Territorialism, Zionism, and the Search for a Different Jewish State
Dec 12, 2016
17 Min read time
Alternatives to Zionism, from the Uganda Scheme to Birobidzhan, present a complex history of the search for a Jewish home.
Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region
Schocken, $25 (cloth)
In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands Before Israel
NYU Press, $35 (cloth)
It seems inevitable now that a Jewish state means a Hebrew-speaking country in the Middle East. It was not always so obvious. In his 2007 novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon describes an alternative history in which Israel was destroyed immediately after it was founded, leaving a Yiddish-speaking territory in Alaska as the world’s only Jewish state. Fast-forward to the present day and the settlement in Sitka is still home to a Jewish micronation, the setting for Chabon’s noir-flavored detective novel.
The idea of a Yiddish colony in Alaska might seem outlandish, but since the early nineteenth century, Jewish activists dreamed of establishing a country somewhere in the world, and not necessarily in Palestine. Even Alaska was once on the table. In 1940 the United States Department of the Interior proposed the territory as “a haven for Jewish refugees from Germany and other areas in Europe.” The scheme was never implemented, to the detriment of European Jews who were at that moment being murdered in the Holocaust. But it was just one episode in the long history of Territorialism, a movement whose aspirations for Jewish statehood stretched from Alaska to Australia, Siberia to Suriname.
Since the early nineteenth century, Jewish activists dreamed of establishing a country somewhere in the world, far from Palestine.
Today Territorialism is mostly forgotten. While the ideas of Zionism, socialism, and other political causes with nineteenth-century roots remain deeply relevant, the establishment of the State of Israel would seem to have made Territorialism moot. However, two recent books show that the utopian spirit of Zionism was inseparable from competing projects for a Jewish state—some of which once seemed more realistic. In the Shadow of Zion by University of Denver English and Jewish literature professor Adam Rovner provides a colorful history of the Territorialist movement from the 1820s until after World War II. While Rovner gives a thorough accounting of mainstream Territorialist efforts, he deals only briefly with its most fully realized if ill-fated project. This is the subject of journalist Masha Gessen’s Where the Jews Aren’t, a personal rumination on Birobidzhan, the Soviet Union’s Jewish autonomous region. Now, with anti-Semitism rising in Europe and the United States, and Israel in the grip of its own right-wing government, Territorialist ideas have returned with a renewed urgency. What might a Jewish state look like, aside from Israel?
• • •
Like Zionism, Territorialism emerged as a Jewish response to rising ethnic nationalisms throughout Europe in the late nineteenth century, as well as to anti-Jewish violence sweeping Russia. Although it fell under a single name, Territorialism encompassed the differing visions of a variety of organizations and leaders. Some just wanted a refuge for the beleaguered Jews of Europe; others aspired to reinvigorate Eastern European Jewish culture and promote Yiddish as a national language. Most Territorialists insisted on some kind of political autonomy, although that depended on the concessions colonial powers were willing to grant. What they all had in common was the desire to create a Jewish country, no matter where it might be located.
In hindsight most Territorialist schemes seem impossible, plans that were doomed from inception. But in its time Territorialism was considered to be one of the more realistic solutions to the Jewish Question. As Rovner writes of one Territorialist organization, it may have been “an esoteric group of thirty or forty people,” but it also “found itself conducting high-level negotiations for a vast swathe of territory nearly the size of Belgium.” And although Territorialist leaders were often eccentric figures, they included some of the most important Jewish leaders of the time.
None of the Territorialists was more respectable than Israel Zangwill. A contemporary of Theodore Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, Zangwill was a British-born writer and playwright whose lasting claim to fame is the term “the melting pot,” a phrase he coined as the title of a play about immigration to America. Another of his works, Noah’s Ark, depicted an effort in 1825 by the American Jewish journalist and diplomat Mordecai Manuel Noah to establish a Jewish state on Grand Island in upstate New York. (Noah is also the subject of the recent novel Isra Isle by Israeli author Nava Semel.) The plan came to naught, but only after Noah had bought two thousand acres and presided over a cornerstone dedication ceremony in which, Rovner writes, “he demanded that the Jews’ ‘rights as a nation’ be acknowledged.’” Noah, an outlandish figure, dressed for the occasion in “robes of crimson silk, trimmed with ermine” that he had “borrowed from a theater production of Shakespeare’s Richard III.”
Like Zionism, Territorialism emerged as a Jewish response to rising ethnic nationalisms throughout Europe in the late nineteenth century.
