Jewish Territorialist Organization

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The Jewish Territorial Organization, known as the ITO, was a Jewish political movement which first arose in 1903 in response to the British Uganda Offer, but which was institutionalized in 1905.

The organization was founded by British Jewish author, critic, and activist Israel Zangwill and British Jewish Journalist, Lucien Wolf.

Zangwill's interest in Territorialism began in 1903 in response to the Kishinev Pogrom. In April of that year in Kishinev, Bessarabia, a Western province of the Russian empire, a local newspaper accused the region’s Jews of killing a Christian child as part of their Passover rituals. This inflammatory use of the ancient “blood libel," sparked a three day pogrom which resulted in the deaths of over forty Jews, as well as the destruction and looting of hundreds of Jewish homes and businesses. The specter of Kishinev profoundly influenced Zangwill’s actions and work. Indeed, several years after the event, Zangwill would make the protagonist of his most important play, “The Melting Pot,” a survivor of the pogrom who escapes to America after witnessing the murder of his family. The events of Kishinev also convinced Zangwill of the immediate need to find a place of Jewish refuge be it in Palestine or some other site. In commenting on the pogroms in a greeting to the Federation of American Zionists Zangwill commented:

The Kishineff [sic] massacre has brought home to the blindest the need of a publicly and legally safeguarded home for our unhappy race. When you come to consider where this centralized home should be you will find no place as practicable as Palestine, or at least for a start, its neighborhood.

Theodore Herzl hoped for a Jewish homeland in Palestine but recognized that global events demanded an immediate solution to the Jewish problem, in Russia at least, even if that solution required Jewish refugees to settle outside of Eretz Israel.

As early as 1902, Herzl’s negotiations with the Ottoman Empire for a Jewish homeland in Palestine had proven so futile and the dream of Zion so distant that he decided to approach the British about the creation of a Jewish colony in Africa. And in April 1903 his efforts in London seemed to bear fruit. In response to the horrors of Kishinev, England’s Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain proposed to Herzl the creation a semiautonomous region on the Uasin Gishu plateau in British East Africa for Jewish settlement. When Herzl revealed Chamberlain’s offer to the Sixth Zionist Congress in August 1903, Zangwill spoke in favor of the proposal. In his speech to the Congress Zangwill made clear that, though he did not see East Africa as the ultimate consummation of the Zionist cause, he did believe that it proved a particularly useful, temporary (if still somewhat long-term) solution to the Jewish problem in Russia.

But few in the World Zionist Organization supported the Uganda Scheme, as the East Africa offer was sometimes called, particularly those representatives from Eastern Europe who argued that Palestine alone was the sole acceptable site for a Jewish homeland. And Herzl was severely criticized for his willingness to seek a Jewish state outside of the Middle East. Such criticism, Zangwill claimed, contributed to Herzl’s death from heart failure in 1904. In a 1905 speech on the East Africa offer he exclaimed:

Herzl is dead: he worked for his people as no man ever worked for them since Judas Maccabaeus. His people called him dreamer and demagogue, and towards the end men of his own party called him traitor and broke his heart. He worked for his people: they paid him his wages and he has gone home.

In 1905 the members of the Seventh Zionist Congress formally rejected the Uganda Scheme.

Following the rejection of the East Africa offer, Zangwill contacted Lucien Wolf, an English Jewish journalist and member of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the main representative body of Anglo Jewry. Wolf was an opponent of political Zionism, but did support the creation of Jewish colonies in the Diaspora. In August 1905 Zangwill and Wolf met to discuss the Uganda Scheme, and in subsequent correspondence between the two we learn that both supported the creation of a Jewish colony in British East Africa. Wolf had objected to any specifically “Jewish national homeland,” that is to say a state which ghettoized Jews, preserving Jewish customs and law as the basis for governance. Though Zangwill’s literary works suggest his nostalgia for the ghetto, he too recognized the need for a modern Jewish polity. Both concurred that a self governing Jewish territory should be based on a preponderance of Jews in the region rather than British legislative fiat, and both concurred that the new government should be formed on a modern, democratic basis rather than some earlier biblical ideal or Eastern European Kehilla structure. This basic agreement between Zangwill and Wolf would lead to the formation of the Jewish Territorial Organization (ITO), an organization dedicated to “obtaining a large tract of territory (preferably within the British Empire) wherein to found a Jewish Home of Refuge,” and to the elevation of Zangwill to the ITO presidency.

The ITO's members were known as territorialists or "ITOmen". ITO attempted to locate territory suitable for Jewish settlement in various parts of America (e.g. Galveston, Alaska), Africa (in Angola, establishing several contacts with the Portuguese government, the colonial power at the time), Asia, and Australia, but with little success. The ITO lasted until at least 1943, though indeed it lost much of its power and impetus after the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and Zangwill's death in 1926.