Among the Australian Jewish community, Sir Isaac Isaacs (1855-1948) was a man who was often far more admired than he was liked. In his retirement, after a long and illustrious political career, Sir Isaac frequently wrote articles for the Jewish press and spoke at Jewish venues. However, his strong opinions in opposition to Zionism isolated him from the majority of Australian Jews. In Sir Isaac’s opinion, Judaism was a religion and was not related to nationality or peoplehood. In the context of his career, his opinion is not surprising.
The first born son of a Polish-born Jewish tailor, Isaacs was born in Melbourne but grew up in the mining region of Victoria.
Sir Isaac’s political career began in 1892, when he was elected to the Victorian Legislative Assembly. He served in numerous political offices, participated in the Australian Constitutional Convention, was elected to the first federal Parliament, was appointed Attorney-General, and, in 1906, joined the High Court of Australia. He remained on the bench for 25 years and was awarded a wide variety of honors (including knighthood).
On January 21, 1931, Sir Isaac was appointed to the position of Governor-General of Australia. This was historically significant, as it was against the desire of King George V, who felt that the Governor-General (who is the official Crown representative in the commonwealths of the United Kingdom) should be appointed from the British nobility, rather than an Australian native. Sir Isaac retired from office in 1936.
Sir Isaac spent his career defining himself and his nationhood as Australian (as opposed to being a British subject). Throughout his career he remained proud of his Judaism and did not permit anti-Semitism to hold him back, but he could not identify with the Zionist call for a state of its own.
A few months before the founding of the State of Israel, on February 11, 1948, at age 92, Sir Isaac passed away in his sleep. He received both a state and a synagogue funeral ceremony.