Early Australian Zionism (1894-1927)

Early Australian Zionism (1894-1927)

For many years, researchers into early Australian zionism have been hampered by the lack of primary source material in Australia. A preliminary investigation in 1983 of zionist archives in Australia revealed that virtually the only extant archival material in Australia, consists of an incomplete set of minute books, the earliest, that of the Young Judean Zionist Society dating to 1921. The Archive of Australian Judaica had these filmed in mid 1984, with the material having to be assembled from zionist resources in both Sydney and Melbourne. A small amount of information on early Australian zionism is to be found in the minutes of the York Street Synagogue, preserved in the archives of the Australian Jewish Historical Society, and in the newspapers of the day. The only other substantial zionist archival material apart from incidental material preserved in the records of other Australian Jewish organisations, such as with the archives of the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies, dates back to the 1960’s, and has just been lodged with the Archive. The rest has simply not been preserved.

However, in the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem, files of all correspondence between the World Zionist Organisation and the various countries, including Australia have been kept from the 1890’s. What is apparently the earliest Australian zionist document in the archives is a letter written by Lewis Barnett, whose letterhead describes him as a Boot and Shoe Manufacturer and Importer. His premises, The Australian Boot Mart were located at 702 George Street, two doors from the Square and Compass Hotel. The letter, dated January 16th 1894 is to a D. Levy, at 234 Clarence Street asking him for several zionist publications, and enclosing ten shillings. The order was payable to the Chovevei Zion (Lovers’ of Zion Society). Lewis Barnett is the grandfather of Alec Zelig of Bondi, and Judge Judith Cohen, wife of Sam Cohen, late of Melbourne. Mrs Reike Cohen, who founded Ivriah in the mid nineteen thirties, and was actively involved with WIZO is also related. He was born in 1856, and died on the 16th May 1935. Alec’s father was the fifth of his six children1. According to Myer Samra, a member of the NSW Association of Sephardim, the Barnett’s came from the Spanish/Portuguese Synagogue in London2. Several other letters dating from the 1895/6 were in the same file. This material actually predates the first World Zionist Congress 1897, in Basle.

The roots of Australian zionism are to be found in Europe, having grown out of the Jewish national movement, which arose out of European currents and trends3. Australian Jewry’s connection with Palestine dates back to the middle of the nineteenth century, the first efforts being in the nature of Chalukah, funds collected to support the needy and pious. Australian Jews, because of their ties with British Jews, participated in every stage of the birth of the Zionist movement in which British Jewry was involved4. The first traces of Chalukah in Australia are to be found in the minutes of the York Street, Synagogue, when, in 1850, the Board voted an amount of �10 as its annual contribution towards a Jerusalem Fund, the latter having its origins in March 18455. In 1854, just some four years later, Australian Jewry responded generously to the the pastoral appeal of the Chief Rabbi Dr Adler to relieve the distress of the Jews of Palestine. This was made known throughout the Jewish communities of the British Empire after the visit of Sr Moses Montefiore. Australian Jews raised �8000 as compared with the total of �20,000 subscribed under the auspices of the United Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain6.

In a list of subscribers to the Fund for the Distressed Jews in Palestine, which appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald the names of L. Barnett and D. Levy are among the those which include non Jewish subscribers in sympathy with the cause7. Are these the same Barnett and Levy, who lent their support, forty years later, to the Chovevei Zion movement of the 1890’s?

Fund-raising for Palestine (of the Chalukah type) became a feature of communal life for more than three decades after this first successful campaign, leading to a series of envoys from Palestine in search of resources8. In 1861, one of these envoys, Chaim Zvi Schneersohn, made contact with the civic and ecclesiastical leaders to obtain support and financial assistance, and with their aid, established a commitee, “for the purpose of soliciting contributions throughout Australia, to acquire land for the Jews in the Holy Land9.” Alan Crown comments that the Hebrew name of the ‘committee’, the Chevrat Ohavei Zion (Society of Lovers of Zion), and its objectives, are “so redolent of the Chovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion) movement, that it is not too far-fetched to argue that Schneersohn established an Australian precursor of all Australian zionist groups10.”

Zionism took some years to establish in Australia. A report in the Jewish Herald describes the birth of the first organised zionist movement, the Chovevei Zion Society, established in October 1894, in Sydney when its goals were expounded during a drawing room meeting11. After this time there were several attempts to establish zionist societies, with new societies being formed on the foundation of earlier ones or others being formed through the amalgamation of two societies. This was the pattern from the earliest times in Australia.

