Israel… Zion… The Holy Land. The Promised Land. A territory designated to the Jewish people. A people chosen by god. The god. But apart from the hundred years or so of autonomous rule under King David (and later) after the Babylonian exile, it took around two and a half thousand years for this god-given “state” to emerge.
With the energy of the Jewish Diaspora resolutely concentrated on the modern state of Israel, the alternative homelands for the Jewish nation have been forgotten.
In his book Power and Powerlessness in Jewish History, David Biale takes aim at the widespread view that betwwen the collapse of the Judean state and the creation of the State of Israel the Jewish people were without power “Jewish history cannot be divided into distinct periods of power or powerlessness. During the ancient period of Jewish sovereignty, normally considered to end in 70CE, the power of the Jews was severely limited by the great empires of antiquity. conversely, the period after 70CE was not a period of total political impotence…Jewish history continued to be characterized by a wide spectrum of persistent and ongoing political activism“. For Biale, being either ‘in’ or ‘out’ of power is a false binary polarity that conceals the essentially spectral nature of sovereignty.
Through much of Jewish diasporic history, Jewish communities played a game in which they recognised state/monarchial authority to which they paid taxes and were subservient to, in exchange for internal autonomy, the right to govern over their own people. Crucial in justifying this was the Talmudic priniciple of Dina de-Malkuta Dina (the law of the kingdom is law) a technical precept that was frequently stretched in order to justify whatver co-operation was necessary with ruling power. At certain times, and in certain places however, jewish self-government went several steps further. Of course, the prototype is the jewish community of Babylon, under the leadership of the Jewish Exilarch. Here, the central text of Judaism, the Babylonian Talmud was created, and its status is made clear in the rabbinic saying “The whole world is like dough compared to the land of Israel. But the land of Israel is like dough compared to Babylon”. The Exilarch claimed descent back to King David, and in general Bavel achives mythic statutes as a model of Jewish power, alongside more familiar ones of the Kingdoms of David and Solomon.
Eighth century France, THE middle Ages. A small Jewish community assisted a Pepin the Short, to drive out an invading Moorish army from south western France. In return for this invaluable service, the Short, quite rightly gave the fortress city of Narbonne as a gift. Here developed a world renowned seat of Jewish learning, largely autonomous though under tribute to the generous and open minded (remember we’re talking the middle ages here) Carolingian dynasty. Pepins’ son became a king called Charlemagne who continued his support of Narbonne and in order to assist his loyal Jewish subjects sponsored an envoy to Baghdad requesting a rabbi and leader. This was granted, and over came descendents of the house of David giving Charlemagne the opportunity to force the reluctant recognition of Narbonne by Pope Stephen III.
Though the academy lasted around four hundred years, within one hundred and fifty, the Carolingians had waned and the reticent hand of Rome had risen. Jewish existence became increasingly marginalised. There are reports of a Samuel ibn Negrela attempting to re-establish a Narbonne style city-state in Andalusia. The negotiations however led to a bloody riot and the cessation of this plan. With the instructions of the papal army of 1106 being “kill them all”, the largely autonomous and previously unimpeded Jewish residence ended here.
In Poland, through the 16th and 17th centuries, the Jews excercised a considerable amount of self-government under the auspices of the ‘council of the 4 lands’, where areas of Poland (Poznań, Kraków, Lwów, and Ostrog) each sent delegates to a central body (a similar grouping also existed in Lituania). A C17th text describes the council’s activities in the following terms:
“The representatives of the four lands had sessions twice in the year . . . at the fair in Lublin, between Purim and Passover, and at the fair in Yaroslav Galicia in the month of Ab or Elul. The representatives of the four lands resembled the Sanhedrin in the session chamber in the Temple of Jerusalem. They had jurisdiction over all the Jews of the kingdom of Poland, with power to issue injunctions and binding decisions and to impose penalties at their discretion. Every difficult case was submitted to them for trial. To make the task easier for themselves, the representatives of the four lands would select special judges from each land, who were called ‘land-judges’, and who tried civil suits; while criminal cases, disputes over priority of possession, and other difficult cases were tried by the representatives themselves.”
The government of Poland treated the council as an independent administrative bodies and frequently entered into negotiations with them. In particular, the council conducted negotiations with the authorities on the amount of the taxation to be levied. A noteworthy achievement of the council was that after 1717 the amount of taxes paid by the Jews was not increased despite depreciation of the currency. Evidently the council had a rather grandiose perception of itself, it was extremely keen on sanhedrin metaphors to describe itself, and had no hesitation in viewing its work as the continuation of Jewish biblical sovereignty.
It took until the 1890s and the all too frequent anti-Semitic activities of the Czars for a strong and determined Jewish leadership to emerge and propose a genuine plan for an independent state. However, not all were set upon upping sticks to Palestine. At a “Lovers of Zion” meeting (sadly not an orgiastic collective, but rather a pre-Zionist Eastern European organisation), representatives of a wealthy German Jew Baron Hirsch offered to purchase substantial tracts of land in Argentina for an autonomous state. These ideas had already been discussed and approved by the Argentinean government but the response of Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever closed proceedings; “May the Lord bless Baron Hirsch for his interest and endeavours and grant him long life and success. But, we are going only to the Land of Israel.”
