Friday, October 10, 2008

Shalom Australia

Studying Islam in Australia made me curious about the history of the Jews in Australia.

So, that's where I am today.

Kind of fitting because today (the day I'm writing this) is Yom Kippur.

 Yom Kippur is a day for Jews to feel guilty. I don't need it. I feel guilty EVERY day. I'm also not fasting.  It doesn't work for me.   It doesn't make me feel spiritual.  It makes me feel LESS spiritual.  I start thinking things like Oh, I wonder if I've lost any weight yet. I bet I'll look thin in this dress by the time it's time to break the fast.   Maybe I shouldn't eat a lot tonight.  Maybe I should KEEP fasting. Maybe I should lose like thirty pounds and look like Paris Hilton.

 If I'm not thinking disgusting superficial thoughts like that; then I'm thinking about food.

Instead of all that, I'm at home thinking about the history of the Jews, writing about Jews, and feeling guilty for a TON of stuff. I think that's a perfect way to honor Yom Kippur and my heritage.

Jewish-Australian history doesn't go back as far as Muslim-Australian history. It begins with the first fleet in 1788.  Some of the convicts were Jewish. For shame!  What would their grandma's think?
No Matzah Ball soup for them!

Lord Wiki says that a census in 2006 counted 88, 834 Jews in Australia.   But it's believed there are more Jews than this--Jews who don't admit to being Jewish.  They may not practice the religion, and therefore don't consider themselves Jewish.   Others might be Holocaust survivors and may have some paranoia about revealing their Jewish identity. And some might have just marked the wrong box. You know....I bet it happens sometimes.

Melbourne has the largest population of Jews, but Sydney falls closely behind.

Australia (like America) does not have the proudest reputation in how they treated the Aborigines, the Chinese, the Arabs, and other nonwhite people. But they did do well by the Jews.  According to Lord Wiki there has never been any government-sponsored anti-semitism.  For the most part, the Jews were welcomed and fully participated in the development of Australia.

It took some time for the Jews to get their act together--well, at least religion wise.  They came in 1788, but it wasn't until 1832 that they formed the first Jewish congregation. That's forty-four years!   Who am I to complain, though?   I just ate a bowl of rice and vegetarian stew while the rest of my fellow Jews were starving themselves.

The first Synagogue appeared in 1844.   It was on York street in Sydney.   Tasmania got the next Synagogue in 1845.   That was in Hobart.    Then Melbourne joined the game and it ended up becoming the most popular place for Jews.

Here's something interesting. The Kimberley Plan.  During World War II, Isaac Nachman Steinberg wanted to buy seven million acres of agricultural land for the Jews trying to escape Europe.   I guess that would have had two benefits:

A) help populate Northern Australia which was fairly empty
B) save Jews from being murdered

John Curtin, the prime minister of the time, said no to the plan. I'm a bit disappointed.  I had heard good things about Curtin.   Oh well.   Maybe he had his reasons. Australia still did absorb a lot of refugees.  Between 1933 and 1939, eight thousand Jews came to Australia and in the years following, twenty-seven thousand came from refugee camps.

The majority of these Jews moved to Carlton in Melbourne and Bondi and Kings Cross in Sydney.

Well, I might have overestimated Australia being wonderful to the Jews.  Despite the lack of state sponsored, Anti-semitism.   It still existed.  This website, regarding a documentary called Bitter Herbs and Honey, has information on that time period.

During/after World War II, the Jewish population in Australia tripled.   I think there can be sympathy for both sides. Well, I DO have more sympathy for the Jews. They did have the whole Holocaust thing happening.   But it must be scary living in a country and having a huge amount of new people coming in.  The threat of change can be terrifying.   I talked about this in my post about the Cadigal People.

When I was young, I though the Holocaust was people being stuck in attics. I thought that was it. I didn't understand that there was more until I was older.

Anne Frank has that famous line that people like to quote. Despite everything. I believe that people are really good at heart.   This though was written when her greatest hardship was living in very tight quarters with annoying adults and being excluded from school. No, living in an attic isn't fun or pleasant. But other people have been through MUCH worse.

Anne Frank ended up going through much worse. Would she have the same positive views of human nature after what she suffered in the death camps?   Who knows.

One group who heavily campaigned against the Jewish refugee situation in Australia was the RSL (Returned Service League).  They advertised the Jews as being grasping, morally corrupt, physically undesirable, and criminal.   Physically undesirable????  Excuse me????  Hello?   How rude!! The RSL also argued that the Jews would take away housing and jobs from returning serviceman. I guess the pleads of the RSL were heard.  The government put some limits on immigration.

