Previous attemptsIt is not the first time that Australia has been targetted as a new homeland - in the 1930s Sir Isaac Steinberg began a campaign to establish a Jewish homeland in the Kimberley for his people who were being persecuted across Europe. The scheme to relocate 75,000 Jews onto their own farms had astonishing support by modern standards, both financially and politically. There was also serious consideration given to Tasmania as a Judaic homeland! All I can say is, the fishing in the Dead Sea must be pretty special for Israel for get the nod over these two spots.
Relocating Israel in Australia: crazy or not?
Dr Bob Birell from Monash University disputes my fishing theory and suggests that the Jeiwsh relocation scheme failed because Australia could not reconcile its assimilationist policy at the time with the idea of an ethnic enclave - the same reasons he thinks a New Maldives would never work in Australia ... but surely we could squeeze them in somewhere?
Melbourne journalist Leon Gettler takes us to the 1930s when the Kimberley region in Western Australia was proposed as a place of refuge for Europe's Jews before Australia gave up teritory in palestine, as part of Australia's claim to the ottoman empire, whome Australia defeated in world war one.
Rachael Kohn: The current pull-out of Jews from Gaza brings to mind another episode in the modern history of Jews trying to find a safe haven, this time in Australia in the 1930s.
Hello, I'm Rachael Kohn and this is The Ark on ABC Radio National.
Today, Melbourne journalist Leon Gettler takes us back to the early part of the 20th century when the Jews of Europe thought the Kimberley in Western Australia might provide a place of refuge.
Leon Gettler: In Russia, Tsarist officials were instigating anti-Jewish riots to divert attention away from poverty and social unrest that was happening there. And so you had mobs going on the rampage in southern provinces, murdering hundreds of Jews, destroying Jewish shops, homes, synagogues.
In a place like Kishinev which is a monastery town, in 1903, it was a slaughterhouse. I mean the rioters went on the rampage, they gauged out eyes, they smashed out skulls, and cut off breasts and castrated, hanged, hacked their victims to death, and police just sat by, didn't do anything.
Similarly in Germany there were mass meetings stirring up anti-Semitism, thugs were going around the streets hunting for Jews to bash. By the end of the 19th century many Jews were starting to realise that they could never be accepted as true citizens of Europe.
Rachael Kohn: Well with these movements against them, I guess it's no surprise that Jews were looking elsewhere for places to live, and that included the ancient land of Israel, but it also included other places. How did the Kimberley in north-west Australia compare to those other places where Jews tried to establish colonies?
Leon Gettler: You actually have to go back to the history of the Zionist movement.
The first Zionist Congress took place in the Swiss city of Basle in 1897 and they called for the establishment of a legally secured, publicly recognised home for the Jews in Palestine. The stumbling block though was the Ottoman Empire, which flatly rejected proposals of a Jewish State in Palestine, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire. So in 1903, Britain's Secretary for the Colonies, Joseph Chamberlain, hit upon a compromise solution by offering the Jews a territory in Uganda, in East Africa. And there was a huge amount of debate within the Zionist movement.
A group broke away, the Jewish Territorialist Organisation. Their aim was to procure land which could be established as a home for the Jews and run as an independent State. Around this time, we had a parallel movement coming up. It was under the guidance of a Jewish philanthropist, Baron Maurice de Hirsch. The pogroms of the turn of the century had convinced Hirsch that the Jews needed a haven where they could set themselves up safely as farmers. So he set aside $10-million, which was no small amount of money in those days, to form the Jewish Colonisation Association, which established settlements in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, and the US, but all these attempts came to nothing because the colonists abandoned the farms and moved to the cities.
Rachael Kohn: Well tell me about the man who promoted the Kimberley scheme, Isaac Steinberg, and the Freeland League which he represented.
Leon Gettler: The entire Kimberley episode is an extraordinary story because it was accelerated by one man, Steinberg. He was an unstoppable religious Jew from Russia, a former member of Lenin's Cabinet.
Rachael Kohn: So a Communist and a religious Jew?
Leon Gettler: A social revolutionary, left-winger and a religious Jew. He also got his Doctorate of Law at Heidelberg University; he had been expelled from Tsarist Russia for revolutionary activity. He was also a skilled politician. He spoke seven languages, and he had this tremendous force of personality.
