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Zionism and Australian Jewry Before 1948: The Battle for Ideological and Communal Supremacy

Filed under: World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 18:3-4 (Fall 2006)

Zionism’s goal was a Jewish national home and sovereign political entity in Palestine. The movement created an organizational infrastructure in Australia and its activities there won increasing support within the Jewish community, especially among recent immigrants from Eastern Europe. There was also opposition, however, from prominent rabbis and lay leaders. The ideological conflict between the Zionists and anti-Zionists revolved around fundamental questions of the nature of the Jewish group on the one hand, and political loyalty to Australia and Britain on the other, and became the fulcrum of a struggle for control of communal institutions, in which the Zionists emerged victorious by the mid-1940s. This enabled Australian Jewry’s representative bodies to press the Australian government to support a Jewish state, especially Dr. Herbert Vere Evatt, the minister of external affairs, who played a crucial role in the UN decision to partition Palestine.            


For centuries, the Jews moved constantly from place to place seeking relief and refuge from the precariousness of their situation as a dispersed, despised, defenseless, and persecuted people. They also continued to yearn and pray for redemption from exile, their ingathering in Zion and its restoration to divine rule and Jewish sovereignty. Over the years a trickle of individuals actually made the journey, joining the small numbers of their brethren congregated in a few tiny communities in the Holy Land.

During the last decades of the nineteenth century, the situation for Jews in Europe-who in 1880 accounted for some 90 percent of a total world Jewish population of over ten million-worsened dramatically. In Eastern Europe, Jews experienced extensive and ongoing pauperization, intensified state repression, and pogroms-outbreaks of mob violence against Jews resulting in property destruction, physical injury, and loss of life of a greater frequency and on a larger scale than before, with only tardy intervention by the authorities. These developments made conditions of life for the Jewish masses increasingly untenable and devoid of hope.

In other parts of Europe, although the Jews’ circumstances were generally better, the failures of and retreats from emancipation, heightened anti-Jewish feelings and behavior, and the rise of organized political anti-Semitism had a profoundly destabilizing impact, both objectively and subjectively, on Jewish status and security. The dire situation of European Jewry and the unprecedented massive need for relief, refuge, and rescue that it had generated   were widely viewed as the inevitable outcome of a deeply rooted, highly intractable, global “Jewish problem” or “Jewish question.”


Grappling with the Jewish Problem

The Jewish problem was multidimensional, complex, and its specific manifestations varied from country to country and over time. Nevertheless, at the heart of the Jewish problem everywhere was a common defining element: the nonacceptance or rejection of Jews as equals, their portrayal as bearing responsibility for all of a country’s ills, as impediments to national unity, and as stains on national honor and integrity.

After 1880, millions of European Jews sought relief and refuge in the age-old manner by migrating to a New World that offered them an unprecedented degree of freedom and opportunity, thereby responding implicitly and individually to the Jewish problem-with their feet. Others sought explicitly to comprehensively resolve or eradicate the Jewish problem, not simply escape from it. The latter in particular were impelled by the ongoing questioning within Jewry on fundamental matters of religion, belief, identity, community, and membership that had developed with the breakdown of traditional Jewish society, the erosion of communal authority and autonomy, and exposure to fundamental political, social, economic, and cultural changes occurring in Europe and elsewhere. The Jews’ search for answers gave rise to various theoretical approaches and programs, among them Zionism, which became the focus of intense ideological debate and political contestation within Jewry lasting almost until the mid-twentieth century.

This ideological quest yielded two basic proposals for dealing with the Jewish problem: removing it from the scene by addressing the conditions that fostered it; or, removing the Jews from the scene. In the first category were, on one side, socialists, communists, liberals, and Bundists who found the solution in social change and the creation of conditions that would guarantee Jews equality and acceptance and enable them to live with non-Jews in peace and harmony. Far from them on the other side were the traditional Orthodox elements who put their faith in the eventual messianic redemption that would terminate the divine punishment of exile and bring the Jews back to the Holy Land, where they would dwell in peace with the other nations who would accept the sovereignty of the Lord and his Torah.

The second category was also varied. It covered both Zionists and territorialists who advocated the exit of the Jews from countries with a Jewish problem and their settlement in a territory of their own, and assimilationists, who proposed that Jews voluntarily meld into and become indistinguishable from the rest of the population, thereby vanishing. The end result in all cases would be a society without a Jewish problem.

A radically new element was manifest in much of this ideological searching: the belief that the Jews themselves could and should act purposively, collectively, and publicly to bring about a solution to the Jewish problem. In other words, rather than-as had long been the case-hope, pray, and wait for the troubles to pass, or, when that failed, flee in search of refuge, many Jews now turned to political solutions involving considerable political mobilization, organization, competition, and ferment.


The Rise of Zionism

Zionism was the most radical, comprehensive, and universal of the rival political programs, seeking to provide a permanent solution to the Jewish problem that was valid and effective for all Jews, in all situations, at all times. Although there are many versions of Zionism, all share the belief that only when all Jews are congregated in their own land and constitute the vast majority, if not the totality of its inhabitants, can they expect to live in freedom and equality, enjoy autonomy, and attain security. Thus, where once they were universally and eternally dispersed, despised, at the mercy of others, defenseless, and persecuted, now Zionism guaranteed that they would be ingathered, respected, responsible for their own fate, and capable of standing up for and protecting themselves.

Zionism’s aim, as formulated in 1897 at the founding congress of the World Zionist Organization in Basel, was “the creation of a home for the Jewish people in Palestine to be secured by public law.”[1] Behind that very brief and bland formulation were both a political ideology seeking, justifying, and mandating the (re)settlement of the Jewish people in Palestine, and a political movement that organized and acted purposively to bring it about. Put very simply, as an organized political movement, Zionism focused on two primary and interrelated goals: getting the Jews to Palestine, and getting Palestine for the Jews-that is, making it possible for the Jews to pursue and realize the Zionist project there.

