Let’s stop this distortion of Australian Jewish history

November 30, 2017 by Hilary Rubinstein
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In his Kol Nidrei 5778 sermon, a Melbourne rabbi claimed that Yorta Yorta elder William Cooper’s was “the only known private protest anywhere in the world against the Nazi regime following Kristallnacht”…writes Hilary Rubinstein.

Hilary Rubinstein

In so doing the rabbi, doubtless in good faith, was echoing and enabling a misconception that has been circulating for several years, and which helped to win William Cooper recognition by Yad Vashem.   In marching to deliver a message to the German Consulate in Melbourne on 6 December 1938 deploring the “cruel persecution of the Jewish people by the Nazi government of Germany,” the elderly activist was not acting in a personal, private capacity, but as the leader of a delegation representing  the organisation of which he was secretary, the Australian Aborigines’ League.

All praise to Cooper and his League’s very moving and very noble initiative.  I intend no disparagement of it, nor of him. But when the seemingly boundless mythologising of that event distorts the record of Jewish-gentile relations in this country, and eclipses other initiatives by Australians on behalf of persecuted Jewry, it is time for a historian to speak out.

I have recently been made aware of an event scheduled for March 2018 in Broken Hill.  The publicity material states, inter alia: “Twice in Australia’s short Jewish history an act has occurred of ahavath hinam – altruistic love, that crossed the lines of faith and race. The better known of these occurred in Melbourne, when William Cooper led his Aborigines Advancement League [sic; this body was not yet in existence] in protest against the atrocity that was Kristallnacht.  We Jews will never forget this hessed, this act of loving kindness by an oppressed minority who saw themselves in the faces of the Jewish other.  Less well known and equally inspiring were the actions of members of the tiny Jewish community of Broken Hill during the historic Barrier Strikes when greedy mine owners tried to starve their workers into surrender. Jewish shopkeepers – formerly refugees from persecution in Lithuania and the Ukraine – saw the  suffering of striking mine workers and responded by extending them credit. Gentile Broken Hill has never forgotten this hessed. In return Christian ministers urged their parishioners to donate to the synagogue building appeal, an event unheard of in Christian-Jewish relations.”

The fiction that William Cooper and his League’s protest concerning Kristallnacht was one of only two occurrences of ahavath hinam in Australian Jewish history should be aborted before it gains traction. It bizarrely disregards the numerous examples of admiration and sympathy for Jews that have manifested themselves in this country since colonial times.  These have been well documented by me and other historians of Australian Jewry, but it seems that, for reasons that can only be surmised (I suspect that leftist inverse racism plays its full and mischievous part), the philosemitism displayed by Anglo-Celtic Australians does not merit the remembrance and honour so readily accorded Cooper.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, during major instances overseas of antisemitic persecution, Australian non-Jews demonstrated their outrage.  Their solidarity with oppressed Jewry took various forms, including newspaper editorials and letters to the press, donations to funds opened on behalf of the distressed, and protest meetings in capital cities and country towns, attended and addressed by public figures from across the political and religious spectrum. Manifested were several typologies of philosemitism that for reasons of space cannot be described here.  It must be stressed that many political conservatives were among these sympathisers, and it may interest readers to know that among the Australians protesting the Kishinev pogrom in 1903 was a group of Chinese Victorians.  They collected ten guineas (about $2200 in today’s money), as, in the words of their spokesman, W. Shi Geen, a businessman and Chinese community leader and activist, “a small contribution for the persecuted Jewish people in Russia, in order to show their sympathy with these unfortunate down-trodden people”. Theirs, I suspect, was another example of an “act of loving kindness by an oppressed minority who saw themselves in the faces of the Jewish other”.

Typical protest meetings were presided over by lord mayors or local politicians.  Less typical in that  respect was the meeting held in Melbourne Town Hall on 27 April 1933 to denounce Nazi policy, for it was presided over by Brigadier Harold Cohen and Rabbi Jacob Danglow.  But numerous non-Jews were among the 2000 people attending, including prominent politicians and other household names.  In a heartfelt apology for absence, future prime minister Robert Menzies QC praised the contribution of Jews to Australia in many fields, lauded their “intellect,” and ended: “I hope that I  may be associated with the protest of the meeting tonight against the barbaric and medieval persecution to which their fellow Jews in Europe are apparently being subjected.”

