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Steinberg, Isaac Nachman (1888–1957)

by Beverley Hooper

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Isaac Nachman Steinberg (1888-1957), lawyer, politician and publicist, was born on 13 July 1888 at Dvinsk (Daugav'pils), Latvia, Russian Empire, son of Zerakh Steinberg, a Jewish merchant, and his wife Chiana, née Eliashev. Isaac spent most of his youth in Moscow, living in an environment characteristic of the Russian Jewish intelligentsia, but was educated at the gymnasium at Pernov (Pyarnu), Estonia. In 1906 he entered the Imperial Moscow University, where he studied law and joined the Socialist Revolutionary Party. Following his exile in 1907, he completed an LL.D. at the University of Heidelberg, Germany, in 1910. That year he returned to Russia. He worked as a lawyer, defending Jewish victims of the tsarist régime, and won endorsement for the Duma, the Russian parliament. In 1914 he married Nekhama Solomonovna Yeselson (d.1954); they were to have a son and two daughters. From December 1917 to March 1918 he was commissar of justice in Lenin's government during the Bolsheviks' short-lived coalition with the left wing of the S.R.P. After resigning from the government in protest at the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Steinberg campaigned against the Bolsheviks. Effectively banished in 1923, he moved to Germany.

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Steinberg arranged for his wife and children to join him in London. There he helped to found the Freeland League for Jewish Territorial Colonization, a body which attempted to find a refuge for persecuted European Jews. The league selected the East Kimberley region in Australia's north-west, planned to buy an area of 7 million acres (2,832,830 ha)), and hoped to settle 75,000 Jewish refugees to develop the pastoral and agricultural industries.

On 23 May 1939 Steinberg arrived in Perth. An indefatigable publicist for the Kimberley scheme, he appealed to people both on humanitarian grounds and by citing the officially declared need to populate northern Australia. He made a strong impression on all who met him. George Farwell described him as having a 'thick, short body', a 'black beard bristling from a pale, fine-grained face' and 'quizzing eyes beneath that broad dome of forehead'. He 'talked with great passion, laughed explosively' and 'gave way to abrupt splurges of anger if his ideas were challenged'.

By early 1940 Steinberg had gained the support of the Western Australian government, the Australasian Council of Trade Unions, a number of leading public figures, and major newspapers such as the Sydney Morning Herald, the Melbourne Argus and the West Australian. He had also encountered opposition from the Bulletin, Smith's Weekly, some daily newspapers and several politicians, whose arguments ranged from the practical to the xenophobic and racist. For their part, many Australian Jews criticized the proposed settlement: some feared that it would provoke a wave of anti-Semitism in Australia, while others saw it as a threat to the Zionist cause.

Steinberg left Australia in June 1943 to rejoin his family in Canada. On 15 July 1944 he was informed by Prime Minister John Curtin that the Australian government would not 'depart from the long-established policy in regard to alien settlement in Australia' and could not 'entertain the proposal for a group settlement of the exclusive type contemplated by the Freeland League'. Steinberg continued to wage a paper battle for the scheme. He approached successive prime ministers in 1945 and 1946, and published Australia—The Unpromised Land (London, 1948). It was to no avail.

After the State of Israel was established in 1948, Steinberg expressed concern at the idea of an exclusively Jewish—rather than a bi-national Jewish-Arab—nation. In the ensuing years he continued to be a proponent of Jewish settlement outside Israel. He died suddenly on 2 January 1957 in New York; his son and a daughter survived him. His close friend Erich Fromm wrote: 'Many people would have called Isaac Steinberg a dreamer, or a visionary, and yet, he was one of the true, and unfortunately few, realists of our time'.

Select Bibliography

  • B. J. Bialostotzky et al, Yitshak Nahman Shtaynberg (NY, 1961)
  • G. Farwell, Rejoice in Freedom (Melb, 1976)
  • B. Hooper, 'The Unpromised Land: A Jewish Refugee Settlement in the Kimberley?', in R. Bosworth and M. Melia (eds), Aspects of Ethnicity (Perth, 1991)
  • L. Gettler, An Unpromised Land (Fremantle, WA, 1993)
  • Australian Jewish Historical Society Journal, 5, no 4, 1961, p 170
  • New York Times, 3 Jan 1957
  • B. Hooper, Australian Reactions to German Persecution of the Jews and Refugee Immigration, 1933-1947 (M.A. thesis, Australian National University, 1972).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Beverley Hooper, 'Steinberg, Isaac Nachman (1888–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/steinberg-isaac-nachman-11757/text21027, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 1 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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