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Uganda: the most intriguing question in modern Jewish history

When it was offered, it was not attractive enough. The Jewish people rejected Herzl's initiative, which had the support of Great Britain, to settle in East Africa. On the XNUMXth anniversary of one of the tumultuous confrontations known to the Zionist movement, one cannot help but wonder - what would have happened if

Daniel Gavron

A group of settlers in East Africa including Avraham Block. Above: Herzl

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“I know it is unforgivable heresy to feel even a hint of doubt when all our efforts must be focused on the struggle for Palestine; But I just couldn't help but wonder." The year was 1938. The speaker, Vladimir Jabotinsky, flew over the "flowering and well-cultivated territory of Uganda". He admitted to his biographer, Yosef Shechtman, that he himself doubts "if it was really just and wise to reject 35 years earlier the chance of redemption offered by a generous British government".

Jabotinsky then agonized over "the tragic suffering of the masses of Eastern European Jewry, who desperately needed a quick evacuation and had nowhere to go, after the doors of Palestine were almost hermetically slammed shut by a short-sighted and merciless British government." Beyond his differing opinions on the British governments in 1903 and 1938, it can be noted that Jabotinsky did not always doubt whether it was right to focus on Palestine. As Shechtman records, between the Sixth Congress - which was in August - 1903 and the Seventh Congress in 1905, the man who was to become the leader of the revisionist Zionists "took an active role in the struggle for Palestine as the only goal of Zionism".
Looking back from 2003, we know much more than even Jabotinsky could have imagined, who would certainly have the right to claim that he rang the alarm bells on the eve of the Holocaust. Today we know about the unbelievable scale of the disaster that befell European Jewry. Today we can wonder if this East African region offered to Theodor Herzl by the British Secretary of State for Colonies, Joseph Chamberlain, could have provided refuge for the millions of Jews trapped in Nazi-controlled Europe. This is probably the most intriguing "what if" question in modern Jewish history.

The "Uganda proposal" emerged following three major developments: the establishment of the Ugandan railway followed by the need for white settlers in East Africa; The outbreak of anti-Jewish violence in Russia and Eastern Europe, known as the pogroms; and the founding of the Zionist organization by the charismatic Dr. Herzl, who then began vigorous diplomatic activity in Constantinople and the main European capitals. The proposed area, the Osin Gishu Plateau near Nairobi, is only partly in Uganda. Most of it was in what was then called the "East African territory", now Kenya.

Joseph Chamberlain (Neville's father) was one of the initiators and promoters of the railway construction program in Uganda, which was financed by the British government; This stretched for days from Mombasa on the coast to Kisumu on the shores of Lake Victoria. It was a visionary project, designed to spur the development of the area, but the huge (for its time) investment of five million NIS only yielded little profit. At that time Chamberlain apparently felt genuine sympathy for the plight of the Jews and was most impressed by the eloquent Herzl. At the same time he feared the possibility of a mass immigration of Jews to Britain.

In his book "African Zion" (published in 1968, Publication Society Jewish), which is based on in-depth and comprehensive research, Robert Weisbord points out that Herzl considered proposals to settle Jews in Sinai, Cyprus, present-day Iraq (Mesopotamia), Argentina and Mozambique, among others. He even points out that East Africa also served as a target for other groups, mainly members of the European "Free Land" group, whose attempt to settle there, only ten years before the issue came up on the Zionist agenda, was a failure (by a strange coincidence, the group was headed by a Viennese writer named Theodore Hertzka). . Furthermore, Europeans and Indians had already settled in the area, apart from the native Africans.

However, the British proposal to the Zionist Congress was official. In the proposal signed by Sir Clement Hill, the supervisor of the Department of African Protectorates at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it was stated that the Minister of Foreign Affairs is ready to "regard positively proposals for the establishment of a Jewish colony". The letter details "the main elements of the plan", including "a large land grant, the appointment of a Jewish official as the head of the local administration and the permission for the colony to have a free hand in everything related to municipal legislation and the management of religious affairs and exclusive internal affairs". All of the above was of course on the condition that His Majesty's government would not have to spend any money, and it also reserved the right to take control of the area again in case the project failed.

It was a limited offer, certainly, strictly conditional, but nevertheless an authentic official offer from a great power. And it was enough to provoke the most stormy emotional conflict within the Zionist movement in its early days. The anger of the Russian and Eastern European Zionists, the "Zionists of Zion" led by Menachem Osishkin, exceeded their willingness to consider any territory other than Palestine. Herzl and his colleagues claimed that the program in East Africa would be a temporary refuge, only a stop on the way to Palestine. Herzl died in 1904, aged 44, and the British proposal was officially rejected by the Seventh Congress in 1905. It created a real rift in the Zionist movement.

