What Does Australia Day Mean to Jews?

For some it's salvation from persecution, for others it's the sorrow of never-quite-belonging.

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SYDNEY – For many Jews, Australia Day is a reminder they live in the “lucky country.” But for others, January 26 triggers ambivalence because it marks the anniversary in 1788 when British settlers first arrived on an ancient land inhabited by Aboriginal people for more than 40,000 years.

For Richard Rozen, and many Holocaust survivors here, Australia Day is akin to Thanksgiving. Rozen hid in a cellar in Poland for 13 months, survived Treblinka but lost 23 members of his family, including his father.

An Australia Day ambassador, he described Australia this week as a “paradise” compared to Nazi-occupied Europe.

“Australia is a melting pot of race, culture and religion,” Rozen wrote in the Herald Sun newspaper on Sunday. “Given my religion’s past persecutions, I am particularly grateful for a nation that accepts people of different beliefs.”

“Australia is indeed the lucky country and that is what I will remember this Australia Day,” he wrote.

Almost 700 people were singled out for Australia Day awards on Sunday, including more than 15 Jews. Among them was Olga Horak, an Auschwitz survivor, and Sue Hampel, the founder of the March of the Living Australia program, which takes kids to Poland and then Israel on a march between the past and the present.

Not all Jewish immigrants are at ease with their adopted country. Dr. Ran Porat, a scholar of Israeli emigration to Australia, believes the vast majority of the 15,000-plus Israelis Down Under will “always remain outsiders to a certain degree.”

“We feel first and foremost Israeli,” Porat told Haaretz this week. “Israeliness is a national feeling indoctrinated to us Israelis from childhood with enormous emotional patriotic feelings, enhanced by historical and current traumas.”

Porat, the editor of Ausraelim.com.au, a website for Israelis in Australia, pointed to Monash University’s Gen08 survey, which revealed that Israelis have the least sense of belonging compared to Jews who immigrated from elsewhere or were born here.

The study also showed that Israelis – compared to those who emigrated from South Africa, the former Soviet Union or the United Kingdom – are the least satisfied when compared to their lives in their birth country.

“Israelis in Australia are Israeli first, with a medium degree of affiliation towards Australia,” Porat said.

Rafi Levi, an Israeli-born taxi driver in Sydney, put it bluntly. “Israel is in my heart,” he told Haaretz in Hebrew. “If my kids said I’m sick of it here, I’d go home to Israel. I’m dying slowly here.

“I feel better in Israel,” he said. “I’m totally Israeli; it’s my country.”

While he acknowledged the lifestyle is better here, he added:

“It’s a good life but dull. In Israel it’s a tough life but interesting.”

By contrast, many of the 15,000 or so Jews from the former Soviet Union don’t pine for their birth country.

Gregory Vaisman, who migrated from Odessa in 1991, said he escaped anti-Semitism. “It was dangerous to be a Jew in the Soviet Union,” he said. “I was refused to study academia in Leningrad because I was Jew.”

Vaisman, 75, a Russian-language TV producer, added: “I feel Australian. I feel free here. Australia Day is a big yom tov; a celebration and a holiday.”

But many progressive Jews are ambivalent about Australia Day, which has been dubbed “Invasion Day” or “Survival Day” by some Aborigines.

“The First Australians understandably feel excluded by an Australia Day that marks the anniversary of first European settlement,” said Robin Margo, a former South African. “If we are serious about reconciliation, we must find a new date, for an Australia Day that honors all of our history.”

Margo, the president of the Australian arm of the New Israel Fund, added: “South Africa gave me formative experiences; I will always care what happens to people there. But I have now lived most of my life here, my children were born here, and I feel deeply attached to Australia.”

Danny Ben-Moshe, a London-born academic, said the diverse Jewish attitudes to Australia Day “reflect their different generational and historical experiences.”

“If you have come from the Holocaust or the former Soviet Union, Australia represents salvation,” said Ben-Moshe, an associate professor at Deakin University in Melbourne.

“But the younger generation who were born here are more sensitive to the fact that Australia is grappling with that darker chapter of our history.”

Our sensitivity to oppression makes Jews disproportionally conscious of the Indigenous experience, he added.

“The question is how can this country come to terms with its past if it celebrates that date? There’s a complete clash there.”

That Prime Minister Tony Abbott anointed Adam Goodes, an Indigenous man from the Adnyamathanha tribe, as the 2014 Australian of the Year is a “harbinger of hope,” Ben-Moshe added.

The Sydney Opera House Credit: Bloomberg

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