Jewish Ozzies' Inter.Net
The electronic voice of the Australia Jewish Community

The Australian Jewish community

The Australian Jewish community traces its foundation to the arrival of the first European settlers in 1788. Today, there is a vibrant and growing Jewish community of between 110,000 and 120,000 Jewish people, predominantly living in Melbourne and Sydney. There are also Jewish centres in Brisbane-Gold Coast, Perth, Adelaide, Canberra, Hobart, Launceston, Newcastle, Cairns and the Central Coast and Northern Rivers districts of New South Wales. In recent years the Former Soviet Union and South Africa have been the principal sources of immigration.

Approximately 50 per cent of the Jewish community are Holocaust survivors, their descendants or have close relatives amongst the victims of the Nazi Genocide. Yom Ha'Shoah commemorations are well attended by members of the Jewish community and augmented in some cases by prominent political and religious figures. Museum and permanent memorial have been established in a number of cities and efforts continue to improve Holocaust education in the general community.

Attempts to provide for trials of Nazi war criminals who came to live in Australia after the Second World War are an on-going concern of the community. Developments in areas relating to restitution of stolen property and related matters affect a large proportion of the Australian Jewish community and command a consideration amount of time and effort for community leaders.

Nina Bassat of Melbourne, a child survivor of the Holocaust, is President of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ), the elected representative organisation of the Australian Jewish community. Her recent predecessors in this position were Diane Shteinman of Sydney, who continues in a senior role in the community with authority over Holocaust restitution and related matters, and Isi Leibler, Chairman of the Executive of the World Jewish Congress.Taking advantage of advances in communications technology, the national executive of the ECAJ now includes the involvement in a practical way of Jewish leaders in all states and territories.

In common with many other Jewish communities internationally and with other minority groups in Australia, Jewish Australians are concerned with promoting continued involvement in the Jewish community by those confronted with the variety of options available in a democratic, culturally diverse society. Jewish education is seen as a major means of continuity with a network of Jewish day schools developing in Australia which have become the envy of many other Jewish communities. In recent years considerable attention has been devoted to informal Jewish education and to Jewish adult education. Australian Jewry also has a reputation for having a close and meaningful relationship with the Israeli people and this is seen to both reflect and assist the desire to be a strong and vibrant Jewish community.

Jewish arts and culture are also blossoming in Australia. In the theatre, in music and literature, a new generation of Australian Jews is having an impact on Australian cultural life. Jewish arts and cultural festivals have taken place in Melbourne and Sydney while Jewish film festivals are extremely popular and draw healthy attendances from across the Australian community in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth.

Australia's Jewish community is actively engaged in dialogue activities with other faiths and communities. In the period leading to, and following, the 1992 Guidelines issued by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference on Relations with Jewish People, there has been on-going and constructive contact with the Catholic Church in Australia. Active dialogue takes place with the Uniting Church and the Anglican Church with the former introducing comprehensive policy guidelines on relations with Jews at its 1997 Triennial Conference. Less formal contact takes place on a regular basis with other major Church groups such as the Orthodox and Lutherans. The Council of Christians and Jews, and the World Conference on Religion and Peace have active, high level Jewish participation and in the latter case is the principal meeting place of Jewish with members of other non-Christian faiths. Australian Jews are actively engaged in the process of developing a multicultural society which recognises religious, as well as ethnic, diversity.

Australian Jewry has a strong and deep relationship with Israel. Most Australian Jews have family members in Israel and each year many young Australians participate in one of a variety of programs based in Israel. The Zionist Federation of Australia, under the leadership of Dr Ron Weiser of Sydney, administers a number of programs designed to qualitatively enhance the relationship between israel and Australian Jewry.

Australian Jewry was in the forefront of moves to expand national anti-racism legislation to include laws against racial vilification and incitement to racist activity. The Legislation came into effect late in 1995 and the Jewish community has been involved in a number of conciliations under the Racial Hatred Act. Two cases went before public hearings of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in 1998, but at the time of writing had not been determined.

While Australia is basically a tolerant and non-discriminatory society, the ECAJ nevertheless receives reports of anti-Semitic incidents, mainly of a minor nature, at a rate of six to seven each week. Small but vigorous anti-Semitic groups also distribute hateful propaganda, targeting the media and legislators in particular. The Jewish community argues that racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia are ideologies which are not only anti-social, but may damage the fabric of Australian society unless firmly opposed at the political, moral and educational levels.

The Jewish community is actively involved in the process of reconciliation between Aboriginal and Islander Australians and the broader Australian people. In 1996 the Advisory Group for Faith Communities to the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation elected the ECAJ representative as its Convenor, and he participated in the Renewal of the Nation's Congress, for 1,500 invited delegates in May this year, in 1997. Jewish groups and individuals are amongst the most active in the community in developing projects with, and in support of, Indigenous Australians.

As a well established and relatively secure Jewish community, Australian Jewry is conscious of its responsibilities to smaller communities in its region. The Asia Pacific Jewish Association, based in Melbourne, provides an array of services to Jewish communities and families in a region marked by tremendous distances, cultural diversity and a general lack of understanding of Jewish history and contemporary Jewish concerns. The Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, a national advocacy and public affairs organisation, has developed a keen interest in the Asian region and, together with the American Jewish Committee, is involved in projects designed to increase understanding of Asia and understanding within Asia of Jews and Israel.

Australian Jewry continues to play a role in international matters with representations to the Australian Foreign Affairs Minister and, when appropriate, with a variety of embassies. The positive working relationship we enjoy with government and opposition politicians has provided us with the opportunity of presenting cases which receive a fair hearing on all occasions. Recent matters we have taken up include the case of Jonathan Pollard's disproportionate punishment, international conventions against racism, international terrorism, Iran's role in world affairs, and the Middle East peace process.

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