Okay, so what is with Lord Wiki and his no state-sponsored Anti-Semitism?   That sounds pretty anti-semitic to me--and fairly state-sponsored.  I may be physically undesirable (especially when I'm on the worse day of my period) but I'm smart enough to know when Lord Wiki aint being straight with me.

Well, on to more positive things.

The Jewish communities in Melbourne and Sydney are doing well.  Melbourne is more traditional/religious/Orthodox.  Sydney is more secular.   Maybe THAT'S why I'm more into Sydney.
I'm totally secular.  If there was a Jewish secular award, I might win it.

Now I'm looking at a list of famous Australian Jews.   I have a weakness for lists like this.  I don't know why.  Recently, I've looked at lists of famous people with Aspergers/Autism, famous people who were homeschooled, famous Australians in general, and now this.....

I'll just name the people who I've heard of before.

1. Peter Singer (I knew that!)   He lost three grandparents in the Holocaust. His American relatives rejected the family's plea for help. His mother then wrote a letter to an Australian she had met briefly at a wine tavern.  She took a long shot and asked if he could help her get a visa.   So, that's how my beloved Singer became an Aussie. Yes, there was anti-semitism in Australia, but there were a lot of lovely, good people as well.

2. Isla Fisher.

3.  Ben Lee

4. Ben Mendelsohn

5.  David Malouf

I'm sad.   My list is much shorter than the list on the website.   I have so much more to learn--so many famous Australians I've never heard of before.  Well, I guess that's a good thing.  This blog can go on and on and on and on.

I'm now on a Jewish Virtual History Tour.   This should be fun.  Let's see what I can learn here.

It begins with a map of Australia.   I LOVE looking at maps of Australia.   It's one of the weird things about me.

The website says that there were sixteen Jewish convicts.  That doesn't seem like a high number.  So, I guess I'll cut them some slack for taking so long to form a congregation.

The first Australian theater was built by a Jew; and the composer Isaac Nathan is known as the father of Australian music.

The Jews were also prominent in government.   A 19th century mayor of Melbourne was Jewish. During that century, there was also a Jewish premier of South Australia, a Jewish speaker of the House of Representatives, and a Jewish speaker of Parliament.

The virtual tour sides with Lord Wiki on Australia being good to the Jews.   They both say there was less Anti-semitism in Australia than other places.   Wow.  That's sad because the anti-semitism in Australia seemed kind of bad to me.  Well, I mean the whole John Curtin saying no to the Jews moving into the Kimberly doesn't sound too good.   and The RSL stuff......

I guess everything is relative.   But it does kind of explain why Jews say their holidays can all be pretty much summarized as They tried to kill us.  We escaped.  Now Let's eat.

If you put it in perspective, Australia WASN'T so bad to the Jews after all.   I mean they might have rejected them and tried to make it difficult for them to come over, but at least they didn't systematically kill them or turn them into slaves.   

Here's some post war stuff.  It seems after the war, the Jews had a whole Jewish pride thing going on.  They worked on avoiding assimilation and fighting anti-semitism.  In the 1970's there was a rise in intermarriage and the Jewish population was lowered.  But that changed back in the 1980's.

I'm personally not into this whole you-have-to-marry-a-Jew thing and keep the Jewish population up.  I don't think anyone should be pressured into being more Jewish or keeping their bloodline Jewish.  If there's worry about Jewish numbers, then go find some people who want to be Jewish and convert them.

That's just my opinion.   I think it's nice if cultures can survive and flourish--especially ones that have been persecuted.  But I don't think anyone should be pressured to be a part of something they don't feel a connection to.

Here's some statistics from the virtual tour.

There are eighty-one synagogues in Australia and eighteen day (Jewish) schools.  Fifty percent of Jewish students are enrolled in a Jewish school. That's the highest rate of Jewish school attendance in the world--not including Israel.

The website really tends to be bragging about Australia's low intermarriage rate.   I'm trying to be respectful of that viewpoint, but it's hard for me.   And I used to be all into that.  I went through a big Jewish pride thing in college.   I felt all great about being part of the tribe.  Now I think this whole part-of-the-tribe thing promotes an attitude of us vs. them.

I think it's very important that we all become part of the us group....together.  Not U.S.   Okay?  I'm not trying to push American culture on Australia. I'm saying us as in Me and You.  We. WE need to all become an US so we can fight THEM when they invade our planet from a galaxy far away.