With those goals and demands, Zionism inevitably had a revolutionary impact on Jewish communities everywhere. To begin with, its success would necessarily mean the disintegration of diaspora Jewish communities and communal life. Moreover, Zionism actively desired that outcome, and negated diaspora Jewish communal existence as lacking in meaning and worth, and as promoting false values.

Paradoxically, however, to promote their cause both among Jews and in the world at large, Zionists could not avoid working within and through the very Jewish communities whose disappearance they advocated. Yet rather than write them off, Zionists set out to “capture” those communities, gain control of their leadership, and take responsibility for maintaining their institutions and conducting their affairs.

In so doing, Zionists inevitably strengthened those communities, if for no other reason than to augment their effectiveness in pursuing their cause, spreading the message, and increasing support for their Palestine project both among Jews and within governmental circles. The latter, of course, were critical for furthering Zionist diplomatic endeavors in the international arena aimed at “getting Palestine for the Jews.”

Inevitably, the Zionist goal of “capturing the communities” so as to harness their representative and governing bodies to the advancement of the Zionist cause, both internally and within the surrounding society, met opposition. Some of the opponents were groups seeking to put a different ideological stamp on Jewish communal institutions, policies, and activities; others sought to project a different image of Jewry to the surrounding society.

Although the precise issues of contention and their protagonists varied from country to country and changed over time, prominent among Zionism’s ideological and political opponents were: Bundists, territorialists, cultural autonomists, and other proponents of diaspora Jewish identity such as Reform Jews, the traditional Orthodox, communists, socialists, and assimilationists. In very broad terms, the major axes of division were religion and nationality; religion and secularism; peoplehood and citizenship; particularism and universalism; human agency and divine agency; integration, autonomy, and independence; and diaspora and Palestine. These appeared in a variety of combinations both among Zionists and their opponents.

Initially, the Zionist movement directed its ideological message at the Jewish masses in Europe where the Jewish problem was most acute. Hence, for the first few decades most of its organizational activities, struggles with its opponents, and intracommunal contestation took place there. But, even at the very outset, Zionism also made inroads within Jewish communities in those countries and societies where Jews were not in urgent need of succor, such as the United States, Canada, Latin America, Great Britain, and so on. And the more significant the role that those countries played or could play in determining the success or failure of the Palestine project, the greater the importance of Zionism’s strong general appeal to Jews outside its organizational net.

Some Jews in those countries had deep ideological commitments to Zionism; not infrequently they were themselves immigrants or children of immigrants from Europe, or Palestine. But Zionism proved attractive to Jews in those countries, often powerfully so, on other grounds as well. These included a sense of peoplehood; acceptance of responsibility for the welfare of fellow Jews, especially those in need of help; feelings of group pride, honor, and loyalty; the desire for Jews to have a place of their own, either as an end in itself, as establishing their equality among the nations, or as gaining respect for them in the eyes of the world; the attainment of an insurance policy for Jews-a place of certain safe refuge, if it ever became necessary; and finally, as the Palestine project took root and developed, as a focus of their traditional philanthropic efforts to assist brethren.

The Australian Jewish Community

Thus, although varying widely in form, impact (both internal and external), and global significance, Zionism took root in Jewish communities everywhere, and Australia was no exception. Australia is remote from the rest of the Jewish world, and its Jewish communities have always been small and far apart. Yet it provides an instructive, if microcosmic, case study of the Zionist movement’s successful struggle to enthuse the rank and file of the Jewish community, “capture” its leadership, dominate its representative institutions, and overcome strong opposition to gain the support of the Commonwealth government and influential segments of public opinion for the Zionist aim of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine. Indeed, those efforts may well have contributed at a critical juncture to the ultimate attainment of that aim.

Jews were present from the very beginning of British colonization in Australia in 1788; by some estimates they accounted for as many as 14 of the 751 English convicts transported on the First Fleet. Over the next six decades, however, their number increased very slowly, totaling only 1,887-about half of them of convict origin-at mid-century. In 1901, when Zionism began to take root, the Australian Jewish population numbered 15,239, and by 1947 had little more than doubled to 32,019. Over the next decade or so a marked increase in Jewish immigration, primarily of Holocaust survivors, virtually doubled it again. By 2001, the Australian Jewish population had grown further to an estimated total of 105,000-112,000, with some fifty thousand in Melbourne, forty-five thousand in Sydney, and the rest mainly in Perth, Brisbane, and Adelaide.[2]

During the nineteenth century, Australia’s extreme remoteness from the rest of the world and the small size of and large distances between its various Jewish communities did not seem to deter the stream of emissaries who came to collect funds for institutions in the Holy Land. In so doing, they established a direct connection between the Jewish communities in Palestine and in the Antipodes.

Neither did its remoteness preclude the importation into Australia of European conflicts over the place of the Jews in the civil society and the state.[3] Thus, in the mid-nineteenth century, Jews in the Australian colonies were at the center of a major public debate over the principles of political representation, which raised questions about the nature of the Jewish group and the relative significance within it of ethnic, national, and religious components. As will be seen below, these questions were subsequently to be echoed in the bitter intracommunal conflict over Zionism that split Australian Jewry during the first part of the twentieth century and came to a head in the 1940s.

