Sir Isaac Alfred Isaacs GCB GCMG (6 August 1855–11 February 1948), Australian judge and politician, was the ninth Governor-General of Australia and the first Australian to occupy that post. Isaacs was born in Melbourne, the son of a Jewish tailor who had arrived in Victoria from Britain the previous year. His family was originally of Polish-Jewish origin. When he was four he moved with his family to Yackandandah in northern Victoria and then to nearby Beechworth. He went to the local state school where he displayed his academic ability by becoming dux of his class. After finishing high school he stayed in Beechworth as a pupil-teacher.
In 1875 he moved to Melbourne and found work at the Prothonotary's Office of the Law Department. In 1876, while still working full-time, he started studying law part-time at the University of Melbourne. He graduated in 1880 and became a Master of Laws in 1883. In 1888 he married Deborah Jacobs with whom he had two daughters.
In 1892 Isaacs was elected to the Victorian Legislative Assembly as a radical liberal. In 1893 he became Solicitor-General. He was the member for Bogong from May 1892 until May 1893 and between June 1893 and May 1901. In 1897 he was elected to the Convention, that drafted the Australian Constitution, where he supported those arguing for a more democratic draft.
Isaacs was elected to the first federal Parliament in 1901 to the seat of Indi as a critical supporter of Edmund Barton and his Protectionist government. He was one of a group of backbenchers pushing for more radical policies and he earned the dislike of many of his colleagues through what they saw as his aloofness and rather self-righteous attitude to politics.
Alfred Deakin appointed Isaacs Attorney-General in 1905 but he was a difficult colleague and in 1906 Deakin was keen to get him out of politics by appointing him to the High Court bench. He was the first serving Minister to resign from the Parliament. On the High Court he joined H.B. Higgins as a radical minority on the Court in opposition to the Chief Justice, Sir Samuel Griffith. He served on the Court for 24 years, acquiring a reputation as a learned radical but uncollegial justice.
In 1930 the Labor Prime Minister, James Scullin, appointed Isaacs, by this time aged 75, as Chief Justice. Shortly afterwards, however, Scullin decided to appoint an Australian as Governor-General and offered the post to Isaacs. This sparked a storm of protest from the Nationalist Opposition and the conservative press. Scullin had to travel to London to personally advise King George V to make the appointment. The King reluctantly agreed to it; the British candidate had been Lord Birdwood, who had commanded the Australian Imperial Force during the War.
With Australia in the depths of the Great Depression Isaacs agreed to a reduction in salary and conducted the office with great frugality. He gave up his official residences in Sydney and Melbourne and most official entertaining. He was the first Governor-General to live permanently at Government House, Canberra. This was well-received with the public as was Isaacs's image of rather austere dignity.
Although Isaacs was seen as a Labor appointment the Scullin government fell at the end of 1931 and the rest of Isaacs's term was spent under the United Australia Party government of Joseph Lyons. There was some initial chill between Isaacs and the politicians who had opposed his appointment but Lyons treated him with courtesy and he behaved with scrupulous propriety.
Isaacs was 81 when his term ended in 1936, but his public life was far from over. He remained active in various causes for another decade and wrote frequently on matters of constitutional law. In the 1940s he became embroiled in controversy with the Jewish community both in Australia and internationally through his outspoken opposition to Zionism. Isaacs was not particularly religious but he insisted that Jewishness was a religious identity and not a national or ethnic one. He opposed the notion of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
Isaacs opposed Zionism partly because he disliked nationalism of all kinds and saw Zionism as a form of Jewish national chauvinism—and partly because he saw the Zionist agitation in Palestine as disloyalty to the British Empire to which he was devoted. When Zionist terrorists blew up the King David Hotel in 1946 he wrote that "the honour of Jews throughout the world demands the renunciation of political Zionism". He died in February 1948 and thus did not live to see the creation of the State of Israel.
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