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

Who Changed the Term “Nakba” into a Symbol of Arab Victimization?

April 19 2019

In contemporary Palestinian discourse, not to mention that of the Palestinians’ Western supporters, the creation of the state of Israel is known as the Nakba, or catastrophe—sometimes explicitly compared with the Holocaust. The very term has come to form a central element in a narrative of passive Palestinian suffering at Jewish hands. But when the Syrian historian Constantin Zureiq first used the term with regard to the events of 1948, he meant something quite different, and those responsible for changing its meaning were none other than Israelis. Raphael Bouchnik-Chen explains:

In his 1948 pamphlet The Meaning of the Disaster (Ma’na al-Nakba), Zureiq attributed the Palestinian/Arab flight to the stillborn pan-Arab assault on the nascent Jewish state rather than to a premeditated Zionist design to disinherit the Palestinian Arabs. “We [Arabs] must admit our mistakes,” [he wrote], “and recognize the extent of our responsibility for the disaster that is our lot.” . . . In a later book, The Meaning of the Catastrophe Anew, published after the June 1967 war, he defined that latest defeat as a “Nakba,” . . . since—just as in 1948—it was a self-inflicted disaster emanating from the Arab world’s failure to confront Zionism. . . .

It was only in the late 1980s that it began to be widely perceived as an Israeli-inflicted injustice. Ironically, it was a group of politically engaged, self-styled Israeli “new historians” who provided the Palestinian national movement with perhaps its best propaganda tool by turning the saga of Israel’s birth upside down, with aggressors turned into hapless victims, and vice-versa, on the basis of massive misrepresentation of archival evidence.

While earlier generations of Palestinian academics and intellectuals had refrained from exploring the origins of the 1948 defeat, the PLO chairman Yasir Arafat, who was brought to Gaza and the West Bank as part of the 1993 Oslo Accords and was allowed to establish his Palestinian Authority (PA) in parts of those territories, grasped the immense potential of reincarnating the Nakba as a symbol of Palestinian victimhood rather than a self-inflicted disaster. In 1998, he proclaimed May 15 a national day of remembrance of the Nakba. In subsequent years, “Nakba Day” has become an integral component of the Palestinian national narrative and the foremost event commemorating their 1948 “catastrophe.”

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More about: Arab World, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, New historians, Yasir Arafat