When that public debate surfaced in Australia, the anti-Jewish position was stated clearly by James Martin in the New South Wales Legislative Council. In his view, the issue facing the colonies was “whether they would allow a people who professed themselves to be a distinct and separate nation, to step in and share with them those privileges which were intended for British subjects alone and which were peculiar to the Christian auspices under which they lived.”[4]

In defending themselves against such attacks, the Jews in the Australian colonies relied on two main arguments. One was the denial of Jewish national separateness and distinctiveness, coupled with a staunch profession of their capacity for loyal citizenship and readiness to fulfill all civil obligations, irrespective of religious differences. This view had already been stated forcefully by a Sydney Jew in a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald some years earlier:

I deny, gentlemen, in the strongest terms we are a nation apart, any more than members professing the Catholic, Wesleyan, or any other of the numerous sects into which Christianity is divided. A British Jew would defend his country against a foreign Jew if occasion required, with as much alacrity and good feeling as a Christian could possibly do. Why, then, are we to be deprived of our privileges, and branded as men belonging to no country.[5]

Some went further and narrowed Jewish distinctiveness solely to the realm of religion. “In matters of religion,” editorialized the Australian Israelite in 1874, “they are Jews; in everything else, Englishmen.”[6]

The other argument, made mainly by Jewish leaders and widely supported throughout the community, was that Jews should be accorded equal citizenship as a matter of right, coupled with a proud and public affirmation of Jewish peoplehood. For example, in urging the community in 1858 “not to forget the cause of their brethren in other parts of the world,” one of those leaders reminded them that “though widely separated as individuals they were all members of one nation, united in the bonds of brotherhood.”[7]

In all, these debates revealed a Jewish community divided over the nature of its religious, ethnic, and national identity. For its part, colonial Australian society resolved the issues in the 1850s on liberal lines, and for the next fifty years or so, behaved accordingly. Diversity and social difference were widely accepted, and Jews were very prominent in colonial political, civic, and charitable activities, both as individuals and as a community.

Zionism in Australia

Around the turn of the century, however, the social atmosphere in Australia changed radically. Australian nationalism became stridently exclusivist, xenophobia against non-British settlers developed apace, and immigration policies became increasingly restrictive and racial as the superiority of white British stock was contrasted with the natural inferiority of all others, who were unassimilable foreigners at best, if not dangerous aliens. Such notions fed anti-Semitic attitudes and stereotypes, many of which made their way into the popular press and its cartoons.

It was in such a public atmosphere that organized Zionism entered the life of Australian Jewry in 1894 with the formation in Sydney of a society to promote the ideas of Chovevei Zion, a movement for Jewish settlement in Palestine. The society was, however, short-lived.

In 1900 the spiritual leader of the Perth community, Rabbi D. Freedman, set up a Herzlian Zionist society supported primarily by recent East European immigrants. Fanned by the enthusiasm generated by individuals who had attended early Zionist congresses, similar organizations were soon established in Sydney and Melbourne, and according to one report, by 1908 there were some twenty Zionist societies in Australia.[8] However, though Australian Jewry’s support for Zionism was acknowledged and solicited by the founder and leading figure of the World Zionist Organization, Theodor Herzl, he regarded it as less than satisfactory if not grudging.

Thus, in 1901 he told them that “the holding back of your share of help we noted with pain,” and urged them “not to forget in prosperity your unfortunate brother” and to “join the Zionist cause” as “what we can do could only be accomplished with the laborious assistance of all our sympathizers.”[9] From this message it is clear not only that Herzl was fully aware of the deeply rooted ambivalence and opposition to Zionism of Australian Jewish leaders, but also that he regarded this as the main reason for their insufficient support for his movement.

Underlying Australian Jews’ doubts about and rejection of Zionism were a number of arguments. Apart from those suggesting that a Jewish homeland in Palestine did not merit support because it was sheer fantasy and a waste of scarce resources, most of the arguments reflected either earlier colonial concerns about citizenship loyalties or traditionalist religious doubts about Zionism.

Thus, according to the former, support for Zionism would demonstrate that the Jews were a people apart and unpatriotic, rather than loyal British citizens of Australia who owed total national allegiance to their country of residence and were joined only by ties of religion and ethics. Prominent among the proponents of this view were some of the country’s leading rabbis, particularly Rabbi F. L. Cohen and Rev. J. H. Landau in Sydney, who also rejected Zionism on the ground that it was a secular movement that undermined the messianic teachings of Judaism.[10]

Despite such ambivalence and opposition, following the Balfour Declaration and Britain’s assumption of the Mandate in Palestine, Zionism began to make considerable headway in the still small Australian Jewish community, which in 1921 numbered 21,615. In that year, the cause of Zionism was boosted considerably by the visit of Israel Cohen, an emissary of the Zionist Executive (then in London), who came to Australia to raise money on behalf of the Palestine Restoration Fund. In Melbourne, the rabbis, wealthy Jewish members of the establishment, many of whom were communal leaders, famous Australian Jews such as Sir John Monash, and most members of the community supported his efforts generously. As he later noted wryly in his memoirs, however, their sincere and highly demonstrative devotion to the British Crown was such that “he was inclined to think that they regarded me not so much as an Emissary of the Zionist Executive, as an Envoy of His Majesty.”[11]

Nevertheless, Britain’s role in Palestine did not seem to impress Sir Isaac Isaacs, another prominent Australian Jew who had been a High Court judge since 1906 and after a short term as chief justice served as governor-general from 1931 to 1937. Likewise, many of Sydney Jewry’s influential leaders, such as Rabbi Cohen and the editor of the Hebrew Standard, expressed their opposition to Zionism strongly and publicly.