Rachael Kohn: Well people who describe him are always amazed at his optimism. Clearly it came from his many skills.
Leon Gettler: Oh yes, yes, and not just his many skills, but he had an uncanny ability to bring people with him. It was he alone who galvanised such huge support for the Freeland League Scheme.
Rachael Kohn: Well Steinberg's idea of Jewish Kimberley was pretty thoroughgoing. Can you give some idea of the scale of what he planned to achieve there in this remote wilderness in the north-west of Australia?
Leon Gettler: He envisaged setting up a settlement over a huge area for 75,000 Jewish refugees. They envisaged these refugees taming the wilderness by establishing farms for livestock and growing crops. These farms, they said, would provide raw materials for secondary industries, such as tanning, canning fruits and vegetables, manufacturing jams, making leather products, mats, bricks. The settlers, they saw would dam rivers, including the Ord, they would build scientific and hydro electricity stations. It was going to be an agricultural miracle that would not only populate the north, but also boost exports, create new exports and stimulate economic growth.
Rachael Kohn: But this would be an entirely Jewish community, wouldn't it?
Leon Gettler: Oh yes. The idea was that they would have complete cultural autonomy, although they would follow the laws of the nation. So they weren't talking about a Jewish State, per se, but a Jewish colony.
At the time, his writings were waxing lyrical about the opportunity for a total re-birth in a world free from the age-old hatreds of Europe. And it was a world where settlers would write Jewish poems in Yiddish about the kangaroo and the kookaburra. And he said, you know, 'Yet their voice would be the voice of Israel, and the sigh of their songs would be Jewish'. And this was what it was all about, it was going to be a rebirth of the Jewish nation in the Kimberley.
Rachael Kohn: Well it may seem improbable today, but he did gain a great deal of support from some very impressive people in Australia. Can you talk about his supporters, which included the Duracks, the great pastoralist family.
Leon Gettler: Well it was actually the Duracks' land. They had actually gone out with him to explore the area. The bottom had fallen out of the beef industry at that time, this is the '30s, and they needed to offload that land.
Now Steinberg provided a perfect opportunity.
But there was also a huge number of supporters from all over Australia. Labor politicians, like John Cain Sr, Conservatives like Frederick Eccleston, there were leading businessmen, scientists, judges, media representatives, including the then Chairman of the ABC, William Cleary. There was a former New South Wales Premier and Supreme Court Judge, Sir Thomas Bavin, there was a Commonwealth Minister for Repatriation, Eric Harrison, there was a designer of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Dr John Bradfield. It was huge.
Rachael Kohn: What sort of arguments would they be putting forward? I know there was some concern about security in Australia, but what other kinds of arguments did these supporters use?
Leon Gettler: Australia was very much caught in a dilemma. On one hand they had huge reservations about an influx of alien migrants; on the other hand there was a view about we had to populate or perish.
Australian governments and commentators were only too well aware that the country needed more people. In 1937 the Australian population stood at less than 7-million people. Just a few hundred kilometres to the north there were 42-million on the islands of Java and Manjura. Of course there was China, just the Shantung province alone, I think boasted about 35-million people. Japan's population at the time I think was 69-million. Also what was a worry was that there was enormous concentration of Australians in the south-east. You know, one in three Australians were living in Melbourne and Sydney. Many Australians were concerned that Australia's open spaces were an invitation for "Asiatic hordes".
Rachael Kohn: Well I was surprised to read in your book about the Kimberley Scheme, which is called An Unpromised Land, that even Archbishop Mannix of Melbourne threw his support behind it. Was he responding to the worsening situation for Jews under Hitler?
Leon Gettler: Oh yes. And it was actually quite remarkable. It was a rare display of unity. You had Archbishop Mannix saying this scheme would "wipe out the stain upon our common humanity". You had his Anglican counterpart, Dr Howard Mowll, in Sydney, urging the government to sanction the project. You know there were calls of support also from the Primate of Australia, the Moderator-General of the Presbyterian Church, Reverend Robert Wilson Macaulay; and the President-General of the Methodist Church, Reverend Weller.
