Sydney: A nearly capacity crowd filled the sanctuary of North Shore Temple Emanuel on a recent weeknight. In the seats were Jews, Christians and "a few Aborigines," said Rabbi Allison Conyer. As part of a forum, "The Aboriginal Challenge: Where To Now?" sponsored by the congregation’s Social Action Group, a series of Aboriginal speakers discussed the native Australians’ history and current social problems, and the event’s Jewish moderator urged the Jewish community to get involved.
"The Jewish contribution to the Aboriginal struggle has been thin on the ground," said Professor Colin Tatz of the Australian Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.
Afterward, said Rabbi Conyer, several members of the Jewish community volunteered. "The question was asked, " ‘What can we do to help?’ "
"There is interest" in the issue, the rabbi said. Her temple plans to establish a program to help the Aborigines’ civil rights campaign.
Despite the criticism by Tatz, Australia’s Jews have numbered among the most prominent advocate of Aborigine causes, according to experts in the Jewish and Aborigine communities.
"We’ve always enjoyed the support of the Jewish community," said Sen. Aden Ridgeway, the second Aborigine in a century elected to the national Legislature. "There have been very close relationships at the personal and professional level."
Jews come to the relationship with a clean slate, Ridgeway says. Unlike Australia’s White Christians, they did not exploit the Aborigines economically or seek to convert them religiously.
Ridgeway, who credits Jewish support for helping his election in 1998, says Australian Jews played a disproportionate role in the freedom rides (like the American effort against segregation in the South in the 1960s) for equality a generation ago; have provided scholarship help for many Aborigine students (a few dozen have studied medicine in Israel, helping to garner Aboriginal political support for Israel); and serve as leading spokesmen in the decade-old reconciliation campaign (its goals include return of usurped lands, monetary recompense and a formal government apology for white society’s historical actions against the Aborigines).
The focus of the reconciliation effort is the so-called Stolen Generation, the estimated 100,000 Aborigines who were removed from their families for 60 years during the last century and given to white families.
Estimates of Australia’s contemporary Aborigine population range from less than 100,000 to slightly above 400,000 (the country’s total population is 20 million), all a great decrease from the 1 million who lived here when the land was first inhabited by Europeans in the late 18th century.
As among the Native Americans in the United States, the Aborigines (known as "indigenous Australians" in socially conscious circles, referred to colloquially as "the blacks") tend to live on "reserves" isolated from the white majority and have high unemployment, alcoholism and imprisonment rates.
Paralleling the Jewish interaction with minority groups in the United States and South Africa, Jews and Aborigines have a shared history because of their common experience with discrimination.
A plaque at the Jewish Holocaust Museum in Melbourne commemorates a resolution on behalf of Europe’s endangered Jews that an Aboriginal delegation attempted to present to German and British representatives in 1938. The Germans and British refused to meet the delegation.
The protest was one of the first public protests in Australia about conditions in Nazi Germany.
"The Aborigines were well ahead of the rest of the world in the 1930s," said Rabbi Raymond Apple of The Great Synagogue in Sydney, who frequently speaks for reconciliation from his pulpit and at other public venues. "The Jewish community owes them a debt of gratitude."
Marcus Einfeld, a Sydney attorney who served as a justice on Australia’s Federal Court for 15 years, served as foundation president of the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. In the late 1980s he launched the initial national inquiry into discrimination against the Aborigines.
His picture, he says, often appeared in the news, speaking against bias or wading up to his knees in the muck of an Aborigine town’s unpaved roads.
"I became the public face of major Aborigine public and social reform," Einfeld said.
He is recognized whenever he travels to Aborigine communities, he says. "People say, ‘Who else would you expect to be so sympathetic, except a Jew?’ "
Palestinians Not A Problem
Israel was at the center of Aussie news the other day.
A story in The Australian, one of the country’s major newspapers, described the relationship between the Jewish state and the Labor Party after a party leader affirmed his strong commitment to Israel. Another sign of the powerful Jewish lobby, claimed Ali Kazak, the Palestinian Authority’s representative in Australia.
"Australian politicians give more attention to the Jewish community than any other religious or ethnic group in Australia," Kazak said.
Typical Palestinian sentiments. But atypical in Australia.
The country has absorbed a growing number of Palestinian immigrants in recent years, part of a little-known movement of West Bank Arabs to the West, but they largely have not served as a radicalizing influence here, neither to the Jewish community nor to the political interests of Israel, Jewish leaders say.
"The Palestinians as a group are not a problem [for Jewish interests] in Australia," said Stephen Rothman, president of the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies. More of a threat, he says, is Australia’s nearest neighbor, Indonesia, whose 42 million Muslim citizens make it the largest Muslim nation in the world.
