The position of Jews in Australian society has been rather different from that of Jews in other places. As historian W. D. Rubinstein has written, one of the most outstanding features has been “the normalcy of Jewish life”. This ‘normalcy’ can be traced as far back as 1788. It has been noted that there were at least eight, and perhaps as many as 14, Jewish petty criminals among the convict cargo on the First Fleet. Thus Jews were among the first Europeans to arrive in NSW and so have “never been considered to be aliens to quite the same extent as elsewhere”.

Most of NSW’s Jews prior to the end of the 19th century were either English-speaking convicts or migrants from Britain or their Australian-born descendants. This must certainly have added to the normalcy of their situation for, apart from religion, they passed in colonial society indistinguishable from the general population.

Some of the more noteworthy Jewish convicts and early free settlers included:

John Harris – He became the first Australian policeman in 1789
Esther Abrahams – She married Lt. Governor George Johnstone and was the first lady of the colony
Edward Davis – He was known as the “Jewboy bushranger” of Maitland and was hanged in 1840.
Barnett Levey – He came to Australia as a free settler and built the Theatre Royal (the first Australian theatre) in 1832.

By 1820 a few hundred Jewish people, mostly men, were living in New South Wales. Jewish life did not really start until 1817 with the formation of a Jewish Burial society in Sydney. The first purpose-built synagogue in Australia was opened in York St, Sydney in 1844.

In the 1840s, Jewish congregations were established in Hobart, Launceston, Melbourne and Adelaide. Victorian Jewry expanded rapidly as a result of the gold rushes and increased from 200 in 1848 to 3000 people in 1861.

When Queensland became a separate colony, a number of Jewish families left Sydney for Brisbane, where a synagogue was consecrated in 1886. The first Jewish community in Western Australia was formed in 1887 in Fremantle, then a synagogue was opened in Perth in 1897.

During the 19th century a high proportion of Jews lived in country areas. In NSW there were communities in Goulburn, Maitland and Grafton, and later in Broken Hill. These communities were too isolated from the mainstream Jewish centres to survive, and today the only reminders of their existence are the Jewish gravestones in country cemeteries and disused synagogues. (This need for geographical concentration is very relevant to Jewish identity, as in order to lead a Jewish life it is necessary to live in a community and close to a synagogue and other Jewish facilities.)

Most of the early free settlers were Anglo-Jewish, middle-class immigrants who transposed the English patterns of Jewish practice to Australia. Synagogues were modelled on the Anglican Church, with great stress on decorum and formality. In 1878 the Great Synagogue in Sydney was consecrated, and its imposing structure remains an historic feature of the Sydney landscape.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Jews were participating in every facet of civic, economic and social life of NSW. Sir Saul Samuels was the Colonial Secretary of NSW during the 1860’s and later Agent-General in London. In 1886 Sir Julian Salamons was appointed Chief Justice of New South Wales, but declined to be sworn in “because of the hostility of the then current members of the bench.” In 1917 the Legislative Assembly had to close on Yom Kippur because both the Speaker and Deputy Speaker were Jewish – this at a time when Jews in New South Wales made up only 0.4 per cent of the population..

During this period small numbers of Jewish refugees fleeing pogroms in Russia and Poland began to arrive. The new arrivals spoke Yiddish, were distinctively dressed and were less attuned to British or western European customs. The Jewish establishment feared that the newcomers would provide the wider Australian community with a negative image of what Jews were like and impressed upon the immigrants the need for rapid assimilation. Indeed by the turn of the 20th century, Jewish society was becoming highly assimilated into the majority Australian culture.

During the First World War, 1914-18, 13 per cent of the Jewish community enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces, compared to 9.2 per cent of the general population. 57 Jewish ANZACS were killed in action at Gallipoli.

Sir John Monash was the Commander-in-Chief of the Australian forces in Europe. After the war, he became the Honorary President of the newly formed Australian Zionist Federation.

