The Movement That Imagined a Jewish Homeland Without the State of Israel

Territorialism, and its opposition to mainstream Zionism, might help us unlock the breadth and depth of political imagination that came before the current impasse

The Movement That Imagined a Jewish Homeland Without the State of Israel
Jewish immigrants to Palestine farming the land in 1909. (Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

In 1955, Isaac Nachman Steinberg, the leader of a small New York-based Jewish organization, issued a written warning to the young State of Israel: “The change-over from a glorious spiritual path, albeit lacking political power, to a route strewn with the glittering symbols of state power and military prestige, appears to be a hazardous one.” Steinberg wrote from the heart: Decades earlier he had experienced firsthand the brief exultant promise of Russia’s October Revolution, when he served as the first People’s Commissar of Justice representing the Party of Left Socialist Revolutionaries. After the coalition of that party with Lenin’s Bolsheviks came to a brutal end in March 1918, Steinberg was forced into exile, increasingly suffering from “abysmal disillusionment” over the revolution — and over the course the Soviet state-building project took.

Like many other exiled revolutionaries, Steinberg spent the interwar years in Berlin, but the rise to power of Adolf Hitler in 1933 forced him into exile again — this time to London. There he became involved with a Jewish organization called the Freeland League for Jewish Territorial Colonization. Steinberg had come to believe that finding nonstatist territorial solutions for Jewish homelessness was one important way of achieving his idealistic ambition of improving the fate of all of mankind.

In 1939, Steinberg traveled to Australia on the Freeland League’s behalf, to explore the option of creating a large-scale Jewish settlement in the supposedly “empty” Kimberley region, in the north of Western Australia. World War II broke out while he was there, and Steinberg stayed in Australia until 1943, then made his way to New York City, where the Freeland League had relocated. In New York, Steinberg emerged as the organization’s new official leader. With him, the Freeland League also gained an outspoken critic of Jewish statehood in Palestine, as demonstrated by his grave 1955 warning.

In the context of the current moral collapse of Israeli military state policies and actions, it might be tempting to read Steinberg’s anti-statist message to the inhabitants of an earlier Israel as particularly poignant foresight. The Freeland League was a small but well-connected group that labored to find places of settlement for Jewish refugees outside both Europe and Palestine. These settlements, which were never realized, were meant to include some degree of cultural autonomy but were explicitly not aimed at statehood. “All nations possess States,” Steinberg wrote in 1948, “but have men become happier as a result? Has not the energy of nations exhausted itself in the upbuilding of the State at the expense of the other social phenomena: the family, daily human intercourse, educational standards, social morality?”

Indeed, as the number of civilian deaths in Gaza is taking on unfathomable proportions, with related acts of violence taking place in the West Bank, the inherently violent nature of statehood and its gospel of permanent security should be scrutinized. Professor A. Dirk Moses, an expert on genocide studies who teaches at the City College of New York, presented an insightful analysis on these lines in a Nov. 14 article for the Boston Review, in which he examined Israel’s military operations in Gaza since Hamas’ attack on Oct. 7. In other words, especially with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps Steinberg and his territorialists were correct and Jewish statehood was not the best course of action from the get-go. Not because Jews did not deserve a state, but because, to Steinberg’s mind at least, they deserved something better.

However, the question of whether history has proved Steinberg and the freelanders right and the “victorious” statist Zionists wrong is not the one that yields the most satisfying answers in our desperate quest to deal with the current moment. Framing the history of Jewish territorialism — the ideological movement behind the Freeland League — in a way that morally discredits Zionism does not provide us with productive analytical tools. Nor does it reap the fruits of territorialism’s rich past. At the same time, we should also not give in to the opposite inclination, namely to utilize territorialism as a means of adding some curious flavor to the mainstream story of Zionism that we already know: the road that inevitably leads to statehood in historic Palestine.

Then what good can the largely failed project of Jewish territorialism do us now? Instead of looking at its history in terms of the binary of success and failure, or as one of the “roads not taken,” what we really need is a redemption of Jewish political history in a more general sense. This is something Jewish territorialism might help us to unlock, as the movement’s story displays both the breadth and depth of the Jewish political imagination at different moments in history. It shows us that Jewish territorial ambition was not by definition only about statist militarism and settler colonial dispossession, as seems to be the suggestion in certain political milieus on the left — even if these concepts were definitely present in the geopolitical zeitgeist of the first half of the 20th century. Because territorialism was originally a product of Zionism but grew to become one of its main critics over the course of its half-century existence, its history teaches us something about what Zionism is, but also about what it could have been.

