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Richard I. Cohen

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780190912628

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: August 2018

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190912628.001.0001

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Gur Alroey, Zionism without Zion: The Jewish Territorial Organization and Its Conflict with the Zionist Organization. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2016. viii + 359 pp.

Gur Alroey, Zionism without Zion: The Jewish Territorial Organization and Its Conflict with the Zionist Organization. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2016. viii + 359 pp.

Chapter:
Gur Alroey, Zionism without Zion: The Jewish Territorial Organization and Its Conflict with the Zionist Organization. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2016. viii + 359 pp.
Source:
Place in Modern Jewish Culture and Society
Author(s):
Richard I. Cohen
Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/oso/9780190912628.003.0053

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter reviews the book Zionism without Zion: The Jewish Territorial Organization and Its Conflict with the Zionist Organization (2016), by Gur Alroey. In Zionism without Zion, Alroey examines the movement that became Zionism’s fiercest rival—Territorialism—and how it ultimately lost the ideological contest concerning the location of the future Jewish state. Zionism and Territorialism shared the same precursors, and their proponents held a similar worldview with regard to the urgency of providing a refuge for Jews. In contrast, there were those who called for integration of the Jews into the various countries in which they already lived. This group was divided into two, one of which included Communists and Bundists. There was also a “cultural” stream in the Zionist Organization, which was led by Ahad Ha’am. According to Alroey, Ahad Ha’am sought to resolve the problem of Jewish religion in Palestine.

Keywords:   Zionism without Zion, Gur Alroey, Zionism, Territorialism, Jews, Zionist Organization, Ahad Ha’am, Palestine

Among the various movements that originated in the attempt to solve the “Jewish question,” Zionism is surely the best known and most thoroughly researched. In contrast, Territorialism – which, like Zionism, sought a refuge for the Jewish people while not stipulating the land of Israel as the only possible site – is the scholarly equivalent of the dark side of the moon. In Zionism without Zion, Gur Alroey (whose previous two books dealt with Jewish migration from tsarist Russia) sheds light on the movement that became Zionism’s closest competitor, but which ultimately lost the ideological contest concerning the location of the future Jewish state.

Zionism and Territorialism shared the same precursors, and their proponents held a similar worldview with regard to the urgency of providing a refuge for Jews. In contrast were those who called for integration of the Jews into the various countries in which they already lived; this second group, in turn, was divided into those who thought that the historical process of progress and enlightenment would quickly lead to the disappearance of prejudices and thus enable Jewish integration, and those who awaited a revolution that would change the prevailing order and install a kingdom of justice on earth. The latter group included Communists and Bundists, whereas the former were represented by people such as historian Simon Dubnow, who rejected the notion of a Jewish state while promoting the goal of Jewish cultural autonomy.

There was also a “cultural” stream in the Zionist Organization, whose high priest was Ahad Ha’am. Alroey deals at length with Ahad Ha’am in his book, contending that Ahad Ha’am sought to resolve the problem of Jewish religion in Palestine. In fact, Ahad Ha’am was not a religious man in the accepted sense of the term: what he sought was the preservation of Jewish culture as manifested in a deep connection to tradition and the Hebrew language and culture. It is thus more accurate to say that, for Ahad Ha’am, Palestine offered a solution to the problem of assimilation. In his view, Palestine would be a “spiritual center” inhabited by a chosen minority of the Jewish people, a cultural focal point to enlighten the diaspora and thereby halt assimilation. At the same time, he believed, the mass of Jews seeking a livelihood and security would find their future not in Palestine, but in the United States.

