Homeland – searching for alternative Jewish home

Galus is Galus. Although Planet Earth is carpeted by 57,393,000 square miles of dry land, rarely have Jews succeeded in creating an autonomous home of their own. Early attempts to plant Jewish colonies in the New World ended in failure. Later, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the colony trend expanded explosively as Jews fled Eastern Europe en masse. Would the attempts be more successful this time?

One of the more recent attempts began in 5640/1880 when Russian and Romanian Jews dreamt of creating a Jewish national home in Cyprus, hundreds of them investing in Cyprus real estate over the next 22 years. Nothing came of the idea. Later, the French millionaire, Baron Maurice de Hirsch, founded the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA) in 5641/1891, which created dozens of Jewish colonies in Argentina, the USA, Canada, and Turkey. However, as the decades rolled on, most of these fizzled and disappeared. Then, along came the most grandiose dream of all. In 5663/1903, the floodgates of

Russian hatred split open, sweeping millions of Jews into its fury. The Kishinev pogroms erupted. With the connivance of Tzarist police, hooligans rampaged through Kishinev for three days leaving 49 Jews killed, 86 severely wounded, and 1,500 Jewish homes, workplaces and shops looted and destroyed. This bloodbath sparked off a wave of immigration that dwarfed the Spanish expulsion.

Half a million Jews had left Russia since the 1870s. Now, after Kishinev two million Jews fled Russia and Galicia within ten years. 5664/1904 created a new record when 100,000 Jews left within one year, and this was dwarfed two years later when over 150,000 packed their bags and sailed. But millions remained behind with nowhere to go.

For some time, the British had been offering the Jews a national home, first El Arish in Egypt, and later Uganda in East Africa. The Kishinev pogrom made the Uganda offer even more tantalizing. Of course, not everyone agreed with the idea of deserting Palestine even on a temporary basis. In the end, the 5663/1903 Zionists, with whom the British government was in contact, put the question to vote. Should millions of Jews head for Uganda, or should they not?

Herzl, the big Zionist, was enthusiastic about the idea as he had never been much of a Zionist in the first place, writing in his seminal book, “Der Judenstaat,” that as far as he was concerned Jews could create a home wherever practicable. Palestine, “our ever-memorable historic home,” would be fine, he wrote, and if that did not work out, Jews could move to Argentina, “one of the most fertile countries in the world.”

Herzl won the battle but lost the war. Although most delegates voted for Uganda, the idea was rejected after his death in 5665/1905. This is where most history books bury the Uganda story, ignoring the obstinate rebel who refused to let it die. Urged on by victims in Eastern Europe, English author, Israel Zangwill, was determined to fight for Uganda or wherever else Jews could lay their heads.

“From Kiev, from the valley of weeping of the wicked land, we cry out to you for help,” Rabbi Moshe Rozenblatt of Kiev wrote to him. “Hurry, save us from the teeth of wild beasts who bare their teeth to swallow us alive! The pogrom’s end in October was only official.

It continues, not in storm and commotion but piece by piece. No day passes that hooligans or police fail to fall on innocent Jewish passers by, killing them and stealing all they have, even stripping the clothes off their backs. No night passes without murder, robbery, and theft. Fear is on the increase and all the Jews of the city are sleepless from the terror of night. We huddle together at night, trembling from the rustle of a falling leaf. Our blood freezes at the gnawing of a mouse in the wall.”

Many of Russia’s Jews were willing to go anywhere. “I have been appointed to beg you to ring all the bells in England and raise an outcry in the English press,” Rozenblatt appealed. “Cry out for help without delay, to help the six million Jews in danger of their lives. We are willing to go to the mountains of darkness, to the black of coal and salt mines, to a land whose earth is metal and bronze, so long as we can sleep in peace and eat a dry crust without disturbance.”

Indeed, pogroms were still rife, stalking from town to town. In April 5665/1905 Zhitomir had a bloodbath, and in July Jews were murdered in Kiev. August saw the murder of 60 Jews in Bialystock, and 800 Jews perished in Odessa during October.