Australia, a strong supporter of the American war against Iraq, is considered a target of Muslim fundamentalists. Most of the casualties in the 2002 terrorist bombing in Bali were Australians, and Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer has not ruled out the possibility of suicide bombers in Australia.
Most of Australia’s Muslim immigrants come from such lands as Iran, Iraq and Egypt, Rothman says.
"Obviously we have differences about the Middle East," he said, but the differences have not spilled into violence.
Most Palestinian newcomers, leaving poverty behind, concentrate on making a living and on becoming part of Australian society rather than on fighting their Middle East battles on Australian soil, says Jeremy Jones, president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry. He estimates the number of people here who would identify themselves as Palestinian at no more than 25,000, a quarter of the country’s Jewish population.
Palestinian applications for Australian visas and for refugee status here started to increase dramatically in the months after the start of Intifada II three years ago, the World Press Review magazine reported.
Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said the country would be willing to resettle "a significant number" of Palestinian refugees after Israel and the Palestinians reach a final peace agreement.
Australia’s immigration policies are now a matter of public debate, with sizable opposition to open borders for those from the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
A total of 280,000 Muslims and 214,000 Arabs (the groups are not necessarily the same) live in Australia, but they are not thought to be behind the anti-Semitic telephone calls and vandalism against Jewish sites that are reported occasionally in the media. Right-wing extremists are probably responsible, Jones said.
"It’s not coming from Muslims. It’s not coming from Palestinians," he said.
Jones, writing in the Australian Mosaic journal, said: "The Jewish community suffers from the often random bigotry and prejudice of racists who dwell in the gutters of Australian society. It is significant that, historically, an increase in reports of racist antagonism towards indigenous Australians, Asians, Arab Australians or any other minority is generally accompanied by an increase in reports of attacks on Jewish Australians."
"Divisiveness" (the perception of not fitting into the fabric of Australian society) "is a very bad thing to be seen as" in a land that boasts of its emigre-convict roots, he says. "When people come to this country," Jones said, they try to "get ‘Australian’ as soon as possible."
Jews, unlike those in countries like France or Germany, need not fear immigrants from the Middle East, he says. Besides, the Jews and Arabs tend to live in different neighborhoods, unlike in France, where anti-Jewish beatings in the suburbs of Paris are frequent.
"That makes a big difference," Jones said.
Although Palestinians have held rallies outside the Israeli Consulate in Sydney, the most visible presence of politically active Palestinian students is on campus, Jones says, where they present "a real challenge to the Jewish students."
For a small Jewish community, Tasmania boasts several superlatives.
Its synagogue, says president Caroline Heard, is the oldest continually used Jewish house of worship in the Southern Hemisphere. Cape Town, South Africa, has an older synagogue building, but it’s a museum now.
The Hobart Hebrew Congregation is the southern-most functioning synagogue in the world. Two cities in New Zealand have congregations located a few degrees below Hobart’s, but neither holds regular services.
Then there’s the size of the Jewish community in Hobart, capital of Tasmania, the Australian island-state an hour’s flying time south of Melbourne.
About 150 Jews live in Tasmania, making it one of the smallest Jewish communities anywhere. Sixty percent of the community is single ó older retirees, Heard stresses.
"Not young singles. Young people don’t come here," she said.
And those who grow up there leave.
"It takes real commitment to come here and … real commitment to stay and live here," she said. "It’s very cold here in the winter."
Having said that, Heard begins lauding the attractions of Tasmania (population 475,000) that make it a popular destination on the cruise ship circuit: no traffic congestion, no pollution, no security problems, etc. "An absolute joy," she said.
Her 150-seat synagogue, an Egyptian revivalist structure on grounds donated by a Jewish merchant, divides time between Reform and Orthodox (led by Hobart’s lone Lubavitch family) services.
"We share; it’s very harmonious," Heard said. "We hold joint kiddushes."
Tasmania’s Jewish community, never large, traces its roots to six Jewish convicts who landed on the ship Calcutta in 1804. The Jewish population peaked at 435 during the Gold Rush of the mid-1850s: "they hightailed out here." It had another influx, of people fleeing Nazi Europe, in the 1930s, and again in the 1980s, from South Africa and the former Soviet Union, Heard says.
To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the island’s European settlement, the congregation (www.shule.hobart.org) recently published the community’s history, "A Few From Afar," as a gift to the people of Tasmania. The book, written by a husband-wife couple who are members of the congregation, features its colorful early years and profiles of prominent Tasmanian Jews.
The synagogue’s current project: raising money for a social hall. The building is too cramped for anything besides pews and a small office. There’s a separate, outdoor toilet.
"We are the only shul," Heard says, "without a social hall."
Next week: The Jews of New Zealand.