Opposition to the plan was not exclusively the property of the Jews. For every pro-Jewish Brit, there was at least one who was hostile. Ugly anti-Semitic statements were made in the parliament when the proposal was discussed. And the few British colonists who were already in East Africa were still far from their counterparts in Westminster. Lord Dalmere, the unofficial leader of the settlers, sent a telegram to "The Times" protesting the "introduction of foreign Jews" into the area. An editorial in the settlers' "African Standard" newspaper described the type of Jews who were likely to emigrate from Russia or Romania: "The gentleman with the long greased frock coat who is 'willing to sell you a coat' or anything else, who visits a bar and pulls from the many pockets of his worn clothes every Anything possible, from a comb or a bar of soap - which none of them uses - to a watch or a gun."

There were calls for "the settlement of our land with a healthy and clean British race". A rival newspaper did support the idea of ​​Jewish settlement, but at the same time warned against "the threat posed by the Asian mob legions to Africa"; By this he meant the Indian community that was growing in the area. Many articles in the press in Britain and Africa alike claimed that the Jews were not suitable for agriculture.
In the face of such strong internal and external opposition, what motivated the Zionist leader to even entertain the idea of ​​a "temporary shelter"? Herzl's vigorous efforts to obtain an autonomous Jewish territory came to nothing. At the same time, his negotiations with the Ottoman Sultan on a charter for Palestine reached an impasse. And at the same time, Chisinau became the scene of the most violent and deadly pogrom up to that time; 49 Jews were killed and about 500 were injured. Indeed, Herzl received Clement Hill's letter regarding East Africa when he visited Russia in an attempt to negotiate with the anti-Jewish interior minister Pela.

After Herzl's death, an investigative committee of three members was sent to East Africa. N. Vilbush, the only Jew on the committee, an engineer, reported that there were no useful raw materials and dismissed the possibility of an agricultural settlement "with undisguised contempt". In fact, over time some 3,000 Europeans and South African Boers were to settle on 600 farms in the proposed territory. Vilbush was living in Israel in 1965 when Weisbord conducted the research for writing his book. He corresponded with the author and was also interviewed by him.

There is no shortage of evidence that the various British officials who were in contact with the Zionists felt tremendous relief when the Seventh Congress decided to thank the British government for its proposal but "not to continue dealing with the proposal". Even Israel Zangwill and his "Jewish Territorial Organization", which embraced the idea of ​​settling in East Africa, froze it after the Balfour Declaration made settlement in Palestine a practical possibility.

The pioneer days of Avraham Block

Despite the strong opposition, even violent, from inside and outside - could the East African proposal have been accepted? And could she have saved a significant number of Jews from the Holocaust?

Richard Meinertzhagen, a young officer who volunteered for the British army and who later became an enthusiastic supporter of Zionism, wrote in his buying diary (1906-1902): "Tate tells me that there is a plan to offer the Jews a home on Ramat Oasin Gishu. I hope they refuse to accept her, as this plan is only inviting trouble. First, the Jews' home is in Palestine, not in Africa. The plan will only add to the political confusion, and God knows there will be quite a bit of trouble here in 50 years when the natives acquire an education."

Meinertzhagen showed incredible prophetic ability and told the colonial commissioner on the territory, Sir Charles Eliot: "The country belongs to the Africans, and their interests must come before those of foreigners; When political activists and propagandists take the place of the traditional healers, there will be a general uprising."

These ideas were considered unthinkable in the first decade of the 1952th century, but they have an echo today, a century later, in the mouths of Israelis living in Kenya when the Mao Mao Rebellion broke out in 1964. The rebellion lasted for several years and led to the independence of Kenya in XNUMX. Although there was no autonomous Jewish territory in the country, several hundred Jewish families did find refuge in the British colony of Kenya in the XNUMXs. Their story is the subject of a recently released German film, "Nowhere in Africa".

Walter Suskind (whose character the filmmakers use) came to Kenya in 1933. His wife Ursula fled there from Germany in 1937. Today they live in a nursing home in Herzliya. None of them think that the "Uganda Plan" could have worked. The anti-colonialist movement did not differentiate, in their opinion, between the various categories of "whites", and in the end most of the Indians were also forced to leave. In the XNUMXs, the Mau Mau did not differentiate between "good" and "bad" whites. A decade later, the Kenyan government did not distinguish between "good" and "bad" Indians.

