Review: Zionism Without Zion

It could have been Uganda


By Gur Alroey
Wayne State Univ Press, £22.50

Gur Alroey is a historian based at Haifa University who has written two outstanding books on Jewish migration to Palestine in the early 20th century. Zionism without Zion stands in contrast to these earlier histories as it charts the heated debates, within and outside the Zionist movement, about whether Palestine was the most suitable location for a national homeland.

Those who thought it would be quicker to create a refuge elsewhere, in order to save Eastern European Jews immediately in peril, were called Jewish Territorialists, and they saw their work as a continuation of political Zionism.

With the state of Israel not far short of its 70th anniversary and stronger than ever, it is hard to believe today that the Zionist movement debated seriously whether a Jewish homeland should be in Palestine or not.

But, at the turn of the 20th century, as Alroey shows meticulously, it was by no means certain that Palestine would be the final destination of the Jewish people. Two of the founders of political Zionism, Leon Pinsker and Theodor Herzl, argued that a national home could be established outside of Palestine. These fathers of Zionism were, in reality, Territorialists.

After Herzl's death, the movement lacked a unifying figure

The often violent conflict between Zionism and Territorialism came to a head at the sixth Zionist Congress in 1903, when the so-called Uganda option split the Zionist movement. After Herzl died, a year later, the movement lacked a unifying figure and, over a two-year period, began to polarise into Zion-Zionists and Territorialists. And Alroey, for the first time, confirms that Israel Zangwill was a reluctant founding President of the Jewish Territorialist Organisation (ITO), which split from the Zionists after the seventh congress in 1905.

But, once he accepted the role, Zangwill sacrificed his career as a novelist and devoted the rest of his life to rescuing his beloved Eastern European brethren from persecution. His organisation scoured the earth - from Africa to Australia and from Russia to the United States - in the hope of obtaining a refuge for threatened Jews.

No one before Alroey has charted the ideology of Jewish Territorialism so objectively and comprehensively. The extent to which Territorialism was a factor in Palestine and Eastern Europe can be seen, for example, in the important figures of Eliezer Ben Yehuda (who helped revive the Hebrew language) and Yosef Haim Brenner (a pioneer Hebrew writer). Most importantly, Territorialism, with its "shared ancestry", could ask the difficult questions of Zionism.

Surely it was better to put people ahead of land? Would not the natives of Palestine be in perpetual conflict with the Jewish state?

While the Territorialists have been proved right in their catastrophic prediction of the Jewish fate in Europe, the Zionists, as Alroey notes judiciously, were also proved right in their belief that only a national mythology centred in Zion could succeed.

Both sides, alas, were tragically accurate in their predictions.

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