The Story of Israel Told Through Rosh Hashanah Greeting Cards

There was a time when Israeli greeting cards designed to celebrate the Jewish New Year were the most common mail item in the country. These charming postcards expressed the sentiments of their time in every Jewish home in Israel and in Jewish communities around the world

A Rosh Hashanah greeting card from 1958

The custom of sending greeting cards before the Jewish New Year began in Germany in the late Middle Ages and gradually spread to Eastern Europe and the United States. The early twentieth century was the “golden age” of postcards, and among Jews, the Rosh Hashanah greeting card was easily the star of this particular show. With the rise of electronic communications, the custom has naturally faded, and today it is likely that most of the New Year greetings we receive arrive via other mediums: text message, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Tiktok, email, the list goes on. But we wanted to look back for a moment, to those distant days when sending a Rosh Hashanah greeting required more than just a click.

The holiday postcards usually carried Jewish-related motifs, such as traditional and ideological symbols, or illustrations of major Jewish current events. With the formation and rise of the Zionist movement, Rosh Hashanah greeting cards became platforms for conveying ideological and Zionist messages related to prominent public events.

This Jewish New Year greeting shows what the opening of the Second Zionist Congress in the city of Basel looked like in the last week of August 1898. Encouraged by the first Congress that had convened there the year before, hopeful representatives of Jewish communities from all over the world gathered together again to plan the future of Zionism. In the center of the photo we can see Theodor Herzl addressing the crowd.


In the spring of 1901 a meeting between Herzl and the Turkish Sultan Abdul Hamid stirred hopes in the Jewish world. At the meeting, Herzl asked the Sultan to sell the Land of Israel to the Jewish people, and offered a large sum of money to the Ottoman Empire and an equally large sum to the Sultan himself in exchange for a charter for the land, but the Sultan declined the request. This special greeting card was published on Rosh Hashanah 1901 to mark the historic meeting that had taken place a few months earlier.


The same New Year’s postcard series with the photographs of Herzl and the Sultan also included postcards of other heroes of the Jewish national awakening in Europe at the turn of the 20th century, such as Nordau, Emile Zola and one of Alfred Dreyfus, shown here below.


During the first three decades of the State of Israel, New Year greeting cards were the most common mail item in the country. These cards expressed the spirit of the New Year in every Jewish home in Israel. In the last few weeks of each Hebrew year, the post office would switch into high gear to meet the challenge posed by the countless postcards that flooded the postal system. The diverse images on the postcards expressed the hopes of Israeli citizens at the beginning of the New Year. Together they form a collective picture of Israeli society in its own eyes.


“At Basel, I founded the Jewish State”

(Theodor Herzl, Basel, 1897)


“It is with a sense of honor and awe that I rise to open the Constituent Assembly of the State of Israel, the first Jewish assembly of our day, in Jerusalem, the eternal city.”

(Prof. Chaim Weizmann, President of the Provisional State Council and the first President of the State of Israel at the opening ceremony of the Knesset, then called the “Constituent Assembly,” 1949)

This card from 1949, recalls two important events in the life of the nation: the First Zionist Congress in Basel (note the wrong year written on the card – 1896 instead of 1897) where Herzl laid the cornerstone of the future homeland of the Jewish people and the opening session of the first Knesset.


Shana Tova from 1930s Tel Aviv! A greeting card depicting Dizengoff Square, named for Zina Dizengoff, the first lady of the first Hebrew city.


Years before the Western Wall was in Israeli hands, the Jewish people prayed for “the liberation of our holy places.”


Happy New Year from the “Egged” Public Transportation Company:


1967 was an exciting year. After days of anxious waiting and uncertainty, Israel quickly defeated its neighbors in the Six-Day War. One of the symbols of this victory was the liberation of Jerusalem’s Old City after nineteen years of Jordanian rule and two thousand years of Jewish longing for the city. The postcard shows an armored vehicle entering the Old City through the Lion’s Gate. Blasts of mortar fire can be seen through the gate and outside it. Written on the postcard is the Hebrew text: “Like lions, the warriors of Israel prevailed,” along with “Peace and security”, appearing twice:


“Shana Tova from the banks of the Suez Canal – to the victorious IDF.”


