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Research Guides

Safe Haven: Records of the Jewish Experience in Australia

2. Immigration and Settlement – Government Policy

Revitalisation of the community through immigration is the central theme of Australian Jewish history. As noted in Chapter 1, successive waves of 'newcomers' have reinforced Australian Jewry numerically and spiritually in the century and a half since the gold rush, most notably in the 1880s and 1890s, during the interwar years and after 1945.

Pre-1939 immigration policy

European antisemitism, manifested in the pogroms and discriminatory legislation of Czarist Russia, spurred hundreds of thousands of Yiddish-speaking Jews to leave Russia and Poland for more hospitable shores (including Australia) after 1882. A small number of émigrés, disillusioned with the harsh realities of attempting to reclaim a barren wilderness in the Holy Land, similarly chose to come here from Palestine in the early 1900s.

The deteriorating state of European Jewry following World War I and, in particular, after the rise of Nazism, proved ironically to be the salvation of a dwindling and fast-disappearing Australian Jewish community in the interwar years. Substantial influxes of Jews from Eastern Europe in the 1920s and Central Europe from 1933 augmented communal numbers dramatically. The migration of Holocaust survivors to Australia after 1945 more than doubled the size of Australian Jewry. In addition, Jewish refugees from Egypt settled in Adelaide in the 1950s and, subsequently, small numbers of Hungarian, South African and Russian Jews have elected to emigrate here.

The National Archives has comprehensive and extensive holdings dealing with the immigration process, encompassing shipping records, passenger listings, migrant selection documents (including displaced persons files), 'aliens' registers, numerous indexes and policy documents. Augmenting these are large collections of naturalisation files. A detailed survey of such a huge volume of material is outside the scope of this guide, and readers should refer to the relevant information in the National Archives genealogy guide, Finding Families.

In this chapter, the evolution of Government policy on the immigration of non-British Jews into Australia is discussed. Related topics are also covered – such as the Evian Conference, the work of the Australian Jewish Welfare Society, the issue of Jewish child migration, land settlement schemes (particularly the Kimberleys proposal) and the postwar 'Are you Jewish' debate.

As noted in Chapter 1, the arrival of sizeable numbers of Yiddish-speaking Jews from Russia in the late 19th century was a cause of some concern, both to sectors of the general public and to leaders of the Anglo-Australian Jewish establishment. This influx (and rumours that further hordes of 'Cossacks' were bent on immigrating here) has been cited as a catalyst for developing and implementing the White Australia Policy. On one occasion, the Sydney Bulletin averred that the 'Hebrew' was even less desirable as an immigrant than the 'Chinese'.18

One of the first decisions of the new Federal Parliament was to enact the Immigration Restriction Act 1901. The Act specified that exclusion was to be on the basis of performance on a dictation test and was aimed at barring non-Europeans from settling in Australia. It remained in force until 1958. Unstated in its promulgation – and in the introduction of the dictation test – was the intense nationalist desire to keep Australia 98 per cent British.

Hilary Rubinstein has noted that 'resistance to bloc settlement of foreign migrants, and negative stereotyping of Jews' were key factors in Australian immigration policy from the turn of the century through to the interwar period, and that 'xenophobic attitudes [which] intensified in Australia as a result of the First World War' had a direct impact on that policy.19 'Although initially directed against non-white immigration', writes Michael Blakeney, 'the dictation test was amenable to direction against other racial targets'. Blakeney notes that Egon Kisch, a Czech Jewish socialist seeking entry to Australia in the 1930s, was forced to undertake a dictation test in Gaelic.20 Ethnic or national origin rather than mere 'colour' became a major criterion in immigrant selection, leading, for example, to the discriminatory classification of Syrians or Maltese as 'coloured', or of Jews born in Palestine (albeit to European parents) as 'Asiatics'.21

It should be noted, however, that it was not until the 1920s that any official attempt was made to limit the immigration into Australia of Jews per se. An estimated 2000 Eastern European Jews settled here during that decade. The United States Government's decision to restrict the flow of Jews from Russia and Poland provided the impetus for Australia to follow suit. Concerned about the possibility of large-scale influxes of refugees following devastating famine and pogroms in the Ukraine, the Government enacted its first restrictions on European migrants in 1924, insisting that intending entrants must possess either £40 landing money (as well as the fare to Australia) or a written guarantee of sponsorship.