The history of the Jewish territorialist movement, of which the Freeland League was the final incarnation, began in 1903. In that year, British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain proposed to Zionist leader Theodor Herzl that the Zionists might obtain a piece of British colonial East Africa, which was mistakenly referred to as “Uganda” (the area was technically situated in Kenya). The offer led to heated debates within the young Zionist movement, while Herzl died in 1904 without voicing a clear-cut opinion to guide his successors on the matter. A scheduled vote in 1905 led to a rejection of the offer and a subsequent split in the movement. This then led to the establishment of the Jewish Territorialist Organisation (ITO) under the leadership of the Anglo-Jewish writer and activist Israel Zangwill.

During the next two decades, the London-based members of the ITO scanned the globe for “empty spaces” in which to establish “concentrated settlements” for their Jewish brethren living the hard life in the impoverished shtetls of Eastern Europe. The ITO thought of itself as reliant on a colonial world order, in which it might be able to find some unpopulated and undeveloped corner. Between 1905 and 1925, the organization explored options in far-flung places like Cyrenaica (Libya), Mesopotamia (Iraq), Angola and Honduras. Between 1907 and 1914, the ITO was also involved in the so-called Galveston Scheme that aimed to bring Russian-Jewish immigrants to the American Midwest.

It was this scheme’s perceived aim to save not just individual Jewish lives but collective Jewish life that also inspired the reinstatement of the Jewish territorialist movement in 1934 — almost a decade after the ITO had first been dissolved in 1925. The main reason: Hitler’s rise to power and the resulting deterioration of conditions for Jews in Europe. The new movement was quickly forged from several smaller ones that had popped up across the continent, and this new body was named the Freeland League for Jewish Territorial Colonization.

Just like before, the territorialists agreed with the Zionists that the solution for Jewish homelessness was to be territorial: a concentrated settlement outside of Europe. Whereas the Zionists had come to believe that this “elsewhere” was to be Palestine, the more moderate territorialists thought that Palestine would not be able to absorb all the Jews that needed resettling and that other outlets therefore also needed to be found.

Hard-line territorialists, including Steinberg, argued that Palestine was altogether morally unattainable. After all, the land already had its inhabitants: Palestinian Arabs. When the fateful 1947 United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine vote results were announced, the Freeland League’s main periodical commented: “it cannot be supposed that great numbers of dispossessed Arabs would agree to renounce their claim to their homes and lands which are as dear to them as Palestine is to the Jews.” Perhaps even more disturbing to the freelanders was their conviction that the continued Zionist state-building project would require the further militarization of Jewish society, a development which for them was ethically and religiously un-Jewish and therefore unacceptable.

Under Steinberg’s influence, the Freeland League thus increasingly framed itself as anti-statist and anti-militaristic; but, perhaps curiously, it had also started off as a colonial movement. During the mid-to-late 1930s, the movement’s leaders (Steinberg was not yet in charge) extensively corresponded with the French and British governments about some of those empires’ colonial possessions. In those letters, the freelanders did not shy away from using language that explicitly highlighted Jewish “whiteness” to sell Jews as good potential colonial subjects on “nonwhite” lands.

However, only a few years later, now under Steinberg’s firm leadership, the territorialists suddenly found themselves at the negotiating table with both the colonizers and the colonized. What had happened? Between 1946 and 1948, the Freeland League engaged in far-reaching discussions with the Dutch and the recently (partially) enfranchised Surinamese governments about a potential settlement in Suriname (Dutch Guiana) for 30,000 Jewish displaced persons. This plan was to become the closest the freelanders would ever get to any tangible success, until the Dutch pulled the plug on it in August 1948. This was three months after the establishment of the State of Israel, and in the middle of a protracted colonial war that the Dutch were fighting in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world.

And then it was 1948. The State of Israel was a fact and the Suriname project had failed, but it had led to a major shift in the freelanders’ thinking: Suddenly they considered their own work and, by extension, the essence of Jewish politics, to have become part of the remaking of a new postwar world order on the side of the emerging decolonizing forces — and this made sense, at least to Steinberg and his circle.

