Freeland League

The Saramacca Project, a plan of Jewish colonization in Surinam

PhD thesis at the University of Groningen by
Alexander Heldring, on November 25, 2010.

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From 1946 until mid-1948, an American-Jewish organization called the Freeland League negotiated with Dutch and Surinamese authorities about the possible resettlement of 30,000 Jewish displaced persons and refugees from Central and Eastern Europe in Surinam. Hopes were high when the authorities concerned initially reacted positively to the plan.
The Freeland League for Jewish Territorial Colonization had been founded in Great Britain in 1935 by the Jewish lawyer Dr Isaac Nathan Steinberg, who had fled Russia twelve years earlier. As a representative of the Russian Socialist Revolutionary Party (SRP), Steinberg had briefly joined Lenin's first cabinet in the capacity of Minister of Justice, but due to his much more liberal views on politics he was soon at loggerheads with the Bolsheviks.
Even before the start of WWII, due to the persecution of Jews in Nazi-Germany, the Freeland League had searched urgently for a thinly populated area or 'Territory', somewhere in the world where Jewish colonists could settle and cultivate the land. They would become citizens of the country concerned while simultaneously retaining their own Jewish culture and Yiddish language as much as possible. For the Territorialists, Palestine was not an immediate option, since they, unlike the Zionists, did not aspire towards creating an independent Jewish state. In those days, moreover, Palestine was still ruled by the British mandate, with a limited admission policy.
At first, the Freeland League focused on Australia because on that vast continent there were so many areas still sparsely populated, especially in the Northwest. Isaac Steinberg, chosen as the most convincing representative of the League due to his charismatic personality and brilliant oratory skills, launched an intensive campaign in Australia in favor of Jewish colonization. Initially it seemed that he would succeed in his objective. However, despite the support of several Australian agencies and substantial public opinion, the League failed to obtain consent from the central government in Canberra, which officially rejected the plan in 1944. They did not want a mass influx of Jewish refugees from Europe to settle as a separate group in a remote part of the country.
The Freeland League did not lose heart, and two years later, in 1946, it directed its efforts in finding a sanctuary for the survivors of the Holocaust towards another sparsely populated area, and that was found in Surinam. Located on the northeast coast of South America between British Guyana and French Guyana, Surinam was still a Dutch colony at the time. Although four times the size of the Netherlands, its population amounted to no more than 180,000. The descendants of African slaves accounted for the largest ethnic group, followed by immigrants from the Indian sub-continent and Javanese from the Dutch East Indies. Smaller ethnic groups consisted of Chinese, Lebanese, Amerindians and Dutch. There was also a small community of fewer than 800 Jews, who had settled in Surinam as far back as the mid-seventeenth century.
Initially - as had been the case with the Australia project - it appeared as if, during its negotiations with Surinam and the Netherlands, the Freeland League would succeed in carrying out its colonization project. A delegation of the League headed by Isaac Steinberg visited Surinam in April 1947. After negotiations with an advisory commission appointed by the governor, the delegation and the commission signed a Joint Declaration in which both parties agreed to admit a maximum of 30,000 Jewish immigrants into Surinam. The Surinamese negotiators had insisted on this number, such being smaller than that of the Javanese segment of the population. On 27 June 1947, after a heated debate, the Staten (the Surinam parliament) decided thus to admit this maximum number of 30,000 Jews 'under stipulations to be agreed on at a later stage'.
The colonization pursued by the Freeland League targeted the Saramacca district, west of Paramaribo, the capital city of Surinam. At the end of 1947 and the beginning of 1948, a small group of American experts commissioned by the League made a thorough survey of the spot and concluded in their report that the area referred to was suitable for the Jewish colonization. The Freeland League would cover the costs of this project (estimated at US $ 35 million) using funds meant to be made available by Jewish organizations and some American trade unions.
However, a few months after the foundation of the State of Israel (14 May 1948), the new governor of Surinam informed the Freeland League in New York that the Surinamese Staten wished to suspend the discussion on the Jewish immigration until 'total clarification of the general international situation'. This was virtually the end of the Jewish colonization scheme in Surinam, although Surinam has never transformed the 'suspension' into a formal 'discontinuance'.
The League did not accept what it considered to be a unilateral decision. Although in the immediate years after the founding of the Jewish state, many of the inmates of the DP camps in Europe emigrated to Israel, there was a substantial number of Jews, especially the non-Zionists, who wanted a safe haven somewhere else in the world. They remained the League's principal target group and for almost nine years it continued its efforts to reopen the negotiations with the Surinamese government.
Once in a while it would appear as if a new government in Surinam, perhaps not entirely aware of the history of the Saramacca Project, might be willing to re-examine the matter. Each time, however, this would fail to be followed up by the Surinamese authorities and eventually the League stopped pursuing its goal of having Jews resettle in Surinam. After Isaac Steinberg's death in January 1957, the League gradually dropped the 'territorialist' part of its mandate and started to focus more on helping to preserve Yiddish as a living language. This latter goal is still being pursued by the League for Yiddish in New York, which might be regarded as the Freeland League's successor.