More furtively, in response to official memoranda that intending Polish Jewish emigrants were generally 'unsuitable' men of 'poor physique' and possibly unsafe 'political views', liable to form ghettos here as they had in London, the Home and Territories Department bluntly recommended that the British consulates deliberately create difficulties with the language test. Notwithstanding his own reservations about the importation of poor, foreign Jews en masse, Rabbi Francis Lyon Cohen of Sydney's Great Synagogue protested eloquently against such abuses of the selection process.22

In 1928, the Government initiated a formal quota on migrants from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Greece and the Balkans, ensuring that the limits were enforced with particular strictness in the case of Eastern European Jews.23 A personal petition by prominent British Jew, Lucien Wolf, that the number of Jewish immigrants be increased was likewise rejected. Blakeney argues that the official response to Polish Jewish migration in the 1920s 'set the scene' for the response to immigration from Central Europe in the following decade.24

This very large series was the general filing system of the agencies shown above. In addition to administrative and personnel matters, the thousands of files contain material on immigration and emigration, aliens registration, naturalisation, and passports.
Series: A1
Quantity: 337.14 metres
Recorded by: 1903–1916: Department of External Affairs [I], Melbourne (CA 7); 1916–1928: Department of Home and Territories, Central Office (CA 15)
Admission of Refugee Russian and Polish Jews, 1916 A1, 1916/10708
Suggested alterations to naturalisation law by British Jews (Naturalisation and Nationality laws – suggested alterations by British Jews), 1917 A1, 1917/10719
The series consists of bundles of correspondence, reports, dossiers, history sheets for investigations of applicants for naturalisation, admission into Australia of friends or relatives and visitors.
Series: A367
Quantity: 64.08 metres
Recorded by: 1919–1946: Investigation Branch, Central Office (CA 747)
March 1928 – Harsh treatment of a party of Russian Jews, 1928 A367, C3075P
These general correspondence files contain policy documents, applications for the admission of a friend or relative to Australia (Form 40), applications to enter Australia (Form 46), medical examination reports (Form 47A), and passport and personal particulars of individual migrants.
Series: A434
Quantity: 12.27 metres
Recorded by: 1939–1939: Department of the Interior (I) (CA 27)
Admission of Jews to Australia, 1921–38 A434, 1949/3/3196
This series consists of copies of Cabinet, War Cabinet and Cabinet committee papers. Reference copies are available on microfilm at National Archives reading rooms.
Series: A6006
Quantity: 18.76 metres
Recorded by: 1976–1981: Australian Archives, Central Office (CA 1720)
Proposed emigration of Russian Jews to Australia, 1921 A6006, 21/12/31
Series: A458
Quantity: 49.77 metres
Recorded by: 1923–1934: Prime Minister's Department (CA 12)
Immigration Restrictions. Jews, 1925 A458, N156/2


Chapter notes | All notes

18 Hilary L. Rubinstein, The Jews in Australia: a Thematic History, Vol 1: 1788-1945, Melb 1991, p.145-6.

19 Blakeney, p.29.

20 Hilary L. Rubinstein, The Jews in Australia: a Thematic History, p.145-6; National Archives of Australia (ACT): A446/189, 72/77857, Admission of Jews of Middle Eastern origin (1949-74); National Archives of Australia (ACT): A1066/4, M45/17/4, Palestine - Entry of Jews into Australia (1945-46); National Archives of Australia (WA): PP6, 46/H/1067, Iraqi Jews - Applications for permanent residence in Australia.

21 National Archives of Australia (ACT): A434, 49/3/3196, Admission of Jews to Australia.

22 Anne Andgel, Fifty Years of Caring, Sydney 1986, p.11.

23 Hilary L. Rubinstein, The Jews in Australia: a Thematic History, p.146-7; Blakeney, p.39

24 Peter Y. Medding, From Assimilation to Group Survival, Melb 1968, p.150.


Chapter 2
Immigration and Settlement – Government Policy