Robert Menzies and Australia’s Jewish community
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Robert Menzies and Australia’s Jewish community

Menzies’ relationship with the Jewish community provides valuable insights into how Australia evolved in the post-war years to become a more open and culturally vibrant society.

IN an ABC documentary series to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Liberal Party of Australia, the daughter of Sir Robert Menzies, Heather Henderson, recalled that “sectarianism was alive and well in the fifties” and that her “father fought against that always.” Appreciating that he was at the helm of what was then a heavily Protestant-based party, she proceeded to say that the Liberal Party founder “went to great pains to consult and talk to the Jews, the Catholics and everybody he could.”

A great deal, of course, has been written about the legacy of Australia’s longest-serving Prime Minister, but what remains underexplored is the religious dimension to his Prime Ministership, and, in particular, the important relationship he cultivated with Australia’s small yet significant Jewish community.

What, then, was Menzies’s relationship with the Jewish community? How was it forged and in what ways did it manifest itself in the post-war Australia he led as Prime Minister?

As well as helping to salve the long-running sectarian conflict between Australia’s Protestants and Catholics, Menzies enjoyed an excellent rapport with Australia’s Jewish community. As Josh Frydenberg and David Kemp acknowledge, “Sir Robert Menzies exhibited a marked degree of respect and admiration for the Jewish people” throughout his life. As a friend of Israel, he deeply respected the Jewish legacy for its profound contribution to Western civilisation and admired the Jewish people for their cultural traditions of scholarship, civic-mindedness, and enduring sense of kinship.

Frequently invited to speak at ceremonies organised by the Jewish community, Menzies praised the Jewish people for their contribution to Australia. Remarking that he felt “completely at home” in the company of the Jewish community, Menzies enjoyed friendships with Jewish community leaders and rabbis — including Maurice Ashkanasy, Baron Snider, Sir Israel Brodie, and Herman Sanger.

HOW MENZIES’S RELATIONSHIP WITH AUSTRALIAN JEWRY WAS FORGED

 

For a Protestant Prime Minister who led a majority Christian nation, of which the Jewish community comprised around 0.5 per cent of the general population, what were the factors that accounted for his warm affinity with Australian Jewry?

The first was arguably his own Presbyterian background, whose theological tradition of Scottish Calvinism had generally fostered a “high esteem” for the Jewish people. Second, the young Menzies had moved in legal and political circles where he would have experienced personal encounters with the growing number of Jews active in Victorian public life, coming to appreciate their sense of public duty. Third, the cultural character of Australian and Melbourne Jewry during Menzies’s early life was still largely anglophone, which he found eminently congenial to his own cultural sensibilities. Finally, he appreciated that many in the Jewish community championed the values of faith, family, and community that were so integral to his creed of Australian Liberalism.

The Presbyterian tradition into which Menzies was born was not only critical to shaping his Christian beliefs but also relevant to informing his outlook on Judaism and the Jewish people. From the outset, this was a religious tradition that also influenced the attitudes of Australian society at large towards the Jews. While Jews in Australia had historically faced discrimination and other legal disabilities, especially in the earlier colonial years, incidences of antisemitism and community antipathy towards Jews were relatively low, especially when compared to some other nations in Europe. The Australian Jewish historian Serge Liberman attributed this to his observation that “Australia’s Gentiles have, to a large extent, been heirs to a Calvinist-derived religious tradition which has shown considerable philo-Semitism and admiration for the Jews.”

In what the historian and theologian Donald Lewis identified as a “Teaching of Esteem” towards the Jews, the Puritans, Presbyterians, and other Calvinists appreciated the indebtedness of their Christianity to the Hebrew scriptures of the Old Testament, authored by the Jews and cherished by their descendants down the centuries. To Calvinist scholars, the Jews were esteemed not only for being God’s original covenant people, but for their linguistic and philological skills. In Menzies’s own Scots Presbyterian tradition, this appreciation was evident in the Scots Confession of 1560 that celebrated the Jews as the “depositories of the Old Testament, and of Hebrew scholarship.”

On a number of public occasions, Menzies exhibited this characteristically Presbyterian appreciation of the Hebrew scriptures, most notably, when he welcomed the establishment of Israel as a Jewish State in 1948. Hailing this milestone as one of “world significance” and a “delivery from bondage” for the Jewish people, Menzies quoted a passage that was, in part, a paraphrase of Exodus 20:2: “When Israel, of the Lord beloved, out of the land of bondage came, Her father’s God before her moved an awful guide in smoke and flame.” Menzies took this line directly from the Scottish novelist and poet, Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832), who, like Menzies, was steeped in Scots Presbyterianism. This passage that celebrated God’s deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt appeared in his 1819 novel, Ivanhoe. Having lived through the years of Nazi tyranny, Menzies evidently saw the establishment of modern Israel and the deliverance it would usher in for the Jewish people as redolent of the great biblical drama of Exodus. In so thinking, he had invoked the Scottish hymn writer and his iteration of Hebrew verse for inspiration.

