In Michael Chabon‘s novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, post-World War II Zionists establish a Jewish colony in Alaska. Most of us don’t realize it, but a tropical equivalent of this colony almost existed.
The Freeland League–also known by its proper Yiddish title, Frayland-lige far Yidisher Teritoryalistisher Kolonizatsye–was an early 20th-century movement that tried to establish a Yiddish-speaking Jewish Socialist state.
The Freelanders were founded by three British Jews. They saw the need for a Jewish state, but they sensed that the Arab population that lived in Palestine meant long-term trouble for any Jewish colony. So they decided to look elsewhere.
In 1938, they acquired an 11,000-square-mile territory in Australia. When those plans fell through, after World War II, they tried for territory in Suriname and Dutch Guiana. “The Freelanders sought nothing less than to recreate European Jewish life in the Amazon Basin,” says Adam Rovner, a professor at the University of Denver and an expert on the Frayland-lige, in a new 10-minute documentary.
Eventually, the Frayland-Lige abandoned their territorial dreams in favor of promoting the spread of Yiddish. It was a bizarre scenario to begin with–imagine Hasidim going to the mikveh in the Australian outback, or Jewish intellectuals arguing in vine-covered huts instead of cold Prague cafes. But it’s a world that, had the Frayland-lige been successful, might have existed today.
September 2, 2011