Even the Hora was commemorated in Rosh Hashanah greeting cards. Originating in the Balkans, the Hora was brought to Israel by immigrants from Eastern Europe and has since been identified with the Land of Israel and Zionism. The Hora is a circle dance in 4/4 time which allows equality among the dancers and a sense of togetherness. These features of the dance suited the pioneering spirit that prevailed in the country in the early decades following Israeli independence and was nostalgically commemorated years later, as in this card, which likely dates to the 1970s.  The Hebrew inscription reads “An abundance of blessings for the New Year”.


“Today, through my visit to you, I ask you why don’t we stretch out our hands with faith and sincerity so that together we might destroy this barrier?… Why don’t we stand together with the courage of men and the boldness of heroes who dedicated themselves to a sublime aim? Why don’t we stand together with the same courage and daring to erect a huge edifice of peace? An edifice that builds and does not destroy. An edifice that serves as a beacon for generations to come with the human message for construction, development, and the dignity of man.”

On November 20, 1977, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat delivered these words during his historic visit to the Israeli Knesset in Jerusalem. A month later, in December 1977, the historic first El Al flight took off from Ben-Gurion International Airport to Cairo. To mark the occasion, a Rosh Hashanah greeting was issued with an illustration of an El Al airplane decorated with Israeli and Egyptian flags and the words Peace in Hebrew and Arabic.

An El Al plane with the flags of Israel and Egypt to mark the historic flight from Ben-Gurion Airport to Cairo


Postcards from the Heddy Or Israeliana Collection and the National Library of Israel’s Ephemera Collection.


This Was the Actual First Zionist Congress

We are often told that “the Jewish state was founded in Basel", the city where the first Zionist Congress convened. However, 15 years earlier, Jews gathered in the city of Focşani, in Romania, to promote the settlement of the Land of Israel. Israel Gilad, a member of the First Aliyah Association and great grandson of the founders of Rosh Pinna and Zikhron Ya'akov, would like to remind our readers of those who came before Herzl…


Participants in the Hovevei Zion conference in Katowice, 1884, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

In 1878, Europe’s great powers convened at the Congress of Berlin to divide up the spoils of Russia and Romania’s victory over the Ottoman Empire in the Russo-Turkish War. Romania and Bulgaria afterward declared independence, pledging to grant citizenship to all residents. Leading this effort were British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and French Minister of Justice Adolf Crémieux. Disraeli was a descendant of a Jewish family that had converted to Christianity, and Crémieux was himself a Jew.

Romania did everything it could to thwart this move. It now enforced laws legislated years earlier that discriminated against the country’s Jews and ruined their livelihoods. The laws had not been implemented previously. These actions, which worsened the already harsh reality of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, also spurred Jews to support the idea of a ​​return to the Land of Israel, a notion that began to spread among the Jews of the region.

In late 1880, David Gordon, the editor of the Jewish newspaper Hamagid, published an article analyzing the efforts to organize settlement associations for the Land of Israel. His conclusion was that small organizations or individuals would fail in their goal of “establishing a large agricultural settlement for our people in the land of our ancestors.” He believed that a strong central body, similar to French Jewry’s “Alliance” organization, which would oversee the organization and settlement, should be established.

Portrait of David Gordon, editor of Hamagid, the Abraham Schwadron Collection, the National Library of Israel

The renewed Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel had only two colonies at the time, Gei Oni (later to evolve into Rosh Pinna) and Petah Tikva, which were established in 1878 with the aim of creating an agricultural settlement that would provide a living for its residents. Gei Oni’s residents had to abandon their settlement due to agricultural failure, while the people of Petah Tikva suffered from a very severe bout of malarial fever. By early 1880, the founders of both colonies were forced to return to Safed and Jerusalem where they survived on halukkah funds (charity collected from Jewish communities in Europe and distributed to the Jewish residents living in the Land of Israel).

