From Australia’s Jewish Past: Sir Isaac Isaacs

May 17, 2022 by Features Desk
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Sir Isaac Alfred Isaacs GCB GCMG  – Australia’s first Jewish Justice of the High Court; the first Jewish Chief Justice of Australia and the first Jewish Governor-General of Australia

Sir Isaac Isaacs

Isaac, the eldest of six children of Alfred and Rebecca, was born on 6 August 1855 in Melbourne.  Rebecca was known to be a very determined woman and over-protective of her first son – Isaac.  The family moved to Yackandandah and later Beechworth Victoria, where the children were brought up.

Isaac was a bright and lively child with wide interests from an early age. Having qualified as a pupil-teacher, he began teaching at the age of 15 at the local school and then at the grammar school in Beechworth.   He moved to Melbourne to work as a clerk in the prothonotary’s office (principal clerk of the court) in the Crown Law Department, where he gained extensive experience in practical legal matters.  He studied law part-time at the University of Melbourne and graduated in minimum time in 1880 with first-class honours, followed by a Masters in Law in 1883.  He was admitted to the Bar in 1880.  A notebook of 1879 stated that Isaac had a photographic memory and in examinations could cite cases with reference to volume and page.  He soon became one of Melbourne’s best-known barristers.

By 1890 he was well-established and appeared nineteen times before the Full Supreme Court, and was taking briefs on behalf of large corporate clients, banks, the stock exchange, land and finance companies.  A colleague is noted to have said that Isaac consistently paid ‘the close and detailed attention to his cases, the completeness of the arguments which he presented and his pertinacity in advocacy. He had remarkable equipment of legal knowledge’.

He was elected to the Victorian Legislative Assembly in 1892 as Member for Bogong, a district that included Yackandandah and Beechworth.  His policy speech, in the context of severe depression, emphasised a retrenchment, introduction of income tax, reform of company law, conciliation to resolve industrial disputes and support for Federation.  In 1893 he became Solicitor-General but this was short-lived due to his interfering in some wrongdoings and conspiracy to defraud being committed.   Cabinet resolved that it was unconstitutional for Isaac to interfere with the decision but he was determined to proceed.  At the Premier’s demand, he resigned on 25 May 1893.  He won much political popularity over the incident and, when he resigned his seat on the issue, he was returned unopposed.  Whilst the decision taken had been wrong, Isaacs’s interpretation of the law was strained and his action was not in accordance with the principles of cabinet government. Unfortunately, his conduct caused him to be distrusted as a colleague.  Isaac continued to push on and supported social reforms such as the Factories Act, which established wages boards and attempted to eliminate sweating, denounced plural voting and favoured women’s suffrage. Throughout his period as a Minister, he carried on an extensive Bar practice.

He joined the new Federal Parliament at the 1901 Election representing the Liberal Protectionist Party, a political party, with policies centred on protectionism.  The party advocated protective tariffs, arguing it would allow Australian industry to grow and provide employment. It had its greatest strength in Victoria and in rural areas of NSW. Its most prominent leaders were Sir Edmund Barton and Alfred Deakin – the first and second Prime Ministers of Australia.

1894 saw his appointment as Attorney-General of the Victorian Legislative Assembly, which he served until 1899, again from 1900 to 1901 and once more in 1905. The following year he left politics in order to become a Justice of the High Court.  Isaac was often in the minority in his early years on the Court, particularly with regard to federalism, where he advocated the supremacy of the Commonwealth Government. The balance of the court eventually shifted, and he famously authored the majority opinion in the Engineers Case of 1920, which abolished the reserved powers doctrine and fully established the supreme power of authority of Commonwealth Law.  He asserted a wide reach for Federal power, especially during World War I and with regard to migration and other issues.  He was described in The Bulletin as a ‘brilliant henchman’.

Alfred Deakin described Isaac in the late 1890s as: ‘A clear, cogent, forcible and fiery speaker, he set himself at once to work to conquer the methods of platform and parliamentary debate and in both succeeded. He was not trusted or liked in the House. 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. Dogmatic by disposition, full of legal subtlety and the precise literalness and littleness of the rabbinical mind, he was at the same time kept well abreast by his reading of modern developments and modern ideas’.   His unpopularity cannot wholly be dismissed as jealousy, anti-Semitism or other prejudice, although there was prejudice and ugly and unworthy things were said and written about him. He was a lone wolf and a determined, ambitious and unrelenting man. At the same time he retained wide popular support as a political leader articulating reformist ideas.

