What are Australian Jews doing to ‘welcome the stranger’?

Jewish history is a history of refugees. Ever since biblical times our people have suffered and fled from slavery, expulsions, persecution, pogroms, wars, terror and extermination. Our experience as refugees is close to the core of how we think of ourselves as a people. And our history has its counterpart in Jewish law, the Torah’s repeated injunctions to remember that we were slaves in Egypt and not to wrong the stranger. Indeed the law goes further – we are commanded not only to love our neighbour but also, often harder, to love the stranger.1

So how has the Jewish community in Australia responded to Australia’s treatment of people seeking asylum over the past few years and to the current massive international refugee crises?2 As Jews, have we felt obliged to help? Is there meaningful collective engagement? What about Jewish individuals working to alleviate the suffering of refugees, and to make Australian policies and practices more humane?

The formal responses from peak roof bodies like the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) and NSW Jewish Board of Deputies (NSWJBD) include compassionate refugee policies on their websites – see ECAJ policy here (sections 7 and 7a) and NSWJBD Statement on Updated Refugee Policy 17 Sep 2013 here. But neither has provided leadership on this issue during recent years, when Australia’s treatment of many refugees and people seeking asylum has been widely characterised as harsh and unjust. Mark Leibler, the head of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) spoke for many in the community when he said he would have expected a more vigorous championing of asylum seeker rights from the ECAJ, as the peak Jewish body in Australia.3

After the death of Reza Barati on Manus Island in February 2014, the NSWJBD plenum passed a resolution seeking to have the ECAJ make representations to the federal government to ensure humane treatment of people in detention centres, including on Manus Island and Nauru. However Deputies involved at the time say they subsequently received no report of any such representations or of any substantial action by either body on behalf of refugees.

The ECAJ and NSWJBD did each issue a statement in September 2015, after the Abbott government announced that Australia would accept 12,000 Syrian refugees.4 Both statements welcomed the acceptance of those refugees fleeing persecution. They did not mention individuals and families seeking asylum and detained under Australian policies in off-shore facilities.

One possible explanation for such limited engagement may have been the degree to which the federal government was invested in its “stop the boats” policy and the hostility with which any critics of it were being received. Another probably lies in the fact that most people seeking asylum in recent years have been Muslims and it is known that there is concern among a section of the Jewish community about the effect of an influx of Muslims into Australia. Some leaders have apparently been reluctant to take a stand that could be controversial within the Jewish community.

It has thus been left primarily to non-peak organisations and individuals in the Jewish community to act on Jewish values in relation to the treatment of refugees and people seeking asylum. Australian Jewish bodies that have stood up for justice and humane treatment for people seeking asylum include for example AIJAC, the Australian Jewish Democratic Society, B’nai B’rith Australia/New Zealand 5 , the New Israel Fund Australia Foundation, the Rabbinical Council of Victoria, Stand Up (formerly Jewish Aid Australia) and the Union for Progressive Judaism. Some synagogues have also run social justice programmes that support and assist refugees and people in detention who are seeking asylum.6

A number of Jewish people have leading roles as individuals or in organisations assisting refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia. We asked a few of them to tell briefly about their work in this area and its connection to their Jewish beliefs or identity.

Philip Feinstein
Music for Refugees

Q: Can you tell us briefly about your work?
Philip: I am a musician, and seven years ago I started Music for Refugees. I go to the Villawood Detention Centre and other Sydney centres to arrange music jams and lessons for the adults, plus music lessons and games for the kids. I also collect instruments via public donations to distribute to people seeking asylum and refugees both in and out of detention. I organise musicians to visit other detention centres, and I freight instruments to Manus Island, Nauru, Christmas Island and other out-of-the-way centres. I also run meetings to inform the public about the plight of people seeking asylum and refugees.

Q: What has motivated you to devote your time in this way?
Philip: I suspect my Jewish South African apartheid-era background led me to this path. Living on the fringes of Johannesburg, I used to hide in the bush on Sundays watching the Africans’ Sunday church services. Their singing and harmonies were amazing. I found my father’s disapproval, and his support for the Nationalists in power, strange and hypocritical, as I find many attitudes I encounter in our community today.

