The search for an alternative Zion

The Land of Israel was not the only place where idealists sought to found a new Jewish homeland


Reflection of a sunset by a lagoon inside the Amazon Rainforest Basin. The Amazon river basin comprises the countries of Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Suriname, Peru and Venezuela.

The state of Israel is such an established fact that it seems inconceivable that a national Jewish home could have been anywhere else.

Many of us will know that a British offer to start a Jewish settlement in Uganda was turned down by the World Zionist Organisation, the year after Herzl’s death.

But other locations for a Jewish colony across the globe were to be explored over the next 40 years or so, including Kimberley in Northern Australia, Suriname (Dutch Guiana) and Madagascar.

Those efforts are the focus of a new book by the Sheffield University historian Laura Almagor, Beyond Zion, which shows that Jewish politics in the pre-War and immediate post-War years were more complex and diverse than we might think.

One of the key figures in the Jewish Territorialist movement was the most celebrated English Jewish writer of his day, Israel Zangwill. He had been a supporter of Herzl but following the rejection in 1905 of the Uganda proposal (it was actually, as Dr Almagor points out, in Northern Kenya), he founded the Jewish Territorial Organisation.

Zangwill did not believe in putting all the eggs in Palestine’s basket. “The soul is greater than the soil, and the Jewish soil can create its Palestine, without necessarily losing the historic aspiration for the Holy Land,” he wrote.

While the drive for a Jewish homeland was fuelled by the pogroms in East Europe, it was intended to be more than a physical refuge but also a place to regenerate Jewish life. Despairing of the “living corpse” that he felt Western Jewry had become, he believed an autonomous Jewish region was essential as an epicentre of Jewish cultural revival.

In the wake of the Balfour Declaration, he initially imagined that alongside a Jewish homeland a new Arab nation would arise elsewhere in the Middle East to which the Palestinian Arabs would voluntarily move. But once the unwillingness of the Palestinians to budge became clera, he began to doubt the feasibility of a Hebrew Commonwealth in Palestine. It was like “offering a home of his own to a tramp in a crowded lodging-house,” he said.

Zangwill’s territorialism was laced with a universalism in which he envisioned a “new world order brought about by a Jewish vanguard”, Dr Algamor says. The new Jewish centre would signal the march of progress carrying humanity beyond the narrow confines of tribal nationalism.

Another leading idealist was Isaac Nachman Steinberg, a prominent figure in the Freeland League, which was founded in Warsaw in 1934. We tend to think of a convergence between the religious right and political right. But Steinberg was an observant Jew who was also a socialist revolutionary: at the age of 18, he delayed his exit from jail for his political activities because he wouldn’t sign his release papers on Shavuot.

After the Russian Revolution, he briefly served in the new government with the Party of Left Socialist Revolutionaries, which co-operated with Lenin’s Bolsheviks. But the alliance was short-lived and Steinberg was imprisoned for his dissidence.

His experience of the Bolshevik regime, Dr Almagor explains, made him distrustful of state power and he never favoured a Jewish state (as opposed to a homeland). He spent four years in Australia trying to progress the Kimberley option for the Freelanders.

But he did not lose his revolutionary dreams, combining it with a faith that foresaw a new Jewish home as part of a world that had advanced beyond statehood. “In the midst of the Jewish people stood not the majestic throne of royalty but the invisible glory of the Mount of Sinai,” he wrote. It was not the military revolt against Rome that secured the future for the Jewish people but the Torah centre established by Yochanan ben Zakkai at Yavneh.

Freelanders were fearful that a Jewish state would lead to militarism and chauvinism. They criticised what they saw as Zionist disregard of the Palestinian Arabs and supported the binationalism of intellectuals such as Martin Buber and Judah Magnes.

“It would be a tragic irony of our history if the Jewish people after generations of experience would transplant the same tribal state life into Palestine,” he wrote in 1943, “the very place where the prophets of Israel warned us against the dangers and crimes of tribes and states”.

KimebIn believing in the demise of states post-War, Steinberg made the wrong call. Following the creation and rise of Israel — which now has the world’s largest Jewish population, or second largest, depending on how you count Jews — the territorialist movement might look to be just a historical curiosity.

But if in retrospect Steinberg was over-idealistic, the very idea of recreating a Jewish homeland, wherever its site, was shot through with a streak of messianism. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks remarked, “Every Zionist thinker had his or her version of utopia.”

Messianism would take radically different forms. Religious Zionists imagined the state of Israel to be “the beginning of our redemption” —  a phrase, however, studiously avoided by the central Orthodox establishment in Britain.

Religious settlers who moved to the West Bank believed they were acting in pursuit of a divinely promised destiny. There is always a risk in projecting what historic figures would have thought if they had lived, since events might have changed their perspective. However, it is safe to say that Isaac Steinberg would have been no friend of the settler movement , viewing it as at odds with his vision of the prophets.

Beyond Zion — the Jewish Territorialist Movements, Laura Almagor, is published by the Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, £24.95

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