An Australian Gold-Rush Town and Its Synagogue

Jan. 31 2019

In the 1850s, when prospectors were flocking to California, Australia experienced a gold rush of its own, turning Ballarat, located some 70 miles inland from Melbourne, into a boomtown. No small number of Jews were among Ballarat’s new residents, and by 1861 the city had a lavish synagogue, which still holds services today. Mark Pinsky writes:

On the whole, the Jews who streamed into Ballarat for the gold rush in the 1850s and 1860s were more likely to supply the shovels than to wield them. Yet there were some Jewish miners among the shopkeepers, tradesmen, and gold buyers. Two years after the initial find [in 1851], the first service was held in a hotel. A local newspaper observed, approvingly, that the fact that “the Children of Israel had made such an investment in Ballarat was by no means the least significant ‘sign of the times’ upon the great western goldfield.” According to [a book on the history of the synagogue], the cantor at High Holiday services on October 11, 1853, a native of Lemberg, [led services] in the traditional red shirt and high boots of a gold-mining “digger.” . . .

The synagogue, the oldest on the Australian mainland, . . . built to seat 350, is a rectangular box laid out in traditional Orthodox style, with the bimah in the center of the room, facing the ark on the front wall. There are numerous clues to the congregation’s vintage. Flanking the ark are two gold-leaf tablets honoring Queen Victoria’s 1887 jubilee, in Hebrew and in English. Other tablets memorialize members who were killed in the two world wars. A stained-glass window above the ark, said to have been taken from an Irish mansion, is thought to date from the time of Elizabeth I. . . .

When the gold played out, many Jews stayed in Ballarat and helped build the young congregation. At its peak in the 1870s and 1880s, membership included 300 men, who may have represented 1,000 family members and required expansion of the women’s gallery. . . .

[The synagogue’s] decline in the early decades of the 20th century mirrored Ballarat’s falling economic fortunes. In the 1920s there were weeks when, for the first time, the . . . congregation was unable to muster the necessary quorum for Shabbat prayers. By 1942, the congregation was hanging by a thread. . . . Then [a] contingent of U.S. Marines—including about 100 Jews—was temporarily based in Ballarat, training to fight the Japanese in the South Pacific. On the eve of Purim, they packed the synagogue’s pews, along with the locals, as Master Sergeant J. Green led the festival service.

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More about: Australia, History & Ideas, Jewish history, Synagogues, World War II

European Aid to the Middle East Is Shaped by a Political Agenda

Feb. 18 2019

The EU’s European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations Unit dispenses millions of dollars in economic and humanitarian assistance to dozens of countries every year. Although it claims to operate on principles of strict neutrality, independent of any political motivation and giving priority to the neediest cases, a look at its activities in the Middle East suggests an entirely different approach, as Hillel Frisch writes:

[T]he Middle East is the overwhelming beneficiary of EU humanitarian aid—nearly 1 billion of just over 1.4 billion euros. . . . The bulk of the funds goes toward meeting the costs of assistance to Syrian refugees, followed by smaller sums to Iraq, Yemen, “Palestine,” and North Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa, by contrast, receives less than one-third of that amount. The problem with such allocations is that the overwhelming majority of people living in dire poverty reside in sub-Saharan Africa, India, and Bangladesh. . . . The Palestinians, who are richer on average than those living in the poorest states of the world, . . . receive over six euros per capita, while the populations of the poorest states receive less than one-eighth of that amount. . . .

Even less defensible is the EU’s claim to political neutrality. Its favoritism toward the Palestinians on this score is visible as soon as one enters terms into the general search function on the European Commission’s website. Enter “Palestine” and you get 20,737 results. Enter “Ethiopia” and you get almost the same figure, despite massive differences in population size (Ethiopia’s 100 million versus fewer than 5 million Palestinians), geographic expanse (Ethiopia is 50 times the size of “Palestine”), and degree of sheer suffering. The Syrian crisis, which is said to have led to the loss of a half-million lives, merits not many more site results than “Palestine.”

One of the foci of the website’s reports [on the Palestinians] is the plight of 35,000 Bedouin whom the EU assists, often in clear violation of the law, in Area C—the part of the West Bank under exclusive Israeli control. The hundreds of thousands of Bedouin in Sinai, however, the plight of whom is readily acknowledged even by Egyptian officials, gets no mention, even though Egypt is a recipient of EU aid. . . .

Clearly, the EU’s approach to aid allocation has nothing to do with impartiality, true social-welfare needs, or humanitarian considerations. [Instead], it favors allocations to Syrian refugees above Yemeni refugees because of the higher probability that Syrian refugees will find their way to Europe. . . . The recipients of European largesse who are next in line [to Syrians], in relative terms, are the Palestinians. [This particular policy] can be attributed primarily to the EU’s hostility toward Israel, its rightful historical claims, and its security needs.

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More about: Europe and Israel, European Union, Israel & Zionism, Palestinians