A Communal Milestone

Israel Cohen was followed by other Zionist emissaries, and in their wake a spate of fundraising and organizational activities took root during the 1920s. This led to the formation in 1927 of the Australian Zionist Federation with the aim of coordinating Zionist activities throughout the country.[12] Its establishment was a milestone in Australian Jewry’s communal development in several regards.

To begin with, this was the first time an organizational body was set up within Australian Jewry on an interstate basis. Second, while Sir John Monash served as its honorary president, Rabbi Israel Brodie of the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation, who arrived in Australia from Britain in 1923, was its driving force and first president. A Yiddish speaker of East European parentage, Rabbi Brodie-who in the 1940s became Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth-was the first of several prominent Australian rabbis who espoused views close to those of religious Zionism. This directly contrasted with the religious anti-Zionism of Rabbi Cohen and other members of the earlier generation of Anglo-Jewish clergy.

Finally, most of the Australian Zionist movement’s founding leaders and active members, and the main source of its subsequent role and organizational expansion, were first- and second-generation immigrants of East European origin, some of whom had also lived for a time in Palestine before coming to Australia. Whether religiously observant or not, they and the new generation of rabbis were united by shared values and spoke a common language, and together these two groups had a formative and lasting impact on the Australian Zionist movement.

During the 1930s and 1940s, the organizational structures of this   movement began to take shape, and its activities expanded slowly. In addition to the primary task of collecting funds for the upbuilding of the Jewish national home in Palestine were efforts to spread knowledge of the Hebrew language and appreciation of Hebrew culture among both adults and children in various informal and formal settings.

Although the party-affiliated Zionist youth movements that were set up during those years-pioneering-socialist, religious, and Revisionist-were also involved in these efforts, their manifest function was ideological. They aimed to instill in their members the shared Zionist values of aliyah (immigration to Israel) and upbuilding the Jewish national home, and to prepare them to fulfill those values personally according to each movement’s vision of the society being established in Palestine. For the most part, these activities were conducted by a multiplicity of separate grassroots organizations, most of which were represented in overall coordinating bodies known as State Zionist Councils.

These state and federal coordinating bodies conducted the Zionist movement’s campaign to promote the cause of the Jewish national home within Australian society, which in the 1930s and 1940s took place on the background of a widening rift between Britain and the Zionist movement over policies and events in Palestine. This conflict divided the Australian Jewish community, tested the resilience of its commitment to Zionism, and threatened to undermine support for its activities and structures.

The Debate over Zionism

On the one side was the new generation of leaders and followers of East European Jewish origin, culture, and outlook, both Orthodox and secular, for whom Zionism was an integral component of Jewishness as they understood it, and deeply embedded in their personal identity. Not infrequently, therefore, they publicly supported the Zionist upbuilding of the Jewish national home and protested British Mandate measures against the Yishuv (the prestate Jewish community in Palestine) and Zionist goals. Thus, as circumstances demanded, in both Melbourne and Sydney, the Zionist movement organized public meetings to express the views of the Jewish community, at which they adopted formal resolutions that were directly conveyed to the Commonwealth government and given wide press coverage.

On the other side were prominent Australian Jews who staunchly opposed the Zionist movement’s efforts to promote the cause of the fledgling Yishuv in both the Jewish and general communities, and who rejected any and all criticism of British measures in Palestine as evidence of disloyalty. In their view, the Australian Zionist movement and its individual members and supporters, in engaging in such activities and advocating a sovereign Jewish state, were highly unpatriotic to say the least.

At the head of this opposition to what they called “political Zionism” were Sir Isaac Isaacs together with the established lay and rabbinical leaders of the Melbourne and Sydney Jewish communities. These were socially well-integrated patricians prominent in various walks of Australian life such as Sir Archie Michaelis and Sir Samuel Cohen, and Rabbis Jacob Danglow and F. L. Cohen. Hitherto, this group had been virtually unchallenged in its leadership of the Sydney and Melbourne Jewish communities’ major representative bodies, which, following the British model, had grown out of and were effectively controlled by the major Orthodox congregations and were known at the time as Advisory Boards (later renamed Boards of Deputies).[13]

As a result of this conflict, from the late 1920s onward Zionism’s growing salience became a central element in an ongoing campaign to restructure the community on more broadly ethnic and democratic lines, and to wrest control of its representative bodies from these established patrician leaders. In staunchly opposing Zionism, the latter emphasized their loyalty to the Crown, to Judaism as a religion, and to their Jewish brethren as fellow members of a faith, but not of a nation. Zionism’s Anglo-Jewish patrician opponents did not hesitate to use their high social standing and political access to convey their views directly at the highest levels of government. In particular, they sought to dissociate themselves and all Australian Jews from the protests against Britain and from the activities of the Zionists, even though the latter now enjoyed the support of the majority of the Jewish community.

In their view, the notion of a “homeless Jewish nation” that needed a home in Palestine turned Jewish citizens of other countries into aliens, undermined their civic equality, and gave rise to the specter of dual nationality and divided allegiances. Moreover, pro-Zionist activism stimulated anti-Semitism because it reinforced beliefs that Jews were unassimilable and disloyal to their adopted country.

