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Israel in the Kimberley: How the Top End nearly became a global Jewish hub Lenin's former attorney-general Dr Isaac Steinberg on his trip to promote the immigration plan. (The Estate of Elizabeth Durack/ Just before the outbreak of World War II, a bold plan was proposed by a former Soviet official which could have saved tens of thousands of Jewish lives. In 1939, the Freeland League for Jewish Territorial Colonisation identified the Kimberley in Western Australia as a place to resettle 75,000 European Jews fleeing rampant anti-Semitism. The organisation sent Dr Isaac Steinberg, a man who had previously served as Attorney-General in Lenin's Government, to lobby Australian governments to accept the scheme. His pitch was to "open your gates to the persecuted Jewish people of Europe, and let them help transform the landscape into a productive agricultural hub". Dr Isaac Steinberg and his assistants upstream of Ivanhoe at Bandicoot Bar in 1939. (The Estate of Elizabeth Durack/ Dr Steinberg's vision, complete with the land's new inhabitants "writing Jewish poetry about kangaroos and laughing kookaburras", was embraced enthusiastically by many and gained the support of the then-WA premier John Willcock. 'Just before the German tanks rolled in' Leon Gettler, author of An Unpromised Land, a book that chronicles the immigration bid , said the Kimberley Scheme proposal was raised at a critical moment for European Jews. "It was being put up at a time when refugees were fleeing for their lives. People were being killed, people were being rounded up, people were being put into camps," he said. German storm troopers round up the Jewish inhabitants of a ghetto in Warsaw in 1943. (Commons) "The nearest comparison you can have today is to the Rohingya in Myanmar who are being ethnically cleansed, and the Yazidi in Syria." The scheme's urgency was understood by many in Australia. "You had government committees looking at it, you had people mobilising in support of it, you had the church campaigning for it, you had unions campaigning for it, businesspeople campaigning for it. It was a cause celebre at the time," Mr Gettler said. 'I never heard about that scheme' This scheme was being considered during a period of conflict in the Kimberley. Teddy Carlton is a traditional owner of a part of the land that was being considered as a new home for Jewish refugees. Map showing the proposed settlement areas for the Kimberley Scheme. (Supplied: Kununurra Historical Society) "[There were] all these massacres of Aboriginal people and this type of thing, so I don't really know where these people who would have come would have fitted into this scenario if they came into contact with our mob," he said. Mr Carlton said he had never heard of the scheme that came so close to completely transforming parts of his land. "I don't think there was any consultation," he said. Miriuwung Gajerrong Corporation lawyer Dominique Reeves agreed that it was likely traditional owners were not adequately included in any processes that would have seen their land transformed into a new Jewish colony. "The fact that historically people don't have any recollection of their parents or grandparents being consulted about this probably speaks to the fact that they weren't," Ms Reeves said. Dr Isaac Steinberg and his assistants inspect potential settlement sites along the Ord River. (The Estate of Elizabeth Durack/ "If you look at the history of the area, most Aboriginal people would have been working on cattle stations at the time and would have effectively been treated as slaves, so it would have been very surprising had they been consulted at the time." Ms Reeves said that the experiences of Jewish people and indigenous peoples in Australia at the time could have born resemblance to one another. "In my view the anti-Semitism that was in Europe at the time would have been reflective of some of the anti-Aboriginal thought processes that were going on in Australia," she said. Distinctive alien communities Despite sustained support for the Kimberley Scheme immigration program from powerful sectors of the Australian community, it was eventually vetoed by the Federal Government. The Menzies Government believed that the creation of "distinctive alien communities" would not be in the national interest. The Menzies Cabinet blocked the Kimberly proposal, despite strong support from other quarters of the community. (Supplied: The Australian) A confidential Cabinet memorandum published on May 19, 1950, shows the Cabinet decided that: The Commonwealth 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. Warren Austin of the Jewish Historical and Genealogical Society of Western Australia said such views were typical at the time. "At that stage we had a White Australia policy and I think what the Government was interested in was having British stock coming here," Mr Austin said. "Of course, if it had gone ahead, a number of people's lives might have been saved from the Holocaust because they would have come to Australia. I think that would be a fact." A profound influence Though the immigration drive was never realised, many believe the proposal had a lasting impact. Kununurra Historical Society member Andrew Barker says Dr Steinberg's visit to the Kimberley region inspired the Durack family to increase their efforts to make the region agriculturally viable. "The sort of stuff Steinberg would have been talking about, like cities of millions and dams and canning factories. This would have been enthusing Kim Durack," he said. Bill Jones, Isaac Steinberg, and Elizabeth and Kim Durack on the original Buchanan's Crossing in 1939. (The Estate of Elizabeth Durack ( "You could say that Steinberg enthused Kim Durack to start off what we have today as the Ord Scheme ." Descendant of the Durack family, Perpetua Durack Clancy, says Dr Steinberg made a good impression on her family, who offered more than 27,000 square kilometres of leasehold land to the Freehand League. Ms Durack Clancy said her family supported the scheme going ahead. "They [the Durack family] were ready for change. It had been a struggle for a long time and by 1939 the Depression that hit the Kimberley very heavily was just emerging," she said. 'Never seen a bagel in Kununurra' Ms Durack Clancy said the Kimberley region would be a very different place had the scheme gone ahead. "Not only Australia but the whole of the Kimberley would have been different," she said. Perpetua Durack Clancy, pictured in 2014. (ABC News) "The numbers were large, they were talking about bringing in a million. It would have bought in a completely different culture that any of the Aussies up there were familiar with — both the original inhabitants and the newcomers," she said. Warwick Austin said he thought the scheme would have been a success, but that it's hard to envision now. "I can't imagine it now," he said. "I've never seen a bagel in Kununurra."

Israel in the Kimberley: How the Top End nearly became a global Jewish hub
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