Menzies’s esteem for the Hebrew scriptures was also tied to the importance he ascribed to the Old Testament in moulding human character. In a 1940 speech to mark the centenary of the British and Foreign Bible Society, Menzies paid tribute to the influence of the Bible on the English-speaking peoples and drew particular attention to the contribution of the Hebrews. He acknowledged that while the Greeks had valued the importance of “knowledge” and clarity of thought, it was the Hebrews who had bequeathed to modern civilisation the importance of personal character and “quality of conduct.” To illustrate, he retold the familiar story of David and Goliath, in which the future King of Israel demonstrated great courage and faith in triumphing over his Philistine adversary.

In addition to the Calvinist theology he imbibed, Menzies’s high esteem for the Jews could be attributed to the personal encounters he would have had with individual Jews in the spheres he inhabited in Melbourne during the early decades of the twentieth century — particularly in his careers at the Melbourne Bar and Victorian State politics. Hilary Rubinstein has detailed the sizeable number of Jews who were prominent in Melbourne’s legal and political circles since the 1860s. Hence the Victoria of Menzies’s formative years was one in which its Jewish community had already assumed an active role in its professional and public life.

The Jewish figure with whom Menzies had the closest association was the Melbourne barrister and Jewish Community leader, Maurice Ashkanasy (1901–1971). Educated at the University of Melbourne and admitted to the Bar in 1924, he had read with Menzies for his Bar examinations and the two men forged a lifelong friendship. In conjunction with his legal career, Ashkanasy emerged as a leader of Melbourne’s Jewish community, serving as President of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry and the foundation President of the Victorian Jewish Board of Deputies. At a 1960 ceremony to open a new building at Mount Scopus Memorial College, Menzies alluded to his old protégé with some pride:

He was a pupil of mine. He read in my chambers when he went to the Bar, and of course, whatever success he has had since can be traced back just as the oak tree can to the acorn.

Not least admiring Ashkanasy’s leadership role in the Jewish community, Menzies paid tribute to “the immense amount of work that he has contributed to this community.”

As well as these formative spheres of influence, Menzies’s positive disposition towards the Jewish community was also aided by the fact that Australian Jewry in the early decades of the twentieth century was still largely anglophone in character and outlook. Suzanne Rutland observed that the Jewish community sought to “conform to middle-class English standards and, as a result, became ‘more British than the British’.” Architecturally, this was reflected in the style of the early synagogues of Melbourne and Sydney which resembled English-style cathedrals.

In political outlook, as well, the Jewish community displayed pro-British sentiments. For the safe, democratic haven that Australia had afforded them, Jews felt a strong sense of obligation to their new homeland and loyalty to the British Empire of which it was part. This was evident with the outbreak of the Great War, when Australia’s Jews rallied to support the 1914–18 war effort. Menzies, of course, made no secret of his own British affections, and the kindred sentiments of Australian Jews in the early decades of the twentieth century did much to endear that community to him. It was undoubtedly one of the reasons for why he valued the Jewish community as not just been in Australia but of Australia.

It was not, however, simply the traditional pro-British disposition of Australian Jewry that impressed Menzies, but also the innate characteristics of the Jewish religion itself for which Menzies accorded high praise. Chief among these was its emphasis on faith, family, and community, nourished through thousands of years of war, peace, and persecution. In a speech to open the Jewish War Memorial Hall in the Sydney suburb of Waverley in February 1960, the Prime Minister proffered to admire three attributes that distinguished the Jewish community. Beginning with their tenacious adherence to their “faith,” Menzies remarked:

You’ve been persecuted for it in the course of the centuries; you’ve been attacked for it; you’ve almost been ordered to abandon it from time to time and you have adhered to it through thick and thin until it has been hammered into true steel. Now that’s a wonderful thing — your deep, loyal and abiding religious faith.

Although describing himself to his Jewish audience as an “unblushing Presbyterian,” Menzies deeply respected the faith of the world’s oldest monotheistic religion. Through the sacred writings of the Torah and the Talmud, he appreciated that it had gifted Christianity, and indeed the wider world, with the belief in a sovereign, just, and loving God, the concept of the imago Dei, the decalogue of Moses, the lively oracles of the prophets, and the hope in the resurrection of the dead.