More Polish Jews, also fleeing pogroms, arrived in Australia in the 1920s. By 1933 the number of Jews in New South Wales was 10,309, but the percentage of Jews in the population had declined to 0.36%, decreasing in size as a result of intermarriage and assimilation. After 1933 this situation changed completely. Since 1938 the Australian Jewish community has quadrupled in size, largely due to four main phases of immigration.

Before the Second World War Australia absorbed 7000-8000 refugees from Nazism, many from Austria. Of these, more than 5000 arrived in 1939, so that they became known as the thirty-niners. In 1940, a further 2000 were deported to Australia by the British government on the infamous ship, the Dunera, and were interned at Hay in NSW as enemy aliens, despite the fact that they had fled to Britain as refugees from Nazi Germany.

The largest number of immigrants arrived in the period after the war, between 1946 and 1961, the vast majority being Holocaust survivors. Between 1946 and 1954 more than 17,000 Jews arrived from Europe and Shanghai. A further 10,000 had arrived by 1961, with a significant number coming after the Hungarian uprising of 1956. A small number of Egyptian Jews also arrived in that period as refugees from the persecution which followed the overthrow of the Egyptian monarchy and the subsequent Suez Crisis. 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.

The next phase 1961-1981, was a period of consolidation, attracting a smaller number of immigrants, with most coming from South Africa and the USSR. Since 1981 immigration has again increased, with most immigrants still coming from South Africa and the former USSR and a small number coming from Israel.

In 2007 the Australian Jewish population is approximately 120,000.

Jews in Australian Life

Jews have been represented in all sections of Australian life from the “Jew-boy bushranger” Edward Davis (executed in 1841) to two Governors-General: Sir Isaac Isaacs, the first Australian-born Governor General (1931-36) and Sir Zelman Cowan (1977-82). Other prominent Jewish Australians include Major-General Sir John Monash, commander of the Australian Army in Europe at the end of World War I; former NSW Governor Gordon Samuels, and current NSW Chief Justice James Spigelman.

Jews participate in all major political parties, in commerce, medicine, law and all the professions; in the arts, sciences, academia and sport. Although some high-profile individuals have achieved great success in Australia, most Jews experience the same problems, enjoy the same rewards and live the same lifestyle as the general Australian public and are represented within all socio-economic groups.

Australian Jewish designer Josh Goot
Australian Jewish singer songwriter Ben Lee

Australian Jewry contributes to many aspects of Australian life and adds to the richness of Australian’s cultural diversity. Australia’s political and social acceptance of multiculturalism allows Jews to live in a country generally free of religious discrimination and without persecution.

Communal Organisations

The events of Second World War led to the development of the previously synagogue-based institutions into more broadly-based, democratically elected communal representative organisations, capable of acting on behalf of the community as a whole and providing a forum for discussion of community issues.

The Victorian Jewish Advisory Board was restructured in 1938, and the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies was established in 1944. Boards were also created in Western Australia, South Australia and Queensland.

The various states were also united for the first time in the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ), which was created in 1944 as a roof body for the State organisations. It became the sole organisation authorised to make representations to the Australian government on matters of federal concern such as immigration, anti-defamation, public relations and Jewish education.

Other communal institutions include social welfare bodies, Jewish schools, hospitals and aged persons homes. In NSW the Jewish Communal Appeal raises funds in a single annual campaign for all of these organisations, and allocates funds according to need.

The Australian Jewish community is very supportive of Israel. There are a number of Zionist organisations which focus on fundraising and education, including Israel experience programs for youth and others. The community as a whole also seeks to promote a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the situations which face Israel and the Jewish communities of the world.

The Australian Jewish community has also been very active in issues relating to Jews in distress throughout the world. This included the campaign to give Soviet Jews the right to either practise their religion freely in their home country or to emigrate, and other campaigns on behalf of Jews living in Arab lands, and the Jews of Ethiopia.