Jewish Treats pop quiz: Name the country whose first Jews arrived as convicts.

The history of the Jews of Australia is one of the most peaceful narratives in the annals of the Jewish diaspora. Organized anti-Semitism was almost unheard of “down under” until the second World War (after which, sadly, anti-Semitism became part of the country’s anti-refugee rhetoric, which has yet to be completely eliminated.)

Some have suggested that the lack of early anti-Semitism was due to the fact that the first Jews arrived on the initial transport of British convicts. It has been estimated that between 8 and 15 Jews were on board that first ship.

Initially, immigration was slow. The journey to Australia from any large Jewish population center was both long and dangerous. However, the discovery of gold in Australia in the 1850s brought an increase in immigration in general, including a surge in the Jewish population.

The gold rush created communities where none had been before, but many of them collapsed when the gold rush ended. For example, in 1896, a synagogue was built in the remote township of Coolgardie but was sold soon after in 1899, due to the decline of Jewish population. Most Jews ended up in the major cities.

After the gold rush, the Australian Jewish population remained relatively stable, although with a fairly high rate of assimilation, until after World War II. While tens of thousands of Jewish refugees were eventually allowed to settle in Australia, a new Australian nationalist movement (typical of the era) tried to block the waves of refugees.

Further Jewish immigration occurred in the 1980s and 90s, as Jews from both South Africa and the former Soviet Union sought refuge from the difficult living conditions in their native countries.

January 26 is Australia Day.

Copyright © 2010 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.