Many of the members of Hibbat Zion, the East European movement that predated Herzl’s political Zionist movement, were Ahad Ha’am’s disciples. Ahad Ha’am was the leading figure in the Odessa Committee, an influential center of Hibbat Zion, and from the 1890s, cultural Zionism represented the dominant trend within that group. (p.316) The great turning point for Zionism came with the publication of Theodor Herzl’s Der Judenstaat in 1896. Herzl had no interest in either religion or Hebrew culture but rather in finding a radical solution to antisemitism, specifically by means of leaving Europe and establishing a separate state. He was not fixated on the idea of Palestine; instead, as with Judah Leib Pinsker before him, he deliberated between Palestine and Argentina. On the one hand, Herzl envisioned a mass movement of millions that would flock to the Promised Land. On the other hand, he was continually frustrated in his efforts to obtain some sort of charter for Palestine or its environs (such as the Sinai Peninsula or Cyprus, or even Mesopotamia) whereas, all the while, the situation of Jews in Eastern Europe continued to worsen – as manifested, for instance, in the atrocities of the Kishinev pogrom of 1903. For this reason, he expressed enthusiasm for the proposal put forth by British Secretary of State for the Colonies Joseph Chamberlain, which would grant Jews a territory in East Africa (this territory entered the Zionist lexicon as “Uganda,” even though the territory in question was in Kenya). According to Alroey, Herzl was less sensitive to the storm such a proposal would arouse than was his loyal ally Max Nordau, who swiftly characterized “Uganda” as a “night shelter” in order to avoid its being perceived as an alternative to Palestine.

Alroey stresses the enthusiasm for the proposal on the part of the Jewish masses in Eastern Europe who saw it as a gateway to salvation. Herzl’s charismatic personality and the great hope he inspired also convinced people from the Religious Zionist camp headed by Rabbi Yitzhak Yaakov Reines to endorse the Uganda proposal at the Sixth Zionist Congress held in 1903. “The weepers,” as Ahad Ha’am sneeringly called the opponents of the proposal, left the hall in tears and threatened to split the Zionist movement after the majority voted in favor of sending a survey team to Uganda; in the end, they did not carry out their threat.

In one of the book’s best chapters, Alroey recounts how the energetic opposition organized by Menachem Ussishkin (a leading figure in Hovevei Zion in Odessa) and his lieutenant, Dov Ber Borochov, resulted in defeat of the Uganda proposal at the Seventh Zionist Congress of 1905, which was held in Basel a year after Herzl’s death. A three-man team had been picked to tour the area defined as Uganda, but there had been a long delay before the men set out, as the Zionist Organization was not willing to fund the trip. When they finally reached their destination, the team set about its work in a hasty and sloppy manner; only one of the men actually surveyed the area while the other two essentially frittered away their time. The main target of Alroey’s criticism is Nachum Wilbushevitz, or Wilbush as he was known, who at the time was a young, inexperienced engineer who became a member of the team only by chance (his sister, Manya Shochat, later became one of the most riveting figures in Jewish Palestine). Wilbush felt that the Uganda project was thoroughly unrealistic and accordingly submitted a negative report, with which one of his colleagues concurred. The third member of the team – the one who had actually done the surveying – wrote a much more positive assessment, but Ussishkin cunningly managed to keep this information from being presented to the delegates at the Congress. Thus, the Uganda proposal was voted down without there being any real discussion as to the contents of the report.1 This, in turn, led to a split in the post-Herzl Zionist movement and the formation of the Jewish Territorial Organization (known as the ITO, its initials in Yiddish).

(p.317) As Alroey shows, the ITO endorsed two basic components of Zionism: self-government and territory. Among its founding members were Max Mandelstam, a Jewish doctor from Kiev; Nachman Syrkin, a Jewish socialist; and the British author Israel Zangwill, all of whom were loyal Zionists who sought an immediate refuge for the Jewish people. In addition, for a certain period of time, Berl Katznelson and Yosef Haim Brenner – both of whom later became leading figures in the labor Zionist movement – were captivated by Territorialism; according to Katznelson, the movement collapsed because it did not find a foothold. In the days of despair and decline that beset the Zionist movement following Herzl’s death, many Zionists turned to Territorialism as the alternative closest to Zionism, though for most this was only a temporary move.