The patricians’ antipathy to Zionism was further fueled by a general aversion to ethnic distinctiveness, reinforced in the 1930s by rising anti-Semitism and xenophobia following the arrival of a small number of Jewish immigrants. In August 1938, one month after the Evian Conference, the president of the Australian Jewish Welfare Society, Sir Samuel Cohen, publicly declared its opposition to a sudden and large influx of Jewish refugees, stating: “We know no other country. Our thoughts are British through and through…nothing would be more damaging to the preservation of the freedom we are all privileged to enjoy, than to allow hordes of refugee European peoples to flock into this land.”[14]


Zionism Prevails

Despite popular support for the growing Yishuv, the Australian Zionist movement’s early efforts to imprint its cultural, educational, and ideological values on that country’s Jewish community did not meet great success. Or at least so it seemed in 1937 to a visiting Zionist emissary, the Canadian WIZO (Women’s  International Zionist Organization) leader Ida Bension, who in a private letter to the editor of the Palestine Review was extremely critical of the Australian situation. As she put it:

Australia is so far away from the rest of the world, and its Jewry is less interested in Jewish affairs than any other I have visited. Even the report (the Peel Commission) and the partition scheme failed to awaken the slightest flicker of interest in all but a small portion of foreign Jews. Sir Isaac Isaacs worried as to whether the Arabs were getting a fair deal! Not a word about the Jews. Some are a bit worried lest Palestine be unable to take all the refugee Jews and that might bring them to Australia. Some people are trying to shut the doors to the refugees, and, also, the Jews are amongst them. It is a spiritually poor, intellectually poor, nationally poor, Jewry, without leaders and without any feeling of responsibility.[15]

And yet, within a few years, her critical assessment of Australian Jewry and Australian Zionism was proved wrong. Although the anti-Zionists continued to express their opposition in public, the establishment in 1944 of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) made it clear that the Zionists had won the intracommunal conflict over leadership and policy. Thus, instrumental in setting it up were those leaders of the major Jewish communities in Melbourne and Sydney who had also been active in the Zionist movement in various capacities. The ECAJ, which brought together the various state Boards of Deputies in a loose federal structure, was soon widely recognized both inside and outside Australian Jewry as its sole authoritative representative organ.

The founding of the ECAJ signaled the Zionist movement’s “capture” of the Australian Jewish community. This did not mean the Zionist organization directly assumed or was accorded the role of recognized representative communal organ, or that its leaders won authoritative control of overall communal institutions by competing in intracommunal elections on a Zionist ticket, as occurred in Jewish communities in a number of countries. Instead, it meant that there was considerable overlap and interchange between Zionist leaders and policy and Jewish communal leaders and policy, and that declared anti-Zionism was a bar to the attainment of high communal office. Over time, this pattern of interlocking leaderships facilitated organizational collaboration and policy agreement between the ECAJ and the Zionist Federation.

Yet, even as Australian Jewry’s representative roof bodies redoubled their efforts to gain governmental and broad public support for the Zionist cause, the opposition of the anti-Zionists, particularly Sir Isaac Isaacs, became ever more strident. For a time, he had restrained the Zionist Federation from publicly pressing the Zionist and Jewish case by threatening to denounce its efforts in the general press. But when the Federation would no longer be intimidated and refused to accede to his dictates and cancel a public protest meeting against the British White Paper, he published a series of articles in the Jewish press in 1943-1944 in which he denounced the allegedly extreme demands of political Zionism as a set of “pestilential doctrines,” endorsed the White Paper restricting Jewish immigration to Palestine, and claimed to represent Australian Jewry.

The battle was joined by Julius Stone, professor of international law at Sydney University, who had arrived from England in 1942 (having previously taught at Harvard University) with an established international reputation in the field. Stone, characterized in one account of the controversy as “a committed Jew with a strong sense of Jewish peoplehood”[16] closely criticized Isaacs’s arguments and particularly sought to refute the legal principles underpinning them, which, given Isaacs’s judicial eminence, was especially significant in the ensuing public debate.[17]

Activism and Opposition

In October 1945, a combined delegation of the ECAJ and the Zionist Federation requested Australian prime minister Ben Chifley to present to British prime minister Clement Attlee and his government the views of Australian Jewry on the Palestine question, which called for Jewish immigration to Palestine and the establishment there of a Jewish national home. In response Sir Isaac Isaacs returned to the fray, publishing a pamphlet titled Political Zionism: Undemocratic, Unjust, Dangerous.[18] Over the next two years, as events in Palestine and the United Nations unfolded, Zionists everywhere intensified their activities, and Britain and the Yishuv came increasingly into conflict, with terror attacks on British targets in Palestine increasing in number and magnitude, anti-Zionists and Zionists clashed with increasing stridency both within Jewish communal institutions and in the public arena.

Isaacs’s pamphlet, which reiterated many of the views he had propounded earlier, set the tone of that conflict. Although “strongly attached” to “religious and cultural Zionism”, he was “irrevocably opposed” to “Political Zionism”-the establishment of an independent Jewish state in Palestine-which was based on the fallacy that the Jewish people were in solidarity and, in the modern sense of the word, a nationality. As citizens of the British Commonwealth and as Australians of the Jewish faith, they could at the same moment “no more consistently have in any relevant sense, two nationalities…than two religions.”[19] It was utterly contradictory to demand on a “basis of a separate Jewish nationality for Jews wherever they are found, a Jewish state in Palestine with Jewish domination there” and to claim at the same time “complete Jewish equality in every country on the basis of a nationality common to the citizens of each country irrespective of their individual religious faith.”[20]

In support of these ideas, the title page of Isaacs’s blistering attack on political Zionism was headed by a quotation: “We are bound together only by the faith of our fathers”-which, somewhat ironically, came from the founding text of political Zionism, Herzl’s The Jewish State.

Thus, during those years, Isaacs and his supporters continued to attack Australian Jewry’s support for Zionism as lacking in “friendship or gratitude to Britain for her kindness to Jews” and as outright disloyalty to the Crown. Moreover, they continually issued press statements insisting that public meetings by communal bodies in support of Zionism and the Yishuv and critical of British policies were unrepresentative of the Jewish communities at large because they gave expression to political Zionism, which in their view, as noted, was utterly inconsistent with Australianism.

