Arriving in Australia in search of a better life and a place where they could practise their religion in freedom, Jewish people can claim a story of societal acceptance, selfless sacrifice, triumph of hope and faith, and an unyielding and enduring trust in the power of democracy.


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Australia’s Jewish People and Democracy

Australia’s Jewish People and Democracy

Arriving in Australia in search of a better life and a place where they could practise their religion in freedom, Jewish people can claim a story of societal acceptance, selfless sacrifice, triumph of hope and faith, and an unyielding and enduring trust in the power of democracy. Indeed, democratic principles are a cornerstone of Judaism and are perfectly in keeping with its ensemble of cardinal mandates about the responsibility Jews have to sustain a good society, care for the weak and the vulnerable, demonstrate social solidarity and improve the lives of all citizens.

Jews are guided by the Talmudic dictum and imperative of dina d’malchuta dina, which obliges them to adhere to the law of the land, on any matter including religious observance, and to pray for the welfare of the government. The Jewish tradition is full of stories emphasising the importance of the democratic ethos and the covenantal basis of human relationships, which states that society is a cooperative and interdependent endeavour in which our wellbeing depends upon a collective effort.

There’s the prophet Samuel, expressly disapproving of government by kings; and the tale of Jacob wrestling with the Angel, which carries the message that Jews have always wrestled with tough questions and authority, who are sceptical, and have never easily accepted the prevailing opinion.

An episode that nicely illustrates the unflinching Jewish devotion to the rule of law involves Sir John Monash. During the Great Depression the revered war hero was approached by members of a paramilitary group, urging him to lead a coup and institute a military dictatorship. Monash threw them out, saying that if they wished to change the government they should do so through the ballot box and not by committing treason.

The 1854 Ballarat Reform League charter, regarded as the practical beginning of Australian democracy, which outlined democratic principles and insisted on equal rights and representation, was framed with the advice of three Jewish sympathisers, W. Levy, Henry Harris and Charles Dyte.

Sir Isaac Isaacs, attorney-general of Victoria and later the first Australian-born governor-general, played a vital role in the framing of Australia’s Constitution as a Victorian representative to the Constitutional Convention, as did Vaiben Louis Solomon, premier and treasurer of South Australia. Several other Jewish personalities also contributed to the establishment of Federation, particularly Theodore Fink, Max Hirsch and J. Hyman.

The successful integration of Jewish immigrants into every aspect of Australian society has maximised their participation in numerous arenas. Since the first Jews arrived on the First Fleet, Australian Jews have left a major imprint on Australian democracy and can claim a long list of achievements in fields as diverse as politics, business, labour, entertainment, government, education, military service, law, medicine, academia, philanthropy, arts and the civil rights arena.

Notable community leaders such as Dr Israel Kipen, Aaron Patkin and Maurice Ashkenazy, who long cherished education as a pathway to cultivate informed citizens who understand the importance of constitutional and democratic culture and treasure their rights and responsibilities, were instrumental in establishing two Jewish schools, Mount Scopus College and Bialik College. These schools became successful and gave impetus to the independent Jewish school movement that is flourishing today and that has played an indispensable role in the development of future leaders.

It’s also crucial to recognise the wide-ranging impact made by spirited Jewish women, who paved the way for others. The pioneering Dr Fanny Reading, for example, established in 1923 the Council of Jewish Women—a Zionist organisation that was active on a range of women’s issues, Jewish and non-Jewish—and later the National Council of Jewish Women of Australia. It’s noteworthy that as early as the 1930s, Temple Beth Israel, the first Reform congregation in Australia, elected Ada Phillips as its first president. Then there’s Rabbi Aviva Kipen, the first Australian woman to be ordained as a rabbi in London, and Professor Ziva Shavitsky, who for decades led the Hebrew and Jewish Studies program at the University of Melbourne. Both women continue to enable the general public to gain a deeper understanding of the diversity of Judaism’s intellectual, cultural and religious precepts.

