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August 23: Zionism’s Uganda Plan

August 22, 2015

Herzl with Zangwill and Mrs. PabriThe Sixth Zionist Congress convened in Basel, Switzerland on this date in 1903. It was at this Congress that Theodor Herzl would propose British-controlled East Africa (primarily Kenya, though described in most accounts as Uganda) as a temporary alternative to Palestine for the endangered Jews of Tsarist Russia. A vote of 295-178 would empower an expedition to explore the territory in the region, and within a week the British government would officially allocate a “Jewish territory” in the so-called British East Africa Protectorate. Although Herzl made clear that his proposal was only interim and that Palestine was his ultimate goal, the Uganda Plan nearly split the Zionist Congress, with East European Jews in vociferous opposition. While the proposal was ultimately voted down by the Seventh Zionist Congress in 1905, severe pogroms in Russia kept it alive in the minds of key Zionist leaders until the Balfour Declaration of 1917 made clear Great Britain’s willingness to have a Jewish national entity in Palestine. Israel Zangwill (shown in the photo with Herzl), a leader of the “territorialists,” as those who supported Jewish settlement wherever it would be permitted were known, also sent exploratory expeditions to Canada, Australia, Iraq (Mesoptomia), Libya (Cyrenaica), and Angola.

“In the annals of the Zionist movement there was no argument more bitter and more formative than that over whether the Jewish state should be built within the Land of Israel, or whether it would be better off wherever possible. The Swiss scholar Alfred Kaiser and the engineer Nahum Wilbush, who came from the Land of Israel, ruled out settling Jews in Guas Ngishu [northwestern Kenya]; the British explorer Hill Gibbons thought the region might work and proposed setting up an experimental settlement.” —Tom Segev, Ha’aretz