Isaac Steinberg

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Isaac Steinberg
Исаак Штейнберг
Isaac Steinberg.jpg
People's Commissar for Justice of the RSFSR
In office
22 December 1917 – 18 March 1918
PremierVladimir Lenin
Preceded byPēteris Stučka
Succeeded byPēteris Stučka
Personal details
Isaac Nachman Steinberg

13 July 1888
Daugavpils, Russian Empire
Died2 January 1957(1957-01-02) (aged 68)
New York City, United States
Political partySocialist Revolutionary Party, Left Socialist-Revolutionaries

Isaac Nachman Steinberg (Russian: Исаак Нахман Штейнберг; 13 July 1888 – 2 January 1957) was a lawyer, Socialist Revolutionary, politician, a leader of the Jewish Territorialist movement and writer in Soviet Russia and in exile.

Early life and first exile[edit]

Steinberg was born in Dvinsk, Russian Empire (today Daugavpils, Latvia), into a family of Jewish merchants. He was raised in a traditional religious home. In 1906, Steinberg entered Moscow University, where he studied law. He joined the Socialist Revolutionary Party (also known as SR or Eser) and was exiled for his activism. He then moved to Germany and completed his education at the University of Heidelberg.

Return to Russia, career of Narkom and second exile[edit]

In 1910, Steinberg returned to Russia and worked as a lawyer. From December 1917 to March 1918, he was People's Commissar (Narkom) of Justice in Vladimir Lenin's government during the Bolsheviks' short-lived coalition with the left wing of the SR. Steinberg resigned his post in protest against the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and campaigned against the Bolsheviks. In 1923, having been warned that he was in danger of assassination, he again moved to Germany and took his young family with him.

Freeland League[edit]

After the Nazis came to power in 1933, Steinberg, his wife and three children settled in London. There, he was one of the co-founders of the Freeland League, which attempted to find a safe haven for European Jews fleeing the Holocaust.

The League selected the Kimberley region of Western Australia as a place to purchase agricultural land where 75,000 Jewish refugees from Europe could be resettled. This effort became known as the Kimberley Plan, or Kimberley Scheme.[1] Steinberg based his campaign on the officially declared need to populate northern Australia. On 23 May 1939 he arrived in Perth and by early 1940 gained substantial public support, but also encountered opposition.

Steinberg left Australia in June 1943 to rejoin his family in Canada. On 15 July 1944 he was informed by the Australian Prime Minister John Curtin that the Australian government would not "depart from the long-established policy in regard to alien settlement in Australia" and could not "entertain the proposal for a group settlement of the exclusive type contemplated by the Freeland League".[1]

Steinberg continued his efforts in spite of setbacks. In 1946, the Freeland League started negotiations with the Surinamese and Netherlands governments about the possible resettlement of 30,000 Jewish displaced persons from Europe in the Saramacca district of Surinam. A delegation of the League headed by Steinberg, accompanied by Henri B. van Leeuwen and N. Fruchtbaum, visited Surinam in April 1947. In August 1948, the Surinamese parliament decided 'to suspend the discussions until the complete clarification of the international situation'. The negotiations were never resumed.

Steinberg was a prolific Yiddish writer, editor and prominent cultural activist, who played an important role in the development of the Yiddishist movement.[2] Steinberg was an Orthodox Jew; it's rumored that during his short tenure as Commisar of Justice he refused to work on Sabbath, much to Lenin's dismay.[3][4]

Isaac Steinberg died in New York in 1957. His son was the distinguished art historian Leo Steinberg.

Political views[edit]

Steinberg's political views were essentially anarchist, although he defined himself as a Left Eser or Left Narodnik. Russian Left Esers proposed a radically decentralized federation of worker syndicates, councils and cooperatives whose delegates are chosen by direct democracy and could be revoked at any moment.

Unlike many anarchists, Steinberg believed that it is possible and necessary to form a political party whose task would be the destruction of the state from within. He also noted, like some contemporary anarchists, that even an established syndicalist federation would not be completely free of elements or "crystals" of organized power. According to Steinberg, even a relatively free and stateless social system has to acknowledge the existence of some reminiscent government-like structures within itself, in order to decentralize or dismantle them and further "anarchize" the society. Steinberg viewed anarchism as an underlying principle, spirit, and drive of revolutionary socialism, rather than as a concrete political program with an ultimate goal. Therefore, he refrained from equating his syndicalist ideas with "anarchism", because such an equation, in his view, would have compromised the very subtle and perpetual nature of anarchist principles.[5]

Steinberg was a leader of the Jewish Territorialist movement. He worked hard to establish a Jewish self-managed territory, but did not support the idea of the Jewish nation-state and was highly critical of Zionist movement politics. After the establishment of the State of Israel, he supported the idea of creating a binational federation in Israel/Palestine and, at the same time, continued his efforts to establish a compact self-ruled Jewish settlement somewhere outside the Middle East.


  • (in Russian) "Нравственный лик революции" ("Moral Face of the Revolution"), Berlin, 1923
  • (in Yiddish) זכרונות פֿון אַ פֿאָלקס־קאָמיסאַר ("Memoirs of People's Commissar"), Warsau, 1931
  • "Spiridonova: Revolutionary Terrorist". Translated and edited by Gwenda David and Eric Mosbacher. London, 1935.
  • (in Yiddish) געלעבט און געחלומט אין אויסטראַליע ("Lived and dreamed in Australia"), Melbourne, 1943
  • Australia: The Unpromised Land (London, 1948)
  • (in Yiddish) מיט אײן פֿוס אין אַמעריקע: פּערזאָנען, געשעענישן און אידעען ("With one foot in America: People, Events and Ideas"), Mexico, 1951
  • (in Yiddish) אין קאַמף פֿאַר מענטש און ייִד ("In Struggle for Man and Jew"), Buenos Aires, 1952
  • In The Workshop Of The Revolution (1955)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Steinberg, Isaac Nachman (1888–1957) by Beverley Hooper, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, Melbourne University Press, 2002, pp 298–299. Online Ed. published by Australian National University
  2. ^ "Zions Other Than Zion – The Arty Semite –". 2011-07-05. Retrieved 2012-07-13.
  3. ^ The life and work of S.M. Dubnov: diaspora nationalism and Jewish history, by Sofiia Dubnova-Erlikh and Jeffrey Shandler, p. 251, 1991, Indiana University Press, ISBN 0-253-31836-X
  4. ^ "He was a strictly Orthodox Jew and observed Jewish religious rituals even when be served in the Lenin government". 1957-01-04. Retrieved 2012-07-13.
  5. ^ אין קאַמף פֿאַר מענטש און ייִד, Buenos Aires, 1952

External links[edit]