The earliest letters in the Central Zionist Archives reveal that the Chovevei Zion Society in Sydney in 1895 consisted of a committee of two (David Rose and Ephraim Michael), a President (Leon Dolawitch), Vice-President (Lewis Barnett) Treasurer (Nathan Jacobs) and Secretary (D. Levy). A letter from D. Levy, relates that Nathan Jacobs, Esq ” who has acted as ‘Hon Treasurer…” is making a trip to the old country, and while in London he will have the pleasure of handing you (members of the (Chovevei Zion Society in London) the sum of fifteen pounds12. The number of members of the society is not specified.

A few years later H. Hockings, a Wine and Spirit Merchant of Barrack Street Sydney, wrote on the 21st January 1900, “We Jews of the State of New South Wales (the Mother State) desire to cooperate with kindred societies in London. We are forming a League or Society on the same bases as some of your societies, which have been established with a view of affording relief to our afflicted brethren in various parts of the world13.” The name of the same wine merchant occurs again in the files of theJewish Territorial Organisation in correspondence with Israel Zangwill between 1905-614. In January 1901, the New South Wales Zionist League was formed, convened by Henry Harris, the printer of the Hebrew Standard of Australasia, and father of Alfred Harris, the paper’s editior, who became an anti zionist15.

On 23rd May, 1906, Percy Marks, Solicitor, wrote to the Secretary of the World Zionist Organisation in Cologne, and complained of “apathy in Australia and New Zealand about zionism.”16 At this time, R. Bears, of Waterloo was the President of the New South Wales Zionist League, and Rev S. M. Solomon, secretary of the Victorian Zionist League17. The latter organisation was established in 1902, and, in contrast to subsequent events, the leaders of the movement were supported by scions of the older, established Australian Jewish families18. In 1908, Percy Marks wrote about the formation of another zionist society, The Sydney Zionist Society, indicating that the New South Wales Zionist League was in need of revitalisation19. Yet, by 1908, there were at least twenty different zionist societies in Australia20.

Rabbi Freedman had founded a Zionist society in Perth on 15th February 190021. This society, however, was destined to be short lived, and the secretary of the World Zionist Organisation wrote again to Freedman on January 10th, 1912 about refounding a Zionist Society. ” In the years gone by, I believe you had an active Zionist Society in Perth which was afterwards supplanted by or merged into a Territorialist Society. I hope that your own interest in zionism is sufficiently keen to induce you to establish a zionist society anew in your community…”22 The letter reveals only too clearly the extent to which early Australian Zionism was hampered by the Territorialist movement. On March 26th, 1912, Israel Cohen from the World Zionist Organisation wrote to Solomon Pechter about dissolution of the Sydney Society Chovevei Zion. He also reported that his correspondence with the Rev D. Freedman, of Perth urging him to found a zionist society had received no response. However, a letter dated the 3rd of March 1913, from the Rev Freedman, relates that he has called a public meeting to found a West Australian Zionist Society, and could now report that there were 101 members of that society23. On August 5th, 1918, Percy Marks wrote to the office, of the World Zionist Organisation, now located in London, that the Sydney Zionist Society and the Young Mens’ Zionist Association had amalgamated to form the Union of Sydney Zionists. It’s president was Aaron Blashki24.

Zionist societies in Victoria were no less transitory. R. Richardson had written in 1902 about the formation of a Victorian Zionist League “with a present membership of 60, and A. Goldman as President.”25 In the same letter, this draper and clothier asks for zionist literature to be sent in three languages, Hebrew, German and English26. This society was short lived for another letter from R. Richardson in 1908 reports on the formation of a Victorian Zionist League27. Another letter from M. Richardson with the address of 59 Bourke Street, Melbourne, and dated 19th November 1913 to the Zionistiches Zentral Bureau, Berlin says,” …Our Society has amalgamated with a new Society that has during the year been formed here in Melbourne. Our membership is consequently larger than formerly, being somewhere in the vicinity of 170…”28. Communication between the central zionist office remained a problem, and other Australian zionists were to complain that literature in German was useless29. In the early twenties, H. Safron reported to Israel Cohen about the formation of Hatachia, in Victoria and the dissolution of the Victorian Zionist Organisation30. An Auckland Chovevei Zionist Movement was founded on December 27th, 190331.

The formation of zionist societies was not the prerogative of the men. A Melbourne Ladies’ Branch of the International Zionist Organisation was certainly in existence by 1906, for the files reveal a letter from the secretary, Phoebe H. Myers of Melbourne and a set of rules for the society32. In reply to Phoebe Myer’s letter, D. Wolffsohn, from the central zionist offices writes:

‘Our Jewish Colonial Trust-London has received from the Melbourne Ladies Branch of the International Zionist Organisation through your kind intermediance and owing to your noble efforts the sum of �25-, being the result of the past six months of your special appeal. Allow me, dear Mrs Myers, to express to you the sentiments of our highest esteem for your zealous and valuable activity. The cooperation of the best minds and of the noblest hearts of Israel will strengthen our movement and the union of feelings for our holy cause.

