Saturday, October 17, 2009

Isaac Isaacs

Isaac Isaacs had a weird name. Were his parents trying to be funny? Or maybe he changed his own name to make it like that?

Isaacs was Jewish. I know that. And I think he was Governor-General. I'm not sure when his reign was though. I'm going to guess it was in the early 20th century. I was going to say in the late 19th century, but were there Governor-Generals before Federation?

Wow. He was Governor-General much later than I expected. Lord Wiki says he had the post from 1931-1936.

Baby Isaac was born 6 August 1855. Well, he would have been pretty old when he was Governor his late seventies. But I guess that's fairly normal for a Governor-General. How old is the current one? Well, Quentin Bryce is a little younger. She's in her sixties.

Isaacs was born in Melbourne. His dad was a Jewish tailor from Poland. Jewish tailors remind me of this song.

Daddy Isaacs left Poland and did some traveling. He ended up in London where he met a British Jewish woman. They married. Then when the gold rush happened, they emigrated to Australia. They arrived in September 1854.

It doesn't seem like Daddy Isaacs panned for least not right away. He set up a tailor shop on Elizabeth Street in Melbourne. There's an Elizabeth Street in Sydney too. I guess Australia likes to honor their queen.

Lord Wiki says Melbourne's Elizabeth Street is one of the main streets in the central business district. He says there's a lot of photography and motorcycle shops. I wonder if Melbourne is like Manhattan—different neighborhoods are known for different products. There's the Diamond District in Midtown. There's some area in lower Manhattan where you can buy restaurant supplies. Everyday when I walked to the subway, I'd pass this whole section of wholesale flowers.

The Isaacs family also LIVED on Elizabeth Street. Their shop was also their cottage home, and baby Isaac was born there. Lord Wiki says they didn't stay there, though. First they moved around Melbourne. Then when Isaacs was about four, his family moved to Yackandandah in northern Victoria. It's about three hours north-east of Melbourne. It was a fairly large gold-mining settlement. Did the Isaacs family move there to find gold, or did they know there'd be a lot of people living there who needed a tailor?

Isaac stopped being an only child when the family moved to Yackandandah. His parents had a son and two daughters. The son John eventually became a Member of Parliament in Victoria. Wait. They also had two kids who died. One of them was born in Melbourne. So I guess Isaacs hadn't always been an only child there.

Isaacs attended a small private school in his very young years. He won a math prize. Go Isaac Isaacs!

In 1863, a state school was opened in Yackandandah, and Isaacs started going there. He did very well academically in school, despite sometimes resorting to truancy. He would leave the school grounds to spend time at the mines. I wonder why he did that.

His family cared much for his education. Jews have a reputation for this. They moved to Beechworth so Isaac could attend a better school. Beechworth is only about twenty-two kilometers from Yackandandah, so it's not like they moved that far.

Ned Kelly spent some time in Beechworth prison.

Isaacs did very well in school. He was made dux his first year at the Beechworth Grammar school. In his second year, he became employed part time as an assistant teacher.

When Isaacs was fifteen, he passed his teaching exam and became a teacher. Lord Wiki says he was a pupil teacher. I'm not sure what that means. Is that different from a regular teacher? Well, I googled, and from what I see, it might be equivalent to a student teacher.

Isaacs became an assistant teacher at the local state school. There he had his first real encounter with the law. He got involved with a lawsuit against the headmaster of the school regarding his payment. It seems Isaacs lost, and he resigned from the school.

He went to teach at the grammar school. The law thing must have stuck in his head, though. He spent a portion of his spare time reading law books and sitting in on court cases. It looks like the guy had found his passion.

Lord Wiki says Isaacs knew several languages. His parents spoke Russian so he learned that. He also was fairly proficient in Italian, French, Greek, Hindustani, and Chinese. I've never heard of Hindustani. I'm guessing it's an Indian language.

Lord Wiki says that 904 million people speak it. It's spoken in India, Pakistan, Suriname, Fiji, etc. I think the language I think of when I think of India is Hindi.

In 1875, Isaacs moved to Melbourne. He would have been around twenty.

He worked full-time in the Prothonotary office of the law department. I'm not sure what that means exactly. Lord Wiki tried to explain it to me, but I still don't get it. Oh well. I guess the important thing to note is that while working full time, Isaacs also furthered his education. He studied law at the University of Melbourne. By 1883, he had his masters. Five years after that, he got married.

In 1892, he was elected into the Victorian Legislative Assembly. Lord Wiki says he was a radical liberal. I'm guessing that's liberal in the Australian way. Was he on the right? Or is it liberal as in the left?

In 1897, he was elected to the group who drafted the Australian Constitution.