The fact that these views were propagated by such a distinguished Australian citizen undoubtedly caused political embarrassment among Australian Jewry. So, too, did the public spectacle of Jews castigating each other in the general press, which they believed would bring in tow, if not encourage attacks on Zionism in non-Jewish circles. None of this, however, weakened either Australian Jewry’s deep identification with the Zionist cause or its leaders’ resolve to pursue it publicly and vigorously.

Evatt’s Role in the Partition Resolution

It was in this charged atmosphere that Australian Jewry’s Zionist and communal leaders made what is clearly their most important contribution to the establishment of the Jewish state. From 1945 to 1948, some Jewish leaders were active constituency and branch members of the ruling Australian Labor Party. This gave them relatively easy access to parliamentarians and cabinet ministers, particularly Dr. Herbert Vere Evatt, the minister for external affairs. As it turned out, Evatt played a major role in the UN Partition Resolution of November 1947, which led to Israel’s establishment in 1948. The question, however, is whether this relationship with Evatt made any difference, and whether the minuscule and distant Australian Jewish community indeed made a distinct contribution, however small, to realizing the Zionist goal.[21]

In assessing the evidence, scholars disagree about the moral and pragmatic factors guiding Evatt’s views on international relations, foreign policy, and the role of the United Nations in general. Also contested are the significance of his role in the Partition Resolution; his attitude toward the Zionist cause; who, if anyone, influenced him at the time; and what were his considerations in doing what he did. His own explanation, as he expressed it at a Zionist Federation banquet in December 1947 honoring him for his chairmanship of the UN Ad Hoc Committee, was: “What I did to bring about the decision for setting up a Jewish state in part of Palestine was not an act of favour to the Jews but because I firmly believe in the justice of the Jewish case.”[22]

At the time, however, Jewish Agency diplomatic officials were skeptical of his commitment, wary of his motives, and not convinced of his reliability. Moreover, the extent of Australian Jews’ influence on him, whether official Zionist and community leaders, Labor Party colleagues such as Abram Landa, or legal scholars such as Julius Stone-and conversely that of Sir Isaac Isaacs with whom he was long and closely associated-is far from clear. The evidence is patchy and leaves room for speculation.

Nevertheless, three fundamental facts stand out. First, Evatt committed Australia in support of partition against the views not only of Britain, which it had generally followed until then, but also against the inclinations of the Australian prime minister and his government. Second, Evatt personally played a major role in constructing the less than two-thirds majority (25:13 with seventeen abstentions) by which the Partition Resolution was passed at the UN Ad Hoc Committee against powerful and organized opposition. Third, Australian Zionist leaders remained in close contact with him throughout this tense and difficult period, both in Australia and in New York, thus enabling them to convey their views to him at critical junctures.[23]

Whether Evatt acted out of expediency or idealism is a question that continues to vex scholars. But it would be difficult to reject Mandel’s conclusion that: “Evatt pursued his ideals at considerable risk to his careerist ambitions. On Palestine…he exhibited….considerable consistency and tenacity… to further the cause of Zionism which he had adjudged to be right.”[24]

The Nature of Australian Zionism

Overall, by 1948 the Australian Zionist movement’s characteristic pattern of activity and organization had crystallized, and despite subsequent adaptations to changing conditions, the same broad outlines were still discernible half a century later. Although they developed haltingly at first and faltered along the way, four clear foci of activity eventually emerged.

One focus was political-gaining internal Jewish and public support for the movement itself, for the Yishuv, for a Jewish state, and after 1948 for its continued existence and welfare. The second was fundraising, both for sustaining the Zionist movement in Australia and for giving tangible expression to its political goals by contributing financially to the Jewish endeavor in Palestine and Israel and to the immigration and absorption there of Jews from other countries. The third focus was educational and cultural-propagating the Zionist view of Judaism, Jewishness, and Jewish history, promoting the Hebrew language and literature, and popularizing the burgeoning Zionist-Hebrew-Jewish-Israeli culture among the Jews in distant Australia.

Finally, the fourth focus was aliyah-encouraging personal fulfillment of the ultimate Zionist goal. Within the Australian Zionist movement the ideological primacy of this value was rarely questioned, unlike in the United States, for example, where it rarely went unquestioned. Instead, aliyah seems to have been implicitly accepted, though after 1948 there was disagreement about its practical implications. Thus, Australian Zionist leaders and activists allocated resources to promote aliyah by others even when they did not intend to undertake it themselves. In other words, among Australian Zionists the prescriptive norm of aliyah was accepted in principle and collectively underwritten without making personal fulfillment of it the test of commitment.

The various bodies set up to carry out these activities included branches of worldwide Zionist parties, youth movements, women’s groups, cultural associations, and philanthropic support groups for educational, religious, cultural, social, medical, and welfare institutions and services in Palestine, and later Israel. In each state, these were affiliated with and loosely coordinated by what became known as State Zionist Councils. These joined together at the national level to constitute the Zionist Federation of Australia.

Although many of those bodies raised funds individually for various purposes, they all cooperated in a communitywide appeal body that acted on behalf of Keren Hayesod, the central fundraising arm of the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency. Its Australian offshoot, which operated over the years under different names, eventually becoming known as the United Israel Appeal, sent the moneys it raised to its parent body in Jerusalem for allocation to Zionist goals such as aliyah, immigrant absorption, land reclamation, agricultural settlement, afforestation, and so on. As a result, the United Israel Appeal (and its forerunners) enjoyed widespread support in the Australian Jewish community.