I am a fanatic about self-esteem for each person. I used to stutter very badly, and was also a heavy smoker. Eventually I discovered a stop smoking program (which I now own and run), based on behaviour modification and personal growth, that not only enabled me to quit smoking but also to stop stuttering—because of the positive development of my self-confidence. My subsequent work with refugees and other disadvantaged groups has stemmed from my belief in the crucial importance of self-esteem for everyone.

Q: What kind of engagement would you like to see from the Jewish community?
Philip: Although there are many Jewish people who donate instruments and help in other ways, I am disappointed by the numerous members of the Jewish community who, despite coming from refugee backgrounds, tend to just sit back and criticise. They lack empathy and understanding of people who are going through such trying circumstances.

Our community can help in many ways—as volunteers, by donating money, attending refugee meetings, or by simply marching behind the “Jews for Refugees” banner at rallies.

To learn more:



George Newhouse with the late Harry Freeman
George Newhouse with the late Harry Freedman

George Newhouse
Social Justice Special Counsel

Q: Please outline briefly the legal work you do to aid refugees.
George: My work with refugees began when the late Harry Freedman and I represented Vivian Solon, who was wrongfully deported from Australia to the Philippines, and Cornelia Rau, who had a mental illness and was wrongfully detained in an Australian detention centre for ten months.

The cases of these two vulnerable women changed the way Australians viewed the immigration detention system and led to reforms implemented by Prime Minister John Howard, but since then the “cowboy culture” has returned in the form of the Australian Border Force.

Sadly, people seeking asylum have become political pawns and in recent times Ministers for Immigration have dismantled basic protections for them, such as media scrutiny, transparency, due process and access to proper medical care in detention, with the consequence that vulnerable lives are being destroyed. This is evidenced by the recent tragic and unnecessary death of Fazel Chagini on Christmas Island and the difficulties that Abyan, a 23-year-old Somalian rape victim on Nauru had in accessing appropriate medical treatment in Nauru and, later, in Australia.

It is one thing to have a strong border protection policy; it is another knowingly to allow men, women and children to be harmed in our care.

The sorts of people I have helped include families of people who have died in Immigration detention or in boat tragedies. My focus is on Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. I have assisted individuals who faced a variety of serious problems including orphaned shipwreck survivors, people detained on the high seas in danger of return to their persecutors; and sick and vulnerable people in detention.

In 2013, together with Julian Burnside and Dan Mori, I mounted a constitutional challenge to the detention of asylum seekers on Nauru. I have championed the use of the common law duty of care to have children released from fenced detention and I have acted for the families of the deceased in three Australian inquests into refugee boats that sank at sea.

Q: Is your personal commitment to this work connected to your Jewish identity?
George: My work is inextricably tied to my Jewish identity. I was imbued with a tradition of service to the vulnerable in the community. My grandfather had visited refugee camps after World War II to assist orphaned Holocaust survivors come to Australia for a new life, and both he and my father had a long history of service to the Jewish community in Sydney and in Brisbane.

I grew up around Holocaust survivors and learned their history. I cannot look at those who have fled violence and war and who risk death on their return without empathising with them, given the experience in Europe and of those who attempted to flee to Palestine but were detained in Cyprus by the British Government.

Finally, my many years of religious education have had an impact on me – in particular the concept of tikkun olam.

Q: What kind of engagement on this issue would you like to see from the Australian Jewish community?
George: I find many Jewish people are touched by the plight of refugees and are supportive of better processes and standards of care but, as with the broader Australian community, this concern does not always translate into a public call for change to government and policy-makers.

It might assist if the Jewish community spoke out about the systemic injustice and cruelty. This might be through calling for proper process, transparency, proper medical care, the sharing of their own refugee experience (especially the antisemitic prejudice suffered by Jewish refugees coming to Australia) and explaining the background to the Refugee Convention.

Many Australians are not aware that Jews seeking asylum were turned away from Western and other countries prior to and during the Holocaust, and many were returned to their death at the hands of the Nazis.

Also, with government support cut to many NGOs and legal centres that assist refugees, financial or volunteer support from members of the Jewish community would be helpful.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?
George: The conflict between border security and the treatment of asylum seekers is a vexed issue but consecutive governments have dehumanised people seeking asylum to the point where many Australians are no longer able to empathise with their plight. I don’t have the answer to that conundrum but I am hoping that a more balanced approach will prevail under the Turnbull and subsequent Australian Governments and that we can put the worst behind us.



