Edge of the Diaspora: Two Centuries of Jewish Settlement in Australia, by Suzanne D. Rutland

By R, Paul | Shofar, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Edge of the Diaspora: Two Centuries of Jewish Settlement in Australia, by Suzanne D. Rutland


R, Paul, Shofar


Revised Edition. New York: Holmes and Meier, 2001. 485 pp. $24.95.

How does one look at the history of the Jewish experience in small settlements far removed from the "traditional" mainstreams of Jewish life in Europe, the Middle East, or the eastern seaboard of North America? Is this history to be written from the perspective of the Jewish community itself, from the remote society of which it was a part, or from the perspective of the remote society's relationship with a larger metropolis?

These are not questions for which an easy answer may be found, but in this book Suzanne D. Rutland has made an excellent attempt at doing so. Quite simply, Rutland's work shows why the Jews are in Australia, what their relationship has been with other Australians over time, and how their own community has developed and been organized in the years since 1788. Overall, it has been a story more of acceptance than of toleration, of achievements rather than failures.

Jewish life in remote countries such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, or even Canada has often been subjected to strains and stresses the like of which are not so apparent in, say, Europe or the United States. The most obvious major questions facing Jewish communities such as these would be (a) how does one confront antisemitism when (or if) it occurs? (b) how may one best live a Jewish life in a society where the necessary infrastructure is at best poor, and at worst non-existent? and finally, (c) what is the best way of relating to the majority non-Jewish population so as to avoid (a) and enhance (b)?

Australia would appear to have found a happy medium in addressing these vital questions, but it was never entirely certain that this would be the case. The Jewish historical experience in Australia is one of enormous success over all kinds of adverse situations, but, together with this, there has been a continuing theme of "just making it" whenever the community has seemed in danger of drowning in the Anglo-Celtic sea of immigrants that dominated Australian life throughout the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries. Rutland capably chronicles the ways in which the various Australian Jewish communities have saved themselves, and how in so doing they have adapted to the ever-increasing challenges taking place in the world around them.

Edge of the Diaspora is a most comprehensive survey of a colonial merchant and trading people whose settlement experience is as old as that of the majority population. The first Jews in Australia came (as convicts) with the First Fleet of convicts and guards who arrived when the initial settlement of what was to become Sydney took place on 26 January 1788, and Rutland's study chronicles the slow growth and early triumphs of colonial Jewry, first in New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land (later Tasmania), then in all the colonies. Along the way she demonstrates how and from where the community drew its early strengths. She shows quite clearly how the Jewish community for most of the nineteenth century was prepared to integrate with the majority surrounding it, but would not assimilate in such a way as to "sell itself out" to wider gentile society. Her study also shows how the successors to this community, by the end of the nineteenth century, were prepared to go to nearly any lengths to achieve the opposite, so keen was their desire not to stand out of the majority and to indentify themselves with the goals of Anglo-Australia.

The ebbs and flows of Australian Jewish history are all here: the lively early years of random Jewish settlement; the formation of organized communities in the middle of the nineteenth century, which remained faithful to the tradition of the Fathers and clung resolutely to a specific Jewish identity; the assimilationist spirit which replaced it later in the century; the nadir of Jewish communal identity and activity in the first quarter of the twentieth century; the Jewish and Australian response to refugees from Nazism; and the attitude of Australian Jews to Jewish developments in the wider world, especially Zionism. …

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