In each state, the United Israel Appeal’s joint communal fundraising was conducted by an executive body that, though formally separate from the relevant State Zionist Council, was in effect closely linked to it by overlapping leaderships and common purposes. These appeals were also conducted in close coordination with the general representative body-the Jewish Board of Deputies-in each state. The states’ fundraising bodies were loosely linked in a federal structure that maintained communications with headquarters in Jerusalem, set national targets, and coordinated the activities of emissaries and speakers brought from overseas to make the appeal. After 1948, leading Israeli political and military figures were prominent among these.

The Federal United Israel Appeal was closely linked at the leadership and policy levels with the Zionist Federation of Australia. At the outset, and for some decades after the establishment of Israel, the Zionist Federation was the senior body and played the directive role, while the United Israel Appeal structure conducted communal fundraising on its behalf. In later years, this clear division of roles dissipated.

Arguably the most distinctive feature of Australian Zionism is its lack of distinctiveness. From 1901, when Herzl called on Australian Jews for their support, until today, the Australian Zionist movement has been essentially derivative. Developing in a minuscule community remote from the centers of world Jewry, in a country that itself was greatly affected by the constraints of size and distance, the movement mainly served as a receiver and transmitter of values, organizational forms, and activities that originated elsewhere and were imported into Australia by Zionist emissaries. In sum, Australian Jewry’s contribution to Zionism, whether ideological, organizational, financial, or other, was unremarkable in every way and its global impact on the movement was imperceptible.

Contributions to the Cause

Nevertheless, Australian Zionism can claim two noteworthy achievements. First, at a particularly critical juncture in the international decision-making about Palestine, it played an indirect but discernible role in the events leading to Israel’s establishment. Indeed, its involvement in these events may well have made a difference, however small, in Zionism’s historic attainment of its ultimate political goal.

Second, Zionism made a major contribution to strengthening Jewish life and community in the Australian diaspora. In doing so, it was assisted by the weakness or absence of major sources of opposition to it within Jewish communities elsewhere, namely, traditional Orthodoxy, assimilationism, socialism and communism, and Reform Judaism. Although the latter began to make its presence felt in Australia during the 1930s, its rabbinic and lay leaders-unlike many of their counterparts in the United States and, earlier, in Germany-were generally committed and prominent Zionists. Moreover, both Bundism and territorialism made an appearance in Australia but had relatively few activists and supporters.

Indeed, the idea of Jewish group settlement in northwestern Australia had been mooted as early as 1905-1912 by Israel Zangwill of the Jewish Territorialist Organization. It was dropped because it failed to make any headway, either among the Jewish public or the governments whose approval was necessary before such an endeavor could even begin.

Three decades later a much more concerted public campaign was conducted by Dr. I. N. Steinberg, formerly justice minister in Lenin’s first government but now head of the Jewish Freeland League. During 1939-1943, Steinberg sought to persuade the Commonwealth and Western Australian governments to permit the establishment of such a settlement in the large, desolate Kimberley desert region in the far northwest of Western Australia. Not surprisingly, leading Zionists actively opposed the scheme on ideological grounds. Many others in the Jewish community, including Sir Isaac Isaacs, feared the impact on the Australian public of such manifest “group segregation” and ethnic separatism. Although Steinberg did manage to attract support from influential churchmen, trade union officials, newspapers, and prominent citizens, and was not initially opposed by the premier of Western Australia, in 1944 the Commonwealth government put paid to this scheme, opposing all forms of group settlement as undesirably divisive.[25]

So, too, the Australian Zionist movement was only marginally affected by the ideological and political differentiations that elsewhere competed for members and power within local communities and collective Zionist bodies. Hence, from the outset, Australian Zionism was inclusive and general in character, and based on broad principles and goals to which most Jews subscribed. The only significant opposition came, as noted, not from organized groups but mainly from individuals who had achieved high political, economic, social, and ecclesiastical status and personal acceptance in the general community.

In challenging Zionism on both religious and patriotic grounds, their arguments that Judaism was not political and that the Jews were not a nation were aimed more at persuading the Australian public and government that they were loyal British subjects than at convincing their fellow Jews of the theological or ideological errors of their ways. The terms of the ideological debate over Zionism in Australia were set by the anti-Zionists rather than the Zionists, and revolved around the question of what Australia required of them as citizens, patriots, and loyal subjects of His Majesty, the King, and not what were the right religious path, ethical principles, or desired ethnonational goals for Jews.

Throughout that debate, however, the anti-Zionists’ position was inherently shaky. What were Jews to do when Britain supported Zionism, as it did for a time, or when it became obvious that British policies had abandoned their brethren to certain extermination? What were they to do when leading British Jews, from the Chief Rabbi down, supported political Zionism? How were they to react when Britain handed back the Mandate to the United Nations, which then, supported by Australia, voted for the realization of political Zionism by establishing a Jewish state? And, above all, how should they view the actual existence of the state of Israel?

Thus, despite their reputation for being “more English than the Jews in England,”[26] even the leading Anglo-Jewish anti-Zionists in Australia were ambivalent and at times supported Zionist aims, not only when Britain first assumed the Mandate in the early 1920s but also after the White Paper of 1939. Thus, public protest meetings against the White Paper in 1939 and 1940 were chaired by none other than Sir Samuel Cohen, who only a few years earlier had helped bring about the dismissal of Rabbi E. M. Levy as rabbi of the Great Synagogue in Sydney for having been too outspokenly Zionist and too publicly critical of Britain.[27] Indeed, once the British element was removed, Australian anti-Zionism collapsed completely, and most leading and outspoken anti-Zionists eventually became supporters of Israel.[28]

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[1] Cited in David Vital, A People Apart: A Political History of the Jews in Europe 1789-1939 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 447.

