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A Land of Milk and Honey? A Jewish Settlement Proposal in the Kimberley

by Brian Wimborne

An article in the Sydney Morning Herald of 16 February 1907 must have surprised many readers. Titled ‘The Jew as a Farmer,’ it reported on the possible migration of Russian Jews to the Northern Territory. Its author drew attention to a common misconception in Australia and other countries that ‘the Jew is impossible as an agriculturalist’, being more accustomed to hard manual labour and a city existence than life on the land. Nevertheless, as the article pointed out, there were at that time quarter of a million Jewish agriculturalists in Russia who, despite being disbarred from owning land, were successful farmers.

Two years earlier Dr Richard Arthur, president of the Immigration League of Australia, had written to Israel Zangwill, the eminent writer and president of the Jewish Colonisation Organisation in London, suggesting that the Northern Territory or Queensland might be suitable areas for the establishment of a Jewish settlement.[1] This appealed to Zangwill, who believed that Australia might eventually have to choose between a white population and an Asian one to develop its remote north.

The idea of a Jewish settlement in Australia arose from two principal factors. In the first place, Jews of Eastern Europe and Russia were being subjected to increasing discrimination, much of it sanctioned at government and church levels. Anti-Jewish feeling reached a peak in Russia with the publication in 1905 of the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which had been forged by the Russian secret police in order to discredit Zionism and Jewish people in general. The pogroms that followed led to a mass exodus of Jews to any country that would provide sanctuary, especially the United States. The second relevant factor was Australia’s fear that the country’s empty north, unless settled and developed by Europeans, would invite an Asian invasion; a fear encapsulated in the ‘White Australia’ policy.

Plans were drawn up to purchase a million acres of land in Australia on which to settle between five hundred and a thousand Jewish families.[2] A meeting in London between Zangwill and Australia’s prime minister, Alfred Deakin, however, ended any chance of the scheme progressing. Deakin’s message was that, although Australia welcomed Jewish migrants, it would not countenance the establishment of a separate Jewish colony operating under its own laws. Moreover, since Australia’s tropical north was believed to be unsuited to white settlement, there was a strong chance that unskilled migrants would eventually drift to urban centres in the eastern states.

Ideas for a Jewish settlement in Australia languished until the late 1930s, by which time the need to save European Jewry from persecution at the hand of the Nazis was becoming increasingly urgent. The Freeland League for Jewish Territorial Colonisation, a London-based organisation founded in 1935, which had developed from Zangwill’s Jewish Colonisation Organisation, took up the challenge. Australia came to the league’s attention by way of an article that first appeared in the Australian Quarterly in March 1934. Written by Sir James Barrett, the eminent ophthalmologist and vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne, it strongly advocated white colonisation of northern Australia. In December 1938 he sent a copy of the article to Dr Isaac Steinberg at the Freeland League’s London office. Resolved to investigate Australia as a likely colony, Steinberg replied to Barrett, ‘The conclusions you reached about White Colonisation of the Tropics were most encouraging for us and I am looking forward to discussing all problems with you personally’.[3]

On the basis of discussions held with Australian representatives in London, the league favoured a parcel of land in the East Kimberley region of Western Australia that was leased by Connor, Doherty and Durack Ltd. It covered an area of 10,600 square miles (27,454 square kilometres) that extended across the border between Western Australia and the Northern Territory. Michael Durack, managing director of Connor, Doherty and Durack Ltd, was willing to sell at ‘a reasonable price’.[4]

With no time to waste, a small delegation headed by Steinberg was sent to Australia in May 1939. Early talks were held with John Willcock, the premier of Western Australia, who was sympathetic to the league’s ideas. The delegation then spent four weeks in the Kimberley investigating every part of the region. The delegation’s expectations were more than fulfilled, and firm plans for establishing a Jewish refugee settlement in the East Kimberley were submitted to the government of Western Australia which, in August, gave official consent but advised the delegation of the need to ascertain the attitude of the Commonwealth government whose support was crucial.[5]

Rather than approach the Commonwealth government immediately, the delegation decided wisely to consult a variety of bodies in order to assess public opinion of the project. Australia did not have a tradition of extreme anti-Semitism that in much of Europe was characterised by pogroms and massacres; and the delegation was pleasantly surprised by the sympathy and understanding it received from non-Jewish organisations and individuals. In Western Australia, the synod of the Anglican diocese of Perth unanimously supported the proposal and a public appeal in its favour was launched in August.[6] Among those who put their name to the appeal were the primate of the Church of England in Australia, Henry Le Fanu; the lord mayor of Perth, Charles Harper; the mayor of Fremantle, (Sir) Frank Gibson; and a number of academics and distinguished authors, including Walter Murdoch, Henrietta Drake-Brockman, and Frank Beasley. Their statement read, in part, ‘We agree that the State Government is to be congratulated on its hospitable reception of Dr. Steinberg’s project of a settlement for Jewish refugees in the Kimberleys.’[7]