While Zangwill was inspired by Noah, he was also an early Zionist. In fact, at its outset Zionism was Territorialism. Although the return to Zion was the organizing principle of the movement, for many Zionist leaders the priority was Jewish sovereignty, whatever form that might take. Herzl himself entertained the possibility of Jewish statehood in places such as Argentina, Cyprus, Mesopotamia, Mozambique, and Sinai. But the question remained academic until 1903, when Zangwill introduced Herzl to the British colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain. That year, in response to a brutal three-day pogrom in the city of Kishinev, Chamberlain offered the Zionist movement a region on the Uasin Gishu plateau in East Africa, today part of Kenya.
The “Uganda Plan,” as it came to be known, split the Zionist movement in half. Shortly after Chamberlain’s proposal the question was debated at the Sixth Zionist Congress, where a commission was established to study the idea and an expedition was organized to investigate the territory. For its supporters—who included not only Herzl but also Max Nordau, the co-founder of the World Zionist Congress, and Eliezer Ben-Yehudah, the father of modern Hebrew—the possibility of a real Jewish state was of inestimable significance. It was, Rovner writes, “the first real achievement of Jewish statecraft in nearly two thousand years.”
For its opponents, however, the Uganda Scheme was a betrayal. The purpose of Zionism was a return of the Jewish people to its historic homeland, they argued, not another diaspora. And even though Herzl and others held out Palestine as the ultimate goal, any other plan seemed to threaten that dream. If Europe’s Jews wound up in Africa, why should they bother with the Middle East? Finally, in 1905, a year after Herzl’s death, the Zionist movement voted against the Uganda Plan. While most Zionists were willing to follow the new consensus, Zangwill was not.
At its outset Zionism was Territorialism.
Territorialism’s disputes with Zionism were not limited to East Africa. For Zangwill the 1905 resolution represented an overall failure to confront the problems facing Zionism. In addition to the difficulty of securing Jewish sovereignty in Palestine, a territory then governed by the Ottoman Empire, Zangwill foresaw the conflicts that would arise between Jewish immigrants and the existing Arab population. Despite a prevailing sentiment that Palestine was “a land without people for a people without land,” many Territorialist leaders worried precisely about the people who were already there. As early as 1904, in a pamphlet titled The East African Question, Zangwill warned of “a difficulty from which the Zionist dares not avert his eyes. . . . Palestine proper has already its inhabitants.”
Territorialism’s concern with locating a territory free of any preexisting claims may appear naïve in hindsight—and in the case of East Africa, it was: Zangwell and his colleagues seem to have been unaware that the land they had been offered was part of the traditional territory of the Maasai. Nonetheless Zangwill and his contemporaries were determined to find an uncontested area. Following the 1905 congress, Zangwill established the Jewish Territorial Organization (ITO) with journalist Lucien Wolf, and for the next decade it competed with Zionism for recognition and popular support. By 1911 the ITO had over three hundred information offices in Eastern Europe “to aid prospective immigrants seeking to flee the Russian Empire.” Its closest success was a plan for Portuguese Angola, which was supported by a 1912 bill in the Portuguese Chamber of Deputies. The ITO eventually rejected the bill, saying that it did not go far enough to meet their needs. But the organization continued to negotiate until the eve of World War I, and entertained possibilities in Western Canada, Australia, Mesopotamia, and Libya, among other places. Although the war spelled the end of most of the ITO’s activities, Territorialism itself was far from dead.
Territorialism's aspirations for Jewish statehood stretched from Alaska to Australia, Siberia to Suriname.
Just as Territorialism arose partly in response to Russian pogroms, it returned with new urgency in the wake of the Nazi rise to power. Zangwill’s ITO had formally shut down in 1925, its goals stymied both by World War I and by the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which asserted British support for Jewish settlement in the newly-conquered Mandate of Palestine. But the banner of Territorialism was raised again by the Freeland League, an organization founded in Warsaw and London in the early 1930s. Like the ITO, the Freeland League had its literary celebrities; among its supporters was the German modernist Alfred Döblin, who founded the Paris branch of the organization in 1933.
The Freeland League was not just a revival of Zangwill’s ITO, however. Following the direction of its indefatigable leader, Isaac Nachman Steinberg, it tended toward socialism politically and Yiddishism culturally. Steinberg, “a Russian-born social revolutionary, intellectual, Yiddishist, author, and orthodox Jew,” was one of the most fascinating Jewish personalities of the century. After the Russian Revolution, he served briefly as Lenin’s Commissar of Justice despite his habit of praying during cabinet meetings. He eventually fled the Soviet Union for Germany, then London, and finally the United States, where he was classified as a “potentially dangerous” alien by the FBI. If Chabon’s Yiddish-speaking Alaska had come to pass it would have been a project of Steinberg and the Freeland League.