Gordon’s idea was simple: the basis for organizing would be local associations that would purchase land in Palestine; each colony would appoint a certain number of peasant families (up to 150 households, as per the sultan’s permission) to work it, with the settlers making their living from agriculture. Gordon believed that a large number of colonies would eventually lead to the recognition of the Land of Israel as the homeland and state of the Jewish people.

On March 13, 1881, the Russian Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by a terrorist group. Among its members was a Jewish woman. Pogroms against Russian Jews ensued and continued for about three years. The pogroms, known among Jews as the “Storms in the South”, motivated groups in Russia to organize for immigration to Palestine. The Jews of Romania, realizing that the events in Russia would soon spread, ramped up membership in Zionist associations as well.


The Focşani Congress, the Beginning of Settlement, “Hibat Zion” and the Zionist Organization

I would claim that the Zionist movement was founded on December 30, 1881 (according to the Julian calendar), in Focşani, in Romania, at the actual “first Zionist congress”, which was attended by 51 delegates from 32 settlement organizations who met in the town’s Jewish school. The conference lasted two days, during which five members were elected to serve as the “Central Committee for the Settlement of the Land of Israel and Syria”. Samuel Pineles, a Zionist activist from Romania, was elected committee chair and secretary. Pineles, a wise and skillful organizer, ran the conference with a deft hand, knowing when to act decisively and when to be flexible, depending on the circumstance.

Portrait of Samuel Pineles, the Abraham Schwadron Collection, the National Library of Israel

The movement founded at the Focşani Congress, which would later be renamed Hovevei Zion (“Lovers of Zion”) or Hibat Zion (“Love of Zion”), set as its goal: “the solution to the problem of Romanian Jewry by immediate immigration to the Land of Israel, agricultural settlement and independent work on the part of the settlers.” In his Hebrew book The Torch Was Lit in Romania (Ha-Avuka Hudleka Be-Rumanyah), Moshe Schaerf writes that the Focşani Congress “was a new phenomenon in Jewish history.”

And thus the central committee for the first Jewish settlement movement in the Land of Israel came into being. It financed and managed the establishment of two colonies: Zikhron Ya’akov, which it managed fully, and Rosh Pinna to which it only provided assistance.

The committee sent about 120 families (over 600 people) to Ottoman Palestine on four voyages, which brought more than half of the first wave of settlers. The first Zionist pioneer group to arrive was a group from the city of Moineşti, which bought the land at Gei Oni on which they established Rosh Pinna.

Samuel Pineles led the Zionist movement in Romania until his death in 1928, with the exception of about five years during which he turned his attention to personal business matters.

Unfortunately, in the spring of 1883, the Central Committee for the Settlement of the Land of Israel and Syria went bankrupt. In late September of that year, the committee transferred the assets of the colony it had founded, Zikhron Ya’akov, to the patronage of Baron Edmund James de Rothschild.

Seal of the city of Focşani, Romania, site of the congress. Photo: Nadav Mann, Bitmuna. From the Kfar Tavor Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

During Sukkot 1882, Baron Rothschild met Rabbi Mohilever, who was accompanied by Rabbi Zadoc Kahn, the Chief Rabbi of French Jewry. The Baron agreed to Rabbi Mohilever’s request to found a settlement in Palestine and later offered an economic safety net for most of the first wave settlements, which had fallen into bankruptcy. The Baron’s philanthropy prevented the settlements’ collapse which, had it indeed happened, could have led to a great crisis of faith regarding the Zionist goal.

In November 1884, the Katowice Conference convened and officially established the “Hibat Zion” movement and with it, the movement’s leadership passed from Romanian to Russian Jewry.

