Earlier this week, Adam Rovner wrote about the top five alternative Jewish homelands that he didn’t explore in his new book, 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.
I often describe my book, In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands before Israel, as the biography of an idea: the modern idea that Jews needed a national home somewhere — anywhere—except the biblical land of Israel. This Jewish nationalist ideology was known as territorialism and is nearly forgotten today. But in some eras it was more popular than Zionism. My book explores six territorialist projects in a variety of far-flung locations: upstate New York, western Kenya (the “Uganda Plan”), Angola’s fertile plateaus, the central highlands of Madagascar, extreme southwestern Tasmania, and the lush tropics of Suriname. I traveled to each of these sites of territorialist aspiration, and whenever I speak about my research, audiences ask me which location would have been best for the establishment of an autonomous Jewish colony.
That’s a good question, and a hard one to answer. It’s far easier to cross off places from the list. Certainly Angola, with its centuries of colonial exploitation at the hands of the Portuguese, doesn’t seem as if it would have been a promising promised land. Kenya, too, would have been a site fraught with ethnic, tribal, and decolonization struggles. Nonetheless, the regions under consideration in both Angola and Kenya are extraordinarily fertile and would have been agriculturally superior to much of the soil in Ottoman Palestine. The expense of settling remote areas lacking infrastructure, like Madagascar and Tasmania, would have been immense. In the case of Tasmania, the area proposed for settlement would have been nearly impossible to cultivate due to climate and environment.
That leaves upstate New York and Suriname as the two most reliable contenders. There’s little doubt that Grand Island in the Niagara River near Buffalo would have prospered. Located at the terminus of the Erie Canal, Grand Island might have become a commercial center in the 1820s as Mordecai Manuel Noah had prophesied. But the temporal distance of Noah’s plan renders it difficult to compare to the other proposals, all of which were put forward in the twentieth century. And so, I think Suriname, the smallest independent country in South America, would have been the most viable alternative Zion.
Suriname, formerly Dutch Guiana, possesses the oldest continual Jewish presence in the New World, which dates back to the first half of the seventeenth century. In the late-eighteenth century, residents of Jodensavanne, a Jewish community of sugar planters and mercantilists located along the Suriname River, boasted a level of autonomy unheard of at that time — and for long after. By the time the Dutch colony was considered as a potential sanctuary for Jewish refugees from Europe in the late 1930s, much of the population of Suriname claimed some Jewish heritage. I imagine that this rich history would have smoothed the path for Jewish immigrants.
Likewise, Suriname’s rich natural resources, generally healthy climate, fertile soil, sparse population, and proximity to the U.S. and major shipping routes might have sped the pace of agro-industrial development and economic growth. But that’s all just a boring rationale. Really, I like to imagine what a Yiddish-speaking community of pineapple farmers living at the edge of a rainforest would look like.
To learn more visit www.adamrovner.com.