From Australia’s Jewish past: Maurice Ashkanasy QC – Melbourne barrister and Jewish community leader

October 31, 2023 by J-Wire
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Maurice was born was born Moshe Ashckinasy on 3 October 1901 at Mile End Old Town, London.

Maurice Ashkanasy

He was the third child of Solomon, a tailor’s cutter from Palestine, and his Russian-born wife Annie.  The family came to Australia in 1910 when Maurice was nine and settled in Melbourne. They had little resources as Solomon was primarily a traditional Jewish scholar and his mother earned very little by hawking clothes.

Maurice was educated at state schools, including Melbourne High School.  He went on to study law at the University of Melbourne, graduating with a Bachelor in Law in 1923, a Master in Law in 1924 and in May the same year, was admitted to the Bar.  He read with Sir Robert Menzies (Australia’s 12th and longest-serving Prime Minister) with whom he maintained a lifelong friendship.  Maurice went on to build a varied practice and was made a King’s Counsel in 1940.

On 2 July 1940, Maurice, who had joined the forces, transferred from the Reserve of Officers to the Australian Imperial Force with the rank of Lieutenant. He joined the 8th Division, travelling to Singapore on 3 February 1941 and served as Deputy Assistant Adjutant-General and Legal Officer, AIF, Malaya, and was promoted to the rank of Major.  When Singapore fell on 15 February 1942, he made an amazing escape with a small group in a lifeboat and finally reached Fremantle, Western Australia, by way of the Netherlands East Indies.  He continued to serve as Assistant Adjutant-General, with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, in III, l and ll Corps and New Guinea Force and, was mentioned in dispatches.  In September 1944 he ceased active duty and the following year returned to the Reserve with the rank of Honorary Colonel.

Maurice went on to resume his career at the Bar and established a reputation as a leader.  Although a generalist, he appeared in a wide range of causes and jurisdictions.  His work was thorough, his advocacy powerful and skillful and he was widely (and at times warily) recognised as a strategist whose skills and success in negotiating settlements were highly satisfactory to his clients.  He was elected Vice-chairman of the Victorian Bar Council in March 1952, and Chairman from 1953 to 1956.   By supporting the proposal to plan, finance, and construct the Owen Dixon Chambers (Sir Owen Dixon was an Australian judge and diplomat who served as the sixth Chief Justice of Australia) in William Street, he helped to alleviate the shortage of suitable chamber accommodation.  This became a principal home for the Victorian Bar and Maurice went on to play a major role in promoting other projects which contributed significantly to the welfare, prestige, and strength of the Bar.   He went on to be Chairman of the Victorian and Vice-President of the Australian sections of the International Commission of Jurists.  He was an active member of the Australian Labor Party and stood unsuccessfully for the Federal seat of Balaclava in 1946 and for the Senate in 1958.   Prior to the 1961 Election, Maurice lost an acrimonious ALP Senate preselection contest to Sam Cohen, who went on to become the first Jew to be elected to the Senate.  Maurice was aligned with the Labor Right faction and Sam Cohen with the Labor Left faction.

Maurice had always had a deep involvement in Jewish community activities, interests and causes.  He was a staunch Zionist advocate and saw the reality when the State of Israel was established.  He promoted at state and national levels throughout Australia, highly effective organisational structures for Jewish community life.  In particular, those where a Jewish viewpoint could be presented to governments.  His work became increasingly more important as the Australian Jewish Community grew in size and diversity in the postwar years. In the early 1920’s, Maurice had played a major role in the foundation of the Judaean League, an organisation for Jewish youth, sporting and cultural groups.  He believed that the ‘totality of Jewish life’ should be expressed through central community organisations representing a wide variety of institutions, clubs and congregations.  This belief was fulfilled in 1947 when, primarily under his leadership and guidance, the Victorian Jewish Board of Deputies was established and Maurice became its Foundation President.  In 1944, at a national level, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry was established and Maurice served as its President five times over the next twenty years.  He successfully presented Australian claims to postwar German reparation organisations, and was honoured by Mt Scopus College for his work there.

Maurice was quite a household name for many aspects of Australian Jewish communal life.  He gave firm and purposeful – sometimes dictatorial and controversial – leadership to the community.  He was the recipient of a C.M.G.  (Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George) in 1961.

Maurice married Heather Epstein in 1927, and they had a daughter and two sons.  On 2 April 1971, Maurice died of heart disease at his Frankston holiday home.  William Kaye, the Chairman of the Victoria Bar Council at the time of Maurice’s death spoke of his eminence as a Queen’s Counsel and as a leader of the Bar.  Special mention was made of his appearances for indigent persons on the brief of the public solicitor and of the way he had encouraged young barristers.  A national Jewish award is named in his honour.  His portrait hangs in the Australian Portrait Gallery in Canberra.

The AJHS acknowledges the following references in the preparation of this story:-

Australian Dictionary of Biography – Zelman Cowan; Wikipedia; National Portrait Gallery; Victorian Law Society

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