Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ashkanasy, Maurice (1901–1971)

by Zelman Cowen

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Maurice Ashkanasy, 1970

Maurice Ashkanasy, 1970

photo supplied by family

Maurice Ashkanasy (1901-1971), barrister and Jewish community leader, was born on 3 October 1901 at Mile End Old Town, London, and named Moses, third child of Solomon Ashckinasy, a tailor's cutter from Palestine, and his Russian-born wife Annie, née Cohen. The family came to Australia when Maurice was 9 and settled in Melbourne. Their resources were meagre: Solomon was primarily a traditional Jewish scholar and Annie augmented his income by hawking clothes. Educated at state schools, among them Melbourne High School, Maurice studied law at the University of Melbourne (LL.B., 1923; LL.M., 1924) and was awarded the Hastie exhibition (1919) for psychology, logic and ethics. He was admitted to the Bar in May 1924 and read with (Sir) Robert Menzies, with whom he maintained a lifelong friendship. On 29 June 1927 Ashkanasy married Heather Helen Epstein at the East Melbourne Synagogue. He steadily built up a varied practice and took silk in 1940.

On 2 July 1940 Ashkanasy transferred from the Reserve of Officers to the Australian Imperial Force, with the rank of lieutenant. He embarked on 3 February 1941 with the 8th Division for Singapore, served as deputy assistant adjutant-general and legal officer, A.I.F., Malaya, and was promoted major in October. When Singapore fell on 15 February 1942, he made an adventurous escape with a small group in a lifeboat; they finally reached Fremantle, Western Australia, by way of the Netherlands East Indies. He continued to serve as assistant adjutant-general, with the rank of lieutenant colonel, in III, I and II Corps, and New Guinea Force, and was mentioned in dispatches. In September 1944 he ceased active duty and in February 1945 returned to the reserve with the rank of honorary colonel.

Ashkanasy resumed his career at the Bar and established a reputation as a leader. A generalist, he appeared in a wide range of causes and jurisdictions. His work was thorough, his advocacy powerful and skilful; he was widely (and at times warily) recognized as a strategist whose skills and success in negotiating settlements were highly satisfactory to his clients. Elected vice-chairman of the Victorian Bar Council in March 1952, he was chairman in 1953-56. He helped to alleviate the shortage of suitable chamber accommodation by supporting the proposal to plan, finance and construct Owen Dixon Chambers as a principal home for the Victorian Bar and played a major role in promoting other projects which contributed significantly to the welfare, prestige and strength of the Bar. Ashkanasy was also chairman of the Victorian and vice-president of the Australian sections of the International Commission of Jurists. An active member of the Australian Labor Party, he stood unsuccessfully for the Federal seat of Balaclava in 1946 and for the Senate in 1958.

Throughout his life Ashkanasy was deeply involved in Jewish community affairs, interests and causes. He saw the Zionist aspiration translated into reality with the establishment of the State of Israel, of which he was a staunch and articulate advocate. Within Australia he promoted at State and national levels effective organizational structures for Jewish community life, in particular those which enabled a Jewish viewpoint to be presented to governments and to the nation. His work assumed increasing importance as the Australian Jewish community grew in size and diversity in the postwar years.

In the early 1920s Ashkanasy had taken a leading part in the foundation of the Judaean League, an umbrella organization for Jewish youth, sporting and cultural groups. His belief that the 'totality of Jewish life' should be expressed through central community organizations (representing a wide variety of institutions, clubs and congregations) was fulfilled in 1947 when, largely under his leadership and guidance, the Victorian Jewish Board of Deputies was established; he was its foundation president. At the national level, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry had been established in 1944; Ashkanasy served as its president five times over the next two decades. He successfully presented Australian claims to postwar German reparations bodies and backed the Melbourne Jewish day-school, Mount Scopus College, where his name is honoured. For long a central figure in most aspects of Jewish communal life in Australia, he gave firm and purposeful—if somewhat dictatorial and at times controversial—leadership to the community. He was appointed C.M.G. in 1961.

Survived by his wife, daughter and two sons, Ashkanasy died of heart disease on 2 April 1971 at his Frankston holiday home and was buried in Springvale cemetery; his estate was sworn for probate at $159,389. William Kaye, the chairman of the Victorian Bar Council, spoke of Ashkanasy's eminence as a Queen's Counsel and as a leader of the Bar. Special mention was made of his appearances for indigent persons on the brief of the public solicitor and of the way he had encouraged young barristers. A national Jewish award is named in his honour.

Select Bibliography

  • K. Anderson, Fossil in the Sandstone (Melb, 1986)
  • H. L. Rubinstein, Chosen, the Jews in Australia (Syd, 1987)
  • Australian and New Zealand Jewish Year Book 1988
  • Herald (Melbourne), 2 Oct 1968
  • Age (Melbourne), 3 Apr 1971
  • Australian Jewish Times, 8 Apr 1971.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Zelman Cowen, 'Ashkanasy, Maurice (1901–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ashkanasy-maurice-9391/text16501, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 18 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2017

Maurice Ashkanasy, 1970

Maurice Ashkanasy, 1970

photo supplied by family