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Australia and her Jews
Sons of this land
A version of this first appeared in Quadrant.
The world’s eyes were on Sydney the night of Monday 9 October 2023 as demonstrators lit flares and burned Israeli flags on the steps of the Opera House chanting “gas the Jews”.
Hundreds of demonstrators had met at Sydney’s Town Hall to snake their way through Circular Quay to the Opera House. One Jewish counter-protestor was arrested “for his own safety”. Another — an Anglican priest — was chased by thugs to find sanctuary behind a police van.
The protestors were there following the massacre of up to a thousand Jews in Israel, the rape of Jewish women and the abduction of Jewish hostages. (There were also non-Jews killed and abducted — like the Thai workers gruesomely killed on video. May their memory be a blessing.) No military operation into Gaza had yet commenced, but the protestors were not there to protest military action. They were there to celebrate the massacre of the Jews which, in their view, was an act of just resistance. This Sydney imam was “elated” by the massacre. An Australian Senator hailed the Palestinian cause. To them, it was not the greatest slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust that was objectionable — no, it was that there were still Jews in the land “from the river to the sea”.
In light of the expected demonstrations, New South Wales police issued a warning to the city’s Jews. This is what a friend who works in Sydney’s CBD received from his employer:
I was advised by the NSW police to avoid the city tonight, as there is a pro-Hamas rally marching from town hall at 5:30pm to the Opera house where the Israeli flag will be lit in solidarity.
Keeping politics out of work, the concerns are that it is expected to be violent protest with dozens of arrests.
Everyone would be advised to stay away from the area, especially Israelis/Jewish people who might be targeted.
I hope today will go without any violent incidents. Stay safe.
So the heavy police presence was there to facilitate a pro-Hamas rally and to dispel Jews from Sydney’s CBD, for they could not guarantee Jews’ safety.
I’m a Sydney CBD worker and I suppose I was as aghast as anyone at these events. This week Jewish mums cancelled play dates in the park and kept kids home from school. (The mini-forts Australian Jewish schools and synagogues have transformed into over the last few decades seem not enough for some mums). I came home Tuesday with my wife asking me if it was safe for our six-year-old boy to wear his kippah outside. Yes, I said. Of course, I thought. But how obvious is it, when official police and government organs are warning Sydney’s Jews to flee Sydney’s heart?
These events have caused me to reflect on the Jews’ history in Australia. It is perhaps insufficiently appreciated how deep that bond goes. I believe in the goodness of Australian society. With a heavy heart and a deep affection for this great country, here I reflect.
Modern Australia’s beginnings are strangely intertwined with the Jews.
Just like the first Portuguese navigators to circumnavigate Africa chased the land of the mythical Christian king Prester John, so the British believed there was a colony of Jewish merchants somewhere to the south of the known world, perhaps part of Davis Land, a land allegedly spotted by the Englishman Edward Davis in 1686. William Dampier, the English authority on the island of New Guinea, included Jews living there on the map of his voyages around 1700. More recent news of Jews had circulated after an evening spent by the Dolphin and her British crew in Tahiti in 1767, where someone thought they had seen pale skinned traders. It was considered to be a natural extension of the Jews’ millennium-old trading networks in the Near and Far East. And so it was in search of a great southern land and its trading Jews that Captain Cook set sail.
The first real Jews arrived in Australia as convicts on the First Fleet in 1788. But perhaps the singular giant of Australian Jewry is Sir John Monash. Born in Melbourne to Prussian Jewish emigres, he was fifty when he led his first field command of Australian battalions at Gallipoli. From there, he commanded the Australian Corps, at the time the largest individual corps on the Western Front. (He led not just Australian and New Zealand troops either — Monash was the first foreign leader ever to lead Americans in battle.) It was under his meticulous leadership that the Allied forces dealt the first crushing blow against the Germans on 8 August 1918 at the Battle of Amiens. Germany’s Commander-in-Chief General Ludendorff called it the worst day for his army in the entire war. King George V travelled to France to knight Monash — the first battlefield knighthood in 200 years. According to British Prime Minister Lloyd George, Monash may have risen to Commander-in-Chief of the Allied forces if he had been brought to the attention of the British Cabinet sooner. Monash is considered the greatest commander of WWI on any side and his ANZAC troops perhaps greatest of any in the war, the tip of the Allied spear on the Western Front.
