A century ago, the idea of Jews resettling in ancient Israel was an interesting, if quaint, idea. For many European Jews, some of whom became prominent Zionists, real-life Palestine was utterly unrealistic. Thousands of Jews were being massacred in pogroms and the priority of many Jewish leaders was simple: secure a territory for Jews to settle in first — worry about where it was later.
Two forgotten Jewish groups who championed this idea, called territorialism, are the subject of a provocative new exhibit titled “Other Zions: From Freeland to Yiddishland,” which opened this week at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. “They were not against Zionism,” said Krysia Fisher, the show’s curator. “They just didn’t think it would solve the Jewish problem.”
At the turn of the 20th century, the Ottoman Empire ruled Palestine and refused to give it to Jews (they offered Benghazi, in present-day Libya, instead). And even after the British took control of Palestine after the First World War and slowly allowed Jews to immigrate there in the 1920s, Arabs rioted violently against them. Better a living Jew in Jamaica than a dead one in Jerusalem, the thinking went.
The exhibit focuses on the two main groups once advocating a Jewish homeland outside of Europe, though it need not be Israel. The first was the Jewish Territorialist Organization, founded by Israel Zangwill in 1905; the second was the Freeland League for Jewish Territorial Colonization, established by Isaac Steinberg in 1935.
Both groups failed; Zionists won. But the places to which territoralists sent expeditions and even got close to legally settling make for a titillating show: Suriname, Ecuador, Australia, Kenya, British Guyana, Angola, to name a few. Neither group ever secured the popular support that Palestine, the biblical homeland of the Jews, ultimately would. But some scholars say that even though the Zionists won, and the others groups lost, no one side deserves unfettered praise.
“We have to say that we lost — the Jews lost; for six million Jews, the State of Israel came too late, which is exactly what the territorialists said,” said Guy Alroey, a historian at the University of Haifa, who is writing one of the first history books on the Jewish Territorialist Organization. “On the other hand,” he added, “we can say that the territorialists never got land in time either.”
Perhaps most surprising is that for a brief period of time the Jewish Territorialist Organization had more popular support than Zionists, scholars say. Roughly 3,000 Jews in Eastern Europe were murdered in three years, beginning with the Kishinev pogrom in 1903. The World Zionist Congress’ primary concern was securing Palestine as the future Jewish home, but the group was having no such luck. The best offer was from Britain, which offered a sparsely inhabited patch of land in Uganda, one of its colonies.
When the World Zionist Congress met in 1905 to vote on the so-called Uganda Plan — original brochures and delegate voting cards are on display in the exhibit — it was roundly rejected. But roughly a fifth of the delegates who voted for Uganda stormed out and formed the J.T.O.
“They were not against Zionism; they were not against settling Palestine,” Alroey said. “But the J.T.O.’s main imperative was to find anywhere to settle Jews outside of Europe amid the pogroms.” A year after its founding, he said, Jews sympathized more with the J.T.O. than with the stubborn Zionists.
YIVO owns many of the J.T.O.’s and the Freeland League’s papers, including copies of the latter’s magazine, Afn Shvel, which lives on as the organ for the Freeland League’s successor, the League for Yiddish. The League for Yiddish renounced its territorialist position — and strident criticism of Israel — long after the Jewish state became a well-established fact. Today it focuses exclusively on the revival of Yiddish culture.
Sheva Zucker, the executive director of the League for Yiddish and editor of the still running Afn Shvel magazine, helped organize the show. She said that when she took over the magazine in 2005, she was fascinated to learn about its history. But when she tried to discuss the magazine and the organization’s past with other league executives, many were wary.
“No, no, no, don’t talk about that,” Zucker said, paraphrasing the attitude of several executives. “I think they were really trying to get away from that past. I think that they knew it was very much a lost cause [territorialism] and they just wanted to do good for Yiddish.”
The Freeland League, like the J.T.O. before it, remains controversial. Its members were harsh critics of Zionism and Israel, if not quite being anti-Zionists. The J.T.O. dissolved itself in 1925, seven years after the Balfour Declaration promised Jews a homeland in Palestine. The interest in a state anywhere else became moot, with many of J.T.O. members joining the Zionists’ ranks.
But amid the Arab revolts against Jewish settlers in the 1920s and ’30s, and the strict limits on immigration the British enacted in response, some Jewish leaders began to question Zionism’s feasibility. When Hitler came to power, Isaac Steinberg, a Russian-born Jewish playwright and journalist (like Herzl) advocated for an alternative. He established the Freeland League in Britain in 1935 to help look for a Jewish homeland other than Palestine.
“The Freeland League saw the Holocaust coming,” said Adam Rovner, a professor of English and Jewish literature at the University of Denver and author of another forthcoming book on Steinberg and territorialism. (He also spoke at the exhibit opening.) “Steinberg was a kind of Cassandra,” he said in an interview, adding: “He’s the most important Jew of the 20th century you’ve probably never heard of.”
As the exhibit shows, Steinberg was indeed a prominent figure. He was pictured in dozens of national newspapers — and often vilified in the increasingly Zionist Jewish press. Though his organization had little popular support, he corresponded with many illustrious figures about his plans, including Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt and Thomas Mann.
The YIVO exhibit displays several of these letters, but it is clear that few actually supported him. On view is a letter from Einstein, responding to Steinberg’s request for support. Written in 1947, as the United Nations begins to consider the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, Einstein says that it would be “politically unwise [to support the Freeland League] before the Palestine immigration problem is settled.”
Still, Steinberg was invited by several colonial governments to speculate on other alternatives: the Dutch colonial government escorted him in Surinam, for instance, and the British invited him to scout a part of western Australia.
During his research, Rovner traveled to many of the same places Steinberg visited, and described what one Steinberg expedition must have been like — funny, but also tragic: “You had a Christian, a Muslim and a Jew walking around East Africa looking for a Jewish state,” he said. “It sounds like a Jewish joke, but it actually happened.”
By the time the Freeland League began searching, the Jewish community in Palestine had already grown large. By 1938, about half a million Jews and another one million Arabs lived in Palestine. In 1900, a few years before the J.T.O. advocated a similar idea, only 50,000 Jews live there, among 600,000 Arabs. “By the time the [Second World War] erupted,” Rovner said, “it was too late. Zionism had already had” decades behind it.
In the same way that the Balfour Declaration effectively killed the J.T.O., the establishment of Israel effectively ended the Freeland League. Even though it was officially reorganized into an apolitical Yiddish-revival group in 1979 — the League for Yiddish — the exhibit makes clear that it was not, as many of its critics claimed at the time, anti-Zionist.
At a conference held in 1948 to discuss its position on Israel, the Freeland League, which had relocated to New York, issued this statement: “The Conference appreciates with deep satisfaction the historic importance of the establishment of the State of Israel. … At the same time … both because of the limited area and the hostility of the Arab population, we dare not allow the whole Jewish future to depend solely on Israel.”
“In some ways they were right in their pessimism,” Alroey said. Establishing a Jewish state anywhere but Palestine — even if for six million Jews it came too late — may have been impossible, he said. And perhaps it required not only the enormity of the Holocaust, but also the emotional pull of an ancient homeland in order to create.
But whatever the territorialists’ failures, Fisher said, their efforts deserve to be taken seriously. Commenting on Steinberg, she said: “He was obviously an admirable man and a strong character.” Even though the forces of history were against him, she added, his mission was anything but ignoble: “He wanted to secure land in order to save lives.”
“Other Zions: From Freeland to Yiddishland” is on view at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, located in the Center for Jewish History, 15 W. 16th St. (212) 294-6127. The exhibit runs through Nov. 15.