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Masel, Alec (1898–1988)

by J. S. Levi

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Alec Masel (1898-1988), solicitor and Jewish community leader, was born on 1 September 1898 at Fremantle, Western Australia, eldest of four sons of Russian-born parents Esor Masel, jeweller, and his wife Leah, née Cohen. Philip Masel was his brother. Educated at Christian Brothers’ College, Perth (dux 1914), Alec studied at the University of Western Australia (BA, 1918), where he was encouraged by (Sir) Walter Murdoch to read law at the University of Melbourne (LL.B, 1921). In Melbourne his interest in Jewish communal matters—at 15 he had been president of the WA Junior Zionist Society—brought him to the attention of Michael Philip Fox in whose office he served his articles. He joined P. D. Phillips, Fox & Overend in 1922 and quickly became a partner in the firm. With a remarkable network of contacts and particular expertise in insurance law, he rose to senior partner in the renamed Phillips, Fox & Masel.

On 28 November 1922 at the St Kilda Synagogue Masel married Marie Schwartz. Increasingly involved in Jewish affairs, he was elected to the board of management of the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation in 1925 (president 1940, 1951). Enthused by Rabbi Brodie’s calls for Jewish solidarity, in 1927 he became a founding member (president 1941-45) of the Zionist Federation of Australia, for which he drafted the constitution, and successfully approached Sir John Monash to serve as president.

The debate surrounding Dr Isaac Steinberg’s campaign, beginning in 1939, to resettle persecuted European Jews in the East Kimberley region, forced Masel to tread a fine line in Jewish communal politics. While holding deep sympathy for Hitler’s victims, he knew the proposal was doomed and declared that Palestine was the only appropriate place for large-scale Jewish settlement. Sir Isaac Isaacs was openly critical of Zionism, and Masel—who held Isaacs in high personal esteem—tactfully challenged his views. By April 1944, then chairman (1942-46) of the Victorian Jewish Advisory Board, he was sufficiently angered by Jewish communal silence in the face of xenophobia and bigotry to publicly declare: ‘if at a time when our fellow Jews in Europe are reaching out their arms to us crying “Save us from death” we even contemplate remaining silent for fear of anti-semitic reactions, we are nothing else but cowards and traitors’.

Rejected on medical reasons for military service in World War II, Masel became chairman of the Armed Services Division, South-West Pacific Area, National Jewish Welfare Board of the United States of America, which cared for the spiritual needs of Jewish soldiers in that theatre. As honorary treasurer (1939-46) and president (1946-47) of the Australian Jewish Welfare and Relief Society, he fought for the admission of Jewish refugees into Australia at a time when severe restrictions were placed on the number of Jews permitted in ships bringing migrants to Australia.

The desire for a more co-ordinated and forceful representation of Jewish interests led to Masel’s outstanding achievement: in August 1944 he led the creation of the lay-led Executive Council of Australian Jewry, which replaced the unrepresentative, patrician Congregational Advisory Board. He served (1945-46) as its first president. While he was sometimes severe in his public leadership, his personal acquaintance with Arthur Calwell, who became minister for immigration in 1945, assisted Masel in making the case for postwar Jewish migration. In 1946-47 he was appointed a government envoy to Shanghai, China, to investigate the problems encountered by stateless Jewish refugees attempting to migrate to Australia. Despite the unsympathetic bureaucratic maze he encountered in China, his visit facilitated the migration of over 1600 people.

Putting aside most of his communal offices by 1947, although remaining a prominent speaker on Jewish affairs, Masel continued to practise as a solicitor, serving (1966-69) as chairman of the Chief Justice’s Statutory Committee. He was respected for his integrity and remained a consultant to Phillips Fox after his retirement in 1986. Appointed OBE (1972), he held several company directorships, became the senior trustee of Mount Scopus Memorial College, served as president of the Victorian Jewish War Services Association and helped to found the Young Men’s Hebrew Association. Predeceased (1982) by his wife, he died on 2 January 1988 at Prahran, survived by his two sons, and was buried in Chevra Kadisha cemetery, Springvale. A prize in civil procedure was established at Monash University in his honour.

Select Bibliography

  • H. L. Rubinstein, The Jews in Australia, vol 1 (1991)
  • J. Aron and J. Arndt, The Enduring Remnant (1992)
  • R. Benjamin, ‘A Serious Influx of Jews’ (1998)
  • Law Institute Journal, vol 60, no 12, 1986, p 1364
  • Australian Jewish Historical Society Journal, vol 29, no 2, 2008, p 269
  • A. Masel scrapbook (Australian Jewish Historical Society records, State Library of Victoria)
  • private information.

Citation details

J. S. Levi, 'Masel, Alec (1898–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/masel-alec-14942/text26131, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 19 January 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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