Speaking on 16 November 1938 in reaction to Kristallnacht,  H. L. Denford, organiser of the Ironworkers’ Union, did not mince words: “The Federal Government should deport forthwith every Nazi sympathiser in Australia.  We should have a pogrom against Nazis in Australia.  This is the only effective retaliatory measure.  Protests are useless.” But protests there were in plenty, from all sides of the political divide, as well as practical measures. On 5 December 1938, the day before Cooper and his League’s protest, “Differences of race, creed, and politics were set aside in the [Melbourne] Town Hall … when a crowded public meeting agreed to form a committee of about 70 citizens to assist the settlement of Jewish refugees. The meeting was convened by the Lord Mayor (Councillor A. W. Coles). Before and during the meeting, which was held under the auspices of all Protestant Churches and the League of Nations Union, donations exceeding £500 [about $50,000 in today’s money] were received by the president of the League of Nations Union (Professor H. Woodruff). Other large sums were promised. Many letters and telegrams expressing sympathy with the movement were received by the Lord Mayor…  Scores of extra seats were brought in, but many persons were obliged to stand or sit on the floor round the rostrum, and others overflowed into the corridor outside. By resolution the meeting agreed to the formation of the Victorian Refugee Emergency Council, consisting of representative citizens from all sections of the community and all Churches, and from representative organisations in the State…”

Melbourne ophthalmologist Sir James Barrett, a staunch philosemite and an advocate of populating Australia’s north, was instrumental in the decision of Dr I. N. Steinberg, head of the Freeland League for Jewish Territorial Colonisation, to seek a refuge for some 75,000 displaced European Jews in the Kimberley region of north-west Australia.  Barrett was one of the 46 distinguished Victorians who signed a manifesto in support of this, the so-called Kimberley Scheme.  Published in the Argus (1 December 1939),  it followed a similar manifesto of 14 signatures that appeared in the West Australian (6 September 1939) and preceded another, consisting of 55 signatures, which was published on the Sydney Morning Herald (19 April 1940).  The Victorian manifesto was signed by such well-known figures as the Lord Mayor of Melbourne, the president of the Methodist Church of Australia, Maurice Blackburn, Frank Brennan, Herbert Brookes, John Cain, Frederic Eggleston, Sir Charles Merrett, Nettie Palmer, and Professor Sir Ernest Scott.  West Australia’s signatories included the Anglican archbiship of Perth, the Lord Mayors of Perth and Fremantle, and Professor Walter Murdoch, who had earlier declared (West Australian, 15 July 1939), “Israel’s extremity is Australia’s opportunity”. Signatories to the New South Wales manifesto included the Lord Mayor of Sydney, Charles Bean (Australia’s official war historian),  Bishop E.H. Burgmann, Sir Robert Garran, Bishop C.V. Pilcher, and Jessie Street.

I have noted several times in the correspondence columns of an apparently apathetic Australian Jewish press that, in contrast to William Cooper, Melbourne’s Jewish Holocaust Centre bears no plaque in tribute to young Melburnian Critchley Parker, who in the Nazi period strove for a Jewish refugee settlement in Tasmania, and perished in the attempt. Dr I. N. Steinberg wrote in Australia  ̶  The Unpromised Land (London, 1947) that “this unknown man of another people’ died a martyr for the cause of human dignity and for the Jewish people … [his] name is closely linked for all time, with the Jewish people.” Yet how many Australian Jews know of Parker today?

Parker’s story appears in an issue of the Australian Jewish Historical Society Journal.  In those journals is to be found a wealth of material that focuses on many examples of  ahavath hinam.  If only more Australians, Jews and non-Jews, would  read back issues of the Journal (plans to make it available online are underway)!  For there they would meet a range of philosemites, clerical and lay, male and female, that gives the lie to the absurdity that there were only two examples of ahavath hinam here, and reduces the William Cooper episode to its rightful dimensions.

And if you want to see the evidence visit https://alewindotorg.wordpress.com/2017/01/24/protests-in-australia-against-nazi-atrocities-1933-1939/


Dr Hilary Rubinstein is co-editor of the Victorian issues of the Australian Jewish Historical Society Journal.  She has published widely on Australian Jewish history and is co-author of Philosemitism: Admiration and Support in the English-Speaking World for Jews, 1840-1939.


