From the 1970s, Australia has developed as a multicultural society fostering the different ethnic cultures of more than 150 nationalities that have migrated to Australia since 1945.3 Although each new wave of immigrants has faced initial suspicion and hostility, within a generation they have integrated into Australian society. Australian Jewry, which contains a large proportion of postwar Holocaust survivors, has benefited from the development of multiculturalism, which has enabled the community to foster a strong ethnic as well as religious identity.4
Until the 1970s, Australian governments supported a policy of Anglo-Saxon conformity and sought to exclude coloured people from migrating to Australia, in what was known colloquially as ‘The White Australia’ policy. Until 1945, Australia did not have a department of immigration and all non-British migrants, classified as “aliens,” had to apply to Australia House in London. This policy changed radically with the Japanese threat after 1941 when the Labor government realized that Australia needed to “populate or perish.” In 1947, the Labor government opened its doors to non-British, European immigrants, first through the International Refugee Organisation (IRO), which subsidized the migration of 170,000 European displaced persons (DPs), as well as a further 30,000 individually-sponsored DPs, followed by the mass migration programs subsidized by the government from the Netherlands, Italy, and Germany.
A sea change occurred in 1972 with the election of a Labor government led by Gough Whitlam under the banner of “It’s time,” which led to the end of the White Australia Policy. Attitudes supporting pluralism were fostered during the Whitlam era, which “symbolised the acceptance that multiculturalism had replaced assimilationism or even integrationism as the basis of a national immigration policy.”5 In 1974, the labor minister for immigration, Italian-born Al Grassby, established a Committee on Community Relations and appointed Walter Lippmann, German born prewar Jewish refugee, to chair it.6 Its recommendations stressed that:
Ethnic groups… should be seen to be a vital and integral part of the total community structure. They have a duty to preserve their own cultural heritage and an important role to play in the integration of their members into the total community.7
The federal government accepted this concept and an Office of Multicultural Affairs was created, with state governments establishing various bodies to promote the access to ethnic education, radio, television directed to the needs of the ethnic communities, and various ethnic newspapers. The Liberal government under Malcolm Fraser further reinforced multiculturalism from 1975 to 1981 and later, under John Howard, updated these policies with the 1999 New Agenda for Multicultural Australia and the 2003 Multicultural Australia: United in Diversity. These reaffirmed promotion of cultural diversity and supported “the right of each Australian to maintain and celebrate, within the law, their culture, language or religion.”8 Support for multicultural policies continues to be seen as a core value in Australian society.
Ethnic groups such as the Greeks and the Italians endorsed multiculturalism, but initially the Australian Jewish leadership did not welcome this new approach. Particularly in Sydney, the more established Anglo-Jewish community understood their identity in religious rather than ethnic terms. In addition, they felt that they had little to gain, as Jews had been well integrated into Australian society since the 19th century, with many playing leading roles in the general society. In 1977, the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies decided not to affiliate with the Ethnic Communities Council, although it passed a resolution permitting individual organizations to do so. Interestingly, it was the Yiddish-based Jewish Folk Centre and the Sephardi Synagogue that were the first to do so.9 Only a decade later, in 1987, did the board itself officially affiliate. Melbourne Jewry, which had attracted a higher proportion of East European survivors after 1945 and had emerged as the largest Jewish community in Australia, was more willing to support the concept, especially due to Lippmann’s advocacy of multiculturalism.
Gradually the Jewish community recognized the benefits of multiculturalism. It contributed to the rapid growth of Jewish day schools, as it made maintaining separate education institutions to develop specific religious/ethnic cultures more acceptable, and it provided government funding for community radio and television. By the late 1980s, the mainstream Jewish community had come to support cultural pluralism, maximizing its benefits through utilizing racial vilification and anti-discrimination legislation, ensuring respect for Jewish religious practices such as shechitah (kosher slaughter) and the erection of the eruv (a defined border that enables observant Jews to carry objects when walking on the Sabbath) in Melbourne, Sydney, and Perth, while at the same time accepting the majority Christian culture. Geoffrey Brahm Levey in his 2004 study of “Jews and Australian Multiculturalism” concluded that: “while this ‘salad bowl’ image of Australian multiculturalism remains hotly contested both by advocates of Anglo-conformity and an Australian melting pot, there is little doubt where the sympathies of most of Australia’s Jews lie.”10
In the 1990s, however, support for multiculturalism was threatened by the rise of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party, which brought “to centre stage overt expressions of bigotry, based on ignorance and fear.”11 The Jewish community strongly condemned Hanson’s racist message. With its embrace of multiculturalism, Australian Jewry has been successful in integrating into Australian society, while maintaining a strong Jewish identity, a myriad of Jewish organizations, and one of the lowest intermarriage rates in the Western world, although this is increasing with the present generation.