On February 11, 1948, Sir Isaac Isaacs, the first native-born, as well as first Jewish, governor-general of Australia, died, at the age of 92. Isaacs is remembered for his brilliant legal mind – he served on Australia’s supreme court for 24 years; for his concern for workers’ and women’s rights; and for a stubborn argumentative streak that earned him the dislike of many colleagues. He also was extremely outspoken in his opposition to political Zionism, even as the Holocaust was under way in Europe.
Isaac Isaacs was born in Melbourne on June 6, 1855. His father, Alfred Isaacs, was a tailor from the Polish town of Mlawa who emigrated to London, where he met, and in 1849 married, Isaac’s mother, Rebecca Abraham. After hearing about a gold rush in Victoria state, the couple sailed for Australia in 1854. Isaac was the first of their four children who survived beyond infancy.
In 1859, the Isaacs family moved to Yackandandah, a mining town in northern Victoria. There and later in nearby Beechworth, he excelled in his studies, and by the age of 15, was working as a student teacher in his school. He then taught for five years at the Beechworth State School, until he got into a dispute with the headmaster over money, and resigned. When he sued the school for back wages, and he lost, Isaacs left Beechworth and teaching, and moved back to Melbourne, where he began working as court clerk by day, while studying law by night at the University of Melbourne.
Isaacs, who had a photographic memory, received his bachelor’s and master’s of law in 1880 and 1883, respectively, and then began practicing business law. He began his political career in 1893, when he was first elected to the Victoria Legislative Assembly, where he served as a Liberal until 1901. During that period, he also served briefly as solicitor-general, a position from which he was forced to resign, after he failed to override the state’s attorney general’s decision not to prosecute a failed bank.
Isaacs was involved in the convention that drafted Australia’s constitution, in 1897, and in 1901, he was elected to the first federal parliament, representing the Melbourne suburb of Indi. In 1905, Prime Minister Alfred Deakin appointed him attorney general, before naming him to the Supreme Court a year later. He sat on the court for 24 years, for the final year as chief justice. Isaacs spoke of the need for the courts to be “living organs of a progressive community.”
It was in 1931 that Labor Prime Minister James Scullin decided he wanted Isaacs to be the country’s first native-born governor-general, who is meant to be the British monarch’s personal representative in Canberra. Scullin succeeded, despite the opposition of King George V to the appointment.
Isaacs served a full term of five years, until January 23, 1936. It was a period of economic depression, and Isaacs gained public admiration for, among other reasons, forfeiting both part of his salary and pension he was entitled to as a retired judge.
Following retirement, at age 81, Isaacs remained active in public life, staking out a position as an opponent to a Jewish state. He regarded himself as a cultural and religious Zionist, and though not opposed to Jewish settlement in Palestine, thought that a Jewish state would be discriminatory to Arabs and encourage anti-Semitism. Isaacs entered into a noisy public debate with law professor and Zionist Julius Stone, with both men writing pamphlets to publicize their views.
Zelman Cowen, himself a law professor and Australia’s second Jewish governor-general, wrote, in a biographical sketch of Isaacs, described his anti-Zionist activism, coming in the early 1940s, as “painful and divisive; both his writings and his actions were extravagant and left a blemish on his reputation in the Jewish community which had taken such pride in the splendour of his career.”
Sir Isaac Isaacs died on this date in 1948, three months before the founding of the State of Israel.
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