We are sending you 100 copies of our pamphlet; Ten years of zionism and we are ready to send you, if necessary, more copies.

With Zion’s Greetings

Yours very truly

D. Wolfsohn.

In 1909 the Bazaar Committee of the Melbourne Ladies sent �80 in aid of the fund for Russian Jewish Pogrom Orphans in Palestine, a clear indication of the vitality of this women’s zionist organisation33.

In Brisbane a women’s organisation known as the Daughters of Zion Society had existed at least since 1921, and continued to collect clothes and material relief for Palestine till at least 193634.

Another file contains letters of condolence on Herzl’s death in 1904 from zionists all round the world. Two letters are from Australia, from Coleman P. Hyman and Simeon Frankel, Secretary of the Great Synagogue in Sydney35.

A particularly rich source of information on Australian zionism is The Jewish National Fund, whose files on Australia begin in 1912. The files of the Jewish Agency also contain a wealth of information, and reveal the efforts made by the World Zionist Organisation to create interest in Australia by sending emissaries at frequent intervals. The sending of zionist emissaries recommenced in earnest when the Central Zionist offices moved to Jerusalem in 1918. The first emissary to be sent to Australia in the early part of this century was Israel Cohen, from the London office, who, during his visit in 1921, succeeded in collecting large sums of money for the Palestine Restoration fund36. Israel Cohen noted in his memoirs that:

“The devotion of the [Melbourne] Jews to the British Crown is sincere and ever present, and struck me as much more demonstrative in character than that of their co-religionists in the mother country. So fond were they of singing the national Anthem, at the gatherings in which I appeared that I was almost inclined to think that they regarded me not so much as an Emissary of the Zionist Executive, as an Envoy of His Majesty.”37

However, the reception of emissaries from Israel was not always popular with the Australian Jewish community. Sol Shilkin of Perth notes in a letter dated 24th January 1924:

“I have carefully considered the contents of yours of the 13th inst. with reference to the Union of Sydney Zionist’s request for a zionist emissary to tour Australia during 1924. It can hardly be denied that our very lethargic community is capable of spasmodic bursts of enthusiasm of upon the arrival of some well known zionist from overseas, but I am very much afraid that any such visitor will meet with scant support this year. Many donors to the Palestine Restoration Fund are bitterly complaining that their resources are being taxed to the utmost not only by numerous other appeals including Ukrainian relief and local charities, and we have felt the necessity or concentrating on small annual subscriptions…”38

In 1927 Dr Alexander Goldstein, a representative of the Jewish Agency arrived in Australia, and was instrumental in arranging the first zionist conference in Australia, so founding the Zionist Federation39. However, after the Third Australian Zionist Conference (12-16 July, 1930) the Zionist Federation decided to withdraw its funding of a paid secretary, precipating the departure of Ettinger. This may account for the fact that no typed version of the minutes of the Fourth and Fifth Australian Zionist Conferences could be located even in Jerusalem. A handwritten copy of the minutes of the Fourth Australian Zionist Conference was obtained for the Archive of Australian Judaica, from the papers of Ben-Zion Patkin. A letter written by Israel Cohen to Percy Marks on 20th July 1932 says: “There is one point, however, in my letter which you appear to have overlooked, namely, my inquiry as to whether the Australian Zionist Federation still exists nominally or actually and whether there are regular and live relations between the Federation’s Headquarters and the Societies in the various States…”40

Australian material sighted and listed in the Central Zionist Archives (dating from 1894-1950) amounts to several hundred folders, and some thousands of pages. Material generated by the Jewish National Fund and the Jewish Agency is particularly prolific as to zionist material in the 1930’s and 40’s, which is conspicuously lacking in Australian resources.

The files also go beyond the 1950’s. Other archives in Jerusalem also contain some material on Australian zionism, though only the Central Zionist Archives have the very earliest material. It is hoped that eventually more of this early material will be microfilmed by staff at the Central Zionist Archives for the Archive of Australian Judaica, to make available to more researchers throughout the world. The problem is insufficient finance, for it is a expensive undertaking. Some of the very earliest material has been microfilmed. If you can help us with some further funding for microfilming, please contact us. Every little helps.

A published index of some of these early zionist records and the microfilm of a section up till 1940 are available from the Archive of Australian Judaica. A second part of the index is also available. This introduction appears in the first published index, Early Australian Zionism. Monograph no 9. Enquiries: 61 2 9351 4162 or email:[email protected]

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