Tour tells tale of Jews at war

THE role of Jewish soldiers in World War I will be recognised in a touring exhibition in the making.

Keith Shilkin from the Centenary of Anzac Jewish Program has been helping dig into the history and says the Jewish role in the war is largely a story of integration. He says there was anti-semitism—common at the time—but not on a systemic level. Most Jewish soldiers declared their religion when enlisting, with only few attempting to fly under the radar by pretending to be Presbyterian.

General John Monash—one of the war’s most distinguished soldiers—was viewed with suspicion more for his German blood than his Jewish heritage, and a Jewish monument was erected before the main state war memorial went up in Kings Park.

There were about 2000 Jewish people in WA at the time and 150 signed up—roughly the same proportion as the wider WA population, and often for similar motivations of national loyalty, Dr Shilkin says.

• Keith Shilkin and Alannah MacTiernan at the Jewish war memorial in King’s Park. 

• Keith Shilkin and Alannah MacTiernan at the Jewish war memorial in King’s Park.

Perth federal Labor MP Alannah MacTiernan worked with the local Jewish community to secure a grant for the exhibition.

She says the popular narrative that WWI, and particularly Gallipoli, forged our national identity is a bit off the mark: she argues Australia had already been forged by the shedding of Britain’s class system and its integration of Jewish migrants.

Ms MacTiernan says the Great War was simply the first time Australia was introduced to the world as a nation, and it was noticed that our troops didn’t bow and scrape to the officer classes as their British counterparts did.

“We’ve been a multicultural society for a long time,” Ms MacTiernan says, “and we’ve seen people come from a real diversity of backgrounds willing to chip in from very early on.”

When it tours next year the exhibition will feature historical documents, photos and stories, along with the historic Anzac Torah presented to Jewish chaplain Rabbi David Freedman by the chief Rabbi of Alexandria during WWI, but which went missing for many years.

by DAVID BELL

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