Robin Rothfield
Robin Rothfield
National Co-Convenor and Victorian Secretary, Labor for Refugees

Nizza Siano
Nizza Siano
National Secretary and NSW Secretary, Labor for Refugees

Q: What is Labor for Refugees? What roles do you play?
Robin: Labor for Refugees is a lobby group within the ALP. The group has published Alternatives to Offshore Processing in 2013 and The Drownings Argument in 2014. We make submissions to various inquiries and to try and influence the ALP platform at National Conference. Early this year we commissioned opinion research in two Queensland marginal electorates to ascertain the extent to which refugee issues are likely to affect voting at the federal election.

Nizza: Labor for Refugees started in 2001 with a commitment to update and improve Labor Party Policy on refugees and people seeking asylum. I believe that Labor is the only party that can effectively challenge the Coalition Government’s refugee policies. However, in order to do that credibly, Labor’s leadership needs to grow a spine, show some leadership and reflect the more progressive views of the majority of its own membership, by adopting a more humane and realistic refugee policy.

In addition to the lobbying mentioned by Robin, our work includes liaising with like-minded refugee advocacy groups such as Amnesty International and the Refugee Council of Australia and we are represented at refugee rallies and marches.

Q: Is there anything Jewish about your commitment to helping refugees?
Robin: My interest in refugee policy started with the East Timor uprising and referendum of 1998/1999. My Jewish background fed into this interest as I have been brought up to support the underdog. I felt a bond with the East Timorese.

Nizza: I am the daughter of Holocaust survivors. My grandparents on both sides were killed in concentration camps. My parents were socialists and secular Jews, and we migrated to Australia from Israel when I was a child. My family history has bred in me an innate horror of prejudice and racism, and has given me empathy with migrants, refugees, people seeking asylum and anyone who is being persecuted. I was an official in the trade union movement for over 20 years, and I have always been attracted to work that allows me to represent and defend the underdog.

Q: What can the Jewish community do to help?
Robin: I would like to see strong representation to the Government and Opposition from the Jewish community, explaining why we find their policies unacceptable.

Nizza: I am always hopeful that the Jewish community, with its history, will be foremost in supporting refugees and welcoming those fleeing persecution. Over the years, I have been bitterly disappointed. I felt like an outsider when I read the major Jewish media source, The Australian Jewish News, because I could not see my voice reflected in that paper, particularly regarding the Palestinian/Israeli conflict and criticism of policies of the Israeli Government. With the expansion of progressive Jewish groups in Australia, I no longer feel isolated. I support a diversity of media publications because there is a much wider range of views within the community than finds expression in the Australian Jewish News.

I hope that the Jewish community becomes more outspoken about the suffering of refugees world wide, and lobbies our politicians so that Australia does its fair share in alleviating this crisis. The problems will only become worse as the refugee flows increase due to war and persecution, but also because of climate change catastrophes.

Q: Anything you would like to add?
Robin: Good on you for taking up this issue!

Nizza: Apathy and our feelings of powerlessness are big challenges. We can overcome these by becoming active citizens.

To learn more:



Garry Samowitz
Gary Samowitz
Chief Executive Officer, Stand Up (formerly Jewish Aid Australia)

Q: What does Stand Up do?
Gary: For over 10 years Stand Up has been providing settlement support to newly arrived Sudanese refugees. Activities include weekly homework clubs, women’s groups, a mentoring program and leadership training. We have over 60 volunteers each week who help the Darfuri and Nuba Mountain communities to feel at home and thrive in Australia.

We also set up a campaign, What Would You Do?, aimed to inject compassion back into the Australian discourse on people seeking asylum.

Q: What is Jewish about this work?
Gary: The most repeated line in the Torah is to ”welcome the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” To paraphrase: “Welcome the refugees, for you were refugees in the land of Australia.” There are also many Jewish teachings that encourage us to support the weak, the vulnerable and the ill. As an established community we are privileged to be in a position to help refugees find jobs, learn English and feel welcome.

At Stand Up we see the empowerment of refugees as a deeply Jewish act, and we are proud of the work we do in building positive relationships between the Jewish community and the Sudanese community, and a stronger, more cohesive multicultural society.