As the Prime Minister who presided over the post-war immigration of thousands of displaced Jews from Europe, Menzies was acutely aware of the persecution they had suffered. With the Nazis attempting to extinguish every vestige of their faith and cultural identity, he marvelled at the resilience of Australia’s Jews in being able to rekindle their religious beliefs in a free country.

The second virtue of the Jewish community to which the Prime Minister drew attention in his speech was its “remarkable sense of family.” For Menzies, the Jews were the great exemplars of “family values” in Australia. Praising them for their filial piety, he observed:

I have never known a Jewish family in which the welfare of the family wasn’t the constant task of the lot. Now that’s a marvellous thing because the family — a good family, a healthy family, a proud family, a family generous in itself — this is of the very essence of community life …

This devotion to family that Menzies so admired sprang from the centrality of family life to Jewish belief and practice. As Rabbi Raymond Apple put it, “home and family life have always held supreme importance for Jews.” The family home is the sphere in which parents not only raise their children, but inculcate them with the values of their Jewish heritage by teaching the scriptures and observing festivals such as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

With community representing the family writ large, the Jewish emphasis on community service and civic duty also attracted the admiration of Menzies. In what the Prime Minister termed “friendliness,” he praised Australia’s Jewish community for its desire to contribute its “great talents and immense industry” to the life of the nation. In the Victoria of his youth, Menzies had witnessed Melbourne Jewry’s considerable contributions to the legal profession and politics, and now as Prime Minister in the post-war years, he admired the ways in which a fresh wave of Jewish immigrants and refugees from Eastern Europe were enriching the business, professional, community, and public life of Australia.

As with family, this Jewish commitment to community and nation was deeply rooted in faith. Their contribution to Australia was inspired consciously, or otherwise, by the exhortation of the prophet Jeremiah to “seek the peace and welfare of the place in which one dwells.”

For Menzies, the Jewish community’s championing of faith, family, and “civic friendliness” made Australia all the richer. Indeed, these very values had formed the bedrock of Menzies’s own Liberal philosophy. In his Forgotten People speech of May 1942, Menzies had spoken about the importance of humanity’s dependence upon God, the “home” as the foundation of “sanity and sobriety,” and the “great question” of, “How can I qualify my son to help society?” With Menzies seeing Australia’s recent Jewish arrivals as epitomising these very attributes in their religious and cultural customs, he esteemed the Jewish community for its part in helping to realise his vision for a socially flourishing, post-war Australia.

SUPPORT FOR ISRAEL

 

Appreciating the pre-eminent spiritual significance of Israel to Jewish history and identity, Menzies emerged as a warm friend of Israel. With Chifley’s Minister for External Affairs, H.V. Evatt, playing an instrument role through the United Nations in securing statehood for Israel in 1948, Menzies applauded this achievement as both a milestone for Israel’s Jews and a significant moment for Australia’s Jewish community.

In a short yet powerful speech to commemorate the establishment of the Jewish state, Menzies declared that “the civilised world saw in the establishment of Israel not only the providing of an independent home to many Jewish people but also a shining symbol of delivery from bondage.” Appreciating the oppression and discrimination that the Jewish people around the world had suffered through the ages — from the medieval pogroms to the horrors of the Holocaust — Menzies welcomed the establishment of Israel as a new beginning for the world’s Jews to once again thrive and prosper. Familiar with his Old Testament, Menzies drew on the perennial themes of “deliverance” and “redemption” which originated back in the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt under Pharaoh.

With the much more immediate historical backdrop of Nazism, Menzies drew on another biblical theme to welcome the establishment of Israel as a symbol of “world repentance.” With even the best efforts of the Allies in the Second Word War failing to avert the extermination of six million Jews in central Europe, Menzies saw Australia and the free world’s support for the establishment of Israel as providing the global Jewish community with at least some recompense for the incalculable losses it had suffered at the hands of Nazism.

In the domestic realm, Menzies’s firm support for Israel reflected the leadership of the Australian Jewish community that was more unequivocally Zionist than at any previous time. His old protégé, Maurice Ashkanasy, welcomed the establishment of Israel as “Zionist aspiration translated into reality.”

STANCE AGAINST ANTISEMITISM

 

With the gruesome legacy of Nazism still fresh in the public consciousness, Menzies as Prime Minister was instinctively at one with the Jewish community in his stand against antisemitism, both in Australia and on the international stage. After the Second World War, the public exposé of the extermination camps and other Nazi atrocities helped discredit old-fashioned, racist antisemitic theories. In Australia, the other factor that contributed to the decline of anti-Jewish prejudices was the settlement of substantial numbers of European Jews since 1947, which helped broaden public attitudes towards different ethnicities and cultures.