When the whole Federation thing happened, Isaacs became a Member of the Federal Parliament. He was in the seat of Indi which encompasses north-eastern Victoria. Prime Minister John McEwen had that post later from 1937 to 1949. It seems that seat is usually taken by the Liberal Party, or something else conservative like that.

Isaacs was part of the Protectionist Party when he had the seat. He supported Edmund Barton.

Lord Wiki says he pushed for radical policies, and because of this he was unpopular with his colleagues. They saw him as being aloof and self-righteous.

You know who comes to my mind—someone who might be like Isaac Isaacs? Martin Prince from The Simpsons.

Alfred Deakin, the second Prime Minister, appointed Isaacs as the attorney-general. I guess he soon regretted his decision. Lord Wiki says he saw Isaacs as being a difficult colleague. He pushed Isaacs away by appointing him to the High Court. Isaacs had that job from 1906 to 1930.

In 1930, Isaacs was given the job of Chief Justice. That lasted a short time, and then he became Governor-General.

It was Prime Minister James Scullin who pushed for Isaacs to get this position. Prior to Isaacs, the Governor-General was never Australian-born. And King George was somewhat reluctant to make such a change. He wanted William Birdwood, a British general, to have the job.

Isaacs was Governor-General during the Great Depression. He made sure to be frugal with his post. He agreed to a reduction in salary. I think that's admirable. He gave up his homes in Sydney and Melbourne, and moved into Government House in Canberra. All this made Isaacs fairly popular in the public eye. I'm not sure whether he became liked by those he worked with, though. I have a feeling that Isaacs was the kind of person that is liked in theory. He's a decent person. But maybe he's not the most pleasant person to be around. Maybe it's like some celebrities. They're great at acting. They do charitable work. They're decent humans. But then you have a conversation with them, and talking to them is torture.

Isaacs retired when he was eighty-one. This was in 1836.

Here's something interesting. He was anti-Zionist. He saw Judaism as a religion, and not an ethnicity or national group. Even the Holocaust didn't make him change his mind. I wonder how he felt about bringing Jews to Australia. I know there was some movement to bring thousands of Jewish refugees there, but it was eventually vetoed. I wonder how Isaacs felt about it.

Ah. Lord Wiki says it was called the Kimberly Plan.

Now I'm going to read about Isaacs on the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Mommy Isaacs was very intellectual. She probably had much influence over her son.

Isaacs seemed to have a photographic memory. The website says pretty much what Lord Wiki said. Isaacs was a smart guy. He was like Brainy Smurf.

After he got involved with the law stuff, Isaacs moved his parents back to Melbourne. I guess maybe he paid for their move.

Isaac's wife was the daughter of a past president of the St. Kilda Hebrew Congregation. Isaacs and his wife ended up having two daughters.

It seems Isaacs remained close to his mother. He talked to her on a daily basis. I guess by telephone? Were there phones back then? I'm telling you. I'm horrible at technological history. Well from what I can gather from this phone history site, it seems phones started appearing at around this time. It was a pretty new technology, though. So, I'm not sure if Isaacs would have had a phone. Maybe he traveled each day to his mom's house.

Isaacs was a Freemason.

He was a member of the Australian Natives Association. I think that referred to white people born in Australia and not the true natives. Yeah. Lord Wiki says I'm right.

There's something here I'm trying to understand. It sounds kind of important. There was a bank that was supposed to go on trial for conspiracy to defraud. The Attorney-General of Victoria just wanted to let it go. Isaacs did not. It was not seen as constitutional for him to go against the Attorney-General. All of this made him a bit unpopular. The biographical dictionary says, Having challenged persons of standing and institutions of power and authority he was henceforth distrusted in these quarters, and his conduct as a member of the government gave rise to the feeling that he was not trustworthy as a colleague.

So was Isaacs a lone hero, or an annoying prick?

You know, I don't think I've ever used the word prick before. Isn't that funny? It seems foreign to my fingers. I tried substituting asshole, but it just didn't fit well. Maybe I'll start adding prick to my vocabulary. I don't think I like it, though. Writing is it okay. I don't like how it sounds when I speak it aloud.

From what I've read so far, I think I have my earlier question answered. Isaacs was on the left; not the right. He would fit in well with the left people today. They're usually more anti-Israel than the people on the right.

I'm on the left, but I'm not anti-Israel. I'm not really pro-Israel. I'm pro-let's find SOMEWHERE for all the Jews to live. I'm totally fine with the five million Jews being kicked out of Israel, so the Muslims can have all that land to long as other countries are willing to take them in. And I'm sure the Muslims themselves would take in a portion. Who else would be willing?

Maybe we could find ten countries to take a half a million each. I think that might work.

The website says His will was indomitable, his courage inexhaustible and his ambition immeasurable. But his egotism was too marked and his ambition too ruthless to render him popular.Were some of these opinions based on anti-semitism? The websites says yes, but the dislike of him can't be blamed fully on anti-semitism.

