Skip to content | Skip to document navigation

Research Guides

Safe Haven: Records of the Jewish Experience in Australia

The Kimberley Scheme

The political Zionist movement evolved in the late 19th century as a response to the spread of nationalist fervour throughout Europe, and in reaction to accelerating antisemitism in Poland, Russia and elsewhere. Its goal was the ultimate establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Daunted by the seemingly insurmountable political and agricultural obstacles which confronted Zionist idealists, pragmatists like British novelist Israel Zangwill, head of the Jewish Territorial Organisation, believed that the foundation of a Jewish state in a more hospitable and less-contested part of the world was a more feasible objective. Accordingly, at different times the Jewish Territorial Organisation and the Jewish Colonisation Association explored possible sites in remote regions of Canada, Argentina and Uganda. Not surprisingly, in view of this country's uninhabited vastnesses, several attempts were also made to establish Jewish settlements in Australia.

Inspired by Zangwill, Melbourne businessman and philanthropist Isaac Jacobs campaigned unsuccessfully in the early 1900s for a Jewish agricultural colony at one of several possible sites in northern Australia. Jacobs finally succeeded, on a small scale, by helping set up nine newcomer Russian-Jewish families on an orchard settlement in Victoria's Goulburn Valley in 1913. In the late 1920s, a similar farming scheme was launched, in aid of recent Russian immigrants, at Berwick in Victoria.34 Unlike the Shepparton project, which prospered into the 1950s, the Berwick settlement fell prey to the Great Depression.

In the 1930s, a number of organisations and individuals approached the Federal Government about the possibility of settling groups of Jewish refugees in unpopulated or under-populated regions of Australia – partly as a safeguard against the invasion of an unguarded north should hostilities break out. A proposal that 800 German and Austrian Jewish refugees be given permits to enter the country and establish an agricultural colony in South Australia won the tentative endorsement of South Australian Premier R L Butler but was vetoed federally.35 Similarly, a bid by J H Catts, of Australian Business Services, to establish a Jewish national home in New Guinea (an area, according to Catts, larger than Palestine and having 'better possibilities' without the difficulties 'besetting the Balfour experiment') failed to find support.36

On these, as on other occasions, the Lyons Government stressed its unshakeable objection to the 'block' settlement of aliens.37 Other visionaries advocated possible settlements on Melville Island or in the Barkly Tablelands and Victoria River regions of the Northern Territory, or in the Port Stephens area of NSW. The NSW proposal aimed at bringing together Jewish refugees, unemployed Australians and British immigrants.38 Much more ambitious in scope and conception was the Kimberley Scheme.

Following the Evian Conference, the London-based Freeland League (founded in 1935) proposed the purchase of seven million acres in the East Kimberley region of Western Australia (encompassing the properties of Connor, Durack and Doherty) as a farming settlement for a potential 50 000 refugees from Nazism. The League envisaged that a vanguard party of 500 to 600 'pioneers' would construct homes, a power station, irrigation works, etc, pending the arrival of the main body of colonists.

Dr Isaac Nachman Steinberg (1888–1957) was sent out from London in 1939 to investigate the scheme's feasibility and to enlist governmental and communal endorsement. A skilled emissary, he stayed in Australia throughout the war and later wrote a book on his experience, Australia: The Unpromised Land.Steinberg won the support of churches, leading newspapers, many prominent political and public figures (including Western Australian Premier J C Willcock) and a number of Jewish leaders.

The project came to nothing in the end, however, primarily because of concerns that the settlers would drift inevitably and in large numbers to the cities. Forty-seven per cent of the public opposed the scheme in a 1944 opinion poll and, in July of that year, Prime Minister Curtin formally rejected the proposal. Curtin's decision had bipartisan political support.39

In the early years of World War II, Steinberg was also associated, albeit marginally, with another unsuccessful scheme, this one aiming to resettle Jews who survived the war in the remote south-west of Tasmania. The Tasmanian project was the 'brainchild' of Critchley Parker, a young Melbourne philosemite who died tragically in 1942 while reconnoitring the region he recommended.40

Records pertaining to the various land settlement schemes, in particular the Kimberley project, can be found in:

This 'very miscellaneous' series includes correspondence, maps, charts, statistics, pamphlets, books, memoranda, all regarding the work of the Commission.
Series: CP211/2
Quantity: 23.94 metres
Recorded by: 1926–1930: Development and Migration Commission (CA 243)
Jewish Refugees from Eastern Europe, 1927
The file contains detail on anti-Bolshevik Jews fleeing Ukraine to Poland and seeking a new home in Australia; a bid to settle Jewish boys and youths on farms in Australia, as per recent successful trials in the USA; assistance denied to 100 Russian Jews contemplating migration to Australia in 1925; and an approach to Government regarding settling agricultural labourers on land.
CP211/2, 53/44
Settlement – Jewish Scheme, 1928
This file contains correspondence regarding the Australian Jewish Land Settlement Trust and the orchard settlements at Shepparton and Berwick; a copy of the Australian Jewish Herald containing an article on Shepparton; and a booklet produced by the Land Settlement Trust.
CP211/2, 73/32
Series: A1
Quantity: 337.14 metres
Recorded by: 1932–1938: Department of the Interior (I), Central Administration (CA 27)
Jewish Proposed Settlement in Northern Territory, 1933–39
There are references to the Kimberley Scheme in this file, including a relevant Hansard extract, but the bulk of the contents deal with the possibility of settlement on Melville Island or elsewhere in the Northern Territory.
A1, 1938/3468
Premier, South Australia, re proposal for Jewish settlement in Australia, 1938 A1, 1938/21559
Series: A433
Quantity: 8 metres
Recorded by: 1939–1939: Department of the Interior (I) (CA 27); 1939–1945: Department of the Interior (II) (CA 31)
Proposed Settlement East Kimberley District – M P Durack – Settlement of Jews in Kimberley District, 1939–44
This very bulky file is the chief repository of National Archives material on the Kimberley Scheme. It includes press clippings, reports on investigations into people prominent in the campaign, customs investigations into Dr Steinberg, pamphlets, memos, miscellaneous correspondence, etc.
A433, 1944/2/50
Series: A434
Quantity: 12.27 metres
Recorded by: 1939–1939: Department of the Interior (I) (CA 27); 1939–1945: Department of the Interior (II) (CA 31)
Admission of Jews to Australia, 1921–38
In addition to letters of protest against immigration, the file includes clippings, notes, etc regarding Steinberg and the Kimberley scheme.
A434, 1949/3/3196
Dr Gentilli Suggestion re Jews in Australia, 1941 A434, 1941/3/358
Series: A445
Quantity: 22.50 metres
Recorded by: 1951–1955: Department of Immigration (CA 51)
Proposed Jewish settlement in Kimberley district of Western Australia [2cm], 1944–50 A445, 235/5/7
Series: A461
Quantity: 143.82 metres
Recorded by: 1934–1950: Prime Minister's Department (CA 12)
Proposed settlement of Jewish refugees – Kimberley district, WA, 1938–44 A461, D349/3/5 part 1
Proposed settlement of Jewish refugees in Kimberley district, WA, 1944–45 A461, D349/3/5 part 2
Immigration – Foreign migrants – Proposed settlement of Jewish refugees in Kimberley district, WA, 1950 A461, D349/3/5 part 3
The subject-matter of this series includes customs, defence, security and postwar reconstruction.
Series: A518
Quantity: 199.15 metres
Recorded by: 1928–1941: Territories Branch, Prime Minister's Department (CA 822)
New Guinea – settlement of Jews, 1938–39
This file includes Government responses to J H Catts' proposal of a settlement on 70 000 acres of New Guinea, as well as a proposal to settle refugee Jews on plantations in Kenya.
A518, Q118/2
This is the main correspondence file series of the agency. The series covers a wide subject range, including immigration, international treaties, political asylum and refugees, international conferences and congresses.
Series: A1838
Quantity: 3224.6 metres
Recorded by: 1948–1970: Department of External Affairs (II), Central Office (CA 18)
Immigration – Migration Australia – settlement of European Jews in Australia [58 pages], 1938–40
This file contains material on the Kimberley Scheme and the Freeland League.
A1838, 1531/71/3
This is the main series maintained by Cabinet, often for administrative business, 1958–1967. Files, arranged by subject, contain Cabinet papers of the period (sometimes dating back to 1949), and generally include copies of submissions and supporting papers, minutes of decisions, briefs or submissions prepared by officers of the Prime Minister's Department. The series includes one relevant item:
Series: A4940
Quantity: 77.49 metres
Recorded by: 1958–1967: Secretary to Cabinet/ Cabinet Secretariat (CA 3)
Proposed Jewish Migrant settlement in WA plan
Contents of this file include a 1950 memo recapitulating the reasons behind the Government's rejection of the Kimberley Scheme, a Cabinet agendum, and a report on the Scheme's strengths and weaknesses.
A4940, C169
The series comprises files of investigations of criminal offences committed against the Commonwealth; the contravention of Commonwealth or State Acts committed on Commonwealth property; details of persons being traced by Government departments, the Red Cross, International Tracing service, or diplomatic and consular representatives. Investigations carried out at the request of Government departments include areas such as prohibited immigrants, enemy aliens and naturalisation. In most instances, a separate file was raised for each case requested to be investigated.
Series: B741
Quantity: 29.88 metres
Recorded by: 1927–1946: Investigation Branch, Victoria (CA 907); 1946–1960: Commonwealth Investigation Service, Victoria (CA 916)
Jewish immigration and land settlement scheme [Press cuttings relating to the proposed Jewish settlement in the Kimberleys area], 1928–45
This file also contains press cuttings on earlier land settlement initiatives at Shepparton and Berwick in Victoria.
B741, V/4901


Chapter notes | All notes

34 National Archives of Australia (ACT): A1, 38/21559 Premier SA re Proposal for Jewish settlement in Australia.

35 National Archives of Australia (ACT): A1, 38/3468 Jewish proposed settlement in Northern Territory (1933-1939)

36 National Archives of Australia (ACT): A518, Q118/2 New Guinea - settlement of Jews (1938-39); National Archives of Australia (ACT): A659, 39/1/2494 Irvine, P.F. - Development of Port Stephens - Settlement of Jews; National Archives of Australia (ACT): A1, 38/3468 Proposed Jewish Settlement in Northern Territory

37 National Archives of Australia (ACT): A518, Q118/2 New Guinea - settlement of Jews (1938-39); National Archives of Australia (ACT): A659, 39/1/2494 Irvine, P.F. - Development of Port Stephens - Settlement of Jews; National Archives of Australia (ACT): A1, 38/3468 Proposed Jewish Settlement in Northern Territory

38 Hilary L. Rubinstein, "Critchley Parker (1911-42): Australian Martyr for Jewish Refugees", AJHSJ 11(1), 1990. p.56-68.

39 Medding, p.153-7; Blakeney, p.292.

40 Rutland, Edge of the Diaspora, p.225, 229-36.


Chapter 2
Immigration and Settlement – Government Policy