“The Soul is Greater than the Soil”: Jewish Territorialism and the Jewish Future beyond Europe and Palestine (1905–1960)

In: Constructing and Experiencing Jewish Identity
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Laura Almagor
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“The soul is greater than the soil, and the Jewish soul can create its Palestine anywhere, without necessarily losing the historic aspiration for the Holy Land.” These words were spoken by Anglo-Jewish writer Israel Zangwill at the sixth Zionist Congress in 1903. The Congress was historic as it provided the stage for the first presentation of the so-called Uganda proposal: the British offer to the Zionist movement of a stretch of colonial land for Jewish settlement in current-day Kenya. Zangwill was mostly known for his literary accomplishments but at the time, he was also one of the most prominent English Zionists and in fact the right-hand man of Zionist leader Theodor Herzl. After his visit to Palestine some years earlier, he was not impressed by the opportunities for Jews there. Nevertheless, he was a staunch believer in the Zionist cause and saw ‘Uganda’, an offer from his own government, as an important opportunity.

Zangwill was subsequently severely disheartened when the Zionist movement rejected the proposal at the following Zionist Congress in 1905. In the meantime, Herzl had passed away, strengthening Zangwill’s conviction that the movement was going astray. After the vote against Uganda, Zangwill and about fifty other Zionists promptly left the conference hall to form the Jewish Territorial Organisation (ITO), claiming to continue Herzl’s true legacy. This event marked the birth of a political and cultural movement that would be active for over half a century and undergo several incarnations. The movement’s main aim remained the same throughout its existence: the search for places to resettle Jews outside both Europe and Palestine.

In this short article, I will frame the Territorialists’ engagement with Jewish identity formation through the lens of their focus on territory, on soil. I will review changing attitudes towards colonialism, and also the changing relationship between Territorialism and Zionism. However, I also want to underline that the territorial question is only one way in which the connection between the Territorialist and Jewish identities can be understood. This connection was also defined by moral messianism, diaspora nationalism, and the relationship of Territorialism with other non-Zionist movements and projects, as well as by the movement’s dealings with Yiddish and Yiddishism.

Returning to Zangwill’s quotation with which I set out, even before the formal birth of Territorialism, these words suggested that alternative Jewish settlement places would not merely be practical but would carry moral significance as well. Admittedly, in 1903 Zangwill still underlined the value of the ‘historical aspiration for Holy Land’, suggesting that any alternative scheme was to exist parallel to the Zionist project. However, after 1905, Territorialist projects were increasingly presented as more feasible and morally acceptable than the Zionist endeavours in Palestine. Territorialism was an explicitly colonial project from the outset, with an initial focus on the British Empire as the wished-for context for settlement options for Eastern European Jews. Nevertheless, the first locations that were seriously explored were located elsewhere, in Angola, Mesopotamia (Iraq), and Cyrenaica (Libya). The most concrete immigration project that the ITO became involved in, however, was to transport Russian Jews to North America. This Galveston plan, initiated by the American-Jewish philanthropist Jacob Schiff, was aimed at redirecting the stream of Jewish immigrants from the congested arrival point on Ellis Island in New York, to the Texan port city of Galveston. From there, the new arrivals were to disperse across the sparsely populated American states in the South and the Midwest. The Galveston project was not colonial, and because of its expressly formulated aim not to create Jewish concentrated settlements it went directly against the Territorialist ambition to establish such settlements. Nevertheless, Galveston represented the biggest practical success in the history of the ITO, which took care of the European end of the endeavour. In the end, the Galveston project managed to resettle about 10,000 Jews. For the purpose of my focus in this talk on Jewish political self-identification, what Galveston demonstrates is the inherent tension in Territorialism between its ideological ambitions and the practical realities it came to face.

The outbreak of the First World War ended the Galveston project and in effect terminated the ITO’s activities. The 1917 Balfour Declaration, containing the British promise to promote the establishment of a Jewish National Home in Palestine is often seen as the formal end of early Territorialism. Indeed, Zangwill initially welcomed the Balfour Declaration as a source of hope for the Jewish political and cultural future. However, he quickly realised the document’s limitations, as well as what he considered to be the Zionist movement’s failure to proactively seize the opportunities offered to it. Contrary to most existing scholarly wisdom, Zangwill therefore did not return to Zionism, but neither did he manage to achieve further successes with the ITO, which he disbanded in 1925, a year before his own death.

