Lest we for­get the Aus­tralian Jews who served too

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

It sounds like a Yid­dish joke. Who knew about 7000 Jews from Aus­tralia’s small Jewish com­mu­nity served in the mil­i­tary? Smash­ing some stereo­types, Mark Dapin’s Jewish An­zacs is no joke but a se­ri­ous, well-re­searched book full of poignant sto­ries that con­trib­ute to Aus­tralian his­tory.

Dapin is per­haps best known for his quirky week­end mag­a­zine col­umns. That wry sense of hu­mour ap­par­ently comes from his Yid­dish­s­peak­ing grand­fa­ther and was in­her­ent in the lan­guage of Euro­pean Jews. Dapin’s grand­fa­ther served in the mil­i­tary and in­spired his 2011 novel, Spirit House. Jewish An­zacs is his sixth work, fic­tion and non­fic­tion, on mil­i­tary sub­jects. His fa­mil­iar wit makes this solemn book an un­ex­pected plea­sure to read.

The book opens with Dapin’s in­ter­view of the fa­ther of Gre­gory Sher, the last Jewish Aus­tralian soldier killed in ac­tion, in Afghanistan in 2009. This mov­ing pro­logue sig­nals a fo­cus on the hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence of war.

The book is there­after a chrono­log­i­cal ac­count of the ex­pe­ri­ence of Jewish Aus­tralian ser­vice­men and ser­vice­women, be­gin­ning be­fore Fed­er­a­tion and ex­tend­ing to the pre­sent. Dapin uses re­mark­able un­pub­lished diaries and let­ters to de­velop the his­tor­i­cal story. Later chap­ters based on in­ter­views are equally com­pelling. He weaves to­gether the Jewish con­text, in­di­vid­ual ex­pe­ri­ences and mil­i­tary events.

Dapin con­nects a surge in Jews’ mil­i­tary par­tic­i­pa­tion at the end of the 19th cen­tury with the rel­a­tively low in­ci­dence of anti-Semitism in Aus­tralia, Aus­tralian Jews’ Bri­tish al­le­giance and de­sire to “prove them­selves wor­thy of the em­pire that had granted them equal rights wher­ever English was spo­ken”. Aus­tralia at the time was a pro­gres­sive and op­ti­mistic cul­ture that af­forded Jews all the rights of full cit­i­zen­ship de­nied to them al­most every­where else.

At Gal­lipoli, the ex­pe­ri­ences of Jewish Aus­tralians in­clude the com­man­ders, such as valiant Lieu­tenant Colonel Eli­azar Mar­golin and tri­umphant Gen­eral John Monash. “We have got our bat­tle pro­ce­dure now thor­oughly well or­gan­ised,” said Monash, go­ing on to de­scribe the scene in de­tail. The Aus­tralian-born Jew rose to be­come the beloved com­man­der of the Aus­tralian Corps. Dapin recog­nises Monash’s as­pi­ra­tions as those of an out­sider.

We also feel the lived ex­pe­ri­ence of the trenches through the eyes of the mud­died and blood­ied lower ranks. Like other An­zacs, the Jews came from all strata of so­ci­ety. The pre­war oc­cu­pa­tions of some of those who died in France in­cluded jockey, sign writer, cigar­maker, ship’s ste­ward.

Us­ing the lens of Jewish ex­pe­ri­ence gives us a some­what un­usual per­spec­tive of fa­mil­iar char­ac­ters such as CWE Bean and “Pom­pey” El­liott, pro­vid­ing a nicely rounded view to counter puffery and prej­u­dice.

Dapin shows there was some­times a po­tent, cer­tainly dif­fer­ent, sig­nif­i­cance to events for Jews. These mo­ments in­clude times when sol­diers sta­tioned in Egypt and Pales­tine dur­ing both world wars ob­served re­li­gious rit­ual near the set­ting of their bib­li­cal sto­ries; con­cerns about Jew fight­ing against Jew in bel­liger­ent armies; the im­pact of deaths on the fu­ture small di­as­pora com­mu­ni­ties; the in­tern­ment of Jews as en­emy aliens in Aus­tralia dur­ing World War II; the hoary old chest­nut about dual loy­al­ties; Jews mo­ti­vated to fight Nazis be­cause the lives of their fam­ily and co­re­li­gion­ists were at stake; the as­sault on Beer­sheva, which lead to the Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion sup­port­ing the es­tab­lish­ment of the State of Is­rael. The tem­ples of Jerusalem, the pyra­mids of Gaza, the souks, mosques and deserts be­came post­card mem­o­ries for a new gen­er­a­tion of Aus­tralian ser­vice­men, who had re­turned to the lands where their fa­thers had fought more than 20 years be­fore. For Jewish Aus­tralian sol­diers, sailors, air­men and nurses, the roots ran deeper and the mem­o­ries stretched fur­ther. This is also a so­cial his­tory of war and the car­nage is placed ap­pro­pri­ately into the con­text of Aus­tralian life. Con­scrip­tion, women’s suf­frage and com­mu­nity life are in­te­grated into the story. We hear of the ad­ven­tur­ous Madge Keysor, sis­ter of VC win­ner Leonard Keysor, who was a con­scrip­tion ac­tivist. Dapin notes that women who served left fewer records than the men and are less eas­ily rep­re­sented. There are won­der­ful sto­ries about women who served in all con­flicts, none­the­less.

In­cluded in this vol­ume are re­vised lists of Jews who served, pre­pared by Rus­sell Stern of the Aus­tralian Jewish His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety, and that build on con­tem­po­rary memo­rial rolls. It has been no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult and po­lit­i­cal to de­fine Jewish in­volve­ment. Some Jews did not nom­i­nate their re­li­gion when they en­listed. Oth­ers de­clared they were Jewish when they were not. (Ap­par­ently this was done for a laugh and ad­di­tional hol­i­days.) This lat­est re­search is a valu­able re­fine­ment that, im­por­tantly in the Aus­tralian con­text, takes ac­count of Jews who iden­ti­fied as Jewish through the non­ma­ter­nal line.

On the eve of World War II Ge­of­frey Kaye wrote to his sis­ter, “There is in our fam­ily a cer­tain tra­di­tion of giv­ing ser­vice when it is re­quired.”

On An­zac Day 2015 Josh Fink, a serv­ing mem­ber of the mil­i­tary, ad­dressed a school as­sem­bly in Mel­bourne. “We go abroad to face this … so that you can at­tend a Jewish school, you can live your life and be free from fear.” Jews since the First Fleet con­victs have known

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