The Kimberley connection

A plan for European Jewish refugees in the 1930s envisioned them building farms and creating a thriving economy out of an 'empty land.' In Israel? No, Australia.

horseback riding 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy Western Australia Tourism)
horseback riding 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy Western Australia Tourism)
"...To write Jewish poems in Yiddish about the kangaroo and the kookaburra... yet their voice would be the voice of Israel, and the sigh of their songs would be Jewish." - Isaac Nachman Steinberg In the 1930s, as European Jews began to flee an increasingly unsafe Europe, the issue of resettlement arose. A remote region in a far-off country came under the radar of the Freeland League for Jewish Territorial Colonization, which gathered in London to discuss resettlement locations. The obvious choice was not our historic homeland in the Middle East, but perhaps one of the last places in the world anyone would consider. The Kimberley is a vast remote wilderness in the northwest of Australia and in the 1930s it was a sparsely inhabited, undeveloped region. Only 10,000 people lived in an area 3.5 times the size of Texas. The league believed it had great possibilities for a Jewish agricultural community and named the new project "The Kimberley Scheme." Arid, warm and dry, it contained great tracts of undeveloped land and so had much in common with the future State of Israel. But it was also far away from Europe and a possible escape from raw memories. The proposed area covered 27,972 square kilometers, larger then the land that would become Israel, at 20,770 square kilometers. One of the founders of the league, its secretary and prominent advocate for the Australian idea was Dr. Isaac Nachman Steinberg. Born in 1888 in Dvinsk (now Daugavpils) in Latvia, Steinberg was the son of a Jewish merchant and grew up in Moscow among Russian Jewish intellectual circles. While studying law at Moscow University, he joined the Socialist Revolutionary Party, but his activism meant a move to Germany to complete his studies. Returning to Russia in 1910, he became commissar for justice under Lenin in 1917-1918. Resigning to campaign against the Bolsheviks, in 1923 Steinberg was banished and moved to England, where his wife and children joined him in 1933. After helping found the Freeland League in 1935, he visited Australia between 1939 and 1943 to campaign for settlement. In 1939, Steinberg and a G. Melville of the University of Western Australia explored the Kimberley and described great potential for developing manufacturing and secondary industries. Steinberg went back to the league with plans to buy seven million acres. The family-owned agricultural company Connor, Doherty & Durack Ltd held the land proposed for settlement. The Durack family, the region's foremost white pioneering family, was very positive about the settlement plans and was willing to sell it to the league, beef prices for their cattle having hit a slump. The league proposed that settlement would occur in two stages. The first, a "pioneering" stage, would bring around 500 agriculturists, technicians and professionals to create the framework for settlement. Fifty thousand to 75,000 people would follow. Funds to begin the scheme would be raised from British and American Jews, and in his dealings with the Australian government, Steinberg emphasized the positive contributions to Australia's development, including political and economic. The official language would be English and the settlement would follow Australian law. Steinberg was a visionary and an idealist. He wanted a place free from the ingrained hatred existing in Europe. Australia was a democratic nation and already had a small supportive Jewish population. They would build farms, he said, and raise livestock and crops, create industries such as canning fruit and vegetables. Waterways such as the Ord River could be dammed and hydroelectricity stations built. The people would populate the north and create new trade and a thriving economy. It was to be an agriculture miracle created out of an "empty land." Steinberg's words persuaded many, including businessmen, senior politicians and even prominent church leaders, including Archbishop Mannix of Melbourne who believed it would "...wipe out the stain upon our common humanity." The media and Australian individuals wrote articles and letters ranging from praise to opposition. Many believed it was their moral duty to aid refugees, while others hoped it would open up the unexplored north. However, other opinions expressed fear about how Australia would be affected by this settlement, to the practical difficulties of a harsh, isolated region. Finally, while the Western Australian government asked for "Jewish citizens" in Australia to provide financial guarantees, it had no objection to Steinberg approaching the Commonwealth government to seek approval. However, on July 15, 1944, then-prime minister John Curtin informed Steinberg that the Australian government would not "depart from the long-established policy in regard to alien settlement in Australia." It would not allow a group settlement, such as that put forward by the Freeland League. One of the issues was a misplaced and ultimately harmful attitude of "protection" toward the local aboriginal tribes, numbering around 300, who lived in the mooted area. It was not an empty land, said the government, and there was uncertainty about how thousands of people from a different country would affect the indigenous population. In hindsight, this concern is layered with hypocrisy. The white, mainly British Australians, had resettled Australia 150 years before, often displacing and sometimes massacring the indigenous people. Australia, still strongly linked to Britain, followed restrictive immigration quotas. The league was a few years too early, as Australia became more positive after the war, when a "populate or perish" attitude arose. The Australian government was against "undue aggregation of aliens in any locality," which meant a strong stance against large numbers of immigrants settling one area. This "complete integration of races" had not been helped by a recent experience of Italian communities settling on the northeast coast and not assimilating into the general population. Steinberg stressed that settlers would come from a number of different countries and nationalities. However, this did not change the government's attitude. It also had concerns about how to deport the refugees if the scheme failed. In fact, it was very unsure about the success of the scheme. The Kimberley, so isolated and harsh, had proved a struggle for other pioneers. Extremes of heat and dryness during one part