As with the Chinese New Year, Ramadan, and other festive occasions on our multicultural calendar, the ten-day period from Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year) to Yom Kippur (the holiest day in the Jewish calendar) is as good a time as any to reflect on this particular culture’s contribution to the Australian way of life.
Quite literally, Jews arrived in Australia on the First Fleet, with at least eight but possibly more Jewish convicts stepping ashore in 1788 and over a thousand in the subsequent decades. In 1834 came our first Aussie Jewish wedding, and in 1844 the first synagogue was established, ironically perhaps for those with a memory of medieval pogroms, in York Street. By 1895, a newspaper, the eloquently-titled Hebrew Standard of Australasia was up and running – the forerunner to today’s Australian Jewish News.
By 1901, over 15,000 Jews had made the risky journey down under, many of course lured –as were the Chinese and other fellow immigrants – by the 1850s gold rush; not to mention by the fact that Australia offered them a land of equality, freedom and opportunity. The scourge of anti-semitism, on the rise in early 20th century Europe (as it is, sadly, again today), was mercifully largely absent from this colonial haven. Then, in the dark run-up to World War II, despite an initial (and shameful) hesitancy, Australia offered 15,000 visas specifically to Jewish ‘victims of oppression’. After the horror of the Holocaust, a large wave of European Jews came into the country, albeit again after some shameful actions by, among others, the RSL. Intriguingly, Australia, or rather a remote section of the Kimberleys, was once a contender for the establishment of a Jewish state prior to Israel.
From the get go, Australian Jews have risen to the highest ranks and distinguished themselves in all aspects of Australian life, from the exceptional genius of World War I Allied Commander Sir John Monash, through Governors-General Sir Isaac Isaacs and Sir Zelman Cowen to a host of Chief Justices, governors, politicians, magistrates and of course academic, business and cultural leaders and talents. Indeed, given the small size of the Jewish community relative to the population, it is hard to think of a group who have contributed more enthusiastically and energetically to the myriad successes of modern Australia.
Yet even in this distant part of the globe, the only Aussie kids who must walk to school past armed security guards are Jewish kids. Last month, the preposterous decision was taken – again, shamefully – to deny planning permission to a Bondi synagogue on the grounds that it might attract Islamist terrorists. (The planning application is now being re-lodged.)
Worse, the Jewish community in recent times has been forced to endure ongoing vilification, arson, firebomb and other attacks and even vicious hate speech from an Islamic preacher who, despite calling for the killing of Jews, is apparently immune to prosecution.
Politically, Jews have been, and are, healthily represented in both major parties, although it has to be said that the ongoing advocacy of Bob Carr, Tony Burke, Anthony Albanese and others within the Labor party for the unconditional recognition of an anti-semitic Palestinian state is a grotesque betrayal of our traditional friendship with, and support for the safety and security of, all Israelis.
The visit this year, the first of its kind, by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to these shores was a huge success, cementing many of the technological and business ties that are increasing between our two countries. And in just over a month, many Australians will travel to Israel to celebrate the centenary of the battle of Beersheba, in which Australian courage and blood played a key role in creating the circumstances that would lead to the creation of the modern state of Israel.
Partly thanks to the bravery of our 4th Light Horse Brigade, Israel is now the permanent home of the Jews. But for many other Jews, that honour belongs to Australia. Shana tova!
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