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Research Guides

Safe Haven: Records of the Jewish Experience in Australia

1. The Jews in Australia

There has been a Jewish presence in Australia since the very beginning of white settlement. Eight of the 751 convicts on the First Fleet were certainly Jews and a further six may well have been. Among this batch of pioneers were Esther Abrahams, eventually to reign as unofficial 'first lady' of the colony as mistress and wife of Lieutenant George Johnston; John Harris, ultimately the colony's first policeman; and Joseph Levy, who earned the dubious distinction of being the first Jew to die here in April 1788. The Anglo-Jewish underworld continued to be represented in convict consignments until the end of transportation in 1852 – at least 1000 individuals came here involuntarily, most of them male, most of them from London's East End, at a time when London Jewry was only 30 000 at its peak.1

Alongside convicts and emancipists, Jewish free settlers – also largely drawn from Britain's 'urban poor' – elected to seek a 'brighter future' in the Antipodes from the 1820s. By the 1840s there were small but growing Jewish communities in New South Wales, Van Diemen's Land, South Australia and Western Australia – an estimated total of 1200, or 0.5 per cent of the total population. Although community numbers were augmented substantially by the gold rush, the proportion of Jews within the general population has remained fairly constant at 0.5 per cent ever since.2

The two centuries of Australian Jewish history subdivide reasonably readily. The evolution of the Jewish community reflects to a marked extent the more general shift from the dominance of British culture to the culturally pluralist, broader society of the late 20th century.

In general terms, the 150 years from the start of colonisation were marked by the dominance of Anglo-Jewish elites. The community and sub-communities in each colony or state were led, controlled and dictated to by English-speaking Jews, fiercely loyal to the 'mother country' and dedicated to being and perpetuating themselves as patriotic Anglo-Australians 'of the Jewish faith'.3

'We Australian Jews in this remote outpost of the British Empire are Britishers to the backbone and spinal marrow', declared the Jewish Herald shortly after the end of the World War I,4 a sentiment which was endorsed wholeheartedly by such prominent figures as Sir John Monash (commander of the Australian forces in 1914–18), Sir Isaac Isaacs (Governor-General in the 1930s), Rabbi Francis Lyon Cohen, Rabbi Jacob Danglow, Rabbi Joseph Abrahams, Sir Samuel Cohen, Sir Benjamin Benjamin, and others.

Notwithstanding the incursion of successive waves of immigrants from Germany and Russia, the Anglo-Australian establishment was strong enough to absorb and 'anglicise' generations of non-English-speaking newcomers into a collective homogeneity up until the interwar period.

The half-century or so since the 1930s has witnessed the eclipse and decline of the Anglo-Australian Jewish establishment and the ascendancy of a 'pluralist' Jewish community, rooted in the divergent traditions, mores and cultures (secular and religious) of migrants and refugees who came here en masse from Central and Eastern Europe. Jewishness and Jewish identity, both in Australia and internationally, have been fundamentally redefined by the Holocaust, the emergence (and political survival) of the State of Israel, and the evolution of Australia's relationship with Britain and the rest of the world. As historian W D Rubinstein has written:

Most Australian Jews today were originally Yiddish-speaking Eastern European migrants (many of them Holocaust survivors) or are their offspring. Few retain any special loyalties to the United Kingdom, and most fully accept the concept of multiculturalism.5

Predictably, the key and central theme of immigration dominates this guide, just as the historical circumstances and vagaries which dictated the migrant and refugee experience have ultimately determined and helped maintain the sub-group identity of Australia's oldest 'ethnic minority'.

Beginning in the 1820s, handfuls of committed Jewish pioneers, most of them small businessmen, some former convicts, established the foundations of congregational life and consecrated cemeteries and places of worship in what are now the chief urban centres of Australia. In 1828 merchant Phillip J Cohen convened regular religious services at his Sydney home, and superintended the formal establishment of the Sydney Hebrew Congregation in 1832. The first synagogue in Australia was opened in rented premises in Bridge Street, Sydney, five years later and a permanent building was subsequently consecrated in York Street. The Sydney Hebrew Congregation has worshipped at the Great Synagogue in Elizabeth Street since 1877.