In December that year forty-six leading citizens of Melbourne, including clergymen, members of the state and federal parliaments, businessmen, trade unionists, and academics, headed by the lord mayor, A. W. Coles, signed a similar public appeal. Among the signatories were writer and critic Nettie Palmer, historian Sir Ernest Scott, zoologist Georgina Sweet, and the rabbi of the St Kilda Hebrew Congregation, Jacob Danglow.[8] Dr Daniel Mannix, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Melbourne, supported the project, as did the Australasian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and the Trades Hall Council.[9]

Even greater approval of the Jewish settlement was evident in Sydney. A meeting of leading churchmen at St Andrew’s Cathedral decided to do everything possible to assist the settlement plan.[10] A public manifesto signed by fifty-five eminent citizens, including lord mayor Stanley Crick, members of the federal and state parliaments, churchmen, and professional people, appeared in the paper. Those to put their names to the appeal included Sir Percival Rogers, the chancellor of the University of Sydney; Supreme Court justice Sir Thomas Bavin; and scholar Sir Mungo MacCallum.[11]

In a letter to Steinberg, dated 30 July 1940, the Labor Council of New South Wales gave its backing to the scheme, as did the trades councils of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania.[12] Support also came from the National Council of Women of New South Wales.[13] The Refugee Council of Tasmania wrote to the prime minister, (Sir) Robert Menzies, on 12 April 1940 ‘in hearty agreement with the scheme,’ and in Sydney, Charles Venn Pilcher, the Church of England coadjutor bishop, wrote to the minister for the interior, senator Harry Foll, on 19 August 1940 urging the Federal government to back the plan.[14]

Support, however, was not unanimous. On 30 April 1940 the powerful Graziers’ Association of New South Wales, surprised by the widespread support for the proposal, wrote to Menzies quoting the following resolution passed by its annual conference, ‘That this Conference emphatically protests against the formation of any colony of aliens in Australia, but is strongly in favour of absorbing good immigrants who will become absorbed into the general community’.[15] It was feared that a colony of aliens might cause political trouble and not assimilate; Italians on the cane fields of Queensland were used as an analogy. ‘The Jews, more than any other people retained their nationality wherever they were. The establishment of a colony would be followed in a few years by an infiltration from all nations.’[16]

On 26 November 1942 the Australian Natives’ Association wrote to the prime minister, by this time John Curtin, saying that it viewed ‘with grave concern, press statements in respect of the proposed settling of a Jewish Colony in the Kimberley area . . . and protested against any proposal to permit the establishing of foreign communities or colonies in the Commonwealth.’[17] The association argued that ‘the establishment of a “Little Europe” in the north-west would be calamitous’ and it promised to ‘fight the proposal tooth and nail.’[18] The following day an editorial regarding the Kimberley plan stated ‘We will be setting the clock back if we offer an opportunity for racial minorities to flourish.’[19]

Nor did all Jews support the Kimberley scheme. Zionists, in particular, saw it as a distraction from their primary aim of re-establishing a Jewish state in Palestine, and some Australian Jews of British origin were suspicious of an influx of European Jews.

The final and most important hurdle facing Steinberg was federal government approval. Without it, all earlier support would amount to nothing. In August 1940 the Freeland League delegation had sent a memorandum to the prime minister, Menzies, outlining its plans. Although Menzies took the proposal to cabinet, a quick response was not forthcoming. In February 1941 the cabinet deferred consideration of the proposal until a more appropriate time.[20] Meanwhile, the persecution of Europe’s Jewish population continued. In October 1941 the Menzies government resigned, and a Labor administration headed by John Curtin took office. The Freeland League promptly approached the incoming government and a supporting letter from the ACTU was sent to the new prime minister.[21] However, two months later Japan was at war with the Allies and official consideration of the Kimberley project was again postponed.

Nevertheless, the idea was not dropped. In Sydney a committee of twenty-one representative citizens that included Dr Charles Bean, Dr John Bradfield, Sir Robert Garran, Bishop Pilcher, Professor Ian Clunies Ross, Jessie Street, and Camilla Wedgwood met at the University of Sydney on 19 January 1943 to keep the scheme alive.[22] They subsequently wrote to the prime minister commending the Kimberley plan and pointing out that ‘Australia should acknowledge her increased moral and political responsibilities to the world at large, and extend all possible aid to persecuted peoples.’[23] In Melbourne, similar pro-Kimberley committees were established.

The Australian government received with consternation the advice that the New York Daily News, following an interview with Steinberg, had reported that the Australian government had approved the Kimberley plan in principal.[24] Later Steinberg denied this, explaining that he had been misunderstood during the interview. In fact, the American newspaper had confused the approval of the Western Australian government with that of the federal government. In any event, Curtin, in a letter dated 28 October 1943, informed the Freeland League that ‘the Government is unable to see its way to depart from long-established policy in regard to alien settlement in Australia, and therefore cannot entertain the proposal for a group settlement of the exclusive type contemplated by the Freeland League.[25] Curtin expressed sympathy but decided that, until the whole question of immigration was considered, his government was unable to formulate a policy.

