SYDNEY – In late 2023, Mr Simon Welsh, a public opinion researcher in Australia, began to notice a familiar pattern in the conversations his team conducted with focus groups across the country.

The groups of eight to 10 people of varying ages and backgrounds would – without prompting – raise concerns about the Israel-Hamas war, even if they were supposed to be discussing topics like energy or education policy.

The overwhelming concern raised in these groups was that they did not want the tensions in the Middle East to play out in Australia or affect the country’s social cohesion.

“The topic kept coming through in the background of what we were talking about,” said Mr Welsh, director of research and reputation at research firm RedBridge Group.

“There is this sense that we don’t have intercultural wars and tensions that other countries do, and we don’t want those tensions and that disunity being imported into this country,” he told The Straits Times.

Mr Welsh said the main sentiment in these focus groups was an “empathetic concern” about the innocent victims on both sides of the conflict. But people then quickly express concern about Australia’s social harmony and the need to ensure the country’s Palestinian, Muslim and Jewish communities feel safe and secure.

“People in this country are just not that engaged in the politics of (the Gaza war),” he said. “They want the communities here to feel OK.”

But there are growing concerns in Australia that this highly valued sense of “social cohesion” is starting to fray amid a spike in reported incidents of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. Recent unlawful protests and acts of vandalism have added to the unease.

Dr Nora Amath, executive director of the Islamophobia Register Australia, said on June 7 that there had been an “unprecedented surge” in Islamophobic incidents since Oct 7, when Hamas launched an attack in Israel that prompted an Israeli invasion of Gaza.

Dr Amath referred to recent incidents such as abusive anti-Muslim graffiti outside a house in Melbourne, and women having their hijabs ripped off their heads in Sydney and Brisbane. “Nowhere in Australia is immune to the scourge of Islamophobia,” she said.

The Executive Council of Australian Jewry has also highlighted a surge in anti-Semitism that has involved daily attacks on the Jewish community, including assaults, harassment and intimidation. Recent incidents included people making Nazi salutes at Jewish schoolchildren in Sydney, anti-Semitic death threats received by a Jewish couple at a store in Melbourne, and the words “Jew die” spray-painted on the front fence of a Jewish school in Melbourne on May 25.

According to the latest census in 2021, Australia has 813,395 Muslims – accounting for 3.2 per cent of the population – and 99,951 Jews – accounting for 0.4 per cent of the population.

Australian politicians have increasingly warned that tensions in the Middle East must not cause disunity in local communities and have called for calm as protests against the Gaza war have turned violent and unlawful.