The first organised services in Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) were convened at the Argyle Street, Hobart home of wealthy emancipist Judah Solomon in 1830. A 'house of worship' – now the oldest synagogue in the country – was constructed, on land donated by Solomon, in 1845.

Jewish services were initiated in Melbourne for the 1839 High Holydays. The Melbourne Hebrew Congregation was founded two years later, and the first Melbourne synagogue was constructed in Bourke Street in 1848. Within little more than a generation, two further permanent synagogues, at East Melbourne and suburban St Kilda, reflected the growth and geographical spread of Melbourne Jewry.

The formal beginnings of South Australian Jewry were gatherings at the Adelaide home of Burnett Nathan for High Holyday observance in 1846. The Adelaide Hebrew Congregation, established two years later, had sufficient funds to erect its own shul (synagogue) in 1850.

The fifteen Jewish families then living in Brisbane came together as a congregation in 1865, meeting in a succession of rented auction rooms and a Masonic temple pending the consecration of its first synagogue in 1886.

In Western Australia, congregations were founded at Fremantle in 1887 and Perth in 1892. The two merged within the Perth synagogue – consecrated in 1897 – in the early 1900s.

Suzanne Rutland has observed that in Australia, as in other parts of the New World, geography and population size forced the synagogue 'to assume the functions that in Europe were carried out by the communal super-authorities, including the control of education, dietary laws and charity and the supervision of a burial ground. As a result, the synagogues became the focal point of all aspects of Jewish life in Australia'.6

Throughout the 19th century, valiant efforts were made also to foster a frontier Judaism. Gold rush communities and congregations blossomed in Forbes, Goulburn, Maitland, Tamworth and Toowoomba and, of course, dwindled as soon as the ore petered out. A few individuals 'struck it lucky' while others eked out existences as traders or pedlars. Most drifted back to the cities or else 'married out' and assimilated fully into rural society. The gold rush pattern was repeated in Western Australia in the 1890s where Jewish congregations at Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie flourished briefly. Sandhurst (Bendigo) and Ballarat in Victoria were large enough to maintain functioning congregations for longer periods, although both were in decline by the turn of the century.

The 'urban drift' is a constant in Australian Jewish history. Indeed, much the same has applied to most minority ethnic and cultural groups in rural Australia. Obvious examples include the small 19th century German communities of Grafton and Albury. While the patriarchal influence of the Lutheran Church, the development of a German-language press and the formation of German social organisations might temporarily have prolonged ethnic affiliation, inevitably the lure of the wider community undermined increasingly superficial links with tradition. Essentially, maintenance of 'Jewishness' has always depended on group support and active involvement in the educational, social, cultural and religious structures of an identifiable community. The outside pressures on rural Jews invariably proved too great to allow old ties to persist beyond a couple of generations.

Not least of these pressures were the isolation and sheer size of the Australian environment. Barbara Falk has highlighted the difficulties faced by Jewish bushmen in keeping a 'kosher bush hut' or in mustering a minyan7 for traditional services.8 The logistics of observing ritual in the outback dictated compromise. The bushman experience was geared to the single male. Even with the population spiral of the gold rush years, marriageable Jewish females were a scarcity. Many Jewish men married non-Jews because there was no alternative and, in general, the children of mixed marriages were unlikely to be brought up as Jews – in part because of the difficulty of converting to Judaism prior to the establishment of Progressive Judaism in this country.

Small congregations of rural Jews sprang up at different times throughout the continent (even in places as unlikely as Broken Hill) but, usually, they were unable to sustain or replicate themselves over succeeding generations. By the 1960s, only 3.6 per cent of Australia's Jews lived outside the six capital cities, and only 0.9 per cent lived in rural areas.9 Primarily, Australian Jewish history is concerned with Jewish communities in major urban centres, and with the impact upon those sub-communities of successive waves of immigration.

The threat and reality of assimilation has been a key factor of urban Australian Jewish history just as assimilation has characterised the rural Jewish experience. In part, the predisposition towards integration and loss of Jewish identity has been related to the ease with which Jews have been able to participate at all social, institutional, business and legislative levels. At the same time, the process of assimilation has been nurtured by fears of antisemitism and resultant attempts to minimise any nonconformist practices and appearances which might impact adversely on the wider community's perceptions or toleration.

