by Suzanne D. Rutland, University of Sydney

The Australian Jewish community today is a migrant community that is still growing in size. Its growth started during the pre-war years when Jews escaped Nazi rule seeing refuge in Australia. Prior to 1933 the community’s size decreased, a result of the high rate of inter-marriage and assimilation.

In 1945 a Jewish demographer, Joseph Gentilli, predicted that, by the twenty-first century, there would be almost no Jews living in Australia. This prediction has proved to be false because of the influx of migrants, particularly of Holocaust survivors. Since 1938 the Australian Jewish community has more than quadrupled in size, largely due to a number of waves of immigration. At the same time, it has remained a tiny minority, constituting less than 0.5% of Australia’s total population.

From 1933 to 1939 Australia absorbed between 7,000-8,000 Jewish refugees from Nazism, many from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. Over 5,000 arrived in 1939 – they became known as ‘the thirty-niners’. In June 1938 the Evian Conference held in France dealt with the refugee problem as the Nazi Holocaust approached. At the conference the Australian government announced that it would not liberalise its alien immigration policy from an annual quota of 5,000, or 15,000 over three years. Australia’s delegate, Thomas W. White, declared that,

“as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one by encouraging any scheme of large-scale foreign migration”.

Australian historian, Paul Bartrop, explains, “Australia typified the world’s approach as it stood in mid-1938”.

In 1940 some 2,000 Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria were deported to Australia by the British government as enemy aliens on the infamous ship, the Dunera. Many of these internees decided to make Australia their permanent home after their eventual release from internment. These refugees laid the basis for radical changes that affected every aspect of Australian Jewish life, including the development of Reform Judaism, the foundation of new synagogues, the beginnings of Jewish day schools, changes in Jewish community structure and representation and changing attitudes to Zionism.

By far the largest number of Jewish immigrants arrived after World War II. The vast majority were survivors of the Holocaust. The first boat carrying them docked in Sydney in November 1946. Over 17,000 Jews had arrived from Europe and Shanghai by 1954. A further 10,000 arrived by 1961, with a significant number coming after the Hungarian uprising of 1956. A small number of Egyptian Jews also arrived as refugees from persecution, following the overthrow of the Egyptian monarchy and the subsequent outbreak of the Suez Crisis of 1956. Thus, between 1938 and 1961 Australian Jewry almost trebled in size from a tiny group of 23,000 in 1933 to 60,000 in 1961.

Whilst these numbers are significant, the Australian government introduced a quota system and various measures to limit Jewish refugee and survivor migration. The aim was to ensure that Jews, who constituted only a tiny minority before 1933, would continue to remain a very small percentage of the population. The governments, both United Australia Party (UAP, the forerunner of the Liberal Party) and the Labor Party (ALP) were successful in this aim and Jews continued to constitute less than 0.5% of the population as a result of government policy.

The main reason for this restrictive policy was the outcry against Jewish refugees both before and after the war, known as ‘anti-reffo’ feelings’. These feelins were manifested in newspapers, statements by members of parliament and resolutions passed by pressure groups such as the Returned Services League (RSL) and the Australian Natives Association (ANA). Anti-Jewish sentiments were expressed in accusations of international control and world conspiracy theories. Above all, Jews were potrayed as physically undesirable – fat, ugly, with hooked noses and foreign accents – features highlighted in articles and cartoons published in newspapers such as The Bulletin, Truth and Smith’s Weekly. The word ‘Jew’ did not always appear on these cartoons, but the visual representation made it clear that the negative message was referring to Jews.

Anti-Jewish sentiments had important repercussions for post-war Jewish migration. Australia established for the first time a Department of Immigration. Arthur A. Calwell was appointed as Minister of Immigration in August 1945. Up until 1939, Australia’s migration had aimed at being 98% Anglo-Celtic. This policy changed dramatically with the impact of the war. The fear of a Japanese invasion created a sense of survival anxiety, especially with the ‘Brisbane line’. Plans were made to evacuate all Australians living north of that line. The postwar Labor government believed that Australia’s population of 7.5 million had to be doubled, and to do so they encouraged European continental migrants, previously considered ‘aliens’, to settle in Australia. In 1945, Calwell published a small booklet entitled How Many Australians Tomorrow advocating this policy.

