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A Lost Dream of Australia

Mark DapinFilmed at Jewish Book Week 2014

The talk looks at forgotten actors in a forgotten period of history – the inter-war struggle of a group of “Territorialists” to establish a Jewish homeland outside Israel, in this case in the remote Kimberley in North-Western Australia. But, more broadly, it looks at dreams: some come true while other don’t, but we should never take for granted the shape of our world, because every contemporary reality is the result of a dream of visionaries long dead.

English-born Australian author Mark Dapin’s first novel, King of the Cross, won a Ned Kelly Award for crime writing. His most recent book, Spirit House, was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award and very well reviewed both in Australia and the UK. The Telegraph in London called it “a literary cocktail of rare originality”. He is editor of the Penguin Book of Australian War Writing and another Penguin anthology, From the Trenches: the Best ANZAC Writing of World War One.

His own writing has been collected in the anthologies Best Australian Humorous Writing 2009 and Best Australian Essays 2010 and Best Australian Stories 2011.
As a journalist, he has written for The Times, The Guardian, The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian Financial Review.

I guess I’d like to talk about other people’s dreams. I think it’s sad that the age of the great utopian vision seems to be over – Internationalism, Socialist Zionism even Democratic Socialism all seem to be exhausted and these were the dreams of our grandparents and our great grandparents often literally in the case of Jewish people. Isaac Nachman Steinberg was a dreamer and a failed dreamer, his dream never came to pass but it was quixotic and unique and it deserves to be remembered because his heart was good and motives were pure and you can never tell which dream might come true. Steinberg was a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party in Russia and was briefly the People’s Kommissar for Justice in Lenin’s coalition government, but the bloodshed of people’s justice disgusted him and he fled to Germany in 1923. He foresaw the Holocaust and helped found the Friedland League in London in 1935 to try to establish a foreign home for those European Jews he knew to be doomed. The Friedland League were territorialists who looked to establish Jewish homeland or at least Jewish settlements outside of Israel. Steinberg wanted most to build his homeland in an area of the East Kimberly in the far North West of Australia one of the most extremely remote parts of continent, that would be serviced by port of Wyndham and where he hoped Jewish refugees who fled from Nazi s would ‘write Jewish poems about the kangaroo or laughing kookaburra’. I don’t know what they would have sounded like; I have often thought I should have tried to write those poems. The government of Western Australia agreed in principle to the idea and the Western Australia newspaper, the Archbishop of Perth and a local labour movement also supported Steinberg’s plan but it was opposed obviously by anti-Semites and more damagingly by Jews and Steinberg’s big dream eventually shrank into a lost hope. Ever since I heard the story I planned to visit the Kimberly’s Israel-that-never-was to imagine what might have been and to see what was actually there. As I mentioned I’m a journalist so I flew up there with the excuse of writing a story about the frontline against cane toads, which are a pest particularly prolific in Northern Australia and ones Australians take great delight in battling as if they were a kinda human enemy, and bizarrely the front line against the cane toads and the Jewish homeland that wasn’t turned out to be the same place. The station that we were staying at to turn back the toads, was one of the properties that the territorialists had had to acquire for Jewish refugees. So when I reached north Western Australia, I stopped for fuel and road food at the Kununurra and Ord River Roadhouse, which made the odd claim that its ice was the best in Australia. In this country where Steinberg imagined Jewish families sitting around having Seders, I asked the man behind the counter, ‘why is this ice different from all other ice?’ I really did. Matt just laughed, and I repeated the question, as it is repeated in the ritual – ‘It’s filtered water’ he said. I strongly suspect it wasn’t.
There’s a small museum in Wyndam, the place that was to be Steinberg’s port. Almost everyone in town was drunk and nobody seemed to know much about the scheme to resettle the Jews. Someone in the museum heard a rumour from a friend that a few Jews came out here and ended up working as accountants on the cattle stations but Steinberg the socialist had hoped to shatter the image of Jews as a nation of bookkeepers and bankers. ‘There’s no doubt that a European type of Jew would undergo certain changes in Kimberley’ he wrote, ‘first of all we should have to return to the ways of Abraham and start with cattle rearing, nature and new occupations would transform the new European Jews physically. It is even possible that certain features of his psychological makeup would alter. His nervousness and anxiety might wane while his tranquillity