I wonder, though....

Could he have added to anti-semitism....perpetuated stereotypes that people already had? I wonder how the dislike of Isaacs influenced the opinion that the Australian government had on Jewish people. Could they have assumed that most Jews would be like him? Could this idea have made them not want to take in too many Jewish refugees?

What if Isaacs had been a fun-loving easygoing bloke? Would Australians have thought the Jews as being awesome? Would they have let them migrate to the Kimberley? Would the Jews not have needed Israel?

I'm thinking that we might be able to blame Isaacs for all the later turmoil in the Middle East.

I'm joking, of course....well, for the most part.

Anti-semitism has existed for centuries. And I'm sure it existed in Australia before Isaacs. I think it's one of those circular things. Isaacs had a difficult personality. He may have encountered overt and subtle anti-semitism. That might have made him defensive and even more of an asshole. Plus, if someone dislikes a certain group of people, they're more likely to notice negative personality traits. Isaacs may have been judged more harshly than a non-Jewish person.

Isaacs was strongly disliked by Edmond Barton. I thought Lord Wiki said Isaacs supported Barton. Well, I guess if that's true, the love wasn't mutual.

He was against gambling. If he was alive today, he'd probably be friends with Tim Costello.

The website says that Isaacs was very rigid in his viewpoints. He refused to consider other viewpoints. Yeah. I've met people like that. They can be very annoying, especially when they're nasty and intolerant. I mean I'm opinionated. I have strong views and I do think my views are the correct views. But I TRY to be polite towards those who think differently. I try to at least listen, and consider the idea that they may be right and I'm wrong.

The website says he refused to admit to making errors.

Oh! That really annoys me. I've encountered people like this as well. There are people who criticized choices we've made in our parenting. Then these same people turned around and did the exact same stuff we did. Of course it makes me feel all vindicated, but I wish they'd have the decency to say, Hey. Sorry we gave you grief about this before. Now we totally agree with you.

I'm wondering what would make a person afraid to admit to mistakes. I'd say in some cases it would come from a childhood in which one was brutally punished. There'd be a fear of doing wrong. But I also think it could come from a childhood where one is put on pedestal by his parents. There's those parents who believe their child can do no wrong. They're never scolded. Any wrongdoing is ignored or blamed on someone else. These children probably learn that they are loved because they're seen as being perfect. Mistakes are intolerable and must not exist.

Did Isaacs beloved mother put too much pressure on him to be perfect?

I'm having so much fun playing psychologist here.

From what I'm reading, it seems Isaacs was not liked when in Government and the High Court. But it does seem he gained some love as Governor-General.

During his retirement years, Isaacs was involved with the Jewish Community. He was interested in Judaism, but didn't practice it.

The website says he was sensitive to anti-semitism and would get angry about it. The website says he was proud of his British citizenship and saw that as his nationality rather than Judaism. But after Federation, shouldn't that have been Australian citizenship?

Isaacs caused a lot of problems in the Jewish community. It's not just that he opposed their Zionism. It's that he was a jerk about it. A professor named Julius Stone argued against Isaac's view. Isaacs not only attacked Stone's viewpoint but attacked Stone himself.

Yeah. I've known bloggers like Isaacs.

The University of Melbourne has a biography on Isaacs.

He was a supporter of the White Australia Policy. The University says this somewhat contradicted with his desire to learn some Chinese. So he was for a White Australia, yet he had some interest in the Chinese culture. He was a man of some contradictions. I think most humans are that way.

Anyway, I can't really find anything else exciting. So I'm going to quit for now.


  1. I know you have a long list but I wanted to recommend Gareth Evans as a subject. He's a smart man like Sir Isaac seems to have been and also quite abrasive. I think he was a Foreign Minister in both the Hawke and Keating ministries.

    He's just retired this year from heading the International Crisis Group but is still quite active internationally and nationally.

    You mentioned him briefly because of his affair with Cheryl Kernot (when you featured her) but I think he deserves a full post. I'd be very interested to read what you make of him if you feel that way inclined. Thanks.

  2. Martin,

    Sure : )

    I'll add Evans. It might take several months for me to get to him though.

  3. The website says he was proud of his British citizenship, and saw that as his nationality rather than Judaism. But after Federation, shouldn't that have been Australian citizenship?

    At the time, Australians were British first, Australian second. It's still the time of the British Empire. It's a complicated mess, the first 40-odd years after Federation. Well, for those of us looking back, that is. No doubt made perfect sense to many at the time.

  4. Stephen,

    That makes sense. I've heard of some Australians who felt that way. I didn't realize it was widespread. Or maybe on some level I did. I know there was once some level of shame about being Australian...the whole cultural cringe, shame of the convict past, the newscasters with British accents, etc.

    I'm glad Australians have come to their senses : )