However, in the face of the hostile response and his somewhat insecure position within his party and cabinet, Calwell introduced measures to limit the number of Jewish refugees in line with its White Australia policy. Charles Glassgold, the representative from the American Joint Distribution Committee in Shanghai in 1949, summed up the essence of these measures:

The restrictions included a new 25-percent limitation of Jewish passengers on all ships and in 1948 the extension of this quota to planes. Only a few hundred Jews were permitted to migrate from Shanghai in July 1947, following a top secret report of the consul-general, Major General O.C.W Fuhrman, which painted Jews as the criminal element of Shanghai. A ‘gentleman’s agreement’ in January 1949 set the quota for Jewish immigrants at 3,000 per annum, and then eased the 25 percent quota on ships and planes. The ‘Iron Curtain Embargo’ in December 1949 effectively excluded Jews who originated from countries under Soviet rule; and intoduced special discriminatory policies against Jews of Middle Eastern origin, including those from India.

Calwell’s fear of the negative effect of Jewish migration on his overall migration policy was most clearly evidenced in regard to the International Refugee Organisation (IRO). Under the IRO agreement of July 1947, he agreed to admit workers on a two-year work contract from the Displaced Persons (DP) camps in Europe. Until 1950 170,000 DPs arrived under this agreement and a further 29,000 under personal sponsorship. Jews were virtually excluded from the program as only those young and single were permitted. They had to sign an extra clause agreeing only to work in “remote areas of Australia”. The definition of being a Jew was based on racial not religious grounds. A Jewish member of the selection team commented at the time that “Hitler could not have done better”.

Calwell was supported fully by his departmental officers. His policies were pursued by the Liberals with Harold Holt as Minister for Immigration from 1950 to 1955. But the policy was disguised. When the representatives of the Jewish community questioned the government, it claimed that there “there is no discrimination… between Jewish and non-Jewish displaced persons”.

Most Jewish immigrants embraced their new life in Australia. This was particularly true for the pre-1960 refugee groups, including the survivors of the Holocaust and, later, the Hungarian and Egyptian ‘escapees’. For all these groups the greatest benefit was that they could enjoy living in a free, democratic society. They no longer feared that someone would knock on the door in the middle of the night with a pair of handcuffs. This sense of security was attested to in numerous contemporary accounts. In 1950, after the Chip Chase migrant hostel was opened by the Jewish Welfare Society, one survivor wrote an article called On Coming Home which described:

“It is a very peculiar feeling. It is almost midnight. We are in the middle of a city with two million residents. We are in Sydney. We are in Australia. You who were born here or have been living here for many years, you might not understand these feelings. Though it is midnight, though it is just our second day in Sydney, we seem to be at home. Already we start to have the same sense of security as Australian citizens. We are beginning to share the confidence in their fellow citizens and in their country.”

Unlike many non-Jewish DPs who had escaped from countries behind the Iron Curtain, Jewish refugees did not consider Australia as a temporary refuge. Almost all of them became loyal, grateful and permanent citizens of their new country.

“I have to transmit to you some information which should by now not be shocking to any Jew, but which nevertheless still horrifies one. From a most unimpeachable source there comes to me a statement made by the new Australian Consul in Shanghai that casts the pall of futility over the prospect of Australian migration. The Consul said to my informant substantially the following:

‘We have never wanted these people in Australia and we still don’t want them. We will issue a few visas to those who have relations there as a gesture.'”


Australian Memories of the Holocaust: Rebuilding Jewish Life in Australia

Australian Memories of the Holocaust: Immigrants’ Memories

Academy BJE: Jews in Australia

Academy BJE: Famous Australian Jews

Further Reading

Rutland, S. (2005) Jews in Australia, Cambridge
Rutland, S. (2003) ‘Postwar Anti-Jewish Refugee hysteria: A Case of Racial or Religious Bigotry?’ in
Sojourners and Strangers, Journal of Australian Studies, No 77, University of Queensland Press on behalf of Australian Studies, Curtin University of Technology, in association with the International Australian Studies Association and the Australian Public Intellectual Network, pp 69-79.