12 Responses to “Let’s stop this distortion of Australian Jewish history”
  1. Avi Paluch says:

    Dear Hilary,
    The issue is the way you have expressed this opinion piece, and it seems that as an historian AND an educator that you ought to have been able to express your view, in such a way, as not to ‘give over’ the apparent ‘denigration’ of William Cooper.
    People understand and interpret words, expressions and the like in different and varying ways…and with all due respect, we all need to be mindful about how something that is likely to be published in some way, needs extra care.
    Otherwise, whilst there maybe someone that only lauds or praise one person, that person’s narrative just shows up their lack of knowledge or dare I say it, even displays some ignorance.
    Thanks for bringing those various other efforts to the fore.
    PS: Wasn’t there a Tasmanian premier that proposed, to the nascent Federal parliament shortly after Federation, that he would welcome Jews to Tasmania?

  2. William Rubinstein says:

    That William Cooper made the only private protest against Kristallnacht is absurd and preposterous on the face of it. Probably every newspaper editorial in the English-speaking world denounced the pogrom – so much so that Hitler instructed Goebbels, who was in charge of the pogrom, to cool it. In 1938 there were tens of thousands of volunteers in Spain, fighting Franco, who was backed by Hitler and Mussolini. As Hilary’s posting makes clear – and look at the contemporary newspaper reports linked to at the end of her posting – Cooper was one among many protests in Melbourne alone. So why has this myth been perpetrated? First, as Rodney Gouttman notes, is sheer ignorance of Australian Jewish history. The sources spelling out the other protests have been in print for many years, and in some cases since 1938. Secondly, however – and not to put too fine a point on the matter – is anti-white racism – more specifically anti-Anglo-Celtic Australian racism – which simply cannot credit that ordinary Australians could find Kristallnacht and the other Nazi atrocities utterly deplorable, so has to single out Cooper – obviously an altogether worthy man – while treating the protests by Anglo-Celtic Australians as if they never existed and could not possibly exist. Regrettably, the Jewish Holocaust Centre in Elsternwick has also done this, totally ignoring the protests by anyone except Cooper. So different from Yad Vsshem, which honours “righteous gentiles” totally impartially, regardless of where they came from.

  3. Gary Luke says:

    The title of this article – “Let’s stop this distortion of Australian Jewish history” – yes, let’s stop it. We didn’t need to wait until the Holocaust to find numerous examples of philo-semitic acts in Australia, and even better, numerous examples where no-one cared whether someone with charitable or criminal intent, or of influence, was Jewish or not. The acceptance of Jews as ordinary convicts in the earliest period, which laid the foundation of our equality, and ordinary citizens in years after, places Australia as the most accepting post-Enlightenment nation in the world for Jews. As Hilary Rubinstein suggests, read the “Australian Jewish Historical Society Journal”. The easy acceptance of Jews as ordinary people didn’t begin here with the Holocaust. And we, as citizens of Australia who are Jews, the Holocaust shouldn’t be the major determinant of our identity as Australian Jews.

  4. Henry Herzog says:

    But why bring it up here and why now, when we are paying tribute to William Cooper who delivered a petition to the German embassy protesting against the treatment of Jews there. That’s what’s unique and very special about William Cooper.
    I mean, why would you want to diminish William Cooper’s heroic deeds, by your article. Recognize the good deeds of other righteous people, and write about them so they too can be awarded for their deeds. But you’ve turned this into a competition, and in a sense, you’re denying the rightful tributes to this man, because, blah, blah, blah.

    • Hilary Rubinstein says:

      Henry Herzog, I wrote my article in order to counter the mythologising which has led to the publicity statement regarding Broken Hill, which deserves to be nipped in the bud before it grows like Topsy. (Incidentally, there were certainly instances in Britain, if not Australia, of Christians contributing to synagogue building funds, but I have not challenged that aspect of the Broken Hill statement because I don’t have the evidence at my fingertips.) I wrote the article because people like the Chinese Australians I mention in the article, and the Anglo-Celtic Australians I mention, also crossed the boundaries of race/ethnicity and faith, but have been completely ignored by a Jewish community that should embrace them in its collective memory. You appear to dismiss their doings with the derisory phrase “blah, blah blah”. Perhaps you do not know what was unique and very special about young Critchley Parker. I am certainly not denying William Parker his due. I am calling for the many other people who spoke out on behalf of persecuted Jewry (and in Parker’s case died in the interests of persecuted Jewry) their due.
      (Thanks, btw, to Rodney and the two Garys for their very sensible input into this thread.)

