The Legislative Assembly Chamber of Victoria’s Parliament House is an impressive and imposing space. Built in 1856, it immediately attracted the attention and admiration of Colonial Victorians. Its rich interior with gold-leaf columns, soaring ornate ceilings and dark wood panelling continues to command respect and speak of law and power. It’s in this place that the Monash Commemorative Service run by the Spirit of Australia Foundation, is held annually.
It’s a fitting space to remember a man who wielded so much power and influence in Victoria, pioneering the development of many of its iconic bridge, driving the building of the landmark Shrine of Remembrance, establishing and then chairing the State Electricity Commission of Victoria.
John Monash was a man of extraordinary talent, a polymath and renaissance individual; musician, painter, engineer and lawyer. He is, however, best known for his skills as a military strategist and tactician. His leadership during the First Great War on the battlefields of France – Villers Bretonneaux, Hamel and Amiens – is legendary and he is attributed with turning the tide of the war.
Every year in our Legislative Assembly (and in Sydney) this commemoration marks his memory and his impact on Australia. It is a formal and dignified Ceremony with the official party sitting in the leadership seats of the Parliament, a piper playing a musical item, the National Anthem, the Last Post and a minute of silence. The ceremony opens and closes with a catafalque Party from the ADF. A catafalque party is usually a guard of four that stands watch over the coffin of a distinguished person or monument. On this occasion the four soldiers (men and women) their heads bowed, their weapons facing downwards, enter with a dramatic march and remain silently and statuesquely in place throughout.
The service is usually addressed by the Premier or his representative (the Hon. Robin Scott was this year’s rep), a senior member of the military (this year, Brigadier Douglas Laidlaw, Commander 4th Brigade), and a talk by the Sir John Monash Scholar, the outstanding individual who has won the coveted scholarship. This year the scholar was Sonia Loudon, a gifted teacher who is Lead Teacher and Head of Science in her school. She used the scholarship to study Education Policy and Management at Harvard.
I’ve attended these services for the last decade but was particularly struck by Sonia’s talk as she chose to focus on a sometimes overlooked dimension of the multifaceted Monash. Invariably the talks concentrate on Monash’s military genius, his rapport with his men, his heroic status. Sonia however decided to talk about John’s passion for education: not only did Monash’s teachers foster his precocious talent, but he himself was committed to advancing his own knowledge wherever possible. At the age of 16 he was dux in maths and modern languages and equal dux of Scotch College. He would go on to become a Doctor of Law (Melbourne), Civil Law (Oxford) and Doctor of Laws at Cambridge. On the Monash University website, it refers to the university’s namesake saying “He was a man who used education to turn his natural talent into ability, allowing him to realise his daring ambitions”. Monash himself called on us “to educate yourself not solely for your own benefit but for the benefit of the whole community”. Monash practised what he preached; or as its been put, he learned it, he taught it, he lived it.
Listening to Sonia it occurred to me that this was as much an expression of his Jewishness as was his pursuit of justice. John Monash or Yakov ben Yosef was unabashedly Jewish, a Board member of St Kilda Shule and Hon Vice President of the Zionist Federation of Australia. He was unmistakably Jewish in that he studied law and played the violin! He also imbibed the “yekker” need for precision from his Prussian parents… But most of all he loved education, pursuing it, promoting it and ensuring that it, like democracy, became part of the fabric of the nascent Australian nation. At the end of the war, he repudiated the fascists who urged him to seize power saying: “The best hope for Australia is the ballot box and good education”, words that are inscribed on the base of the sculpture of Monash dedicated at the War Museum in Canberra last year. He also went on to become Vice Chancellor of Melbourne University.
Reciting the prayer for Monash at Parliament House (as well as my prayer for Australia), in the presence, not only of dignitaries, but about 100 schoolchildren from secondary schools across Melbourne, I was filled with pride and gratitude. Pride at this Moshe of his day – a leader dedicated not only to policy, but to people -power through education. A man who intuitively grasped the profound insight of Moses in the Book of Devarim or Deuteronomy namely that the survival of a nation lies in its commitment to knowledge : Teach your children well (Deuteronomy 6:7) .We are probably the world’s first education nation .We need to teach all our children about this remarkable man because it will teach them what it is to be an Australian, we need to educate our Jewish kids about this confident Jew who cared not only for himself, but contributed to the education and good of his country, if not humanity.
I felt an enormous debt of gratitude towards Sir John for making Australia a place where a Jew can feel so much at home.
May his memory continue to inspire us to learn, teach, dream and achieve, to work for the common good and to be committed citizens.
Brig Laidlaw CSC,Commander 4 Brigade, Rabbi Ralph Genende OAM, Hon General James Rosenberg -Chair Monash Foundation, Sonia Loudin Monash Scholar 2018