Oh, forget the planet from far away.  It may very well be the cockroaches who revolt and attack. We need to bond together and put aside our differences so we're ready to defeat them.

This website has some insightful information about the Jewish community in Australia.  It says Melbourne Jews are more likely to have a Polish background while Sydney Jews are likely to be Hungarian and German.

In Sydney, the top place for the Jews seems to be the Eastern Suburbs, but the Northern Suburbs has a population of South African Jews.   Another place to find South African Jews (in case you're looking) is Perth.

I've been sitting here for like twenty minutes staring at the computer screen--trying to figure out how to conclude this.   My mind is totally blank.   Maybe it's my punishment for not fasting on Yom Kippur.  Or maybe it's because I have my period.

I don't know.   I'm honestly kind of obsessing over the Returned Service League.   They sound like one of those highly respected organizations that people love.  I'm wondering if that's true.  Am I overestimating their importance to Australia? And are they still anti-semitic? Are they ashamed of their anti-semitic past?

It kind of reminds me of the Boy Scouts in America.  They're very respected and I used to love them. But then they had that whole anti-homosexual thing going on and I could never respect them after that.  I DO think the Boy Scouts have the right to be homophobic, but I then have the right to think they're poopyheads.

Anyway, I'm looking at the RSL website and not seeing anything in the way of an apology or admittance of past anti-semitism.

You know, I guess like a lot of things in the world--it has good aspects and very bad aspects.

I think any organization that helps war veterans has to be a LITTLE good.

But the RSL does seem to be racist--not just against Jews, but Asians, Aborigines, etc.   So, I can't say I'll be joining the RSL fan club.

Oy....that's all I can say.  (See my Jewishness creeping in)

I don't know.

The world is too complicated and confusing for me.

All I know right now is......

I miss my Jewish grandparents.  I want to sit with them and eat Chinese food...take a break from thinking about all this difficult stuff.


  1. The RSL is a bastion of conservative white anglo-saxon male power. So yeah, I'd say you've understood them pretty well.

    I used to work for a Northern Suburbs South African Jew. Lovely family. I got the impression of a very tight-knit community, we had a lot of their friends come to the shop because we stocked school supplies and all the kids went to Masada school together.

  2. Mim, is the RSL respected by mainstream Australia or is it more like our KKK?

    I mean I'm sure the KKK is respected by SOME people in the United States, but they wouldn't be mainstream. And if there were mainstream people who supported it, they would probably do so secretly.

    There are some companies and organizations here that are very blatant with their racism and have an obvious history of hate. Then there are others that are much more subtle.

    It sounds like Australian Jews do have a tight-knit community--in the fact that so many go to Jewish schools.

    I don't see anything wrong with that--I think there's a "safety" in number things For some people, it's comforting to be with others who are like them. I think it's especially true if they feel rejected (either real or perceived) from the people outside the group.

    I don't like it though when there's pressure to close off. I remember I had a Jewish friend ask me if I had Jewish friends--I guess besides her. Her tone (and my perception) was that she felt it's okay to have other friends, but Jewish friends were the only ones who truly counted.

  3. The RSL is a perfectly respectable organisation, I just happen to view them through the lens of my fairly left-wing political convictions and my loathing of an organisation which makes a lot of money from poker machines. There are RSL clubs all over the place, they have cheap beer and inexpensive food and it's all subsidised by gambling. Happens to be one of my pet hates because having worked in a pawnbrokers I've seen what gambling on the pokies can do to some people.

    I don't remember ever getting the impression that the South African Jewish community was trying to be closed in, it was more that they were all very supportive of each other and enjoyed having a shared heritage. Pretty much like the way that my family managed to find all the other Australian families living in Boulder Colorado when we spent 6 months there when I was 14.

  4. Mim,

    Yeah. The RSL sounds more right-wing.

    That's sad about the gambling. I'm guessing there's a lot of controversy around that.

    I think expats tend to want to find each other and give each other support.

    It kind of reminds me of when I was in college. There were hardly any Jews there so the small group of us did have a sort-of connection. I can't say we all hung out together a lot. We all had our own social lives for the most part, but there was a sort of bond between us.

  5. Thanks for the informative post. I enjoyed reading it.

    The RSL is fairly conservative, but I wouldn't call them right wing. They represent people who fought for their country and they tend to be older.

