Adam Rovner is the author of In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands before Israel out this week from NYU Press. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series.
My book, In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands before Israel, details six modern efforts to create Jewish homelands beyond the borders of biblical Israel. Most of these plans were advanced by territorialists — Jewish nationalists who sought to settle a land other than Eretz Israel. While conducting archival research, I visited each of the potential territories my work describes: Angola, Kenya, Madagascar, upstate New York, Suriname, and Tasmania. But there were several other plans for Jewish states I didn’t examine, either because they never advanced far enough to be considered serious proposals, or because I didn’t want get myself killed. Here’s a list of alternate Zions for that sequel I’ll never write:
Number 5 — Arctic Ocean Islands (1931)
The famed Graf Zeppelin, fresh from its historic flight over the Holy Land, departed on a mission to map the polar regions of northernmost Europe in 1931. On board was a young journalist, Arthur Koestler, who had lived in British Mandate Palestine and become an ardent Zionist frustrated with British policies. Koestler plotted to drop “blue-and-white [flags] with the shield of David in gold in the center” from the hatches of the Zeppelin over undiscovered Arctic islands. The hot-headed reporter believed that by doing so, he could claim land in the name of the Jewish people. The concept of ownerless land—terra nullis—was frequently invoked in the era of exploration, and so Koestler’s idea was not as harebrained as might be thought. The expedition did indeed discover uncharted islands, but Koestler never dropped any flags. Unfortunately, I was unable to find a grant generous enough to allow me to charter a dirigible to the Arctic. Does the MacArthur Foundation read this?
Number 4 — New Caledonia (1936)
This French territory consists of several islands in the Coral Sea and lies about 800 miles from the eastern coast of Australia. Photographs show it to be a paradise of white sand beaches and palm trees reflected in clear blue water. In November 1936, the Paris branch of the Freeland League for Jewish Colonization — the major territorialist organization at the time — pushed for mass emigration from Europe to French possessions. Representatives met with the French Colonial Minister to disclose their plans for establishing a “new Jewish center” for refugees fleeing European anti-Semitism. The Minister was sympathetic to the cause and seriously considered the Freeland League’s call to investigate opportunities in New Caledonia, French Guiana, and Madagascar. After studying their proposals, the Minister announced that Madagascar presented the most favorable option for a Jewish colony. New Caledonia dropped from the territorialist agenda as the Freelanders turned their attention to Madagascar. I examine the Madagascar Plan in my book, and sometimes I still dream about a Jewish State with lemurs.
Number 3 — Baja California (1933)
In the early 1930s, American rabbi and Zionist George Richter struck up a friendship with the powerful press magnate William Randolph Hearst. At the time, Hearst possessed large land holdings along the Baja Peninsula south of California. Richter, concerned about Hitler’s rise to power, worked to convince Hearst to create settlements for Jewish refugees on his lands. Richter raised funds and promoted the plan with the help of American Zionists and territorialists. But the Mexican government had no interest in ceding control over its territory to impoverished Jewish refugees, even if they had Hearst’s tacit support. Likewise, at least according to one historian, American powerbroker Rabbi Stephen Wise opposed the scheme in the mistaken belief that Hitler would soon fall from power. I ended up traveling to Baja while writing In the Shadow of Zion, but that was for the book photographer’s bachelor party in Los Cabos. No archival research ensued.
Number 2 — Guyana (1938)
Just two days after Kristallnacht, America’s Ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph P. Kennedy — yes, that one — went to Downing Street to discuss the crisis with Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. The idea of settling Jewish refugees in British Guiana (now independent Guyana) originated with Kennedy. The Ambassador sought a way to help Chamberlain salvage “peace in our time” and also aid his patron, President Roosevelt, whose advisors had spent months debating what to do with the waves of emigrants fleeing the Reich. American, British, and Yiddish newspapers got wind of their efforts and reported on the Anglo-American proposal to settle 50,000 Jews in British Guiana. Chaim Weizmann opposed the plan, but momentum gathered and in January 1939 an expedition was dispatched to the South American colony. Their report was cautiously optimistic about settling Guyana’s teeming jungles, but there was little enthusiasm for the scheme and no funds were forthcoming. I did make it to Guyana for a few days of preliminary research and I’m happy to report that they have excellent, and potent, rum.
Number 1 — Libya (1908)
In 1905, after the 7th Zionist Congress rejected the idea of an African Zion in “Uganda” (actually today’s Kenya), British author and prominent Zionist Israel Zangwill formed a rival movement, the Jewish Territorial Organization (ITO). Zangwill’s ITO rejected the idea of creating a Jewish national home in Ottoman Palestine as impractical. ITO supporters examined a host of other territories, including Australia, Mesopotamia (Iraq), and Libya, specifically the eastern coastal region of Cyrenaica. In 1908, the ITO sent a scientific commission to explore Cyrenaica and consult with local Ottoman authorities. They traveled by camel over the course of several weeks from the eastern city of Derna west to Benghazi. Their report was disappointing: the land was both less fertile and more populated than had been thought. And so, the plan was stillborn. I had originally hoped to trace the route of the 1908 expedition for my book despite having two strikes against me: I’m a dual American-Israeli citizen. What would have been unwise in 2010 became suicidal after Libya plunged into chaos in 2011. Perhaps one day I’ll get there. Maybe if the photographer for my next book throws a bachelor party in Benghazi.
To learn more visit www.adamrovner.com.
- Dreams of Nationhood: American Jewish Communists and the Soviet Birobidzhan Project, 1924 – 1951 by Henry Felix Srebrnik
- Far from Zion: In Search of a Global Jewish Community by Charles London
- Finding Home and Homeland: Jewish Youth and Zionism in the Aftermath of the Holocaust by Avinoam J. Patt