||Issue No. 136||17 May 2002|
Interview: Licking the Wounds
Industrial: The Accidental Tourist
Unions: Stars And Stripes
International: The Un-Promised Land
History: Mate Against Mate
Politics: Reith's Gong
Poetry: You've Got a Friend
Review: War on Terror: Now Showing
Satire: Burmese Regime Makes Genuine Commitment To Pretence Of Change
The Locker Room
Week in Review
More May Day Hate Mail
What Women Want
Chucking a Wobbly
Is Caustic Costello the Despot of Despair?
East Timor: Independent Or Mendicant?
The Un-Promised Land
He was the first People's Commissar for Justice after the Russian Revolution - a close comrade of V.I.Lenin - but they fell out and he escaped the Soviet Union just as the secret police were about to arrest him.
Two decades later he was gazing over the landscape of the Kimberley region of Western Australia - and promoting a new ideal, a new utopia - a homeland for the Jews in these far distant and isolated lands.
I.N. Steinberg had split from the Zionists and was promoting Territorialism - and for this vision he had the enthusiastic support of the ACTU, the NSW Labor Council and rank-and-file members of Perth unions and the Labor Party.
For many years in the late 30s and early 40s the London-based Isaac Steinberg was a regular visitor to Australia, trying to get the gates open to allow refugees to escape from the growing menace of Hitler's Nazis.
He put a lot of effort into lobbying unions, church groups and other community groups to back his vision of tens of thousands of Jews settling in an area just west of Wyndham in the Kimberley region - straddling the WA and NT border .
Before Steinberg a Yiddish poet and essayist Melech Ravitch visited the Northern Territory in the 1930s to investigate the region as a Jewish haven - collecting data on topography and climate he promoted a bigger number than Steinberg, suggesting the area could accommodate a million Jewish refugees.
Jewish Territorialism V Zionism
Jewish Territorialism had been a small, but competing, political ideology to Zionism since the end of the 19th century, led by Israel Zangwill - whose novels about the desperate lives of East-End London Jews was on a par with Charles Dickens's memorable novels.
Zangwill and the Territorialists had reservations about settling Jews in Palestine pointing out the disagreeable " facts of geography and history which Zionists have always refused to look in the face."
It is one of the great ' what ifs' of history - what would have happened if, instead of settling in Palestine, Australia had given the green light to this project and put aside a huge swathe of territory and created a Jewish state on our continent - much like the Mormon ' state' of Utah.
Today the campaign to create a Jewish territory in the north of WA is a forgotten footnote in history but in the late 30s and early 40s it was a much debated issue with editorials in newspapers, debates in union halls and state and federal parliament.
While The Canberra Time, The Age, Truth and the Sydney Morning Herald editorialised against Jewish migration and the settling of large populations of Jews in the Kimberley the Labor paper, the Australian Worker came out strongly behind the project.
Generous working class contribution to fighting Nazis
In an editorial the Australian Worker the project as " a generous working-class contribution toward the solution of the terrible refugee problem which Nazi persecution has created in Europe."
When Steinberg first arrived in Fremantle in 1939 his political pedigree was a source of fascination.
Letters of introduction from British Labour MPs Ernest Bevin and Clement Atlee meant he was quickly accepted, and invited to address Labor Party branch meetings and trade union members across Perth about his project for the Kimberleys.
The Labor newspaper the Westralian Worker hailed him as a man of strong Labor convictions.
" The presence of Dr Steinberg in Australia brings closer to us the persecutions now being suffered by the Jews in totalitarian countries and his mission is one to which it is impossible to remain indifferent," the Westralian Worker said.
The left-wing trade unions were quite enamoured of Isaac Steinberg's revolutionary pedigree. Union leaders attacked anti-Semitism as a tool of class oppression and urged the Government to bring in more refugees.
Steinberg was delighted with this response and returned the compliments announcing that he saw the workers and working class institutions as Australia's backbone and regarded their support as crucial to his success.
He met with union and Labor Party members wherever he could - including the then leader of the Federal opposition, John Curtin - and he wrote back to his supporters in Europe: 'I think we can now say with certainty that the workers of Perth are with us."
Visiting the east Steinberg was invited to address various ACTU and State TLC meetings in both Melbourne and Sydney. He got enthusiastic support from union leasers as he explained that the settlements would be run as a co-operative communal economy and serve as a refuge to those fleeing fascism.
The ACTU officially endorsed the scheme in 1940 and the TLCs around Australia passed resolutions approving it.
The then NSW Labor Council secretary, R.A. King, described the project as ' a haven for the victims of Fascist ferocity'
ACTU President Percy Clarey - in an early example of support for multiculturalism - wrote to Steinberg in London reassuring him that there would be no restrictions on the settlement's cultural autonomy, religious affairs or language - be it Yiddish or Hebrew.
But by 1944 the conservative government in Canberra had rejected the project and the idea died with the outbreak of war - and the creation of Israel in 1949.
However even after Israel was created Steinberg tried once more - unsuccessfully - approaching the newly re-elected Robert Menzies in 1950.
But Menzies replied that the idea ran contrary to his government's policy of assimilation aimed at achieving " the ideal of one Australian family of peoples, devoid of foreign communities."
A former industrial reporter for The Melbourne Age, Leon Gettler, wrote in 1993 a short history of this attempt to create a Jewish homeland in the Kimberleys.
The Fremantle Arts Centre Press published An Unpromised Land.
When Gettler presented copies of his history to the then ACTU President, Martin Ferguson, and the then ACTU Secretary, Bill Kelty, they were taken by surprise at the role the ACTU and trade unions had played in this byway of Jewish history.
The source for most of this article came from Leon Gettler's book.
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