Aus­tralia: the un­promised land

Australian Geographic - - Contents - RYAN FRAZER

How the Kim­ber­ley nearly be­came the Jewish home­land.

“THERE ARE the vast un­in­hab­ited fer­tile stretches of the

North­ern Ter­ri­tory – Aus­tralia’s most vul­ner­a­ble point of at­tack by a hos­tile na­tion – cry­ing out for pop­u­la­tion.The Jew would make a sturdy and alert out­post.”

This was the wild thesis of an ar­ti­cle in The Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald ld ( SMH) on 16 Fe­bru­ary 1907. Ex­tolling lling the strengths of Rus­sian Jews, the au­thor wrote: “per­se­ver­ing and plucky, he is not dis­cour­aged by the re­buffs of na­ture and the many ob­sta­cles which the pioneer set­tler is bound to en­counter”. Readers were re­as­sured these peo­ple would be “thor­oughly Aus­tralian in sen­ti­ment and deed – true Aus­tralian pa­tri­ots”.

Pa­tri­otic fer­vour abounded that year: the Bondi Surf Bathers’ Life Saving Club formed, Carl­ton &

United Brew­eries be­gan pro­duc­ing the na­tion’s finest and the White Aus­tralia pol­icy was in full swing.There were wide­spread fears of a so-called Asian In­va­sion in­fil­trat­ing the na­tion’s mostly un­de­fended north. As the SMH au­thor phrased it: “We have to choose now between the white and the coloured man – and for the sake of pos­ter­ity let us choose the white.”

Mean­while, Europe’s in­creas­ingly per­se­cuted Jewry was search­ing for its own safe spot on the planet. Uganda, Mada­gas­car, Canada – 20 coun­tries, in all, were con­sid­ered pos­si­ble sites for a new home­land. Al­pha­bet­i­cally at the top of the list was Aus­tralia, a large and sparsely in­hab­ited con­ti­nent.

De­spite the SMH sug­ges­tion, the idea stalled un­til the 1930s, when the Nazi Party came to power in Ger­many, and Jewish per­se­cu­tion in­ten­si­fied.The dream of an an­tipodean home­land was taken up by famed Yid­dish poet

Melech Rav­itch (a pseu­do­nym of Zekharye-Khone Bergner), who mi­grated to Aus­tralia in 1933.

With Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment per­mis­sion, a let­ter from Al­bert Ein­stein, an Abo­rig­i­nal com­pan­ion and an Ital­ian driver, he crossed the con­ti­nent to in­ves­ti­gate. His ap­praisal was glow­ing. A mil­lion Jews could set­tle in the na­tion’s north, he re­ported.

En­cour­aged by Rav­itch’s ac­count, the newly formed Free­land League for Jewish Ter­ri­to­rial Coloni­sa­tion, tasked with find­ing a new Jewish home­land, set great hopes on Aus­tralia. It was serendip­i­tous that strug­gling pas­toral­ist Michael Pa­trick ‘MP’ Du­rack was ea­ger to off­load an ex­panse of the Kim­ber­ley, in Western Aus­tralia.

In May 1939, the Free­land League sent their leader, Isaac Nach­man Stein­berg, to sur­vey the prop­erty.The im­pres­sive plan was that 7 mil­lion acres were to be pur­chased and an ini­tial con­tin­gent of 500 work­ers would build ba­sic in­fra­struc­ture to sup­port some 75,000 Jewish refugees, who would fol­low Com­mon­wealth laws but have full cul­tural au­ton­omy and de­velop the re­gion’s pas­toral and agri­cul­tural in­dus­tries. Now with a site and plan, Stein­berg just had to con­vince Aus­tralians of the mer­its of a Jewish pseudo-state. It was no short or­der but Stein­berg was a tal­ented emis­sary. He spoke seven lan­guages, had ha a doc­tor­ate in law and was a for­mer mem­ber of Lenin’s cabi­net. A re­li­gious Jew and left-wing rev­o­lu­tion­ary, he was the kind of ‘ev­ery­man’ Aus­tralians could re­late to.

He gained wide sup­port from the likes of the WA premier, the chair­man of the ABC and the Lord Mayor of Syd­ney, and oth­ers. Aus­tralians’ fear of Asians, it seemed, out­weighed their wari­ness of Jews, and sup­port for the pro­posal was fur­ther but­tressed by re­ports of Nazi bru­tal­ity. Yet there were con­cerns the new set­tlers would move from the Kim­ber­ley, at­tracted by the big cities.They’d take Aussie jobs and make peo­ple un­com­fort­able with their dif­fer­ences. A 1940 Bul­letin mag­a­zine ar­ti­cle calmly sug­gested they’d “swarm” into our cities, “even if they have to bur­row un­der wire net­ting”.

In a let­ter dated 28 Oc­to­ber 1943, prime min­is­ter John Curtin de­liv­ered the ver­dict. “The Gov­ern­ment is un­able to see its way to depart from long-estab­lished pol­icy in re­gard to alien set­tle­ment in Aus­tralia,” Curtin ex­plained, “and there­fore can­not en­ter­tain the pro­posal for a group set­tle­ment of the exclusive type con­tem­plated by the Free­land League.”

Af­ter four years of cham­pi­oning the cause, Isaac Stein­berg left the coun­try in 1943, taking with him the dreams of an Aus­tralian Jewish home­land.

LEARN MORE AT fu­ture.arts.monash. edu/yid­dish-mel­bourne/bi­ogra­phies­m­elech-rav­itch

Yid­dish poet Melech Rav­itch (top, at cen­tre) in the Aussie out­back in the early 20th cen­tury with his Ital­ian driver and young Abo­rig­i­nal as­sis­tant. At about that time, mil­lions of hectares in the Kim­ber­ley (above) were con­sid­ered as a pos­si­ble Jewish home­land.

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