Isaacs, Sir Isaac Alfred

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ISAACS, SIR ISAAC ALFRED (1855–1948), Australian lawyer and politician who became governor-general and chief justice of Australia. Isaacs' father emigrated from Poland to England and then to Australia at the time of the gold rush (c. 1851). Isaac Isaacs was born in Melbourne. He entered the Government Law Department and studied law at Melbourne University, graduating in 1880. His legal acumen and astute mind soon earned him recognition, and he advanced rapidly. In 1892, Isaacs entered politics and was elected as a member to the state parliament. In the following year he became solicitor general and in 1894 attorney general. He was acting premier of Victoria for a short time in 1899. Active in the debates of the inter-state conventions which led to the formation of the federal government of Australia, Isaacs was elected for the constituency of Indi, in Victoria, when the first federal parliament was formed in 1900. In the federal parliament, he served with distinction as attorney general and in 1906 was appointed a justice of the federal High Court in which he served for 24 years. In 1930, Isaacs became chief justice of Australia. He held strong views on the need for strengthening the power of the federal government as against that of the states and although he did not secure this in the framing of the constitution, his subsequent judgments did much to influence events in that direction. In 1931, after a lengthy public controversy, the Australian Labor government decided on the appointment of an Australian-born governor-general and Isaacs was chosen as the first Australian for this post, which he occupied with dignity, decision, and leadership. He became a privy councillor in 1921 and was knighted in 1928.

Isaacs remained a conscious and practicing Jew but he saw his Jewishness as a religion, rejecting completely its national and political side. Strongly opposed to political Zionism, he engaged in a vigorous public controversy at the age of 90 in which he took a strong anti-Zionist line. He supported the official British government policy on Palestine in 1945–47 as laid down by Ernest *Bevin. Isaacs died a few months before Israeli independence, so that it is impossible to know whether, like many of his non-Zionist associates, he would have fundamentally altered his views on the Jewish state; those who knew him are divided on this point. Even in the last years of his long life, Isaacs preserved his brilliant qualities as a political speaker. The man who, many years later, became Australia's second Jewish governor-general, Zelman Cowen, wrote the authoritative biography, Isaac Isaacs (1967).


M. Gordon, Sir Isaac Isaacs (1963). add. bibliography: Australian Dictionary of Biography; H.L. Rubinstein, Australia i, index; W.D. Rubinstein, Australia ii, index.

[Isidor Solomon]