Madagascar: An Almost Jewish Homeland

By | Nov 02, 2011
2009 May-June, History, International

Stewart Spread

By Adam Rovner

They say that in Madagascar trees eat people, giant birds carry off elephants and crocodiles wear jewelry. I start to think these fables might be true as the Air Madagascar jet—affectionately known as Air Mad—makes its steep descent in the pitch black early morning. The capital city, Antananarivo, lies phantom-like below.

Since Marco Polo, travelers’ tales have fueled fantasies about prehistoric beasts and wild men inhabiting this “most noble and beautiful island” off the coast of Africa. European traders thought they had discovered in Madagascar an earthly paradise “better than…America,” where the natives were “the happiest people in the world.”

Of course, before I departed New York, my wife Jessica pointed out that Madagascar contains no Jewish shrines to explore. Even South African-based Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, the spiritual leader of the African Jewish Congress, knows of no Jewish community in Madagascar. So I travel not to a place, but back in time, to a lost vision of an alternative future. Like a chameleon, as the Malagasy saying goes, I have one eye on the past and one eye on the future.

Early Zionists debated a host of proposals to settle Jews in remote regions of the world, and one of them was Madagascar. I’m an American-born, naturalized Israeli citizen and sometimes I think it might have been better had Herzl dreamed of a Jewish state in a place less embattled than the Middle East. That’s why I am so curious about this would-be promised land that, at least until a recent military coup, was a relatively pacific republic in the Indian Ocean.

But as the plane lands at five in the morning, there’s nothing promising about it. It’s the dry season, and yet it’s raining. And it’s cold in July in Antananarivo, where the elevation exceeds 4,000 feet.

The city is built on a series of hills split by a ridge of rocky cliffs from which Christian martyrs were thrown to their deaths by the bloodthirsty Queen Ranavalona I in the mid-19th century. Dust kicked up by our Renault panel van clouds my view of the narrow roads that bend across the hills alongside rutted footpaths and past shambling figures carrying colorful bundles on their heads.

Each time we cross a bridge, my driver, Solofo, honks twice to ward off evil spirits. The smoke from 10,000 wood fires fills the air. Wagons pulled by zebu, muscular oxen with humped backs and long horns, veer to the side to let us pass. Mud-daubed homes with thatched roofs sag at odd, exhausted angles. Built from the same red soil on which they sit, the homes look elemental and comfortless. The tombs that dot the hills, however, are made of solid gray stone and concrete. “Why aren’t the houses built with stone, too?” I ask. Homes are for the living so they don’t need to last, Solofo explains, but death is forever.

As we make our way through the capital, the city wakes up. Faces appear in the small roadside snack bars, hotely, that serve traditional meals of rice and meat. Steeples spread across the cityscape and church bells ring out on Sunday, but there’s no sign of Jews. No synagogue has ever graced this skyline. Even Chabad doesn’t have an outpost here. And diplomatic ties with Israel have been sporadic since Madagascar achieved independence in 1960. So I almost can’t believe my eyes when we see a truck flash by with a mazal tov sticker on its windshield.

7 thoughts on “Madagascar: An Almost Jewish Homeland

  1. Rainer Kunze says:

    An interesting feature. I was wrong when I thought the idea of Madagascar as a homeland for Jews was created by the allies after the war but (this also I thought) was dismissed by Churchill who wanted to give the Arabs a pain in the ass by settling Israel on Palestine ground . Now I learned that Nazi Germany invented this idea.

    1. errata says:

      >>Early Zionists debated a host of proposals to settle Jews in remote regions of the world, and one of them was Madagascar.<<

      What do you mean, "Now I learned that Nazi Germany invented this idea."?

      What in the article speaks of Nazi Germany inventing the idea?

      The article clearly states that it was an early idea by Zionists, obviously relative to the Jews who had been settling into areas of South Africa already, etc.

      Just because the Nazi's had a proposal to resettle Jews into this area of the world also doesn't mean it was a Nazi Germany idea any more than they, the Nazi's, invented the word Aryan and the swastika!

      Many many peculiar liaisons were formed before, during and after the "Nazi" regime became evident with their similar separation of Jew and Gentile, and eugenics, which is today found in mainly one nation.


      The "Jewish solution", wasn't just a Nazi ideal, it's an Ashkenazi//Zionist ideal that has never died, to which most of the Western world supports fully and rejoices as the bed becomes too small, the head has not place to rest, and the feet dangle!

      1. tez says:

        Well said

  2. Yakov Zamir says:

    Thank you Adam for learning and then sharing this story. I am marrying a woman from Madagascar and it means a lot to know that her homeland might have become the homeland for our people.

  3. Yitzhak says:

    Interesting. This affirmation of jews origins is quite popular in Madagascar though. However there is not enough proof to confirm it. As from Madagascar I would say may be jews were there long days ago. But left for an X reason.

  4. Fascinating stuff!

    We’re really looking forward to your complete book!

    While many of the earlier plans are no longer possible, hopefully their stories can provide some insight and guidance for our new initiative to create a New Jewish State, now, in a more peaceful part of the world.

  5. Feigue Cieplinski says:

    NO, the idea originated with the Polish government and then after a three person commission surveyed the issue , that was shelved. It is my understanding that once the Nazis took this over it was not the same benign project for sure.

    NO the idea was not of the Zionists, the had in mind Uganda, that was shelved too. The only place that is home is Israel the Zionist said then and so it happened. It was the Territorialist in desperation that they would have accepted any where no matter what including the Patagonia.

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