It is impossible to understand the Territorialist movement’s untiring search for territory all over the world up to 1918 without taking European imperialism into account. Up to the end of the First World War, the arbitrary partitioning of countries was accepted in international politics as legitimate; this is what allowed both for the Balfour Declaration and the creation of the British Mandate. One of the interesting points raised by Alroey relates to Zangwill’s perception of the problems posed by the Arab population in Palestine. Zangwill sought to locate an “empty” country for Jewish settlement (though it transpires that the adage attributed to him, “a land without a people for a people without a land” was actually coined by Lord Shaftesbury). He had no particular empathy for the Arabs – in fact, he would have preferred them to migrate from Palestine, or even be expelled – but he recognized that there would be unending clashes between them and Jewish settlers. However, when it came to Africa, he displayed no sensitivity whatsoever to the rights of the native peoples. At the time, this was an acceptable attitude.

Another of the book’s enthralling and innovative chapters is that devoted to Territorialism (and, in particular, Ugandism) in Palestine. With regard to the Second Aliyah period (1904-1914), Alroey offers some particularly interesting sources derived from archives, correspondence, and private collections, which indicate that Territorialism was no less widespread (and perhaps even more so) in Palestine than it was in other places at the time. For instance, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the reviver of the Hebrew language and one of the central figures in Yishuv society prior to the First World War, was a keen Ugandist, along with many other respected Zionists. This phenomenon was short-lived; as in other places, support for Territorialism essentially disappeared following issuance of the Balfour Declaration.

The 1930s, however, saw a resurgence of the Territorialist idea. The rise of Nazism in Europe and Britain reneging on its undertakings to the Jews in the second half of that decade, coupled with dire economic straits and increased antisemitism in Eastern Europe and the closure of the gates into the United States, all led Jews to seek refuge in any country that would accept them. According to Alroey, the new movement, which included an organization known as the Freeland League, was not an offshoot of the Zionist movement but was in fact hostile toward it. Among its numbers were Bundists, Yiddishists, and Communists. The Freeland League engaged with the Jews but it was not a national movement: it sought only cultural autonomy, not a state. Unlike Dubnow, who believed that cultural autonomy was a loftier level of nationalism than a state, the new Territorialists were not opposed to a state; they simply did (p.318) not believe it was attainable. The Freeland League was still in existence after the establishment of the state of Israel, and only in 1957, after the death of the man who kept it alive, Isaac Nachman Steinberg, did it disintegrate.

Alroey focuses on western Territorialism, particularly the British variety. He devotes no more than a few lines to the Soviet Territorialist plan for Birobidzhan and leaves out any mention of the attempt to settle Jews in the Crimea in the 1920s. These two plans appealed to Jews the world over: Jews went to the Crimea from Palestine, whereas good Communists from the United States went to Birobidzhan. The involvement of the Joint Distribution Committee in these plans is no less interesting than Jewish Colonization Association involvement in previous projects. The notion of combining Jewish nationalism and saving the world was enormously attractive to Jews. The Soviet brand of Territorialism was different from all previous attempts in that it contained elements of recognition of the Jews as a nation. However, as with other Territorialist attempts, it failed, in part because the Jewish masses in the Soviet Union preferred to flock to the big cities and seize the opportunities for higher education offered by the regime. The appeal of Palestine was ultimately an uncontestable attraction. However, in the end, it was not the myth of Palestine but rather the failure to integrate into surrounding societies, together with latent antisemitism, that convinced Jews of the need for a country of their own.

Gur Alroey has written an important book. I do not agree with everything he writes – for instance, his analysis of the concept of “negation of the diaspora” as expressed in both the Territorialist and Zionist movements – and the book also contains a number of typographical and other minor errors, which can be corrected in an updated edition (I would suggest in addition that Hebrew quotations be translated idiomatically rather than literally). Notwithstanding, Zion without Zionism is eminently worthy of a place on the bookshelf of 20th-century Jewish history.

ANITA SHAPIRA

Tel Aviv University

Notes:

(1.) As it happened, the territory under question enjoyed a moderate climate, was very sparsely populated, and had water and farmland in abundance. However, the few British settlers living in its borders protested against the possibility of mass Jewish settlement. Thus, even without Ussishkin and his machinations, the Uganda proposal would probably not have come to fruition, as the British government would have been unlikely to go against the wishes of its citizens.