Sarah Schmidt on Jews and Australian Politics

, March 1, 2006

Jewish Political Studies Review 18:1-2 (Spring 2006)

Geoffrey Brahm Levy, senior lecturer in politics and international relations and coordinator of the Jewish Studies Program at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, and Philip Mendes, senior lecturer in social policy and community development at Monash University in Melbourne, have compiled thirteen essays that explore the politics of today’s Australian Jewish community. Although the book makes almost no mention of Australian Jews’ patterns of religious identity and observance, it does provide a multifaceted picture of the group’s political activities and agendas, thereby illuminating a little-known aspect of a Jewish community that is now the tenth largest in the world.

The book’s first section presents a demographic and organizational profile of the community. Part 2 explores the impact on it of ideologies such as liberalism, socialism, conservatism, Zionism, and anti-Semitism. The last part offers case studies of issues in which the community has been involved. These include the outsider status of its women vis-à-vis Australian feminism, Australian Jews’ surprisingly minimal involvement with Aborigine rights issues, the community’s relationship to Australian multiculturalism, and a look at the major Australian Jewish lobby group, AIJAC (Australia Israel and Jewish Affairs Council).

The book’s last article was written by the editors and sums up Australian Jewish politics by considering the community’s responses when, in 2003, the Sydney University Peace Foundation awarded the Sydney Peace Prize to Palestinian activist Hanan Ashrawi. The “affair” is a perfect case study, shedding light on the Jewish community’s sense of insecurity despite the broader perception of it as affluent and influential, and also on Australian Jews’ diversity of opinion.

Most of the authors present their material in descriptive fashion, relying on survey data, case studies, statistics, and interviews. At times, the effect is to overwhelm the reader with unfamiliar names and events. Most of the contributors, however, are connected to Australian universities and hence familiar with the primary source information that would be inaccessible to most researchers.

Chanan Reich, who takes a behind-the-scenes look at AIJAC, was able to interview its director and was given access to historical material on its early years. Peter Baum, whose topic is Jews’ participation in Australia’s Liberal Party, represented the party as a senator for seventeen years. He describes in detail his shift toward greater conservatism. Eva Cox, however, one of the coauthors of the article on feminism, has remained a member of the Australian Women’s Electoral Lobby and describes herself as “an unabashed feminist.”

Thus, notwithstanding the academic nature of the articles, they provide insights by people who are deeply involved in the partisan conflicts that affect Australian Jews.

 

A Demographic Profile: The Same, Yet Different

The 2001 Australian census showed a core of 84,000 self-identified “Jews by religion.” According to John Goldlust, a social scientist specializing in immigration and ethnicity, this number is probably too low because many Australian Jews prefer not to acknowledge a religious identification with Judaism. He estimates, instead, a total of 105,000 to 112,000 Australian Jews, of whom 53 percent were born overseas.

The number of surviving Jews from the pre- and post-World War II periods is declining. The past two decades have seen an increase in immigrants from South Africa and the former USSR; South African-born Jews are now almost 13 percent of the Jewish population. Australia may have become a magnet for Jews who, in lieu of Israel, prefer greater security and perhaps the less defined identity of the Diaspora Jew.

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, at least 80 percent of Australia’s Jews have lived in two large cities, Sydney and Melbourne. The Jews who came shortly before and after World War II chose to settle in or near existing Jewish neighborhoods. Like their Anglo-Saxon counterparts, Goldlust notes, Australian Jews are generally upper-middle class, and are concentrated in the higher managerial and professional categories. Large numbers, particularly of young Jews, have completed postsecondary and professional education. Similar to other Diaspora communities, Australian Jews are also an aging population, with a fertility rate below replacement level.

Fifty percent of the community are either Holocaust survivors or their descendants. The Holocaust has shaped Australian Jews’ worldview and remains a factor in their strong identification with Israel. This may also help explain the low intermarriage rate of less than 20 percent and the fact that, though they experience little anti-Semitism and are well integrated into the broader community, most Australian Jews still mix extensively with other Jews, send their children to private Jewish day schools, and express firm commitment to their identity as Jews and to Jewish continuity.

 

Conclusion

In an interesting choice, the editors asked Peter Y. Medding, an Australian-born Hebrew University professor, to write their volume’s “Conclusion.” Medding notes that today most Australian Jews feel comfortable maintaining both their Jewish and Australian identities in compartmentalized fashion, enabling them to be Australian Jews as much as Jewish Australians. Yet he warns: “a serious and prolonged outbreak of anti-Semitism…or a changed policy in the Middle East that leads to distancing from Israel…or a rolling back of the policy of multiculturalism” could affect Australian Jewish identity patterns. At that point, he implies, Australian Jews may have to reevaluate the impact of “Australian-ness” on a “Jewish person’s Jewishness,” an age-old problem even for this unusual community with its low intermarriage rate and high percentage of Holocaust survivors.

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DR. SARAH SCHMIDT is senior lecturer in modern Jewish history at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

About Dr. Sarah Schmidt

Dr. Sarah Schmidt teaches courses related to modern Jewish history at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, with an emphasis both on Israeli and American Jewish history.