As a result of the pressure of rising antisemitism and especially of Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, several ex-ITO members together with various new Territorialists reinstated the movement in the early 1930s as the Freeland League for Jewish Territorial Colonization. This ‘rebirth’ of the movement was based on plenty of continuity in terms of the ITO’s earlier ambitions, but these were now further sharpened to fit the geopolitical context of the late interwar period. The movement’s aim was now rephrased as wanting to create agro-industrial settlements, still preferably on colonial lands. Before the outbreak of war, the Freelanders held discussions with French and British political leaders regarding options in Madagascar, French Guiana, New Caledonia, and British Guiana. Between 1939 and 1943 negotiations centred on establishing a settlement in the Australian Kimberley District.

Towards the end of the 1930s, several shifts in leadership eventually culminated in the emergence of the former Russian socialist revolutionary leader Isaac N. Steinberg as the movement’s new leader and its main ideologue. Steinberg’s rise to prominence also represents the more general shift within the movement’s leadership from being dominated by Western ex-Zionists to its core consisting of Eastern European ‘never-Zionists’. This focal change defined both the souring relationship between Territorialism and Zionism and the Freelanders’ ideas about how to obtain land. These developments did not just take place within a Jewish political context but were equally shaped by the more generally changing Zeitgeist, most notably regarding attitudes towards colonialism. As a result, Territorialism now moved from self-defining as offering a territorial alternative to the equally territorial Zionist project in Palestine, to offering a morally superior alternative to Zionist ideology. After the establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948, Steinberg published fierce attacks on what he considered the detrimentally militaristic Zionist state-building project. Part of Steinberg’s criticism was rooted in his own experience as a central actor in what he saw as the failed Soviet state-building endeavour following the Russian Revolution. As a member of the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, Steinberg had briefly served as Commissar of Justice under Lenin in 1917 and 1918. After political developments in the Soviet Union drove him into exile he looked back on his former ideals as shattered by the violent realities of statehood. Based on this traumatic past he now argued that any state-focused movement was by definition heading for moral bankruptcy.

So in what concrete ways did the Territorialist outlook regarding Jewish self-identification and territory change over time? One important point of divergence between early and later Territorialism was the changing way in which the world’s colonial contexts came to define the Freelanders’ approach: before the outbreak of war the Freeland League still predominantly engaged in discussions with (colonising) state representatives; indigenous peoples were ignored. As time progressed, however, Steinberg introduced a new bottom-up approach, focussing on winning over local hearts and minds. This strategy was first tested in Australia, where Steinberg himself acted as the Territorialists’ emissary from 1939 until 1943, trying to obtain permission to settle large groups of Jews in the Kimberleys. During his time down under, Steinberg was fairly successful in getting on board civil society: church representatives, labour unions, local governments, and segments of the non-Zionist Jewish cultural sphere all eventually supported the Kimberley plan. However, conspicuously absent from Steinberg’s activities were any connections to communities of indigenous communities.

This oversight was not the reason why the Kimberley project was eventually rejected by the Australian federal government. The rejection had more to do with the context of the war and the change in political priorities that it generated, as well as with the longer Australian tradition of maintaining stringent immigration policies. Zionist pressure and a whiff of antisemitism was also part of the mix that led to the plan’s failure. Nevertheless, amongst the lessons learned by the Territorialists was the potential importance of gaining support from a broad ethnic cross-section of society. This proved to be much more relevant during the next stage of the Freelanders’ saga, namely their activities in Suriname. Between 1946 and 1948, the Freeland League—now headquartered in New York after relocating from London—engaged in serious negotiations with both the increasingly independent local government of this Dutch Latin American colony, as well as with the also still influential politicians in The Hague. The multi-ethnic make-up of Surinamese society awoke in the Territorialists the realisation that they might do well to invest in ‘good race relations’ on the spot if they wanted the establishment of their desired Jewish settlement in the so-called Saramacca district to stand any chance of success. A Freeland League delegation headed by Steinberg travelled to Paramaribo twice during the period that the project was on the table, and reports were drawn up—and even a short documentary shot—to show the American-Jewish audience back home what daily life in Suriname was like. All in all, in Suriname the Territorialists for the first time developed a fully mixed approach that included both top-down (focused on colonial governmental powers) and bottom-up (focused on indigenous populations’ interests) elements. This approach was partially driven by an emerging anti-colonial ideology, especially cherished by Steinberg and his closest circle. However, the decision to increasingly turn to decolonising government representatives also displayed a more pragmatic understanding on the part of the Freelanders of the rapidly changing colonial structures in the postwar period.

Nevertheless, at the end of the day, those colonial structures were not changing as rapidly and drastically as Steinberg and his cohort may have believed. In Suriname, it was eventually the Dutch government that pulled the plug in the summer of 1948. The establishment of the State of Israel just a few months earlier, the ongoing Dutch colonial wars in the Dutch East Indies, growing Cold War anxieties directed at the potential Eastern European Jewish settlers, as well as basic antisemitism eventually amounted to a combined death stab to the Freeland League’s ambitions in Latin America.

