An edited version of the following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple appeared in the Newsletter of the Australian Jewish Historical Society, Issue No. 98, 2013.
On 22 June, 2012 it was reported on the basis of the 2011 national Census that the Australian Jewish population is now officially 97,335 – the highest it has ever been and 10% larger than five years earlier – even though the Australian Bureau of Statistics now makes it hard for Jews by not preprinting “Judaism” on the Census form, thus requiring them to check “Other” – a (calculated?) insult to the mother faith of world monotheism!
So what if Jews are only 0.5% of the national population of about 22.5 million? This percentage has hardly varied over the decades, yet the Jewish minority has contributed immeasurably to national history and development despite its small numbers, and any sensible statistician would acknowledge the facts by not turning Jews into “unpersons”, to use a George Orwellism.
The layout and wording of the Census form is not the only problem with the (admittedly non-compulsory) religion question. For many years I tried by means of correspondence and the media to persuade the ABS that the question is deeply flawed in itself and the value of the answers is limited… but I was largely unsuccessful.
Respondents who answer the question are asked to state a religion. It is all subjective, and the answers may not be true. There is anecdotal evidence that some people who have no time for religion say they are Anglican because this is what their grandparents were, or because they think “Church of England” (a now obsolete term in Australia) is in some way the norm. Other respondents are passionately believers but belong to a small minority faith. How can the statement of a non-believer who perfunctorily answers “Anglican” have the same value as, e.g., that of a deeply sincere Buddhist? There is no scaling up or down to reflect qualitative differences: nor, probably, would it be a desirable public policy, but there still is a problem.
Further, what is a religion? In the 1970s when there was much debate about anti-discrimination legislation, it was said that Australia had over 500 religions. This could have just been a round figure, and I doubt whether anyone ascertained its validity. In any case, the number might now – nearly 50 years later – be even higher, partly because of immigration. Not all “religions” are theistic, so how does the ABS determine which philosophies are religions and which are not? They probably don’t. The result is that, however absurd, atheism could be deemed a religion if all “isms” are deemed to be religious.
Even if we limit ourselves to the faiths that are generally held to be major world religions, the Census figures do not reflect the real size of some groups. Our own community may be the best example. Many Australian Jews who have suffered persecution because of their Jewish identity are understandably reluctant to reveal something which in the past invited prejudice. They are not comforted or reassured by promises that Census material is confidential. This view is not limited to Holocaust survivors; an old Aussie, a member of the Great Synagogue who actually had a very Jewish-sounding name, told me, “Why should the b…s know I am a Yid?”
Jewish community studies show that Australia has many more Jews than the Census is aware of. Some years ago the lists of students enrolled in the Melbourne Jewish school system totalled more children of a certain age group than the Census deemed to exist.
Further, though some Jews are secular, I believe they should still count themselves and be counted as belonging to Judaism, since religion is the most distinctive dimension of Jewishness.
While demographers correctly scale up the Jewish population and estimate Australian Jewry to number up to 120,000, I believe this figure to be too low. My view is that there are at least 130,000 Jews in Australia, and nearly a million Australians have some Jewish ancestry. Over the years I met many “ordinary” Australians who – often proudly – confided that they were of Jewish extraction; a few even came to the rabbis to reconfirm and restore their Jewish identity. Who knows how many supposed gentiles – even Christian clergy – are actually halachically Jewish by their maternal line?
Over the years the ABS never accepted my criticisms: Bureau officials were probably too scared of being proved wrong or incompetent. One day they will undertake an in-depth study of the complexities of what the religion question reveals and what it conceals.