and serenity of mind so characteristic of Australia would grow’ – and that’s what happened to me, see (laughter) and as I said he hoped settlers would write Jewish poems about the kangaroo and the kookaburra, the hot days and cool evening, the magic spell of the earth and the first steps and wonder of pioneers. In Australia as a kind of general rule of thumb, the smaller the place, the bigger the ‘big thing’ and the most prominent ‘big thing’ in Wyndham is a 20m long furrow concrete big crocodile basking in the middle of the main street. It was designed by a serial ‘big thing’ sculptor Andrew Higson who also made the 15 m long big ram, east of Perth, but his biggest achievement, however is the dream time park in Wyndham. Here a big aborigine wearing a wire beard and initiate scarring side burns and a mullet, sphere in one hand and boomerang in other, as he looms protectively over his naked wife and son who are playing at his feet with the family pets, a copper clad kangaroo, a serpent, a lizard and dingo. If history had turned out differently, that big aboriginal could have been a big Jew, and I found that moving.
For two weeks in 1939 Steinberg and his party travelled through 1200 km of country including the Ivanhoe, Neury and Island cattle stations, released from the crown to the pioneering Durack family. The Durack patriarch Michael and his son Kimberly were both strong supporters of the plan guided their way. ‘Water’ wrote Steinberg, ‘upon it depends the possibility of all colonisation’. Since all the rainfall in the Ord River region occurs during the wet season, Steinberg proposed building a large irrigation works to secure all year round supply. ‘No need here to resort to the miracle of Moses’ he said ‘and strike water from a stone for an unbelieving flock’. He always saw the best in everything. The order of irrigation schemes, the only aspect of Steinberg’s plan that ever came to fruition, began in 1963 and completed in 1972 – it would have wholly altered the reality of the settlement that he imagined. On a suggestion of Kimberley Durack, the Ord River was damned at Kununurra and again 55 km up river at Argyle Station. Part of Steinberg’s unpromised land, including Argyle Station was actually submerged in water, which made 170sq. km fit for agriculture and Kununurra grew into a regional centre whose varied agriculture I guess speaks of what might have been. Steinberg imagined rice, maize and cotton growing here, tropical fruits and leafy and root vegetables. While the scheme was being built farmers north of the town grew cotton but they used too much DDT – they poisoned the land, they poisoned themselves, unwittingly encouraged the DDT resistant strain of leaf scorching heleosis – then the crop failed and all the farmers shifted to rice production. Upon planting their rice they attracted virtually every magpie in Australia – and there’s no profit in growing rice to feed magpies. So farmers there have abandoned the idea of monoculture and now grow whatever they can. The largest planting used to be sugarcane but now it’s sandalwood. When the diversion damn wall at the South end of Kununurra flooded woodlands to make lily creek lagoon, the water covered dozens of red gums but left their snow-grey branches reaching up from the water like drowning men and it really does seem eerily like a place where dreams have been submerged. Back in town I stopped for lunch at the fiddlers’ bar in the all seasons hotel, which must be the least Irish pub ‘Irish Pub’ in the world and it’s got pretty stiff competition in Australia. There’s no fiddlers but the walls of the bar are all decorated with aboriginal paintings – that said, the casual staff did all appear to be Irish. ‘Can you call me a cab?’ I asked the receptionist. ‘You’re a cab’ he replied. Sorry I can’t do accents, that was supposed to be Dublin. I thought there was something very Jewish in that, very Groucho, but it didn’t help me get a cab.
The official Australian Jewish community refused to back Steinberg in the 1930s, fearing his efforts were a distraction from the real struggle to establish a Jewish state in Palestine, although Steinberg never intended the Kimberly as an alternative to Israel, more something that could be built in the interim, something that he hoped might save 75,000 lives. The funny thing is, most Jewish Australians live in the East Coast in Sydney and Melbourne, there is a small community in Darwin and, several congregations in Perth, but in remote WA Jews are thinly scattered indeed. I contacted Chabad which sends its Mitzvah tank searching for lost Jews in rural and regional Australia and a Rabbi told me they’d never found one in Kununurra or its surrounds. In fact East Kimberly is perhaps the largest area of modern Australia where there are no Jews at all. But that doesn’t mean Steinberg deserves no respect for his dream or that his dream should be forgotten. It was a dream of a good man, although it took little account of the aboriginal people who already lived in the area. It was generous and it was brave and I think about it often, because it reminds me that everything we take for granted was once somebody’s dream and the world that we know could all have turned out very differently.
Thank you

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