And this circle extended, surprisingly perhaps, into Israel, and into the fringes of the Zionist movement itself. There, the Freeland League affiliated itself from the early 1950s onwards with Ihud (Unity), the successor movement to the better-known Brit Shalom (Covenant of Peace) organization.

Founded in 1925, Brit Shalom was also called the Jewish-Palestinian Peace Alliance. It was a nonstatist movement of intellectuals, many of whom had settled in Palestine. Brit Shalom advocated an alternative vision of Zionism that called for the creation of a center of Jewish culture in Palestine rather than a state for the Jews (Herzl’s “Judenstaat”). They advocated a binational state where Jews and Arabs had equal rights. Albert Einstein and Martin Buber were among Brit Shalom’s supporters.

Ihud, although it never forsook Brit Shalom’s binationalism, was forced after statehood to focus on the less controversial creation of an inclusive federal structure. The harsh political climate for Ihud notwithstanding, its members had been early settlers who were generally respected members of the Yishuv, the pre-state Jewish community of Palestine. It was therefore not until the early 1950s that Israeli prime minister David Ben Gurion openly attacked them for their opinions.

Steinberg corresponded most extensively with Ihud’s pacifist leader, Nathan Chofshi. In 1953, Steinberg praised Ihud for always having kept the “desires” and the “sufferings” of their Arab neighbors in mind: “The Yikhud [Ihud] stood up against the tendencies in Israel to national arrogance, to state glory, to military self-confidence, to every manner of moral assimilation.” Equally, Chofshi described Ihud as the only truly Jewish organization in Israel, by which he meant the only morally upright organization, and he saw the Freeland League as Ihud’s sole counterpart abroad.

The mutual admiration between Steinberg and Chofshi was matched by their shared indignation at the direction the young State of Israel was taking. Both men were appalled by the notorious Deir Yassin massacre of April 9, 1948, that was committed by the Irgun and Lehi, both pre-state Zionist militias, and by the Qibya massacre of Oct.14, 1953 committed by the Israeli military. They both deplored the 1952 Citizenship Law, which repealed British Mandate laws that described Palestinian Arabs as citizens, and the 1953 Land Acquisition Act, by which Israel expropriated most Palestinian Arab towns and villages inside the state’s 1948 borders.

Chofshi and Steinberg also quite vocally agreed on the ills of statehood. Whereas this anti-statist conviction is no surprise when it comes to Steinberg, Chofshi, who had arrived in Palestine in 1908 during the Second Aliyah, was a well-known and respected self-proclaimed Zionist; a Jewish nationalist. The “myth” of Zionism as one coherent and consolidated state-focused ideology thus becomes shaky at best when we turn our gaze to the inherent contradiction that is Chofshi: an anti-statist Zionist. As it turns out, even post-1948 Zionist statehood was not uncontested in the eyes of at least some players on the inside of the state-building project itself.

Steinberg and Chofshi were no longer young men in the 1950s. Ihud’s efforts eventually faded away in the context of mainstream Israeli state politics, while the Freeland League’s active work ended not long after Steinberg’s death in 1957. But the intention here has not been to mourn a lost world of Jewish political behavior that never came to pass. This is also not a story of the “good guys” versus the “bad guys” of Jewish territorial politics, in which the “bad guys” (the Zionists) emerged victorious, and the moral victors (the territorialists) lost out.

And to be clear: the ITO and the freelanders were certainly no moral saints. They too had complex ideas about race and social engineering that accorded with the period’s colonial and racist tendencies. Even Steinberg, so exhilarated about becoming part of the decolonizing world, could not fully square the circle when it came to the Indigenous peoples of the supposedly “empty” lands Jews were to settle instead of Palestine.

What we should take away from this story is not that the territorialists necessarily held the moral high ground in comparison to the Zionists. It is rather that their often-ignored history helps to uncover a much more diverse Jewish political universe than the unchallenged equation of Zionism and Jewish politics would allow for. But even just focusing on Zionism itself, the connection between Steinberg and Chofshi demonstrates a lost universe of Zionist heterodoxy that lasted well beyond the establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948.

Israel Zangwill, the founding father of the territorialist movement, famously wrote: “The past is for inspiration, not imitation, for continuation, not repetition.” Indeed, the past can never provide a blueprint for the future, but perhaps the multidirectionality of the Jewish political past can provide at least a ray of hope that the political imagination may one day serve as a guide out of the moral impasse in which many on the Jewish political left now feel trapped.

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