Isaacs was appointed to the High Court of Australia on 12 October 1906 and remained on the Bench for almost twenty-five years.   It is said that ‘’there has never been on the Australian High Court bench a nationalist quite like him’’.  He was appointed the British Order – K.C.M.G. (Knight Commander), in 1928; the  G.C.M.G  (Grand Cross) in 1932 and the G.C.B. (Knight Grand Cross) in 1937.  He was also appointed an Associate Knight of Grace of St John of Jerusalem in 1931.

In January 1930, he was appointed Chief Justice of the High Court, but held office for less than 10 months as, in early December, his appointment as Governor-General was announced and he took the Oaths of Office on 22 January 1931 – the first native-born Australian to be appointed.  This appointment was usually given to a British aristocrat.  King George V was opposed to the idea but eventually consented and Sir Isaac Alfred Isaacs took office in January 1931, a position he held until 1936. He as the first to live full-time in Canberra.  He was popular among the public for his frugality during the Depression and, in retirement became known for his strident anti-Zionism.

 As far as his personal life was concerned, he married 18-year-old Deborah (known as Daisy) in 1888 and had two daughters.  Daisy was the daughter of Isaac Jacobs, a tobacco merchant who had been President of the St Kilda Hebrew Congregation.   The family moved house frequently, and the favourite one was at Mt Macedon.  Isaac was very close to his mother and, in the early years of his marriage he sometimes left his family to stay with her.  Even when over 50, and a Justice of the High Court, he would write to ‘My sweet darling Mammie’: She passed away in 1912.

Throughout his life, Isaac was a student of languages.  He continued to read widely in religion, science and literature, and his speeches included quotations from poets and prose writers.   He was not an observant Jew and had not been involved in community affairs but was aware of his Jewishness and this may have been nurtured by his mother.  In his public life he was sensitive to anti-Semitic attacks and responded to them angrily, especially when there was any suggestion of a contradiction between Jewishness and British citizenship. Throughout his life he took immense pride in his British citizenship and its Imperial links, and insisted that Jewishness was a matter of religion and not of race or nationality.

In his later years he became frail and deaf, but his mind was unimpaired to the end, passing away in his sleep – aged 92 – on 11 February 1948 at his South Yarra home.  He was given a state funeral and a synagogue service and he was buried in Melbourne Cemetery.  The eulogy was delivered by his old friend Rabbi Jacob Danglow.  His wife and daughters survived him.

The Australian Jewish Historical Society is the keeper of archives from the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 right up to today. Whether you are searching for an academic resource, an event, a picture or an article, AJHS can help you find that piece of historical material. The AJHS welcomes your contributions to the archives. If you are a descendent of someone of interest with a story to tell, or you have memorabilia which might be of significance for the archives, please make contact via or its Facebook page.


3 Responses to “From Australia’s Jewish Past: Sir Isaac Isaacs”
  1. Adrian Jackson says:

    Sir Isaacs was a great Australian. As well as being an anti Zionist he was opposed to
    establishing a Jewish state in Palestine as this would cause political and religious friction there.

  2. NADAV PRAWER says:

    Just curious- the article suggests that he was appointed Attorney General of Australia in 1894. However, Australia did not federate until 1901. Have I missed something?

  3. Rabbi John Levi says:

    You have “lost” the fact that he became fascinated by the period “between” the Old and New Testaments and wrote extensively about those years (of course the Dead Sea Scrolls had yet to be discovered. Isaacs wrote frequently to Rabbi Danglow posing questions about the Bible which flummoxed the rabbi. Danglow was not amused. Isaacs was a difficult man and his marriage to Daisy Jacobs was not a bed of roses. A genius is, by definition , a lonely person. He fought battle after battle about Zionism with Professor Julius Stone in the pages of the Jewish press and helped to edit the anti Zionist Australian Jewish Outlook.

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