In response, Zangwill and his cohorts created the Jewish Territorial Organization (ITO), its objective, “To secure territory upon an autonomous basis for those Jews who cannot or will not remain in the lands in which they at present live.” Branches were established in London, Europe, America, Australia, and South Africa, and commissions set out to scour the seven seas for a Jewish refuge. Uganda was no longer an option. A new British government had lost interest in the idea, and British settlers had howled against sharing the farmland with Levis and Levinsohns.

For eight years Zangwill and his partners wandered the globe and negotiated with politicians. Had their plans worked out, a sizeable part of the Jewish people might now be living in an ITO-land in East Africa, Libya, Northern Australia, Mesopotamia or Angola, but this was not to be. Their efforts resulted in failure, and tired of spinning his wheels, Zangwill directed his energies to another problem.

By the turn of the last century, New York was the main gateway to the USA. Most Jewish immigrants made their way to 23 square mile Manhattan Island and stayed put. Their numbers exploded from 60,000 in 5640/1880, to 627,000 in 5665/1905, and 1,330,000 close to World War I. Most of them were crushed in the ratty East Side and newspapers carried lurid accounts of horrible conditions there: overcrowding, vermin, starvation, and crime.

There was also concern that cramming the Jews into limited locations might have a negative effect on US immigration policies, and scattering the Jewish presence might help stop the doors of the US immigration from snapping shut. To alleviate the problem, Jewish millionaires established the Industrial Removal Office (IRO) in 5661/1901. The name suggests exactly what it was; a scheme to remove Jews from the Eastern seaboard to places of lower Jewish density and more work. Sinister as “Industrial Removal Office” might sound, the millionaires insisted that it was for the immigrants’ own good.

“I wish I could take every one of our persecuted people out of Russia and bring them to the United States,” millionaire Jacob Schiff explained. “But I would be a bad citizen if I asked them to stay in New York. This country has room for two or three million more Jews. We want them to come. But we want to facilitate their going away from New York.”

There are those who ascribed baser motives to the scheme, claiming that the established Jews were embarrassed of their unwashed Russian cousins and happier to have them out of sight and sound. It was slow going for the IRO. After four years, only 40,000 Jews had been removed from New York. Jacob Schiff began thinking that it might be a better idea to stop Jews from coming into New York in the first place, and who could be better at this job than Israel Zangwill and his ITO. Truth to tell, Schiff was actually highly antagonistic to Zangwill’s political platform.

According to his way of thinking, gathering all the Jews in one place would be like lifting up a lightning rod in the middle of an electric storm. Nevertheless, Zangwill could be useful in channeling Jews away from the East Coast.

For his part, Zangwill figured that working with Schiff might be a good way to gain practical experience and besides, this is where the action was. About 100,000 Jews were fl owing into the US every year, while during the fourteen years prior to World War I, only 35,000 Jews had chosen Palestine as their destination. And so the Galveston Plan was born. Its goal was to direct Jewish immigration from crowded towns like New York, Philadelphia and Boston, to the infinite horizons of the Wild West. With $500,000 of Schiff’s money in his wallet, Zangwill created a system to channel Jews into the vast territories between the Mississippi and the Pacific.

Prospective immigrants registered in Kiev, and traveled via Germany to the port of Galveston in Texas, and from there they scattered to all corners of the West. In the end, Schiff discovered that throwing money at the immigration problem had not made it go away. From 5667/1907 to 5674/1914, only 10,000 Jews availed themselves of the Galveston scheme, while the rest had rightly sensed that New York was more a land of promise than a hick town lost somewhere in Texas. By 5677/1917, Zangwill’s ITO organization was as good as dead.

The territorial concept made one last hiccup in 5706/1946 when Ho Chi Minh (ruler of Vietnam) offered David Ben Gurion the opportunity of forgetting about Palestine and building a Jewish home in Vietnam. Ben Gurion’s answer was no, and with that, Jewish territorialism faded into history.

(Sources: Gur Alro’i, Eretz La’am Velo Am La’aretz, Iyunim Batekumat Yisrael vol. 14, 2004. Schiff’s statement from The New York Times. October 22, 1910.)

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.