of the year and rain and humidity during the other were added to floods, pests and poor soil. Another blow occurred when the Australian High Commissioner's Office in London reported that Steinberg did not represent any considerable group of Jews, so was unlikely to find the necessary financial support. Steinberg kept appealing, but eventually gave up. He moved to Canada to join his family and died in 1957, seeing the establishment of the State of Israel in a far smaller land much closer to Europe. It seemed his dream, the Kimberley Scheme, was never to be realized. Or was it? In an ironic twist, the Kimberley is now an agricultural miracle. The Ord River was dammed in the 1960s, creating the largest body of water in Australia, allowing orchards to thrive. A hydroelectricity station pumps out power and different industries have emerged and successfully export produce around the world. The region still attracts visionaries, though in a different way, and is showcased in Australia, an epic filmed by international director Baz Luhrmann released in Israel last December. The soaring escarpments and deep gorges, vast plains and wide rivers of the Kimberley inspired Luhrmann. He saw great potential here, not for settlement, but for a story about people who come to love an isolated wild land. Cattle stations still operate under the Outback sun. For a long time rough stockmen only lived in very basic facilities, but now some stations are opening their gates for people to try their many activities. It is now possible to experience what the Freeland settlers would have as they carved out their "kibbutzim down under," including mustering cattle, swimming in palm-fringed pools and watching brilliant sunsets paint enormous Outback skies. Fortunately, when I visit, I can enjoy more modern conveniences and less of the hard work that would have confronted these pioneers. To get here, most visitors arrive on the east coast and take a domestic flight across the continent, either landing in the town of Kununurra on the eastern edge as I did, or Broome on the west coast. The league had selected land at the eastern edge of the Kimberley and to travel there today is to wonder at a landscape still echoing with the corroborees of aboriginal tribes, layered with soaring mountain ranges, cut by towering gorges and blanketed by wooded plains. Kununurra, built in the early 1960s for workers and farmers involved in the Ord River irrigation scheme, is now a thriving hub of 7,000 people. It is famous for its jewelry stores, for the Kimberley has revealed a wealth of diamonds under its crust and pearls off its coast. Restaurants, markets, art galleries and bookshops line the sunny streets, and from the top of the local lookout, I can see what this region has become. Great orchards and waterways relieve the dry gritty landscape with refreshing blue and green smoothness, while off to the horizons long mountain ranges throw up smoky blue lines. I join local operator JJJ Tours for a visit to the Durack Homestead. Removed from the original site to make way for Lake Argyle, the homestead is now a museum. It displays mementos of the pioneering Durack family who built a grazing empire in the 1800s after driving 7,000 head of cattle over a two-and-a-half-year epic of drives from Queensland on the eastern side of the continent. A cruise down the glassy calm water of the Ord River reveals gorges and open plains. Pelicans take off in ungainly spurts of effort, while eagles soar overhead and green trees carpet the surrounding hills, which sometimes form into rearing cliffs. Boarding a small plane with Alligator Airways, I fly over an immense local landmark, the World Heritage Bungle Bungles, strange sandstone formations rising out of the yellow dusty Purnululu National Park. Dark gorges thread through the an expanse of striking orange domes with black bands dramatically striping the rocks. Returning over Lake Argyle, I wonder at seeing much of Steinberg's vision finally realized. One of the instigators of the dam was Kimberley Durack, son of the patriarch M.P. Durack, who headed the family business when it was involved with the Freeland League. It is not hard to imagine his son being influenced by Steinberg's ideas. Incredibly, it took only one small wall across the Ord River to create this monster lake covering almost 1,000 square kilometers. Flying over it is a little like seeing the Dead Sea from above - a large body of water in a dry landscape - but this is a sea full of fresh water teeming with life both beneath the surface and on rugged promontories and islands. The lake irrigates 80 farms growing crops that include sandalwood, citrus, melons, chickpeas, sorghum, mangoes and sugar cane. There is a local boast that justifies the league's choice: "You name it and we can grow it." Finally, I can't leave the Kimberley without staying at one of the great cattle stations, having heard that some of them are larger than a few European countries. West of Kununurra is one of the biggest and the best - Home Valley Station. An almost overwhelming merger of three giant cattle stations creating a 3.5 million acre playground (pop Israel in there and it would disappear), where I stay in a luxury cabin and immerse myself in a working cattle station while experiencing a remarkable land. You can just stop by and join the activities or book in for its "Bindaloo Dreaming" experience, which stays with me long after I leave. The four-day trip begins at Kununurra where guests board a small plane for a flight over the Bungles, the northern coastline and the Argyle diamond mine (the world's largest diamond mine) before landing at Home Valley Station. I fish for a large native called barramundi in remote rivers, swim in beautiful cool water holes ringed by red cliffs, jump on a horse to chase after cattle and relax by at the rustic bar and restaurant. The highlight however is the champagne and cheese sunset supper on top of their private lookout. Vast green, red and yellow floodplains sweep towards the strangely compelling 1.9 billion-year-old Cockburn Range. Far off to the right are more mountains, to the left winds the mighty Pentecost River. Eagles soar on the thermals and as the unfettered wind whispers of uncivilized lands and rugged wilderness. I can't help reveling in a primal sense of freedom and feeling a little of my own wildness join the spirit of this place. As the sun sets over the mountains, flood plains, woodlands and desert reflect fiery golds and reds and the rivers turn pale aqua. Stars twinkle in their hundreds... thousands... no, millions. As one of the characters in Australia says: "This place has a strange power." It also has a rich history and an exciting present. Perhaps it is time to see and feel both.