Some non-English Jews – notably German Jews who came in substantial numbers during the gold rush – had little difficulty in merging with the English-born majority. Their descendants readily adopted a collective Anglo-Jewish homogeneity. But the situation altered with the arrival of Russian and Polish Jews at the end of the century. From 1882 and continuing into the new century and – to a lesser extent – up until the beginning of World War I, waves of Jews fled Czarist oppression seeking havens overseas. The majority opted for the Americas, while some settled permanently in Great Britain, and others in South Africa, Canada and Australia.

The arrival of Yiddish-speaking 'yokels' was viewed with concern by vocal sections of both the wider community and the Anglo-Australian Jewish establishment. The Jewish community feared that the migrants' distinctive dress and manners, non-conformist appearance, poverty and obvious 'foreignness' might adversely affect its own standing.

The fears were not unfounded. John Levi has maintained that antisemitism was 'a strident characteristic of the incipient Australian nationalism of the late 19th century', lasting well into the 20th century.10 Sections of the labour movement promoted stereotypes of Jews as manipulative bankers, usurers and profiteers while, at the turn of the century, theBulletin claimed that the Boer War had been precipitated by Jews for their own (financial) ends. Humphrey McQueen has speculated that the 'White Australia' lobbying which resulted in the anti-Asian Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, was, in part, a reaction to a rumoured influx of Russian Jews.11

As a result of their concerns, Australian Anglo-Jews consciously developed a policy of non-distinctiveness, encouraging the playing down of cultural or religious practices which might render them 'odd' or 'obvious' in the eyes of their gentile peers. They emphasised their fervent loyalty and attachment to King and Country and, in many instances, actively distanced themselves from their less fortunate 'foreign' co-religionists. As Hilary Rubinstein has written of the Anglo-oriented majority:

Their cultural preferences were those of the British stock gentile majority, and they left the pursuit of yiddishkeit, involvement in Zionism and the conduct of congregational and communal affairs to the dedicated few.12

The end result of the Jewish establishment's quest for non-distinctiveness was a steady decline in religious observances and Jewish education and an upsurge in intermarriage. By the 1920s the community was confronting a major crisis, one compounded by the loss of the 'finest flower' of its youth in World War I. An estimated 30 per cent of Jewish males were married to non-Jews and the proportion was even greater – around 50 per cent – in Tasmania and South Australia. Predictions were made that within a generation or two the community would have assimilated completely into the greater Australian whole. Notwithstanding the disquiet they had caused, the impact of the initial influxes of Russian immigrants had been short-lived. Overall numbers were too small to impinge severely on Jewish communal institutions or structures and, within a generation of their arrival, most of the newcomers were intent on acquiring the outward characteristics and allegiances of the Anglophile majority.

Increasingly concerned about this trend towards assimilation in all the major urban centres, communal leaders adopted a policy of revitalisation. They hoped that the development of youth clubs, educational facilities, sporting organisations and Zionist groups might foster a heightened sense of 'Jewishness' amongst the young.

In the long run, though, the solution to Australian Jewry's declining fortunes lay in international events rather than in community initiatives. Deteriorating conditions in Eastern Europe impelled some 2000 Polish Jews to seek a new life in Melbourne and Sydney in the 1920s, while the rise of Hitler and the spread of Fascism throughout Europe in the 1930s, resulted in the emigration of some 7000 more from Austria and Germany.

Not unexpectedly, the waves of immigration were greeted with mixed emotions by both the Jewish establishment and the wider Australian public, and the immigrants found themselves forced to contend with often less than flexible Federal Government policy. Some found themselves under surveillance as 'enemy aliens'. Ultimately, however, the immigrants – arriving en masse – had a significant impact on, and in time transformed and revitalised, the remote and insular Jewish community. As Suzanne Rutland has pointed out:

For the first time in the history of Australian Jewry a European migrant group arrived in sufficiently large numbers to impose their own Jewish values on the previously dominant ideology of assimilation within the general community.13