The concept of giving back and of performing acts of charity has always been a key plank of Australian Jewry. In the tradition of tikkun olam (repairing the world), Australian Jews have led the way in philanthropy through the generosity of inspiring figures such as Richard Pratt, John Gandel, Mark Besen, Isador Magid and Frank Lowy. Such individuals exemplified the principle that humanity is not a single family, but an extended clan, consisting of many families, who should live in peace and harmony. By contributing to myriad causes they epitomised the tenet of gemilut chasadim (reciprocal acts of loving kindness), giving back to the country that provided them with a home and a new life. They also demonstrated that we must all be passionate about Australia’s welfare.

The Jewish community, which had suffered unspeakable discrimination, persecution and adversity for millennia, has long fought against all forms of bigotry and extremism and has led the way in pursuing interfaith relations, coexistence and social justice. It has repeatedly conveyed the message that in a democracy we must work together to eliminate injustice against all groups, creating a more tolerant Australia for future generations.

In that context, I am reminded of the notable contribution Jews have made to Aboriginal reconciliation and the advancement of land rights, from Ron Castan’s stewardship of the Mabo case to Mark Leibler’s co-chairmanship of Reconciliation Australia; from Justice James Spigelman’s Freedom Rides to Colin Tatz’s academic research and teaching in the area. Sometimes the fight for human rights has transcended national borders. Community leader Isi Leibler was able to mobilise the support of successive Australian governments for his campaign to free Refusniks, Soviet Jews who had been denied exit visas to immigrate to Israel.

Working with Australians of all backgrounds, faiths and identities, Jewish communal organisations have fought for equality and for the protection of minorities from vilification. The most recent case involved the Executive Council of Australian Jews, which energetically spearheaded the campaign against the repeal of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, while the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission has for decades fought anti-Semitism and hatred in all forms.

Parliaments are the key institutions of democracy, and there have been many Jewish members of parliament at all levels. Federal parliamentarians such as Michael Danby, Josh Frydenberg and Mark Dreyfus continue the tradition set by Elias Solomon, Max Falstein, Sydney Einfeld, Lewis Kent, Samuel Cohen, Barry Cohen and Peter Baume, to name but a few, of enhancing and enriching the national conversation and service through their elected participation. We might recall too Sir Zelman Cowen, who as governor-general promoted national unity and was able to return people’s respect for the office after the controversy of the 1975 dismissal and Sir John Kerr’s continuation in the role of governor-general.

Since Jews are committed to the strengthening of the rule of law and an independent judiciary as the cornerstones of democracy, it’s small wonder that Australian history is dotted with tales of distinguished judges represented in the courts of all states, and legal scholars such as High Court justice Sir Isaac Isaacs; Justice Bernard Sugarman, who founded and was first editor of the Australian Law Journal; Professor Louis Waller, appointed as the first chairman of the Law Reform Commission; Professor Julius Stone, one of Australia’s leading legal theorists; and judge Gordon Samuels, governor of New South Wales.

The Jewish community is sometimes erroneously described as monolithic in its views. Yet Jews represent a wide spectrum of beliefs and ideologies on social, economic and foreign affairs matters. Whether it is in youth movements, synagogues, sporting associations, educational programs, youth leadership forums, newsletters, conferences, workshops, informal gatherings or social clubs, a mosaic of voices is on display. Reflective of this robust pluralism is Australian Jewish News, which this year celebrated its 120th anniversary, and which under the lauded editorship of Sam Lipski and now Zeddy Lawrence, has provided a platform for the community to present its views, exchange ideas and debate questions relating to Israel, religion, Jewish life, politics and Australian society.

Given that Jews have never comprised more than half of one per cent of the Australian population, it’s remarkable that it has had a prominent and impactful voice in the foundations of democratic principles in Australia and the practice of those ideals in manifold ways. No doubt this historical trajectory and tradition is set to continue unabated.

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