Q: Is there anything you would like to see from the Australian Jewish community?
Gary: While we are genuinely pleased to see some of our organisations issuing strong statements about people seeking asylum, we believe more needs to be done, especially by our peak bodies, and also by each member of the community. Our leadership organisations need to use their membership, leverage and strength to help drive compassion in the community. We need more people talking to their politicians and using social media to condemn cruelty and encourage humanity. Our community has the capacity to lead on this issue and we should use it.

Q: Would you like to add anything else?
Gary: If you share the vision for an Australia that welcomes refugees and fosters compassion, you can donate to our work or get involved as a volunteer.
To learn more:



Lucy Taksa
Prof. Lucy Taksa
Independent Board Member of Settlement Services International Inc. (SSI)

Q: What led to your interest in helping refugees?
Lucy: I arrived at Pyrmont Wharves, Sydney, in 1961 from Poland with my parents and grandparents. Members of my family found work with the help of the Jewish Welfare Society (now Jewish Care) and our settlement was also aided by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. My family’s experiences made me particularly sensitive to the plight of refugees and migrants and inspired me to enact the Jewish principles of tikkun olam – repairing the world through social action and the pursuit of social justice; chesed – kindness; and tzedakah – promoting justice or fairness by giving the poor their due so that they are enabled to become self-reliant.

Q: You are on the SSI Board. What does SSI do?
Lucy: SSI, the peak representative body for the 11 Migrant Resource Centres and Multicultural Services across NSW, offers the sort of support that the Jewish Welfare Society provided for my family over 50 years ago.

SSI activities also include a multicultural foster care service for refugee children, a range of housing assistance and employment services, a disability support program called Ability Links, and the Ignite Small Business Start-up program for new refugee entrepreneurs. Community outreach initiatives include a community kitchen, a multicultural playgroup, sporting activities and an arts and culture program. The Foundation, recently relaunched, aims to directly support educational opportunities through scholarships and grants.

Q: Is there a role for the community to help SSI?
Lucy: I would like to see members of the Jewish community engage with some of the SSI activities. In particular, the Ignite Small Business Start-up program would benefit from mentors, and university scholarships are needed for refugee youth who are prevented from tertiary study by being charged the same fees as international students. Perhaps, too, Jewish philanthropists engaged in supporting the arts could consider providing support to refugee artists.

To learn more:

Refugee or Person Seeking Asylum?

The term “refugee” is sometimes used to refer to both refugees and people seeking asylum.  Legally, however, there is a distinction.

Who are people seeking asylum and who are refugees?

A person seeking asylum is a person who has fled her or his own country and applied for protection as a refugee.

The United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees defines who is a refugee and sets out the basic rights that countries should guarantee to refugees. According to the Convention, a refugee is a person who is outside her or his own country and is unable or unwilling to return due to a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of her or his:

  • race
  • religion
  • nationality
  • membership of a particular social group or
  • political opinion.

People seeking asylum and refugees flee their country for their own safety and cannot return unless the situation that forced them to leave improves.

What are Australia’s human rights obligations in relation to people seeking asylum and refugees?

Australia has international obligations to protect the human rights of all people seeking asylum and refugees who arrive in Australia, regardless of how or where they arrive and whether they arrive with or without a visa.

While people seeking asylum and refugees engage Australia’s jurisdiction, the Australian Government has treaty obligations to ensure that their human rights are respected and protected. These rights include the right not to be arbitrarily detained.

As a party to the Refugee Convention, Australia has agreed to ensure that people seeking asylum who meet the definition of a refugee are not sent back to a country where their life or freedom would be threatened.

Australia also has obligations not to return people who face a real risk of violation of certain human rights, and not to send them to third countries where they face such a risk. These obligations also apply to people who have not been found to be refugees.


1. See e.g. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks – ‘Love the stranger’ calls to us now.
2. For the legal distinction between a person seeking asylum and a refugee, see explanation immediately preceding these endnotes.
3. ‘Leibler slams ECAJ over asylum seeker stance’, Australian Jewish News, August 9, 2013
4. See e.g. ECAJ Media Statement ‘Humanitarian Crisis and Conflicts in Syria and Iraq’ 9 September 2015
5. Although the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith has not actively supported people seeking asylum in Australia.
6. For example, in Sydney, Emanuel Synagogue, and Temple Emanuel North Shore and, in Melbourne, the Leo Baeck Centre and the Caulfield Hebrew Congregation.

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