The peak Australian Jewish body has criticised an ABC journalist and cabinet minister Tony Burke for “entertaining the notion” that Palestinians were subject to a genocide during a morning radio interview.

The Employment and Workplace Relations Minister was asked by Radio National host Patricia Karvelas on Friday morning whether he considered the treatment of Palestinians in Gaza as an act of genocide.

Mr Burke said he would “prefer to describe the facts” and leave it to listeners to “find their own words”.

“I think when we go straight to ‘do we use this word, do we use that word’, we end up in an argument about linguistics. What I want to talk about is what’s happening to individuals,” he said.

“The people who are going to be most affected by (Israel’s attacks), the people who will die first as a result of that, are not Hamas. They are families who live in Gaza.

“Many of them live in Gaza already as refugees who are now refugees again because they’ve evacuated.”

Executive Council of Australian Jewry co-chief executive Alex Ryvchin said the interview was a clear example of how “language matters and leadership matters”, adding that the council “expect better”.

“Genocide isn’t a buzzword. It is the most heinous crime a nation can commit and involves the deliberate extermination of an ethnic group,” Mr Ryvchin said.

“For a respected journalist to give the claim credibility and from a cabinet minister to have even entertained the notion is deeply irresponsible.

“In any way likening Israel’s war with Hamas and mission to rescue its captives to that crime degrades the understanding of actual genocide and inflames passions locally.”

An ABC spokesperson defended Karvelas for her “outstanding job covering this complex, unfolding situation”.

“As part of a lengthy, detailed interview with Federal Minister Tony Burke, she put the use of the word “genocide” to him and asked for his thoughts on its usage,” the spokesperson said.

“The usage of the word is being widely discussed, for example in a UN statement last week. She doesn’t use the word herself.”

Mr Ryvchin’s warning about risks to social cohesion comes as national security officials fear terrorist groups could take advantage of community tensions.

Media at a briefing on Friday were told that the fallout from the war in the Middle East could pose threats to Australians in the US, Europe, and Southeast Asia and inspire domestic attacks.

The terrorism threat level remains “possible”, but officials are said to be on guard given the risk of sporadic violence inspired by the war.

It’s understood officials are not concerned about any attacks being planned.

National security officials are also understood to be concerned about the risk of escalating violence in the Middle East, with diplomatic efforts concentrated around preventing Lebanese militant group Hezbollah from entering the war.

Officials warn that would be more likely should Israel carry through with their threat of a ground incursion.

Earlier, Mr Burke also threw his support behind the Canterbury-Bankstown council – which is in his electorate – over its decision to raise the Palestinian flag until a ceasefire was declared.

“It’s a flag that gives people the chance to know that there is recognition and not selective grief,” he said.

“We can’t say we only grieve for certain people who are slaughtered. We can’t have a situation as a nation where we only formally acknowledge particular deaths.”

There are a number of Australians trapped in Gaza.

It’s understood Australian agencies are in near daily contact with most of those people.

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