Jewish Contributions

Jewish persecution #

Jewish intellectuals like Hannah Arendt, Franz Kafka, Albert Einstein and many others have made outstanding contributions to the world’s progress.

Religions tend to arouse deep passions, strong convictions and assumptions of righteousness that justify entitlements of power to impose their views on others.  Most conquer territory by a combination of coercion and conversion forcing the indigenous inhabitants, as part of their hegemony, to adhere to their teachings and practices - Catholics in South America, Protestants in North America and Africa, Muslims in North Africa and in the Balkans, later India and Afghanistan and the Hindus vied the Buddhists for hegemony in the Orient.

Prejudice generates few new ideas, so it is no surprise that so many of the charges now levelled against Muslims were once made against Catholics or Jews.

Christians, as victims of Roman persecution, upon Constantine’s conversion, soon became perpetrators as brutal as those imposed on them.

In the late 4th century, persecution of pagans by Christians reached new levels of intensity. In 391,** Emperor Theodosius **I ordered the destruction of all pagan temples.  The Serapeum of the Great Library was destroyed, possibly effecting the final destruction of the Library of Alexandria.

Early Christians began persecuting many innocent people who rejected their beliefs for sorcery; as wizards, warlocks or witches.    The first recorded victim was Hypatia, a Greek mathematician, astronomer, inventor, and philosopher in Egypt, then a part of the Eastern Roman Empire. She was the head of the Neoplatonic school at Alexandria, where she taught philosophy and astronomy. She was murdered by a Christian mob in 415 ADS because of sorcery and witchcraft.

According to **Val Badham, The Guardian: ** *The habit of scientists to offend the “common sense” standards of their times with research has historically proven quite dangerous. Rhazes, the medical pioneer of ninth century Baghdad, was beaten blind with his own compendium by a priest. The humanist ****Michael Servetus, ***a 16th century physician credited with discovering pulmonary circulation, was tortured and burned along with his books on the shores of Lake Geneva at the personal behest of John Calvin.  In the 17th century, Galileo spent his last years under house arrest, forced by the church to recant the heretical belief that the earth orbited the sun.  It wasn’t until 1992 that the Catholic Church finally acknowledged that Galileo may have been right

Jews in Britain #

The first Jews in Britain were invited after the Norman invasion – 1066.  They were not allowed to buy land but could engage in trade.  The Christian religion forbade usury, but the Jewish community claimed exemption and so became increasingly wealthy, creating envy and ill will.  It was the rise of the Crusades that fomented the first massacres.

Crusaders demanded that all Jews convert to Christianity and be baptised or be killed.  Most Jews preferred the latter. 

As early as 1198 Pope Innocent III had written to all Christian princes, including Richard of England, calling upon them to compel the remission of all usury demanded by Jews from Christians.

The Papacy continued to develop its theological commitment to restrictions on Judaism and Jews. A number of Benedictine priories showed particular hostility to Jews. The fictional stories of Jewish ritual murder emerged from Benedictine priories including fanciful tales of child sacrifice called blood libel.

After laws banning usury, all Jews were expelled from Britain in 1290.

It was Pope Urban II. in 1194, responding to Alexis of Constantinople cries for help against expanding Islam who becomes the main culprit. In a rousing speech, instilling imaginative power, Urban called for violence against the infidel in the name of Christ, for the one true religion, amidst prayers for peace.   Through this act of piety Urban raised an army of 40,000 crusaders to destroy all enemies of Christ. His first, most infamous atrocity was to go north to the Rhineland to destroy the Jews.  Only then did they proceed to retake Jerusalem in 1099, in one of the most violent and bloody raids in history, involving mass rapes of women and murders of children and destruction of many towns. 

Jews in Spain #

It is worth noting that both the Moors in Spain and later Saladin in Jerusalem tolerated the Jews and Christians under a policy of co-existence, with many conditions or prohibitions of inter-action on parity.

It was Queen Isabella who expelled Jews and Muslims and later Pope Urban III’s exclusionary policy waged a war against the Jews of Rhineland and refused to allow Muslims to live in Christian controlled territories.  Isabella was reacting to the barbaric spread of Islam by the Ottoman Empire, whose soldiers were motivated by promises of virgins and pillage. Urban also called for violence to restore Christianity in Europe and the Middle East.  Saladin appears much more chivalric. 

Sienna, in 1588, is considered the first multicultural city because of the integration of various races, though other Medieval cities can also make claims.  Toledo was a glowing example of Jews, Muslims and Christians tolerating each other to the greatest extent.

Toledo boasts a joint worship house built by the Moors, financed by the Jews and shared by the Christians as a house of worshiping the same God for all three. 