Despite this, support continued, especially from the ACTU. This led the editor of the Canberra Times to write on 31 December 1943 that ‘. . . the reported agreement of the A.C.T.U. in the proposal to establish a Jewish colony in Australia must be condemned as an ill-considered act inimical to the broad interests of all Australians including trade unionists.  We must set our face against any duplication in this country of those conditions that have caused trouble in the Old World.’[26] In a sermon in Sydney’s St Andrew’s Cathedral on 19 March 1944, Bishop Pilcher said ‘Is it too much to ask Australians to favour the Kimberley Scheme of Jewish settlement and to admit the 7000 promised admission before the war whose arrival was prevented by the outbreak of hostilities?’[27]

Hope of a Jewish settlement in Australia seemed at an end, yet the issue did not go away.  The ACTU decided to raise the matter again with the government, the Anglican Church publicly reiterated its support, and the Sydney Morning Herald sought the government’s explanation for rejecting the Kimberley project.[28] The Freeland League made further approaches to two subsequent Australian Labor Party prime ministers, Frank Forde and Ben Chifley, but they were again rejected. The government’s message was simple — remnants of Europe’s once great Jewish communities should look elsewhere for a home. The Housewives’ Association of New South Wales wrote on 13 December 1944 to the acting prime minister, Forde, thanking the government ‘for the wisdom we consider was displayed in rejecting the Kimberley Settlement of several million Jews’.[29] They had either confused ‘Jews’ with ‘acres’ or ‘millions’ with ‘thousands’.

Notwithstanding official rejections of the scheme, in a letter dated 15 March 1950 to the prime minister, once again Menzies, Steinberg requested that the government resume negotiations on the question of Jewish colonisation of an undeveloped area of Australia.[30] Once again the league’s request went to cabinet, which decided that ‘the Commonwealth Government does not favour the settlement of any one area by a group of migrants, as the establishment of an isolated community of migrants is contrary to the Government's assimilation aims and that in any event, in view of the limited capital resources for development in Australia, areas more favoured than the Kimberleys in regard to natural resources, location, fuel and power supplies and transport facilities, should, in the view of the Commonwealth Government, be given some priority in present circumstances’.[31]

Steinberg was informed of this decision and the saga of a Jewish colony in Australia, with all its hopes and ambitions, was at an end. The prophetic words of Dr Chaim Weizmann, who was to become Israel’s first president in 1948, appeared to ring true: ‘The world seemed to be divided into two parts – those places where the Jews could not live and those where they could not enter.’[32] In Australia’s case, however, it is important to bear in mind that Jews had settled in the colony from the time of the First Fleet, and by the nineteenth and twentieth centuries many had risen to prominence in the public and private spheres (8 arrived with the First Fleet and by 1901 they totalled over 15,000).[33] Moreover, the decisions of Australian governments to oppose the Kimberley scheme were motivated by reluctance to have a large identifiable group settling separately from mainstream society and possibly forming a ghetto. There is no evidence to suggest that anti-Semitism played any part in the governments’ decisions.

Probably the major factor operating against Jewish migration from Europe to Australia in the 1930s and 1940s was the country’s strong pro-British outlook. From its founding, Australia’s institutions, customs, and attitudes were more than British derivatives, they were philo-British. By contrast, a large number of Australians feared foreigners, not least those from Europe with their peculiar customs and unintelligible languages. Many of the Jews who migrated to Australia in its early years came from Britain.

Although Australia was not infected by the virulent anti-Semitism that characterised Europe and Russia, it was still present in Australia, albeit based on ignorance rather than blind hatred. This was despite the eminence of a number of Australian Jews such as Sir John Monash and Sir Isaac Isaacs.  During World War II it was widely thought that European refugees might form a fifth column and they would undoubtedly challenge the country’s British way of life.  Despite being victims of Nazi persecution, the few Jewish refugees who were fortunate enough to settle in Australia in the first years of the war were classified officially as ‘enemy aliens’.

It is anyone’s guess whether the Kimberley plan would have been successful, socially and economically. In view of the great success achieved by Jewish settlers in Palestine in turning barren desert into productive farms, it may have had a good chance of becoming economically viable. Some Jewish refugees did migrate to Australia after the war and adapted well to local conditions but their actual number is not known. Although the government permitted 168,200 migrants to enter Australia between 1947 and 1951 via the International Refugee Organisation, only 500 were Jewish.[34] Those who did come integrated easily into the wider community and made a significant contribution to industry, education, and public service. The ease of their assimilation, taken together with that of other migrants, did much to reduce Australia’s xenophobic tradition.[35]

Citation details

Brian Wimborne, 'A Land of Milk and Honey? A Jewish Settlement Proposal in the Kimberley', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/essay/9/text29448, originally published 22 May 2014, accessed 17 October 2017.

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