We must admit that as a movement, Hibat Zion was a failure in terms of its ability to motivate pioneers and settle them in the Land of Israel. The movement operated in “bursts” that were primarily reactions to pogroms and institutionalized antisemitism. When Theodor Herzl appeared on the scene, the movement’s leadership in Eastern Europe was happy to pass the baton of the entire Zionist movement to him.

In August 1897, the “First Zionist Congress” convened in Basel—but as stated at the outset, I reject this official title. If one begins the counting at the Focşani Congress, the Basel congress in 1897 was the seventh gathering.

Herzl was an exceptionally talented journalist, and the revered leader of the Zionist movement who even financed its activity from his own pocket. He founded the World Zionist Organization at the Basel Congress and built an impressive administrative apparatus compared to those that preceded it. Nevertheless, the Zionist Organization’s practical achievements in its early years were minor at best.  In the first few years, membership in the movement dwindled, political Zionism could boast few accomplishments, and the organization’s settlement activity in the Land of Israel was negligible until about 1910.

Participants in the “Hovevei Zion” conference in Odessa, 1890, Bitmuna, the Lancet Collection. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The Zionist Organization’s settlement activity followed Herzl’s “no charter, no aliyah,” concept, and therefore in those first years settlement amounted to nothing. The first settlement established under the auspices of the Zionist Organization was Degania in 1909. Only in the late 1930s did the Zionist Organization become the main settlement movement and even then it only established kibbutzim and moshavim (communal and cooperative agricultural settlements).


The Collapse and Rescue of Settlement in the Land of Israel

Baron Rothschild’s agreement to sponsor settlement in the Land of Israel and save it from collapse should not be forgotten. The founding fathers of Jewish settlement in Ottoman Palestine however paid the price by losing their independence and becoming day laborers for the Baron. I believe that the time has come for us to acknowledge our indebtedness to those early pioneers and give them their due.

David Ben-Gurion recognized Baron Edmund de Rothschild as the only one entitled to a place of honor in the Zionist story for doing more for the settlement of the Land of Israel than any other person or body. By this, Ben-Gurion minimized the actions and hard work of the organizations and pioneers active from 1882 to 1897, that preceded Herzl’s World Zionist Organization.

All this started a hundred and twenty-five years ago when the Congress in Basel was called the “First Zionist Congress” even though its full name was “The First World Zionist Congress.” The Congress in Basel was in fact the seventh of its kind. To this day, most Jews are unfamiliar with the first congresses of the Central Comittee for the Settlement of the Land of Israel and Syria. I have published my findings here in the hope that historians will one day correct this historical oversight in the common Zionist narrative.



Further Reading (in Hebrew):

ישראל קלויזנר, “חיבת ציון ברומניה”, הספרייה הציונית על-ידי הנהלת ההסתדרות הציונית, ירושלים תשי”ח

משה שרף, “האבוקה הודלקה ברומניה”, הספרייה הציונית, ירושלים תשמ”ו

גצל קרסל, אבי הישוב : הברון אדמונד דה רוטשילד ופעלו: דברי פתיחה – דוד בן גוריון, מגן, חיפה 1954

Invited by Zionists: Egyptian Teachers in Mandatory Palestine

In 1926, more than 100 Egyptian teachers and officials visited Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem and elsewhere. What did they think of Jewish education and how did the local Arab population receive them?

A touring car on the Ramallah-Jerusalem Road, mid-1920s. This photo is part of the Israel Archive Network project and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

“Long live King Fuad! Long live Palestine!”

The cries rang out in the spring air of Tel Aviv, as the Chief Rabbi and Zionist dignitaries looked on. The gathering concluded with both the Egyptian national anthem and “Hatikva”.

It marked the beginning of a whirlwind 1926 Zionistic tour of British Mandate Palestine, on which more than 100 Egyptian educators and officials visited Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem and elsewhere.

