Australia’s Jewish community has always understood that its fortunes will rise and fall with the fortunes of the nation.
And so, when Jews gather in their holy places, they pray for the welfare of this country in a tradition that originates in 594 BCE, when the Jews lived in exile in Babylon.
“Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile,”
wrote the Prophet Jeremiah,
“… and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
These words, contained in a letter sent from Jerusalem to the leaders of the exiled community in Babylon, came at a time when the Jews faced a profound dilemma. Now also a people of the diaspora yet a distinct nation with enduring ties to their homeland, the Jews would need to reconcile their longing to return with their new reality of living as foreign subjects in distant lands.
Jeremiah’s decree became a pillar of Jewish life in exile. It counselled the Jews to see themselves as a part of the societies in which they lived and, most crucially, it compelled them to do good, not just for their own community, but for all citizens of the land – for in their welfare, they would find their own.
By 135 CE the Jews would see their autonomy collapse under the weight of Rome and the focus of Jewish life devolved from Jerusalem to the far-flung reaches of the Empire. Adapting to their new reality of statelessness, the Jewish sages developed further doctrines to maintain a national identity while achieving genuine integration.
A central plank of Jewish life became the principle of “Dina d’malchuta dina”, (the law of the land is the law), by which the Jews were compelled to respect and observe the laws of the countries in which they now lived.
These values nurtured a sense of agency and civic duty, and engendered a tradition of full participation in all aspects of society.
But there is another reason why Australian Jews pray for this country and have served the nation with unimpugnable devotion and rigour. It is because they love it.
Many in the Jewish community came here to escape communism’s tyranny, or from the ashes of the Holocaust, or having witnessed the shame of apartheid. This has given the community an acute awareness of its blessing to be called Australians.
The Jews traces their beginnings in Australia all the way back to the First Fleet. At least eight Jews made that journey – convicts who evidently didn’t get the memo about respecting the laws of the land.
The most famous of these was Esther Abrahams. She later became the wife of NSW governor George Johnston and administered vast areas of land in her own right.
She was described by a contemporaneous source as being
“of eccentric habits, hasty in temper, and with an abrupt mode of expressing herself”;
thereby removing any doubt she was Jewish.
In times of great peril for the nation, Australian Jews served and sacrificed. In the Boer War, Rose Shappere, was notable among nurses who volunteered to tend the sick and wounded. She inspired generations of Australian women to make immense sacrifices for the Australian war effort.
In World War I, 13 per cent of the Australian Jewish population enlisted to serve King and Country and fight great battles in distant lands. Three hundred of them would make the supreme sacrifice.
And of course from the Jewish community there came the greatest soldier that this country has ever produced, and arguably, one of the most gifted battlefield commanders the British Empire has produced, Sir John Monash.
And the first Governor-General to be born in Australia, Sir Isaac Isaacs – a man eulogised by a Melbourne newspaper as “perhaps the greatest Australian of our time, or any previous time”.
What makes their achievements truly great is that they gave the best of themselves to this country and did so for all Australians. They are not just icons for Jewish Australians, they are national heroes.
Ever conscious of their history, Australian Jews have drawn a central lesson from the lives of Monash, Isaacs and Shappere – that as Australians we have the power to overcome and the duty to contribute.