Why would the Freeland League cherish the hope for ten years that the Jewish colonization project in the Saramacca district would materialize? In the beginning - as mentioned earlier - there was enthusiasm for this project in both Surinam and the Netherlands. Put briefly, this initial positive reaction to the concept stemmed from the awareness that this could help displaced Jews in Europe; that the population of Surinam and its economy would grow; and that the reputation of Surinam and the Netherlands would be enhanced internationally (something that the Netherlands with its problems in Indonesia certainly needed) and it wouldn't cost the Netherlands a single penny. From 1946 to 1948, this enthusiasm transformed itself into various concrete arrangements between the Surinamese government and the Freeland League, favorable and recorded statements in the Staten of Surinam, the Dutch Lower House of Parliament, the United Nations General Assembly and affirmative letters from the then governor of Surinam to the League.
The colonization plan failed for several reasons. In Surinam itself, the resistance against the plan gradually increased, especially within the Creole National Party of Surinam (NPS). The black population was afraid of possible political and economic dominance by the Jewish immigrants. In its public relations campaign, the NPS even employed discourse which harked back to an era when Jewish slave masters exploited the sugar plantations.
The Zionists also helped fuel these fears. After all, as long as Palestine was under British mandate and the British obstructed mass immigration of Jews from Europe, Surinam might well serve as an acceptable alternative for a possible sanctuary for Jewish displaced persons. This was a threat to the Zionists' ambitions: they had observed that initially not only the Jewish community, but also other people (including Muslims), the Surinamese government and some political parties showed great sympathy for the idea of a Jewish immigration. So, the Zionists concentrated their lobbying against the colonization project of the Freeland League within Surinam itself. During a three-day visit to Paramaribo in March 1948, an American Zionist, Mrs. Ida Silverman, managed to create a divide within the Jewish community of supporters and opponents of the colonization project.
Within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in The Hague, the opinion reigned that the Freeland League would never acquire the necessary funding for the plan. This turned out not to be true at least in terms of financial support, which the League had already enjoyed from some American trade unions and would have continued to enjoy, had the Dutch eventually consented to the plan. The most determined opponents were one or two officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, later joined by their colleagues from Overseas Territories, who eventually managed to convince their respective bosses to reject the project. There is substantial evidence that in the summer of 1948, the Netherlands government exerted pressure on the Staten of Suriname to 'suspend the discussion' regarding the colonization plan, which ultimately led to the failure of the project. Evidently, the Freeland League had been so misled by the initial positive attitude of the Surinamese and Dutch governments that it didn't actually take the time to lobby in the Netherlands. The League's lobbying campaign focused on Suriname, because it was under the mistaken impression that the entire decision-making process regarding the project would take place in Paramaribo.
If the Freeland League had succeeded in concluding a binding agreement with the Surinamese and Dutch governments on the Jewish colonization, and if certain U.S. agencies (such as trade unions) had made sufficient funds available for the implementation of the plan, would the League have been able to attain its desired number of 30,000 Jewish immigrants for a colonization in Suriname? Yes, if one focuses on the period right after the war. There is ample evidence hereof in the relevant archives for example the letters to the Freeland League from inmates of the displaced persons' camps in the American and British occupation zones in Germany and Austria.
However, any likelihood of Eastern European Jews in particular coming to Surinam was precisely one of the severest objections which the Dutch government harbored against the League's Surinam plan. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs didn't want a large numbers of Jews from Eastern Europe in Suriname, 'because they are infiltrators who will turn Suriname into a communist state'. In those days, immediately after the war, anti-Semitic prejudices were not uncommon within Dutch ministries and undoubtedly contributed towards the failure of the project.
How to assess the Dutch and the Surinamese governments' treatment of the colonization project and the Freeland League itself? Dutch Prime Minister Willem Drees and his immediate entourage themselves have pointed out in various internal memoranda that in the discussion with the Freeland League following the initial negotiations, the Dutch position was "very weak" and the course of things "not unquestionable". In these documents Drees and his colleagues also admit that the commitments which the Netherlands and Surinam had entered into with the Freeland League were in fact firmer than they had initially thought. According to one of Drees' advisors "this issue has developed and been treated in a very unfortunate fashion". The League's allegation that the Dutch government had exerted pressure on Suriname to suspend the negotiations has always been publicly denied by the Netherlands, but admitted in private. However, bearing in mind the prevailing circumstances at that time, it is too easy, in hindsight, to simply pass a negative judgment.
What would have happened if the Jewish colonization project had materialized? The immigration of 30,000 Jews would undoubtedly have contributed positively to Surinam's economic welfare, as significant Jewish presence elsewhere has proven. But even with a large Jewish community, Surinam would ultimately never have become an alternative option for Palestine. As the state of Israel was established in 1948, the Freeland League came to regard Surinam as a refuge only complementary to Israel.

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