The group had been personally invited by Chaim Weizmann, the legendary scientist and leader of the Zionist movement who would become the State of Israel’s first president. Just a few weeks earlier, Weizmann had joined a delegation of Jewish teachers visiting Egypt under the auspices of the Zionist Executive, with the support of the Egyptian Consul in Palestine and the Egyptian government, which had interceded to issue entrance visas for the group of about 80. The visitors from the Land of Israel had been warmly welcomed by local Jewish organizations, as well as Egyptian officials, provided with accommodations, celebratory banquets, kosher food, discounted rail fares and programming during their stay – including visits to schools, museums and even Al Azhar University, the prestigious center for Islamic learning founded in the 10th century.

Jewish tourists in Egypt, 1920s. This photo is part of the Israel Archive Network project and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

The following month, it was the Zionists’ turn to host their Egyptian counterparts.

The first stop after the welcoming ceremony? The Herzliya Gymnasium, the very first Hebrew high school. The delegation visited educational institutions across the land, from kindergartens to the Bezalel art academy, agricultural schools and, of course, the newly established Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Interest and motivation to meet and host the group was high:

“Jewish councils and other bodies came forward eagerly with offers to entertain the visitors from Egypt, whose programme was crowded with concerts and receptions, the most significant of which was a banquet in their honor given by the Department of Education of the Palestine Zionist Executive before their return home.”

In a speech he gave shortly after the visit, Weizmann recalled the message he had conveyed to the Egyptians:

“Our way, as I told the Egyptian teachers, is the way of peace. It is narrow, difficult and unpaved. There is no false heroism on it and no false pathos, but it rests, so I believe, on the historic tradition of the Jewish people.

When the nations of the world understand that this is our goal, they will approve it and facilitate our work. Should there, however, be a doubt in the public opinion of the world as to whether we go along this way, they will not believe in our work.”

Though the Egyptian group toured Jaffa, Jericho and other majority Arab areas, the reception they received from their Palestinian Arab brethren seems to have been a bit colder than that received from their official hosts.

In fact, to a large extent, they were boycotted and treated as traitors for having responded favorably to the Zionist invitation.

In Acre, for example, Toufic Mejdaliani, the editor of a local humorous publication, criticized Zionism and “reproached the teachers with having neglected the Arabs.” The Egyptian visitors told Mejdaliani “that they were not interested in politics and that the purpose of their visit was a scientific one.”

In a message to the editor of the Jerusalem-based Arab newspaper Mir’at Al-Sharq, the teachers stated:

“We fail to understand the reason for which you boycott us and attack us in your papers. The matter is simple. The Jewish teachers visited us and we welcomed them as required by hospitality. They invited us to visit them and we accepted the invitation, believing that science has neither religion, nor fatherland. If the Jews are your enemies, they are not ours… In boycotting us, you have done more harm to yourselves than to us… Why did you not profit by the valuable opportunity of acquainting us with your cause? Do you think all the world regards the Zionist question as you do?”

According to the teachers, though, the reception by fellow Arabs was not just counterintuitive, but also hurtful:

“You have wounded us deeply by your campaign against us. We shall never forget that in certain towns they would not give us water. We never expected an Arab country to act in this way.”

It was important for the teachers to stress that they had covered their own travel expenses (as opposed to accepting gifts from the Zionists), and would have loved to meet with more Palestinian Arabs if only they would have been welcomed and invited. Nonetheless, despite the hurt and disrespect they experienced during their visit, the Egyptians’ message ultimately took a dramatic and conciliatory change of course:

“… we forgive you because we regard your attitude as dictated by patriotism. The Jews wished to separate us from our brothers… They wished us to emphasize the ability of Zionism, but they were disappointed.”

The delegation’s official report and some accounts of the visit published back in Egypt, however, seem to tell a bit of a different story.