This brings us back to the complicated relationship between Territorialism and Zionism. It is through this comparison that we can most clearly distinguish the inherent tensions defining Territorialist history in relation to the crucial issue of territory. Throughout its existence, the Territorialist movement claimed to be offering an alternative or even a competing territorial solution, all the while promoting this solution as more feasible and morally acceptable than anything the Zionists were able to offer. However, as time progressed, these claims became less and less convincing. This process culminated in the Zionists’ successful establishment of the State of Israel. According to the Freelanders, this achievement did not absolve the Zionists from their moral sins vis-à-vis the Palestinian Arabs, nor did it diminish the detrimental effect on Jewish society of the young state’s militarizing tendencies. At the same time, Territorialism never fully came to terms with its own stance towards the native populations of its prospected settlement areas.

The history of the Jewish Territorialist movement offers insights into the way small Jewish political players made efforts to adjust their own discourse to changing geopolitical realities especially during the transition from the colonial to the post-colonial geopolitical paradigms. In the case of the Freeland League, this change-over reached its zenith with the advent of the 1955 Asian-African Conference, better known as the Bandung conference, hosted by the Indonesian president Sukarno and aimed at promoting Afro-Asian economic and cultural co-operation. The fact that the conference was organized and attended exclusively by non-Western countries—formerly colonized peoples, now newcomers to the geopolitical stage—heightened the symbolic meaning and novelty of the event. This was the moment, Steinberg argued, for Jews to forge relationships with the Muslim and post-colonial worlds. Unfortunately, he concluded, the chauvinistic and militaristic State of Israel was unsuited for this task. That was why other Jews should take it upon themselves to make peace with these non-Western forces: “‘Bandung’ is not merely a fact; it is a challenge to us, to our sense of justice and to our understanding.”

Despite these lofty moralistic words, the Territorialist endeavours, especially during the 1930s and 1940s, show that shifts in colonial thinking were often not as neatly delineated, also because colonial realities transformed in often unclear and non-monodirectional ways. This unpredictability and lack of clarity challenged the ability of the Freelanders to reach a full awareness of colonial change in order to be able to strike the right tone and to navigate between the required registers when addressing both colonizers and colonized. The failure of the many efforts of the Territorialists does not diminish the value of their history in shedding new light on the fraught reality of twentieth century Jewish politics, geopolitics, and the connection between the two.

Bibliography

  • Almagor, Laura. Beyond Zion: The Jewish Territorialist Movement. Liverpool: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2022.

  • Almagor, Laura. “Tropical Territorialism: Displaced Persons, Colonialism, and the Freeland League in Suriname (1946–1948).” In Jewish Cultural History: Boundaries, Experiences, and Sense-making, edited by Maja Gildin Zuckerman and Jakob Egholm Feldt, 7395. New York, N.Y.: Routledge 2020.

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  • Almagor, Laura. “‘A Highway to Battlegrounds’: Jewish Territorialism and the State of Israel, 1945–1965.” Journal of Israeli History 37, no. 2 (2019): 201225.

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  • Almagor, Laura. “Fitting the Zeitgeist: Jewish Territorialism and Geopolitics (1943–1960).” Contemporary European History 27, no. 3 (August 2018): 351369.

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  • Almagor, Laura. “A Territory, but not a State: the Territorialists’ Visions for a Jewish Future after the Holocaust (1943–1960).” S:I.M.O.N. – Shoah: Intervention. Methods, Documentation 4, no. 1 (2017): 93108.

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  • Grill, Tobias. “Kampf für Sozialismus und Judentum auf vier Kontinenten: Isaac Nachman Steinberg’s ‘Rooted Cosmopolitanism’.” BIOS: Zeitschrift für Biographieforschung, Oral History und Lebensverlaufanalysen 28 (2015): 4165.

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This article is based on previous publications by the author, “Tropical Territorialism: Displaced Persons, Colonialism, and the Freeland League in Suriname (1946–1948),” in Jewish Cultural History: Boundaries, Experiences, and Sense-making, eds. M.G. Zuckerman and J.E. Feldt (New York, N.Y.: Routledge 2020), 73–95; “‘A Highway to Battlegrounds’: Jewish Territorialism and the State of Israel, 1945–1965,” Journal of Israeli History 37, no. 2 (2019): 201–25; “Fitting the Zeitgeist: Jewish Territorialism and Geopolitics (1943–1960),” Contemporary European History 27, no. 3 (August 2018): 351–69; “A Territory, but not a State: the Territorialists’ Visions for a Jewish Future after the Holocaust (1943–1960),” S:I.M.O.N. – Shoah: Intervention. Methods, Documentation 4, no. 1 (2017): 93–108; and on Beyond Zion: The Jewish Territorialist Movement, The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2022).

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