Alaska was the least of Steinberg’s schemes. One of the Freeland League’s first negotiations was for French Madagascar; had that plan succeeded, it might have saved millions of Jews from the Holocaust. Other efforts included the Kimberley region in Northern Australia, as well as the island of Tasmania. Even as World War II raged, the Freeland League continued to seek a home for Jewish refugees. When the Kimberley Plan was scuttled in 1944 by Australian Prime Minister John Curtin, Steinberg turned his attentions to Dutch Guiana, otherwise known as Surinam, which had been home to a community of Sephardic Jews in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Surinam was where the Freeland League came closest to success. In 1947, with tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors still languishing in displaced persons camps, the governor of the territory, Johannes Cornelis Brons, signed an agreement granting entry to some thirty thousand Jewish immigrants. But even as Steinberg was negotiating for the kernel of a Jewish State in Surinam, Zionism was finally achieving its goals. In November of 1947 the United Nations voted to partition Palestine, leading to the first Arab-Israeli war and then to the establishment of Israel. Steinberg continued to push for Territorialist projects but, as Rovner puts it, “none of these visions escaped from the black newsprint of Freeland magazine.” Steinberg died in 1956, leaving his organization to the Yiddish linguist Mordkhe Schaechter, who turned it into the League for Yiddish—a non-political cultural group that has no plans to start its own country.
• • •
If the efforts of Noah, Zangwill, Steinberg, and others never materialized, there was one Territorialist project that did: the Jewish Autonomous Region of the Soviet Union, otherwise known of Birobidzhan. For Gessen, Jewish and growing up in the USSR in the 1970s, the idea of moving to Birobidzhan was little more than a joke. No one in her family ever lived there, or would have contemplated it. But for Soviet Jews in previous decades, it may have seemed like a reasonable option. When the JAR was first proposed in the 1920s, it was supposed to be part of a patchwork Bolshevik state, “international in spirit and national in structure.” The Jews were just one of many constituent nations of the Soviet Union, and each of them was to have a degree of political and cultural autonomy. As Gessen writes, it was “a strategy of trying to harness nationalism to preserve the empire rather than pull it apart.” If the JAR sounded fine in theory, however, in practice it turned out to be “the worst good idea ever.”
Birobidzhan boasted Yiddish-language schools, Yiddish cultural institutions, and a Yiddish government. The high point came in 1934, when it became the Jewish Autonomous Region, just a step away from a national republic.
The first problem was the location. Situated in the far east near the border with China, between the rivers Bira and Bidzhan, the territory was half mountain and half swamp, with winters that lasted from October through April and summers beset by heavy rains and plagues of insects. Even before settlement began an advance expedition reported “exceeding quantities of gadflies, mosquitoes and midges, which, over the course of the summer months, cause extreme suffering to cattle and man.” The only people living there were Cossacks, who had been sent by the Czar in 1860 to defend the border, and a few Korean-Russians and ethnic Chinese.
Despite forbidding prospects, nearly a thousand Jewish settlers arrived in April of 1928. They were mostly fleeing Ukraine and Western Belarus, where the revolution had left traditional life in disarray. They were joined by idealists from abroad, “Yiddish speakers who had fled the Russian Empire in the early twentieth century and were now returning from Argentina, the United States, and even Palestine.” Jewish groups from overseas provided support, including the Organization for Jewish Colonization in Russia (IKOR), an American outfit that set up its own commune.
Nothing could prepare them for the harshness of Birobidzhan. During the first summer torrential rains washed away what little they had been able to grow, and their cattle, which arrived late, died in an anthrax epidemic. According to Gessen’s estimate, as many as two-thirds of the arrivals made the very reasonable decision to flee. “People started running,” recalled a settler named Leyba Shkolnik in a 1935 interview. “The ones who had saved a little something over the years ran under the cover of night so they would not have to share what they had with the collective farm.”
Little by little, however, life began to take root. “What was happening in Birobidzhan had often been, and would often be, repeated in the Soviet Union,” Gessen writes. “Once again, the Soviet experiment had demonstrated through great human sacrifice that people can survive anywhere.” Plans were made to build a modernist city center on the banks of the Bira River, including a new theater and regional hospital. In 1935 another eight thousand people arrived, bringing the population close to twenty thousand. This time, none of them left.
There were times, too, when life in Birobidzhan seemed not only possible, but like it might be the fulfillment of the Territorialist dream. By the mid-1930s there were six Yiddish-language schools, a Yiddish publishing house, a Yiddish theater, and a Yiddish newspaper. Unlike in other Jewish cultural centers, such as New York, in Birobidzhan the police department, courts, and city administration all functioned in Yiddish. The high point came in 1934, when the Central Committee of the Communist Party officially made it the Jewish Autonomous Region, just a step away from a national republic.
No sooner did things get better, however, than they got worse. Despite its remote location Birobidzhan was heavily targeted by Stalin’s purges of the mid-1930s and late 1940s; the nationalities policy, which once seemed like wisdom, was now viewed as a way for ethnic groups to undermine the state. Books were banned, publications shuttered, writers, editors, and political leaders were arrested and disappeared. Before long Yiddish was almost completely replaced by Russian.