[2] It is widely accepted that for at least half a century, official Australian census figures seriously understate the total number of Jews in Australia, primarily because the question on religion is optional and hence must be corrected to take account of the (unknown) number of Jews who do not answer it. The figures for 2001 are based on the corrected estimates of John Goldlust, “Jews in Australia: A Demographic Profile,” in Geoffrey Brahm Levey and Philip Mendes, eds.,  Jews and Australian Politics (Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2004), 11-28. Figures here and below for earlier years are official census data.

[3] In Australia, the most prominent were the debates over the relationship of church and state, state aid to various forms of religious activity, and the education question. They are discussed in depth in Israel Getzler, Neither Toleration nor Favour: The Australian Chapter of Jewish Emancipation (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1970).

[4] Cited in ibid., 46

[5] Cited in ibid., 32

[6] Cited in Geulah Solomon, A Community History of Jewish Education in Victoria and New South Wales, 1788-1920, PhD thesis, Monash University, 1972, 467.

[7] Cited in Getzler, Neither Toleration nor Favour, 112

[8] Alan D. Crown, “Demography, Politics and Love of Zion: The Australian Jewish Community and the Yishuv, 1850-1948,” in William D. Rubinstein, ed., Jews in the Sixth Continent (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1987), 226-28.

[9] Cited in Suzanne D. Rutland, Edge of the Diaspora: Two Centuries of Jewish Settlement in Australia (Sydney: Collins, Australia, 1988), 84.

[10] On the Sydney rabbis, see ibid., 77-81, 86-89.

[11] Israel Cohen, The Journal of a Jewish Traveller (London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1925), 47.

[12] For greater detail on these events, see Peter Y. Medding, From Assimilation to Group Survival: A Political and Sociological Study of an Australian Jewish Community (Melbourne: F. W. Cheshire, 1968), 127-40.

[13] For a detailed treatment of the struggles over Jewish communal control and representation, see ibid., 27-40, 127-40. See also Suzanne D. Rutland, “The Jewish Community in New South Wales, 1914-1939,” MA thesis, University of Sydney, 1978; S. Encel, B. Buckley, and J. Sofer Schreiber, The Sydney Jewish Community (Kensington: University of New South Wales, 1978).

[14]  Truth (Sydney), 7 August 1938, cited in B. Hooper, “Australian Reaction to German Persecution of the Jews and Refugee Assimilation,” MA thesis, History Department, Australian National University, 1972.

[15] Cited in Crown, “Demography,” 239.

[16] Daniel Mandel, H. V. Evatt and the Establishment of Israel: The Undercover Zionist (London: Frank Cass, 2004), 55.

[17] After first propounding his views in the Jewish newspaper that had published Isaacs’s articles, Stone later published them as a monograph titled “Stand Up and Be Counted!”: An Open Letter to Sir Isaac Isaacs (Sydney: Ponsford, Newman & Benson, 1944) , which was widely distributed in the Jewish community and sent to influential public figures. According to Mandel (ibid., 59), eight copies were requested by the Department of External Affairs and their receipt acknowledged by the private secretary to the minister.

[18] Melbourne, 1946.

[19] Ibid., 14.

[20] Ibid., 52.

[21] There is by now a considerable literature on the subject. One of the earliest discussions is Rodney Gouttman, “First Principles: H. V. Evatt and the Jewish Homeland,” in Rubinstein, Jews in the Sixth Continent, 262-303. The most detailed and documented examination of Evatt’s role, activities, political considerations, and the various influences on him, manifest and possible, at the various stages of the decision-making process is Mandel, H. V. Evatt. See also Chanan Reich, Australia and Israel: An Ambiguous Relationship (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press,  2002), which places the issue in the broader context of the development of Australian attitudes and policies toward Palestine and Israel from 1915 to 1967. An earlier analysis is that of Howard Adelman, “Australia and the Birth of Israel: Midwife or Abortionist?” Australian Journal of Politics and History, Vol. 38, No. 3 (1992): 354-74, which argues that Evatt was in fact opposed to partition in principle even though at the critical stages he supported it on other grounds. On the basis of the evidence he gathered, Mandel (97-102) seeks to demonstrate that this view is unfounded.

[22] Max Freilich, Zion in Our Time: Memoirs of an Australian Zionist (Sydney: Morgan, 1967), 199.

[23] These contacts and those of Jewish Agency officials with Evatt and his staff, and Evatt’s social and intellectual interactions in the United States with scholars, journalists, and publicists sympathetic to Zionism, are documented and discussed in detail in Mandel, H. V. Evatt.

[24] Ibid., 272.

[25] See Rutland, Edge of the Diaspora, 90-91, 183-85.

[26] Reverend J. N. Landau of Sydney in the Hebrew Standard, 6 November 1908, cited in Rutland, ibid., 407.

[27] Rutland, ibid., 308; Crown, “Demography,” 240.

[28] See, e.g., John S. Levi, “‘Doubts and Fears’: Zionism and Rabbi Jacob Danglow,” in Rubinstein, Jews in the Sixth Continent, 151-68.c

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PROF. PETER Y. MEDDING was born in Australia and is now Dr. Israel Goldstein Professor of the History of Zionism and the State of Israel in the Departments of Political Science and of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is one of the editors of the annual Studies in Contemporary Jewry, and his many publications include the books Mapai in Israel: Political Organisation and Government in a New Society (Cambridge, England, 1972); The Transformation of American Jewish Politics (New York, 1989); The Founding of Israeli Democracy 1948-1967 (New York, 1990); and Jewish Identity in Conversionary and Mixed Marriages (New York, 1992). Currently he is working on a book tentatively entitled Jews and Jewish Interests in American Politics.