      • Hilary Rubinstein says:

        Sorry, I meant to say “I am certainly not denying William Cooper his due.”

  5. Robert Schneider says:

    Thankfully there were clearly others – not enough – righteous souls who saved Jswish lives or stood up to the Nazi tyranny but according to Yad Vashem’s records, there is no known parallel of an indigenous person without rights in his/her own country standing up for the rights of Jews. Without denigrating the role of others, William Cooper’s act of bravery and compassion, coming from a man in his situation, deserves all the kavod and accolades we can offer. The fact that he was an Aboriginal leader and that his letter of protest was on behalf of others is all the more deserving of the credit that is due to him. Long may the memory of his brave act inspire us and future generations to do what is right!

    • Hilary Rubinstein says:

      I take your meaning, of course, Robert, but there was an extraordinary British woman called Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna (born Brown, the daughter of the canon of Norwich)who in the first halfof the nineteenth century championed the Jewish cause in the Christian ladies’ periodicals she edited. She began as a conversionist but came to hold the view that Judaism held its own path to redemption, and in that respect was a forerunner of the famous twentieth century philosemite Revd James Parkes. She penned a petition to Tsar Nicholas I during his visit to Britain, deploring his treatment of Jews and requesting an end to it. A number of distinguished British gentiles presented the petition to the Tsar, but, although its words were hers, Mrs Tonna – being a mere female – was not one of them. I suppose she could be considered a “an indigenous person without rights in her own country” since in law she as a married woman was a non-person, a chattel, and like all women unable to vote.

  6. Rodney Gouttman says:

    As a fellow historian of Australian Jewry, I fully concur with Hilary Rubinstein’s comments. Unfortunately, few students at Jewish day schools are given a grasp of Australian Jewish history, and with the exception of one Australian university, the subject is barely broached at tertiary level. So it it any wonder, in the Australian Jewish community generally and its lay and clerical leadership in particular, there is such a ignorance of their own ethnic history.

  7. Henry Herzog says:

    Not even recognized as a citizen of his own country, where his ancestry here goes back some 6500 years, is up for denigration as not being the only one to stand up against Nazi persecution of the Jews. Well he was here. Such a put-down of such a wonderful and decent man is absolutely shameful and akin to Holocaust denial.

    • Hilary Rubinstein says:

      Henry Herzog, nowhere have I denigrated William Cooper and his delegation. I wrote: “All praise to Cooper and his League’s very moving and very noble initiative. I intend no disparagement of it, nor of him.” And I meant it.
      Yes, William Cooper was, as you have said, “a wonderful and decent man”. (As Gary Max says in his response, the action taken by Cooper and his delegation “remains remarkable in that it came from an Aboriginal group, a people who at the time were subjected to racist discrimination themselves”.) But throughout Australian history there have been other wonderful and decent men (and women, including the so-called “widow of Wappan,” Anne Fraser Bon, an activist in the cause of both Aboriginal and Chinese Australians) who championed the cause of persecuted Jewry. Don’t you agree that they, not to mention young Critchley Parker, also deserve to be given a place in our communal memory?
      If not, why not?
      Your comparison of what I have written in my article to “Holocaust denial” is, of course, as ludicrous as it is offensive, and does you no credit whatsoever.

  8. Gary Max says:

    A fascinating and inspiring view of Australian support for Jewry across political and communal groups. An interesting demonstration of how even history is written with spin.
    I do hope that our Jewish schools’ history teachers formalise this information for future courses. I would not be surprised if similar efforts were made in other countries. Of course sadly, we know that such sentiments rarely led to the acceptance of substantial numbers of German/Austrian Jewish refugees until after WWII ended.
    And why is William Cooper singled out for memorialising? Hilary has documented significant other protest against Nazi persecution and has, perhaps a little ungraciously, surmised that lauding Cooper is due to some ‘leftist inverse racism’. That may or may not be the case, we await the evidence; but Cooper’s act, although not singular, remains remarkable in that it came from an Aboriginal group, a people who at the time were subjected to racist discrimination themselves.

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