The Australian Jewish community today numbers about 112,000 people, the ninth largest Jewish community in the world. It is thriving, and identification with Israel is one of its key features. Since the second half of the 20th century, due to post-war immigration and changing government policies, it has expressed its Judaism more openly and confidently. Nevertheless, it is now starting to face significant challenges, including anti-Semitism and assimilation.
The first Jews arrived as part of Australia’s First Fleet – of convict ships – in 1788, so Jews have been present from the beginnings of white settlement. As a small community, it has struggled to maintain its Jewish identity for much of its history.1 Until the 1930s, the conservative, elitist Anglo-Jewish leadership, which aspired to be more British than the British, dominated Australian Jewry. There was very little cooperation across communities, although the Zionist Federation of Australia was formed in 1927 and the National Council of Jewish Women in 1929.
The nature and structure of the community changed dramatically as a result of the impact of pre-and post-World War II refugee and survivor immigration. The survivors brought about a rebirth of Jewish life in Australia and a strong commitment to Zionism, radically changing every aspect of communal structure. Anti-refugee hysteria resulted in secret administrative practices that restricted Jewish refugee and survivor migration.2
Until the 1930s, the only form of Judaism was a diluted form of Anglo-Jewish orthodoxy. Progressive Judaism was established first in Melbourne with Temple Beth Israel (1931) and Temple Emanuel in Sydney (1938) and developed rapidly after 1945. Progressive congregations now exist in all centers of Jewish life. Post 1945 immigrants also brought with them stricter forms of orthodoxy. Chabad established the first yeshiva, in the rural town of Shepparton, Victoria. It then moved to Melbourne. From these small beginnings, Chabad has become a major religious force in Australian Jewry.
The major Jewish communities in Australia today are located in the urban centers, largely in Melbourne and Sydney. These two major Jewish centers have developed different characteristics, with Melbourne being more strongly Jewish but less united than Sydney Jewry. The differences between the two cities relate partly to differing migration patterns, with more Hungarian Jews settling in Sydney, and East European Jews in Melbourne. There are internal factors as well: Sydney is a more cosmopolitan city, while Melbourne is traditionally more religious.
Perth is home to one of the most geographically isolated Jewish communities. The distance to its nearest Jewish neighboring community, Adelaide, is 2832 kilometers. The community grew rapidly as a result of the gold rush in the 1890s, and by 1911 Perth was the only Jewish center outside Sydney and Melbourne that numbered over 1000. The community also moved away from the city center, first to Mount Lawley and then to the northern suburb, Dianella. Perth developed a stronger Jewish community than the other smaller capital cities for a number of reasons. Its Jewish population is less dispersed, being concentrated around Mount Lawley. It has enjoyed a stability of religious leadership, and since the mid-1980s has attracted a significant number of South African Jews.
In response to the migration challenges of the Nazi period, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry was formed in 1944 to act as an umbrella agency. States that did not have a board of deputies before the war created one, with more democratic structures emerging, particularly in Melbourne and Sydney. In Victoria and Western Australia, these were later renamed “community councils.” In 1997, the Australia-Israel Publications and the Australian Institute of Jewish Affairs amalgamated to form Australia Israel Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) as a major advocacy group for Australian Jewry. Led by Mark Leibler and headquartered in Melbourne, it undertakes high-level communication with government and the media, as well as publishing the monthly Australia/Israel Review.
There have been periods of tensions between the two largest communities, Melbourne and Sydney. This reflects broader Australian history. Canberra was chosen as Australia’s capital because it is halfway between Sydney and Melbourne, and neither city would agree to the other being the capital. There is a small Jewish community in Canberra today, which despite its small size has functioned effectively.
Since 1960, the community has been further reinforced by migration of Jews from South Africa, the former Soviet Union, and Israel, and it is one of the few diaspora communities that are growing in size.