Birobidzhan was heavily targeted by Stalin’s purges. Before long Yiddish was almost completely replaced by Russian.
Although Birobidzhan received a new influx of residents after World War II, most of them Holocaust survivors, political repression had already eliminated whatever idealism had justified living there in the first place. “The days of struggling to assimilate hundreds and thousands of new arrivals were over,” Gessen writes. “The rallies, plays, and gala evenings brimming with proud propaganda had ended; the idea of achieving national-republic status had been buried.” In the late 1940s the Sholem Aleichem Library of Birobidzhan staged a book burning in its courtyard, “to destroy every Yiddish-language book that had been found in the region.” By the time the Freeland League’s plans were foundering in Surinam, any hopes placed in Birobidzhan were also dead.
• • •
One of the great ironies of Territorialism is that from the time of the Uganda Scheme it saw itself as a more practical alternative to Zionism. While Zionists had the romanticism of Jewish history on their side, Territorialists accused them of ignoring both more practical solutions and the dilemma of Palestine’s existing population. In fact, had the Zionists supported Territorialist efforts, the world might have seen the emergence of a Jewish state before the Holocaust. As Zangwill once put it, Zionism was “a poem, not a plan.”
But in the end the poetry of Zionism triumphed over the prose of Territorialism. Was this a failure of imagination on the part of Territorialists—a failure to realize that the most imaginative scheme is sometimes the most possible one? Or perhaps the Territorialists were equally impractical, dreaming of a Jewish paradise in some far-flung corner of the globe? As Rovner writes, “Palestinocentric Zionists invented the Jewish future in terms of the mythic past; Territorialists jettisoned the land of their fathers in order to pursue a utopian future.” Over time both movements would accuse the other of utopianism, while pursuing their own goals along more-or-less pragmatic lines.
Then again, despite the historic success of Zionism, it too has fallen short of its goals. Today’s Israel doesn’t look much like Herzl’s utopian vision of a Jewish state, nor like the socialist, secular ideals of its founding generation. Since the beginning of mass settlement in Palestine, Zionist leaders have been frustrated by the reluctance of Diaspora Jews to leave their homes and join their national undertaking. And today there are plenty of Israelis who have left their country for New York or Berlin, frustrated by the entrenchment of right-wing politics and the never-ending military occupation of the Palestinian territories. Zionism may have succeeded in providing a home for the Jewish people, but it hasn’t made all Jews feel at home.
Territorialists saw themselves as a practical alternative to Zionism, accusing Zionists of ignoring the plight of Palestinians.
Perhaps, then, the choice between Zionism and Territorialism never should have been an either/or proposition. Although Zionists feared than a competing movement would drain material resources and political urgency from their cause, both the world and the Jews might have benefited from another Jewish country. It may have had a different language, a different culture, and have been constructed along different political lines. Today, the creation of a second Jewish state is neither possible nor even desirable. But there is much that both Israel and Diaspora Jewry can learn from Territorialism, starting with the idea that there is more than one approach to finding refuge.
Near the beginning of her book, Gessen relates how her parents, like other Russian Jewish families, were forced to make a decision that both Territorialism and Zionism were intended to solve: whether to stay in the only place they had known, or to emigrate elsewhere. Eventually, Gessen’s family did leave the Soviet Union in search of greater safety and prosperity, heading not for Israel but for the United States. As an adult, living in Moscow as a journalist, Gessen once again had to flee Russia—not because of anti-Semitism, but to escape the persecution of LGBT people by the autocratic government of Vladimir Putin. Reflecting on her family’s childhood escape, Gessen writes:
. . . all of our extended families going back for centuries—our people—had been engaged in an ongoing argument. When should the Jews stay put and when should the Jews run? How do we know where we will be safe? Does departure ever signal cowardice? Can the failure to leave be a betrayal of life itself? There is only one right answer to any given question at any given time. If you get it wrong, you may pay with your life.
Today, vulnerable populations in Donald Trump’s America may face the same question: Has the time come to leave? For American Jews the success of Zionism means that Israel is a possible answer to this question. But not everyone has this luxury, and as populist right-wing governments take power across the world, there are fewer places left to go. At its core, Territorialism was a form of Jewish nationalism that is now largely obsolete. But its guiding rationale was a practical one—to find a refuge for persecuted Jews, regardless of ideological considerations. Ultimately, Territorialism failed to find such a refuge, and Zionism, by the time it succeeded, was too late for millions of Holocaust victims. Today, such havens are once again necessary, whether they are cities that will stand up to inhumane immigration policies or countries willing to take in Syrian refugees. This time, let’s hope it is not too late.
December 12, 2016
17 Min read time