The Suskinds are critical of the other settlers, both Indians and whites, many of whom exploited the Africans without any qualms. Suskind, who worked as a farm manager, remembered how his fellow farmers used to reduce the (horribly meager) wages of their African laborers on the pretext that their work was sloppy. More than once they treated them with contempt. There were Indians who convinced the Africans to deposit their money with them like in a "bank" and simply stole it. He himself always behaved fairly, he emphasized, and got along well with his African farm workers. Later, when he ran a factory in Nairobi, he always paid his workers above the minimum wage, and when a general strike broke out, his factory continued to operate.

He sees no connection between his escape from Germany as a Jewish refugee and his relationship with his employees. There were Christians who treated Africans with fairness and humanity, and there were Jews who took advantage of them, he emphasized.

"It wouldn't have worked," he said of the Uganda plan. "In the end, the Africans would throw us out." Ursula Suskind agreed. "It was a big mistake on the part of the Jews. This was not our country, this is not our history. How can you have a Jewish state without Jerusalem?"

Ora Leshem, like the Suskinds, lived in Kenya from the 1903s to the XNUMXs, but her Kenyan roots are much deeper. Her grandfather, Abraham Block, was one of the first Jews to live in East Africa. He came there in the spring of XNUMX, just before the Chisinau Pogrom, and met with the members of the Zionist Investigation Committee two years later.

Block certainly disproved the common idea that Jews could not succeed as farmers. He was born in Lithuania and came to Mombasa from South Africa, after hearing an impassioned speech by Joseph Chamberlain who tried to sell settlement in the area to white South African settlers as a promising enterprise. As stated in Errol Trzebinski's book, "The Kenya Pioneers," Block brought with him two Basotho ponies, a sack of potatoes, a sack of linseed, peas and legumes, a gold watch, a change of clothes and 25 pounds sterling in cash. Block, who acquired rights to land from what he earned from his work sewing mattresses with needles made from bicycle spokes, bought a farm. Despite two years of drought, he managed to make a profit growing potatoes and oats, but the isolation and hard work took their toll. A burst of anti-Semitism among the other settlers against the "threatening Jewish invasion to come" was the last straw that almost prompted him to leave. Ironically, it was Lord Dalmere, chairman of the Committee Against Zionist Immigration, who convinced him to stay.

Over time Blok was one of the richest people in the colony and owned many farms and businesses as well as a chain of luxury hotels. He and his sons were known as good employers and took care of their African employees, but his granddaughter, Ora Leshem, claims that this did not change anything. In the end the Africans wanted the land. "I don't know if a Jewish colony in East Africa would have saved Jews," she said. "Even if the Zionist movement had succeeded in bringing thousands of Jews from Eastern Europe to East Africa, I doubt that many of them would have stayed. But if they had stayed, they would have had to pack their bags as almost all the Jews in Kenya did when the Africans gained independence."

Nahum Goldman, one of the visionary leaders of the Zionist movement, used to say that Arab nationalism was born only shortly after Zionism. If it had arisen even earlier, he said, the State of Israel would never have been established. Had she appeared on the scene a few decades later, Israel would have been established without the wars and conflicts that accompanied its founding. However, although Arab nationalism arose after Zionism, it was still strong enough to close the gates of Palestine in 1939.

African nationalism came to Kenya more than a decade later. If a Jewish state had been established there, the clashes with an emerging African nation would have occurred in the XNUMXs. Theoretically, therefore, an East African Jewish state could have provided shelter to Hitler's victims in the XNUMXs and XNUMXs, regardless of what happened afterwards.

The collective reluctance of the Jews of the time to imagine the dangers that faced them and to establish a national entity gave its signals; Even the Land of Israel and Jerusalem were a magnet strong enough to attract Jews in sufficient numbers to facilitate the establishment of a Jewish state. The United States has always been a more attractive destination than Palestine for the masses of Jews. Could East Africa, devoid of any religious-historical-cultural Jewish connection, be a strong enough catalyst?

And maybe this article dealt with the wrong "what if". Perhaps we should instead ask ourselves, "What would have happened if Herzl had lived for decades more?" Was this electrifying leader ringing the alarm bells more effectively than his successors? Could he have convinced Jews to leave Russia, Poland and Romania in sufficient numbers to build a Jewish state in Palestine, East Africa or somewhere else?

Although it is true that the faces of thousands of Jews were turned blank when they tried to escape the Nazis, it is also true that Jews everywhere - including those caught in the heart of the Nazi cauldron - refused to admit the danger until it was too late. If more Jews had left Europe in the mid-XNUMXs, many of them would have found refuge. It is unlikely that a Jewish state in Israel or a Jewish colony in Uganda would have brought about a significant change. On the other hand, a great far-sighted leader could have changed history.

The history buff

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