CHOSEN: THE JEWS IN AUSTRALIA
By Hilary Rubinstein
Allen & Unwin, 1987
Reviewed by Rabbi Raymond Apple
This is the first overall history of Australian Jewry. Despite strange errors and omissions, the author has done an excellent job, skilfully and stylishly weaving together the strands of the story of a colourful minority group and its interaction with general society. We read of characters in colonial society who are part of national folklore, or spiritual and lay leaders who seem larger than life, of the ongoing struggle to maintain religious and cultural traditions that were often in danger of disappearing, of Australian attitudes to Jews and Jewish attitudes to Australia, and of massive contributions to almost every aspect of Australian life.
Though Jews have never reached even one percent of the Australian population – Rubinstein accepts estimates of present number as just under 100,000 and explains that the lower census figures are not reliable – their participation in public life led Neville Wran to state in 1978, “With the exception of modern Israel itself, only one nation in more than 2000 years has called upon Jews to be head of its armies, head of its judiciary, and twice, head of state: John Monash, Isaac Isaacs, Zelman Cowen.”
Rubinstein is fortunate that she could utilise fifty years of research by members of the Australian Jewish Historical Society as well as the growing body of work done by other historians and social scientists, and she has not only produced a book that tells a story but a serious attempt to address issues that are important for Australian history as a whole.
Writing on the early years of white settlement it is not entirely her fault that she leaves us with more questions than answers concerning the Jewish convicts, of whom there were at least eight on the First Fleet – including Esther Abrahams, the teenager who became first lady of the colony as de facto and later official wife of Lieutenant George Johnston.
Was there really, as she claims, a sense of camaraderie between the Jewish convicts? Was it really, as she suggests, religious scruples that made it hard for them to get employment in England and therefore they turned to petty crime? Why did it take nearly forty years after 1788 for a Jewish congregation to form? Apart from Rubinstein’s explanation (the convicts all felt too wretched and were preoccupied with serving their sentences; Jewish convicts were often forced to attend Christian services), was it not that the Jews were too few and scattered, none of them had much religious upbringing or capacity for religious leadership, the Chief Rabbi did not want to know or help, and the attitude of the authorities was uncertain?
Throughout the colonial period Australian Jewry had its vigorous leaders who campaigned energetically – though with little intercolonial cooperation – to gain the same rights to state aid to religion as Christian churches enjoyed, but there was never any significant antisemitism and there was a staggering degree of Jewish involvement in public life. Rubinstein is probably right that respectable citizens who were in the forefront of commercial development, as many Jews were throughout Australia, were highly regarded by their neighbours and automatically graduated to municipal or parliamentary activity.
But there was a price to pay for social progress: “While they tasted honey in the form of rights and freedoms of which their forefathers and their contemporaries in oppressive lands did not dare dream, they felt the sting of that process known as total assimilation which depleted their numbers and posed a far greater threat to the continuance of their community in Australia than did the comparatively rare instances of antisemitism.”
In an attempt to win back the waverers, synagogues experimented with modifications to the liturgy. Often all they achieved was to alienate the orthodox. Rubinstein relates that when the minister of the Great Synagogue in Sydney replaced a Hebrew reading from the Scriptures by an English translation, one worshipper got so incensed that he jumped up from his seat and threatened to shoot the minister!
Eastern European immigrants from intense centres of piety and religious learning found the established community a culture shock and set up their own institutions, but there was much resentment of the “foreign element” and there was little long-term improvement in the state of religious life. Rubinstein suggests that the early decades of the twentieth century were a time of stagnation with poor leadership and not even much involvement in public life. She may be indulging in mild overkill, but had there not been the immediate pre-war immigration and, even more, the post-Holocaust immigrants, Australian Jewry would have a survival problem.
The post-war period has brought increased numbers and great changes to Australian Jewry. It is no longer an insular, relatively homogeneous religious community, ruled by benevolent despots. It is vibrant in expressing its Jewish identity in a spectrum of senses, ethnic as well as religious, its relative isolation from issues affecting world Jewry as a whole has vanished, and it is democratically managed.
The events of recent decades are perhaps the least satisfactory part of Rubinstein’s book. It is not only that events in living memory are hard to write about objectively. The problem is that there are major personalities and themes that Rubinstein simply seems to ignore. No-one can write about the vast immigration that revitalised the community without acknowledging the legendary humanitarian efforts of Sydney Einfeld, Dr Fanny Reading, and Paul Cullen. If Jewish parliamentarians are to be mentioned, how can one omit Archie Michaelis, Speaker of the Victorian Legislative Assembly? The section on Christian-Jewish relationships ignores many of the facts. The treatment of post-war Jewish education – an area of truly miraculous growth – is inadequate and leaves out the development of Judaic studies at tertiary level. An inexcusable omission is any reference to the influence of Abram Landa and Max Freilich on Dr Evatt at the time when Australia played a major role in helping the State of Israel come into being. And the author is unfair to many of the rabbinical leaders, and apparently unaware of the massive efforts of men like Rabbi Isaac Groner of Melbourne in turning the religious tide of Australian Jewry.
There are, unfortunately, a large number of factual errors in the glossary and the body of the book, but these will of course be corrected in future editions. Yet none of these criticisms diminishes the seminal quality of Rubinstein’s work. She is the first to have achieved what others only talked about, and Jew and non-Jew will find fascination and not a little inspiration in her book. Hilary Rubinstein deserves a hearty mazal tov from what is bound to be a wide readership.
(This review was written shortly after the book’s publication.)