By 1939 Australian Anglo-Jews were in the process of being outflanked by a multi-hued foreign importation – newcomers who saw themselves as Jews first and foremost, and Poles, Russians, Germans, Austrians, etc, second. This was the very reverse of the Anglo-Australian 'of the Jewish faith'. The newcomers were well-versed in Jewish scholarship, often deeply religious and, in many cases, passionately Zionist. More significantly, they were generally imbued with European culture and experienced in organisational politics. W D Rubinstein notes that 'the new arrivals were determined to establish a network of Jewish institutions which would assure the survival of the community'.14

'Being Jewish' encompassed much more than token fealty to a religious tradition. For them Jewishness entailed subscription to a range of secular, ethnic and religious identities and, increasingly, a group focus on issues of nationalism and a Jewish homeland. After 1945, the community was transformed as up to 35 000 Jews migrated here in the 15-year period from 1945 to 1960. In this period, communal power was increasingly wrested away from the 'Establishment' via the various Boards of Deputies and Zionist organisations. World War II, the Holocaust and the birth of Israel set the seal on a redefined Australian Jewish identity.

In the late 1990s, the Australian Jewish community is a vibrant, flourishing and prosperous entity, estimated at in excess of 100,00015 and judged recently 'one of the best organised Diaspora communities in the world'.16 Evan Zeusse noted that in many respects 'Australian Jewish history is an Australian as well as a Jewish success story', and that 'the general tenor of Australian attitudes to Jews is positive and welcoming'.17

Centred mainly in Melbourne and Sydney, but with smaller sub-communities in the other state capitals, Australian Jewry boasts an impressive network of cultural, educational, sporting, Zionist and religious institutions, including more than 50 congregations – ranging from the ultra-Orthodox Adass Israel to the Progressive Temple Emanuel. Community Councils or Boards of Deputies in each state coordinate communal activities, while the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) acts as national roof-body.

Jews are, and have been throughout Australian history, prominent in most aspects of public life, including politics, the arts, business and the professions. Indeed, a listing of Jewish achievers takes up some 200 pages in the two-volume The Jews in Australia: A Thematic History (1991) by Hilary L and W D Rubinstein.


Chapter notes | All notes

1 J.S. Levi & G.F.J. Bergman, Australian Genesis, Sydney 1974, p.10.

2 Charles Price, Jewish Settlers in Australia, Canberra 1964, p.8.

3 Suzanne D. Rutland, Edge of the Diaspora, 2nd edition, Sydney 1997, p.xii; Hilary L. Rubinstein, "From Jewish non-distinctiveness to group invisibility ...", in Jews in the Sixth Continent, ed. W.D. Rubinstein, Sydney 1987, p.22.

4 Jewish Herald, 21 March 1919

5 W.D. Rubinstein, "Jewish Contribution to Australian Elites", in The Australian People, ed. James Jupp, Sydney 1988, p.645.

6 Suzanne D. Rutland, "Early Jewish Settlement, 1788-1880", in The Australian People, p.638.

7 Barbara Falk, No Other Home, Melb 1988, p.5.

8 Price, Appendices I & VI

9 J.S. Levi, "200 Years: a Jewish Perspective", in Australia & New Zealand Jewish Yearbook 1988, ed. J. Langley, Melb 1987, p.9. I

10 Hilary L. Rubinstein, Chosen: the Jews in Australia, Sydney 1987, p.161; Howard M. Sachar, Diaspora, New York 1985, p.172; Humphrey McQueen, A New Britannia, Ringwood (Vic) 1970, p.36.

11 Hilary L. Rubinstein, Chosen, p.148.

12 Suzanne D. Rutland, "A changing community - the impact of the refugees on Australian Jewry", Australian Journal of Politics and History 31(1), 1985, p.90.

13 W.D. Rubinstein, The Jews of Australia: an Introduction, Melb 1987, p.3.

14 For an examination of Jewish numbers, see Sol Encel, "The Australian Jewish population: How many are we?", in Guide to Jewish Life in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific, Melb 1993, p.4-5.

15 W.D. Rubinstein, Judaism in Australia, Canberra 1995, p.7.

16 Evan M. Zuesse, "From Assimilation to Affirtmation: the Jews in Australia", in Religion and Multiculturalism in Australia, ed. Norman C. Habel, Adelaide 1992, p.191.

17 Bulletin, 8 May 1891. Quoted by Michael Blakeney, Australia and the Jewish Refugees 1933-1948, Sydney 1985, p.18.