That said, Menzies was aware that pockets of prejudice against Jews still existed in post-war Australia. Where antisemitism did surface, it emanated mostly from what Menzies himself called the “lunatic fringe.” This was inhabited largely by extreme right-wing groups such as the Australian League of Rights. Other forms of antisemitism were manifested in offensive graffiti scrawled in public places, threatening letters, insulting phone calls, and even carefully considered commercial advertisements. Discrimination against Jews also appeared to persist in some organisations such as exclusive gentlemen’s clubs and the Melbourne Stock Exchange, which did not elect its first Jewish member until 1960.

On Australia Day in 1960, the Prime Minister issued a public statement on “Anti-Semitism in Australia,” declaring that “there is absolutely no room in Australia for anti-Semitism, no justification for it, and that I believe there is no real substance in it.” With the legacy of the Holocaust serving emphatically to discredit antisemitism, Menzies honestly could not see any moral or intellectual rationale for the prejudice. Menzies’s stance against antisemitism extended to the international front where Australia became the first nation to protest publicly against the persecution of Jews in the Soviet Union. After debating the issue in federal parliament, Australia brought the plight of Soviet Jewry to the floor of the United Nations in November 1962.

AUSTRALIAN JEWRY: INTEGRATED YET DISTINCTIVE

 

In repudiating antisemitism, Menzies affirmed the special place of the Jewish community in Australia. In his 1960 antisemitism statement, Menzies noted that:

There is a long history in Australia of distinguished service to our country of Jewish citizens. The Jews in Australia are good Australians.

From his own careers in law and politics, Menzies had first-hand experience of the manifold contributions Jews had made to Australian professional and public life. From the Victoria of his formative years, the Jews were never a people “in exile” nor a ghettoised community that kept to themselves, but rather an integrated, active, and, on the whole, esteemed strand within the broad community fabric.

Menzies had stressed in 1948 that the Jews in Australia were “not only in Australia but of Australia”:

For here, you are not, and should not be, a race apart … The great Jewish contribution to Australia is not sectional or sectarian but a community contribution, neither discriminating nor discriminated against. It is your historic function and destiny to enrich the Australian character by making your special contribution to the whole composite body.

At the same time as affirming the full embrace of Australia’s Jews within the national fabric, Menzies was also sensitive to their desire to conserve their own heritage, character, and identity forged over thousands of years. In a 1960 speech to open a new building at Melbourne’s Mount Scopus College, it was evident he saw no tension between these two imperatives:

I don’t know of any group in the community which preserves its character, its family character, its intimate association, its own pride and its own faith, while at the same time, being so integrally bound up with the community as the whole.

While Menzies is frequently viewed by historians as a champion of assimilation, whereby immigrants of different cultural and religious backgrounds were compelled to relinquish their old ways to conform to existing Australian customs and beliefs, the reality with Menzies was a little more nuanced. To be sure, he was no modern multiculturalist in the mould of an Al Grassby or a Malcolm Fraser — after all, he still held to a hegemonic British cultural paradigm — yet his vision for modern Australia was not necessarily one of bland cultural conformity. Rather, Menzies envisioned a British-derived Australian society enriched by “the lively imaginations of thousands of people whose cultural background is remote from our own.” Accordingly, when it came to Australian Jewry, he embraced them as part of the broader Australian community with their own religious and cultural identity remaining intact.

In a world witnessing the resurgence of antisemitism, together with living memories of the Holocaust slowly receding from the collective consciousness, the bountiful contribution of our Jewish fellow-citizens to Australia and the world ought never to be forgotten. Like Menzies, we must cherish the virtues of faith, family, education, and public-spirited service, not only as distinctive hallmarks of the Jewish community but as enriching contributions to the nation at large.

In this light, the story of Australia’s Jewish community is worth telling, and so, indeed, is the relationship of Australia’s longest-serving Prime Minister with this rich strand of Australia’s cultural tapestry. Importantly, Menzies’s relationship with this cultural and religious community provides valuable insights into how Australia evolved in the post-war years to become a more open and culturally vibrant society. In this era of community fragmentation, timely lessons can also be gleaned from how Australia’s leaders, such as Menzies, have had to navigate the challenge of balancing cultural distinctiveness with integration in their vision to realise a diverse yet cohesive Australia.

David Furse-Roberts is the author of the forthcoming book, God and Menzies: The Faith that Shaped Australia’s Leading Statesman.

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