest country in the world.
“That said, there is no place for racism, there is no place for bigotry. That is what we saw yesterday. That is what makes education and leadership and racial vilification legislation so important.”
Mr Alhadeff said he believed the recent violence in Gaza was a stimulus for the attack.
“It is documented that whenever there are major incidents happening in the Middle East, there will be those who use what is happening in the Middle East as a pretext to lash out against the Jewish community. We have seen that in the past, and we saw this in yesterday’s horrific incident,” he said.
Any witnesses or anyone with information about the incident has been urged to contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 00 or visit the Crime Stoppers online reporting page.
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