After the Great War, through the depression years and the rising spectre of Communism, his stature was such that he was approached by Australian proto-fascists, who would have overthrown Australian democracy and installed him as Australia’s Mussolini. He would have none of it. “Depend upon it,” he wrote in one letter, “the only hope for Australia is the ballot box, and an educated electorate.”
The Jews did just fine in Australia. In the 1890s when the Chief Rabbi of Britain made an appeal to buy farmland for Jews in Palestine (then a part of the Ottoman Empire), half the funds came from Australian Jews, when there were some 10,000 Jews in Australia. After the war Monash told the Maccabean Society he never experienced prejudice on “any question of race or religion” and that “[i]n Australia we have no Jewish question”. Whilst Monash’s Jewishness wasn’t exactly helpful in his rise to prominence, it was his status as a volunteer militia man and his German background that hindered him more. In a time that followed Britain’s Benjamin Disraeli as Prime Minister, a hero general in Monash and a High Court Justice-cum-Governor-General of Australia in Sir Isaac Isaacs, it’s fair to say the Anglo-Australian world was good to its Jews. (Melbourne Club snobbery notwithstanding: Sir Isaac Isaacs had been an honorary member while Australia’s first native-born Governor-General. It would not have him after his term finished.)
Monash did not live to see Australia’s chief delegate at the 1938 Evian Conference on Refugees reject sanctuary to Jews fleeing Germany, unconsciously and ironically echoing Monash’s own words to the Maccabean Society:
as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one
Despite this blemish — Australia was hardly alone nor had the Holocaust yet happened — Australia has been a warm home for its Jews since, including welcoming some 30,000 Jews after WWII, and subsequent waves out of South Africa and the former Soviet Union (my family arrived in 1991 from Georgia).
Australia’s Jews are a tiny minority. Around 100,000 mainly between Melbourne and Sydney — a quarter of Australia’s immigration intake for this year alone. Certainly, they feel as Australian as anyone else. Obsessed with the same footy teams, speaking in the same twang, broadly split politically in the same way as other Australians. Monash represents one zenith of Australian Jewry — an unexpected hero in an hour of need for the British empire — but certainly his contribution is not alone. Isaacs may have been Australia’s first Jewish Governor-General, but not her last — Sir Zelman Cowen was the Governor-General from 1977 to 1982. It would take a far more ambitious author than me to list the contributions of Australian Jewry to this nation’s arts, enterprise, education, politics, judiciary.
On Wednesday 11 October 2023, thousands of Jews gathered in Dover Heights on Sydney’s eastern coast. Police blocked roads, stood at road corners and patrolled on horseback. Attendees thanked the police as they passed.
Australian Labor and Liberal ministers including the New South Wales Premier Chris Minns and the Federal Opposition Leader Peter Dutton attended (as well as Wentworth’s independent member, Allegra Spender).
Mourner’s kaddish was said by thousands for those killed in Israel.
Labor Premier Chris Minns apologised for the barbarity at the Opera House. He said he does not want to live in a state where that happens. Going further, with a surprising touch, presumably from an especially thoughtful speech writer, Minns said: God made three promises to Abraham. First, a people. Second, a land in Israel. Third, that they shall be blessed. And so it is and shall be. It was a moving moment, a touching gesture to a wounded community from a Premier who was caught off guard when the steps of the Opera House were ignominiously broadcast across the world.
Liberal Opposition Leader Dutton was unequivocal. Australia stands behind Israel in its mission to destroy Hamas. Australia is a friend to her Jews.
The Book of Exodus begins as Joseph’s contribution to Egypt is forgotten, his saving the Egyptians from terrible famine long passed:
7 The children of Israel were fruitful and multiplied and became strong, and the land became filled with them.
8 A new pharaoh arose over Egypt, who did not know about Joseph.
Australia has not yet forgotten her Jews.
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