Throughout the 1890s Theodor Herzl had communicated extensively and met with the Ottoman Sultans and Kaisers in the hope of them ceding Palestine. His efforts proved fruitless. Through a meeting with the British colonial secretary Joseph Chamberlain, a serious offer of establishing a Jewish state in Uganda was made. Herzl saw this as an excellent opportunity to provide a secure homeland for his people and to allow thousands to escape the pogroms. This proposal at the sixth Zionist congress of 1903 seriously fractured the movement. Two years of heated debate ensued until the seventh congress of 1905 when the plan was officially rejected and the Zionist movements objectives were re-established.
The Jewish Territorialist Organization, known as ITO, was a Jewish nationalist movement formed in 1903. It was founded by Israel Zangwill after the official rejection of the sixth World Zionist Congress that year of the “British Uganda Programme” of land in East Africa for the zionist movement. The ITO attempted to locate territory suitable for Jewish settlement in various parts of America ( Africa, Asia, and Australia, but with little success. Another development was the Kimberly Plan, an attempt to build a Jewish state in Australia (where, it was considered, up to a million Jews could be settled), put forward by Isaac Steinberg, with the apparent support of many Australian trade unionists and left wing leaders.
Clearly then, Jewish territorialism, the belief that the Jews needed a piece of land to form a state/self-gverning collective but that it could be anywhere, not nessecarily in Israel, was a major, but forgotten force in Jewish thought of the time. Its proponents took on board the Herzlian notion of the need for a ‘Jewish national home’, but saw no need for it to be tied up with dubious, biblically inspired conncections to the Land of Israel, which could, at the very least, be understood in metaphorical terms.
Running almost parallel to this, the rise of Soviet Communism brought about an interesting development. Religion countered the official state policy of atheism and a national group without their own territory was viewed as a threat. In response to the cultural minority peoples, Stalin planned to create a number of nation states within the new socialist framework. In turn this would facilitate the proletariatisation and cement the transition of the soviet republic into the Marxist utopia.
So, a Soviet Zion was created. In 1928 the Jewish National District was founded on the Siberian/Chinese borderlands, 36,000 km2 (about the size of Belgium) with the administrative centre at Birobidzhan and Yiddish alongside Russian as its official tongue. After an effective propaganda campaign which included classic soviet posters, blanket aeroplane leaflet drops on Jewish neighbourhoods in Belarus and movies and romanticised Yiddish language novels, substantial numbers arrived. By 1939 the district had been officially named the Jewish Autonomous Region (JAR) and by 1947, some 45,000 Jews lived there. This includes around a thousand who emigrated from Argentina, Lithuania, France, Latvia, Germany, Belgium, Poland, America and Palestine. The number of Jews emigrating from the JAR to Israel was in fact balanced by the number going the other way, disenfranchised by the Zionist experience in Palestine.
With the initial settlement, life in the JAR was not dissimilar to that of Palestine. A harsh climate and being part of the Russian socialist proletariat republic, by government order many communities were developed around the lands natural resources. However, as the Jewish population grew, so did the impact of Yiddish culture on the region. Theatre troupes, writers, poets and political thinkers began to affect the social mindset in a way old comrade Stalin would not allow. His paranoia took over, concerned of the “threat”; attempts were made to Rusify the rejuvenated Yiddish culture. He had no success. Unsettled by developments, purges were instigated. Jewish leaders were arrested and executed, Jewish schools shut down, Jewish cultural activities forbidden and the central libraries collection of Judaica burned.
Despite the afflictions suffered by the people of the JAR, five thousand Jews remain there today (1.2% of the population). Yiddish remains the joint official language, is taught in two public schools, a Yiddish language radio station operates, a newspaper, weekly Yiddish TV shows, there’s a Jewish national university of whose base curriculum involves the study of Hebrew, Jewish history and classical Jewish texts. Alongside the two synagogues which have survived, with the financial aid of the Orthodox Church, government and foreign donors, a new synagogue was built in 2004, a Mikvah is under construction, and the community plans to extend its daily one hundred free hot meals for the poor and elderly with an additional 200 and continue the support of various youth, women’s, former concentration camp victims and cultural education societies.
None of these are quoted as examples an ideal Jewish polity. If anything we lean towards non-statist, anarcho-collective inspired methods or organisation. Rather our objective, is to break down the distinction between mythological notions of empowered Jewish state and disempowered diaspora, and brining out the complexity and diversity of the Jewish political experience. Many of us were taught as cheder studenmts of the precarious position of diaspora Jews, and consequently the need not to draw attention to ourselves. To then learn of the many Jewish political parties, of vastly differing views, competing for seats in the Polish Parliament in the inter war years puts a whole new slant on this.
Some progressive zionists argue that Jews need to excercise ‘responsibility’ – that Jews need their own state so that can fully put Jewish principles into practice. This however, buys into the false binary polarity of power and powerlessness that we have been undermining – just at Israel will never have absolute power, being subject to the restraints of economic markets and the imperial powers of out time, diaspora Jews can gain influence by working with other groups, as part of multi-ethnic democracies, as part of local communities, as part of collectives. Power shared is not power dissolved – it is however moving beyond a notion of power that is conditional on them and us. Perhaps many Jews need to reassess what really makes them Jewish rather than taking the word of there local JNF representative. The Israelites/Hebrews/Judaens/Yids survived without a land for a couple of thousand years and still managed to play a pivotal role in developing some of the most penetrating cultural, economic and social realities of our time. Don’t forget what you are and what your people have been through. Move forward.