According to Israeli historian, Benzion Netanyahu, eruptions of discord began in 1467 when a Jewish tax collector was hired by the Catholic Church to collect outstanding debts.  Rioting broke out when long time Christians began to prepare for war against the conversos, fearing a broader assault by people only posing as Christians.  Full scale war broke out, echoing the anti-Semitic massacre of 1391, with more than 150 Jewish conversos killed.  In the aftermath, Jewish people were expelled from Toledo, their property and assets confiscated by greedy Christians.

Under Queen Isabella, much to her regret, fearing the expansion of the Ottoman Empire and a desire for a pure race, both the Jews and Muslims were either expelled from Spain or faced the Spanish Inquisition.


Jews in Australia and Canada  lived fairly normal lives.  There were at least eight, and perhaps as many as fourteen Jewish petty criminals among the convict cargo on the First Fleet.

By 1820 a few hundred Jewish people, mostly men, were living in New South Wales. The first purpose-built synagogue in Australia was opened in York St, Sydney, in 1844.

** Rabbi Jacob Levi Saphir**, summed up this situation in his travelogue:

“There is no discrimination made between nation and nation. The Jews live in safety, and take their share in all the good things of the country. They also occupy Government positions and administrative posts. In this land, they have learnt that the Jews also possess good qualities, and hatred towards them has entirely disappeared here.”

When small numbers of Jewish refugees fleeing pogroms in Russia and Poland began to arrive, the Anglo-Jewish establishment was very concerned. These new Jews spoke Yiddish, were distinctively dressed and were less attuned to British or western European customs. The Establishment feared that the new immigrants would provide the wider Australian community with a new (and negative) image of what Jews were like, and consequently pushed for their rapid assimilation. There were many success stories among this new group, including that of immigrant businessman Sidney Myer, founder of what is now Coles-Myer.

As the 19th century moved into the 20th, Jewish society overall became even more assimilated into the majority Australian culture, with many Jews totally abandoning their cultural heritage and identity. Jews entered mainstream Australian public life in ever-increasing numbers. So much so, that in 1917 the New South Wales Legislative Assembly had to close on Yom Kippur because both the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker were Jewish. This at a time when Jews in New South Wales made up only 0.4% of the population.

Australian Jewish men and women served in the Australian Armed Forces in wars from the Sudan Campaign of 1885 through to the Vietnam War. For World War One, 11% of the Jewish community enlisted voluntarily, engaging in both front line and home front action. An estimated 15% lost their lives, a figure higher than that of the general population. Australia’s greatest WW1 leader was the Jewish Lieutenant General Sir John Monash.

More Polish Jews, also fleeing pogroms, arrived in Australia in the 1920s. There was considerable intermarriage (marriage between Jews and non-Jews) during this period and into the early 1930s. Observers of the period, both Jewish and non-Jewish, remarked on the high proportion of Jews active in public life.

 The editor of the Hebrew Standard of Australasia stated, the Jews of Australia were “in a land of freedom, only to remember that we are citizens of that land and it is our duty to make that land the best on God’s earth.”

The largest number of immigrants arrived in the period after World War II, in the years between 1946 and 1961, the vast majority being Holocaust survivors. Between 1946 and 1954 over 17,000 Jews arrived from Europe and Shanghai. A further 10,000 had arrived by 1961, with a significant number coming after the Hungarian uprising of 1956. A small number of Egyptian Jews also arrived in that period as refugees from the persecution which followed the overthrow of the Egyptian monarchy and the subsequent Suez Crisis. Thus, between 1938 and 1961 Australian Jewry almost trebled in size from a tiny group of 23,000 in 1933 to 60,000 in 1961.

The next phase, 1961-1981, most coming from South Africa and the USSR. Since 1981 immigration has again increased, with most immigrants still coming from South Africa and the former USSR, and a smaller number arriving from Israel.


The Jewish people of Australia have an outstanding record in law, medicine, the arts, business and government. Australia is one of the few countries in the Diaspora to have had a Jewish commander-in-chief, Sir John Monash. Two Australian born Governors-General since 1930 have been Jewish – Sir Isaac Isaacs and Sir Zelman Cowen, both of whom are widely recognized as outstanding legal minds. In the State of New South Wales the previous Governor, Gordon Samuels, and the Chief Justice, Jim Spigelman, are Jewish. Spigelman is the son of Holocaust survivors (and cousin of Art Spigelman, well-known for his book Maus). Jim Spigelman has been at the forefront of major human rights campaigns, and speaks openly about his Jewish heritage.

The arts have also benefited from Jewish input at every level. Jews have made their contributions as performers and artists, as sponsors and financial donors and as audiences.

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