  6. Michael,

    Glad you liked the post. Thanks for your insight on the RSL : )

  7. The RSL reminds me a lot of the VFW. Or the American Legion. My grandparents and great-grandparents were members of those latter org's. My father-in-law is a very proud RSL member (Castle Hill, Sydney, to be specific). The patriotic factor is there but there seems to be a greater emphasis on getting a cheap meal and cheap drinks. LOL :)

  8. Hi Dina, in defence of Curtin i think the reason he said no was because it would have created a separate country within Australia and would have went against the whole idea of Federation and also i think most Jews wanted to return to the homeland and not be moved to Australia. As for the RSL i think most Australian respect them, being veteran of war but don't necessarily agree with them on a lot of issues as they are a bit outdated.

  9. Tors: I've never even heard of the American Legion. See, how behind I am! Although it sounds cool--like a legion of superheroes. I guess war veterans ARE superheroes. Well, at least SOME of them are.

    Matt: I'm guessing the Jews weren't going to form their own nation. Or maybe they were???? I don't know the details. But even if they weren't going to be their own official nation, it might feel like one.

    I think it's hard for any country to get a whole new huge group of people. It's probably not too much different from a family adopting someone.

    When I was a teen, my sister's friend's family adopted three kids from Korea. It was three sisters whose parents had died--in a car accident, I think. What that family did was very generous and good, but it was a HUGE adjustment for everyone.

    Another analogy I can think of....I read a book about the Sydney to Hobart races. One of the yachts heard a distress call and chose to ignore it. They made that decision because they felt if they tried to help, they'd be putting their own boat into danger.

    Sometimes making the decision to help or not help is FAR from easy. Sometimes there's not an easy solution.

  10. The first Australian born Governor-General, Sir Isaac Isaacs, was Jewish. He was appointed to the position in 1931, and previous to that was Chief Justice of the High Court, Justice of the High Court, Attorney-General... well, Lord Wiki can reveal more.

    There was quite a bit of controversy and opposition to his appointment as GG. The opposition wasn't because he was Jewish, but because he was Australian born rather than being British born.

    How outrageous, that an Australian should represent the King and act in his stead in Australia!

    That was one of the first acts towards Australia becoming a fully independent nation. We've still a little way to go though. Come hither, my Australian republic!

  11. Stephen,

    Thanks. I heard of Isaac Isaacs, but didn't know much about him. Well, he definitely has a name you're going to notice and remember.

    That's fascinating about the opposition. What about GG's after him--have they all been Australian?

    I think Australia as a Republic sounds like a good idea. I just started reading The Fatal Shore. I'm sure it will give me some new insights into the situation.

  12. The next two GGs after Isaacs were British (one was even Royal), then another Australian, the next three British, and from then on all Australian.

  13. Stephen,

    Thanks for the info! I need to read more about this.

    I'm adding it to the little list in my brain--Australian stuff I feel I need to know.

    I want to know more about the GG's responsibilities, how they are appointed, etc.

    I think I remember that they were somehow involved with Whitlam losing the PM role and it going to Fraser. ??????? I could be wrong though. Vague memories here.....

  14. Of course, there was also Monash...

    The book "Unpromised Land" covers the Kimberly deal, but there was also a one-person scheme to start a Jewish city in the south-west of Tasmania at Port Davey. It ended when the person behind it died from exposure while on a trip there.

  15. greg g,

    I had to Google Monash. He sounds like an interesting guy, although I didn't have time to read much. He's definitely someone I want to go back to.

    All I saw was that he was in the military and delivered hot meals up to the front. Well, he had hot meals delivered.

    Pretty cool.

    You seem to know a lot about Jewish history AND I see you're a librarian. I hope you stick around!

  16. Another book/movie I've thought of: The Dunera Boys. German Jews who were treated as enemy aliens. Read it/watch it and weep...

    The RSL is no worse than any other bunch of exasperated war veterans in this world. The plan to establish a Jewish colony in Australia was stillborn because of general animosity from the population, not just veterans.

    People today don't cotton to the degree to which anti-Jewish sentiment pervaded the world in the thirties. Australia alas, was no great exception.

  17. Retaruius,

    I don't think there was ANY exception. I do think the RSL pushed the anti-semitism with their campaigns. BUT you can't push an idea like that unless it's already accepted by the people.

    It's like with the Holocaust. Some people try to put it all on Hitler. But it's not like he came out of a nowhere and turned everyone anti-semitic. There was already a long history of anti-semitism in Europe. Everywhere pretty much.