The most vocal ally was the Anglican Bishop Coadjutor of Sydney, Charles Venn Pilcher, and he was getting involved in a whole lot of organisations promoting Jewish causes, including the New South Wales Council of Christians and Jews, the Australian Council for Jewish Rights, the Inter-Church Committee for non-Aryan Christian Refugees, and the New South Wales Australia-Palestine Committee. And during the war, Pilcher was campaigning vigorously against the prejudice that was confronting migrants arriving in Australia, and he was saying Australians were playing Hitler's game by refusing to help refugees.
Rachael Kohn: Despite the difficulties that Jews were experiencing in Europe, one can easily imagine how the idea of a large Jewish semi-autonomous settlement in the country would arouse the suspicions of anyone with even a moderate sense of national unity. Is it any wonder to you that this scheme also brought out the Jew-baiters?
Leon Gettler: Oh yes. You had for example the Bulletin in 1940, warned of Jews "swarming into the cities", and I quote here "even if they have to burrow under wire netting". I mean it's almost Hitlerian. But you had it among politicians, you had in the Legislative Council in Western Australia, there was a guy called Charles Bennett Williams who came out with a speech which dripped with anti-Semitic vitriol. And also actually in the public service there was some concern.
I found a memo going back to 1936. It was a Department of the Interior official, a guy called Garrett, and he said, 'Jews as a class are not desirable immigrants for the reason they do not assimilate.' And two years later he wrote, 'They're highly intelligent as a class; they usually make a success of whatever occupation or business they follow, but in view of their separate religious beliefs and strict rules as regards to marriage, they become a separate race.
Rachael Kohn: But the trouble is, with the Kimberley scheme, that sort of suspicion and that sort of view would certainly be confirmed because here was a scheme that was intent on establishing an autonomous, separate Jewish community, and what's interesting about your study is you also point to the level of opposition amongst Jews in Australia.
Leon Gettler: Oh yes. Most Australian Jews up until the 1930s, had come from Great Britain or had strong links with the Mother Country as it was. And they were very anxious about their status as a non-British minority and adapted what you could describe as an ethic of Anglo conformity and non-distinctiveness. They worked hard to eliminate any distinctions between Jewish citizens and their Gentile neighbours, so attitudes, languages, dress, behaviour were all expected to conform to the non-Jewish norm. The fact that Australians accepted Jews like Sir John Monash and Sir Isaac Isaacs, as luminaries, that for them was regarded as a high water mark of Jewish achievement.
Rachael Kohn: Well the Kimberley Scheme did not get endorsed in the end by the Commonwealth government, but the story almost took another turn when Tasmania offered a glimmer of hope.
Leon Gettler: It happened through a chap called Critchley Parker Junior. He was the son of a Melbourne mining magazine publisher. He was born in 1911. He and Steinberg had approached two Tasmanian premiers, A.G. Ogilvy and his successor, Robert Cosgrove, who were sympathetic to the idea, but of course then in 1941, you had the attack on Pearl Harbour, and war with Japan shot to the top of the political agenda, so the Australian Jewish Settlement sank to the bottom.
Parker though, was not to be deterred, so in March, 1942 he set out to survey his proposed homeland site in Tasmania's remote south-west. Now you don't even go there, even if you're a really good, experienced bushwalker. His extensive, fanciful plan for the settlement included a foundational mining industry, a fish canning factory, an Antarctic whaling venture, passenger shipping across Bass Strait, manufacture of liquors, perfumes, weaving of high quality fabrics, he even thought as far ahead as offering scholarships to poor nations and acquiring valuable works of art. What he never told Steinberg was that the Jewish settlement he envisaged was going to be called poinduk, apparently an Aboriginal word for Swan, and was to be modelled on Russian collectivism.
On this journey that he undertook, he went by boat to the base of Mount Mackenzie in the south-west, he had notebooks and letters and I've seen those, and he was on his own, and there were violent gales and he got lost. He lit an agreed distress signal, no-one answered. He survived for several weeks, surviving in the end on aspirin, and died. Critchley Parker was the only Australian martyr who died for a Jewish cause.
Rachael Kohn: Remarkable! But as Leon Gettler points out in his book, An Unpromised Land, Aboriginal claims to the country were not even considered an issue by Australia at the time.