One teacher was particularly taken by the Jewish kindergartens, admiring the teachers’ “good will and patience”, the tidiness of the classrooms, and “specially charmed by the music lessons.”

He concluded that the older schoolchildren were “symbols of love for study,” was struck by the fact that the very recently revived Hebrew language already had terms for modern concepts, “while teachers in Egyptian high schools… complain of the limited terminology of the Arabic vocabulary…”

The official Egyptian Ministry of Education report of the visit, which came out a few months later, noted numerous features of the Hebrew educational system worthy of praise, including the academic and mental rigor, the tidiness of the classrooms, the attention paid to diction, and the importance placed on physical fitness.

Students in Petach Tikva’s Pica School, 1926. This photo is part of the Israel Archive Network project and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Oded Yarkoni Historical Archives of Petach Tikva, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

The revival of Hebrew was also seen as something to admire, as was the fact that the educational system was extremely economical – providing high quality education at a most reasonable cost.

Summing up the trip in an interview to the Zionist newspaper The Palestine Bulletin, the Egyptian undersecretary for education, who headed the delegation, declared:

“We came here as colleagues of the Hebrew educational workers. We appreciate education at so high a standard that we think that nations should spend every penny on education… While it is early yet to speak of exchange of professors and students, we should do everything to strengthen cultural bounds between both countries in all other possible ways.”

Before the educators even returned home, Chaim Weizmann and other Zionist leaders were already visiting Emir Abdullah at his palace in Amman. There, over lunch, they discussed the Jewish teachers’ visit to Egypt, and the Egyptian teachers’ visit to Mandatory Palestine, emphasizing the importance of such connections, and even suggesting that the newly established Hebrew University of Jerusalem and its collection of Arabic texts (now part of the National Library of Israel), should be utilized by scholars from across the Arab world.


This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

When Shimon Peres Fantasized of an Israeli Colony in South America

In the late 1950s, relations between Israel and France were blossoming, thanks in large part to the young Director General of the Ministry of Defense, Shimon Peres. Among various collaborations, Peres raised an unusual idea: Why not settle tens of thousands of Israelis in French Guiana, a remote South American colony? Who was in favor? Who wasn't? And what did David Ben-Gurion think of it?


Shimon Peres against the background of a map of Guiana. Photo: Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, National Library

Is it hot outside? Are temperatures soaring? In Israel, this description fits roughly nine months of the year. But what if the government were to give you give a plane ticket and an offer to live in a more tropical climate? Would you take it?  And what if the specific location being suggested was the territory in South America known as French Guiana? Because, for a moment in Israeli history, the possibility that a group of Israelis might move there permanently was seriously considered.

But before we delve more deeply into that story, here is some general background information for your convenience: French Guiana is situated in the northeastern part of the South American continent, on the Atlantic coast, most of which is covered by dense rainforest. Next to it, in the general region known as “The Guianas”, are the Co-operative Republic of Guyana (formerly British Guiana), the Republic of Suriname (formerly Dutch Guiana), as well as certain provinces in southern Venezuela and northern Brazil. Unlike Guyana and Suriname, both of which are independent countries, French Guiana is, as its name suggests, a French overseas territory, which still belongs to France and whose residents vote in French elections. And yes, it is part of the European Union and the local currency is the Euro. For years, French Guiana served as a French penal colony. Off its coast is Devil’s Island, where Alfred Dreyfus was famously imprisoned until his exoneration on charges of espionage. Today, French Guiana serves as the main launch site of the European Space Agency, from where it launches its satellites and other space-related missions.

Map of the area of French Guiana, ca. 1780. The Eran Laor Cartographic Collection, the National Library of Israel

And what do Israel and this distant land across the Atlantic Ocean have to do with each other? The connection was the brainchild of Shimon Peres, who was the energetic young Director General of the Ministry of Defense back in 1959. Peres had been the driver, architect and maintainer of the strategic alliance between Israel and France since 1955. Guiana, as noted, was and is still part of France. “Among the French delegations that came to Israel there was a representative from Guiana,” writes Michael Bar-Zohar, in his acclaimed biography of Peres. “The representative from Guiana was deeply impressed by Israel and said to Peres, ‘If we had ties with Israel instead of France, our situation would be different’,” writes Bar-Zohar.

