ESRA Magazine
ESRAmagazine categories

Ambivalent Friend Australia

Sir John Monash

I was born in Perth, Western Australia, in 1944. Had I been born in Nazi-occupied Europe, my brains might have been dashed out against a wall. My parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland who settled in Australia in the late thirties. They were among the lucky ones. Their relatives had made their escape, and that of several of their closest family members, possible by securing passports for them. Most of my father's family and some of my mother's were trapped in Poland and murdered by the Germans.

I received a good Australian upbringing under a series of exceptionally tolerant governments, which seldom discriminated against the Jews: "good and worthy citizens", as one Australian prime minister, John Gorton, described them. Apart from rare instances of anti-Semitism, I was hardly aware that I was a Jew.

Such a climate of tolerance of the Jews in Australia partially arose from the Australian people's enduring appreciation and esteem for their greatest son and proud Jew, General Sir John Monash. The highest-ranking Jewish warrior in World War I, Monash was an innovative strategist and tactician of genius whose brilliant victories against the Germans in northern France in 1918 hastened the end of the conflagration. As the head of the State Electricity Commission in Victoria after the war he pioneered the use of brown coal or lignite as an industrial fuel. He was the most honored man in Australian history.

So far, so good. The infrequent incidents of anti-Semitism in Australia hardly touched my life. When I did encounter it, I was greatly jarred. For instance, the history lecturer at Perth's Leederville technical school, Charles Johnston, in 1962 quipped to his class, "Hitler put the Jews through the Jews extractor"; to which a demented female student shouted, "Hooray!"

The next few years passed uneventfully for me until the 1967 Six Day War. This made me feel thrilled and exhilarated to be a Jew, and I proudly identified myself with the Israelis. The Australian government sided with Israel. In fact, all of Australia's major political parties and governments, largely undeterred by frequent anti-Israel outbursts by Australia's mass media, have had an honorable record of support or at least sympathy for their fellow democracy, Israel. In 1947, Australia, led by the Labor government of Prime Minister Ben Chifley, was the first of many western countries to cast its vote in the United Nations organization for the establishment of an independent State of Israel. During World War I, Australian troops had helped to liberate the Holy Land from the Turks, paving the way for the Jewish homeland under the British Mandate of Palestine.

In addition, many of Australia's state premiers have been Jews, including David Brand of Western Australia.

Furthermore, Australia's religious leaders have generally been sympathetic toward the Jews or have at least refrained from attacking them. One heartwarming instance was the close personal friendship between Perth's Rabbi Friedman and the Roman Catholic prelate, Archbishop O'Reilly, between the wars.

However, at the close of World War II in 1945, Australia proved herself to be over-tolerant. Under her drive to greatly increase her population, Australia welcomed the immigration of large numbers of settlers from all over Europe, especially from southern and eastern Europe. Alas! Many of these new immigrants had actively assisted the Nazis in their Holocaust of the Jews. No questions were asked about their past; no trials of war criminals were ever held in Australia. As Caucasians, they were welcome to settle in Australia.

It was a different story when, in 1961, an Israeli national and academic lecturer, Elyakum Brenner, applied for a position at Adelaide University, South Australia. The university accepted his application for the post, but was overruled by the Australian immigration department on the grounds that he had been a member of Israel's Stern Gang during the Jewish State's struggle for independence against the British. That was the end of the matter. A Perth newspaper, The Sunday Times, printed an editorial angrily denouncing the ban, and demanded to know why the Australian government and people were so tolerant toward war criminals from Europe and Japan. (Jew-hunting is always a popular universal blood sport.)

Until the worldwide decline of Bolshevism, most Australians had always felt inclined to tolerate and even legalize far-right and racist groups like the Australian Nazi Party, while frowning heavily on their organized communists. I remember that a schoolmate of mine with strong political interests, John Rosser, had the same distinctive family name as the leader of the Australian Nazi party, Peter Rosser. This could not have been a coincidence; they were probably related. John Rosser once asked me why I didn't go back to Israel. "Why don't you go back to England?" I retorted.

In 1972, I escaped the gilded labyrinth of exile to settle in Israel. No other country will dictate to the Israelis, as Australia has done to her Jews, how to conduct their Jewish rituals. On that occasion, the Australian government, spurred by self-styled animal rights activists, forbade the Jews to ritually slaughter their chickens, on the flimsy grounds that the manner in which they did so was inhumane. It must be pointed out, though, that such incidents of discrimination against Jews by an Australian government have been extremely rare.

Now times are more uncertain for the Jews in Australia, with the significant number of Arabs and other Moslems streaming into Australia, which already has well in excess of 300,000 Moslems, as compared to about 100,000 Jews.

In 1970, at the time of Egypt's so-called war of attrition with Israel on the Sinai border, I received a shock to hear an Egyptian student in a crowded shopping center in Melbourne, south-eastern Australia, yell "Death to the Jews!" from a passing car. He was not penalized for this.

Never will I forget my feeling of insecurity in Australia after the Six Day War. I was a stranger in my land of birth. However kindly Australia has been as a foster mother and rescuer of my folks, I could never again fully trust her people, or any other people of the Diaspora, to continue to defend or champion the rights of Jews. I feel far more secure living as one of the Jewish majority in endangered Israel than I ever did as a resident of Australia, with its minimal Jew-hatred. I will end my days in Israel, to "live here by right and not on sufferance," to quote the late Israeli premier, Golda Meir, from her autobiography, My Life.


Comments 1

Guest - Lior Aknin on Sunday, 01 August 2021 21:19

I am honor to know this amazing man. He was a good friend

I am honor to know this amazing man. He was a good friend
Friday, 19 July 2024

Captcha Image


MagazineIsrael- 2019-homepage
There are pockets of coexistence
which kindle hope.
Old cities and very new cities with amazing stories
Find out about the Israeli art scene
The best tours in Israel with ESRA members