A young Shimon Peres in his office. Photo: Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

When Shimon Peres heard about this remote and underpopulated land of vast jungles replete with as yet undiscovered treasures, he decided that this was the perfect place to demonstrate the wonders of the Jewish mind and what it could accomplish. He turned to his friend Jacques Soustelle who was the French Minister of the Colonies. “Do you need Guiana?” he asked. Peres proposed that Israel lease the colony for a period of 30 to 40 years and relocate tens of thousands of Jews there who would help develop the region. Alternatively, Peres sought to establish a joint company with France for the development of Guiana, which the Israeli envoys would work on behalf of. Peres wasn’t just dreaming; he wanted Israel to have a stake in Europe’s Common Market, established two years earlier, of which Guiana was a part.

When Soustelle didn’t reject the idea outright, Peres charged ahead. He persuaded Hillel Dan, a director of the Israeli construction and civil engineering company Solel Boneh and the Histadrut labor union, and they organized a seven-person mission to tour French Guiana. The delegation returned with a detailed report and even a short film that was made during their visit.

A newspaper report on one of the visits of the French Minister of the Colonies Jacques Soustelle to Israel, Al Hamishmar, August 6, 1957

At the same time, Peres approached Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, who didn’t stop the delegation in its tracks but wasn’t too enthusiastic about the idea either. “They’re dreaming of resettling a Jewish majority (say 40,000 Jews) and establishing a Hebrew state as an Israeli colony,” he wrote in his journal. “Won’t this be at Israel’s expense?” he wondered. “And who’s to say that the Jews in Guiana will want to remain connected to Israel? I advised Shimon not to go too far in his talks with Soustelle, but instead to speak about joint enterprises . . . when the members of the delegation return I will finally find out how desolate the land is and the truth about whether there is room for settlement.”

A young Shimon Peres, photo: Boris Carmi, from the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

This was in fact not the first time the idea of settling Jews in the region had come up. In the 17th century, Sephardi Jews arrived from the Netherlands and established a community called Jodensavanne (“Jewish Savanna”) in the area that is today Suriname. In 1939, (after the Arab Revolt ended and the year the final White Paper was issued) the idea was raised to settle Jews in British Guiana instead of Palestine. After World War II there were also calls to settle the Jews of Europe in French Guiana or the surrounding region, because of the difficulties involved in settling all of the refugees in Palestine.

Document concerning a plan to settle Jews in British Guiana in the late 1930s, the National Library of Israel collections

Returning to our story, unfortunately, we were unable to locate either the report or the film of the delegation from their tour in French Guiana. If any readers have any information about these, we would love to hear from you. However, according to the evidence, the film was shown to members of the Israeli government and the reactions were harsh. Pinchas Sapir told Peres, “This is a disaster, colonialism, imperialism, it will cause a Holocaust in Africa and resistance in South America. Golda won’t let this happen, over her dead body. The ‘Old Man’ [Ben-Gurion] assured her that as long as she is Foreign Minister, this matter will not come to pass.”

Ben-Gurion was also convinced that one state was enough for the Jews. Although Peres accepted the Prime Minister’s decision, it seems that he carried the feeling of a missed opportunity with him for some time. “The French were ready to give us Guiana,” Michael Bar Zohar quotes Peres as saying in his book, adding that “in his diary, on various occasions, he recorded the benefits Israel could have reaped if only it had Guiana in its hands.”

What do you think? Would it have been a good idea if Israel had established a colony in South America? What would have happened if the idea had come to pass? Could this at least be a springboard for an alternative-history/fantasy book series? Let us know!