let's talk about the "Uganda Plan"

BACKGROUND

The Jewish People are an ethnoreligious group and a tribe originating in the region of Israel-Palestine, with a history dating back over 4000 years. At various points throughout history, a multitude of occupying empires — including, but not limited to, the Babylonians, the Romans, the Byzantines, and the Arab Islamic Caliphates — exiled (i.e. ethnically cleansed) the Jewish population from their homeland, ultimately scattering the Jewish diaspora across the globe. The Jewish dream to return to our homeland, however, lived on for thousands of years: in our culture, in our prayers, and in hundreds of physical attempts to return to our ancestral land. It’s worth noting that while most of the Jewish population was exiled, a continuous Jewish presence has existed in the Land of Israel for over 4000 years.

In the 19th century, a secular Hungarian Jew named Theodor Herzl (1860-1904) became obsessed with the idea of ending antisemitism. He pondered various solutions — including, for a brief moment, the possibility of a mass Jewish conversion to Christianity (an idea that was quickly tossed aside) — and eventually he landed on the idea of a Jewish sovereign state in the ancestral Jewish homeland. It’s worth noting, however, that Zionism (i.e. the belief in Jewish self-determination in the Jewish ancestral homeland; Jewish nationalism), even in its political form, had already existed for decades. Culturally and spiritually, however, Zionism went back 2000 years. In fact, the term “Zionism” comes from the “Return to Zion,” an event that took place in 538 BCE.

In 1897, in response to deadly antisemitism, Jews from all over the globe (including Europe, North Africa, Southwest Asia, and Central Asia) met in Switzerland for the First Zionist Congress. By the end of the Congress, the delegates agreed: “Zionism seeks to establish a home for the Jewish People in Eretz Israel [the Land of Israel/then Ottoman Palestine] secured under public law."

In other words: the ancestral Jewish homeland was always inextricable from political Zionism.

 

THE OTTOMANS & PALESTINE

Between 1517-1917, Palestine was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. In order to make his vision for Jewish sovereignty come true, Herzl personally tried to appeal to the sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Abdulhamid II. Abdulhamid II, however, was concerned with his weakening empire and was determined to suppress virtually all forms of non-Turkish nationalism (e.g. Armenian nationalism, pan-Arabism, Arab nationalism, and later, Kurdish nationalism). Unfortunately for Jews, Jewish nationalism — that is, Zionism — also fell under that category.

Though the Ottomans incrementally abolished the oppressive dhimmi system between 1839 and 1856 (see my post WHAT WAS BEING A JEWISH DHIMMI LIKE?), the Jews living in Palestine — and the Jews wishing to immigrate to Palestine — were in no way in equal standing with the Arab citizens of the Ottoman Empire.

In June of 1882, the Ottomans prohibited the entry of Jews to any part of Ottoman territory. Just a month later, in July of 1882, the Ottomans allowed Jews to resettle anywhere in the Ottoman Empire except for Palestine. In 1893, the Ottomans prohibited ALL Jews from purchasing land in Palestine, even those whose families had lived there for millennia. Notably, no such restrictions existed for Arabs. In fact, starting in the 1830s, an influx of Arab immigrants arrived to Palestine, particularly from Egypt (today, “El Masry,” meaning “the Egyptian,” is the third most common Palestinian last name).

Meanwhile, the Jews living in Eastern Europe were experiencing another genocidal wave of pogroms. Herzl realized the negotiations with Sultan Abdulhamid II were going nowhere, so he thought of other solutions to save European Jewry.

 

THE UGANDA PLAN

Since the negotiations with the Ottomans were a complete failure, Herzl appealed to other powers to save European Jewry. Among them was the British Empire, who did not occupy Palestine until after World War I. In response to Herzl’s pleas for help, British colonial secretary Joseph Chamberlain suggested that Jews settle in a piece of land in East Africa (in modern day Kenya, despite the fact that this plan is known as the “Uganda Plan”), which the British did control at the time.

At the Sixth Zionist Congress in 1903, Herzl suggested that the Jews should accept the British offer — but only temporarily. The ultimate goal was always for Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel. In fact, 5 days after the congress, he stated emphatically: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its cunning.”

Even so, the proposal was met with great controversy among the Jewish delegates, so much so that one of Herzl’s supporters, Max Nordau, was almost murdered at a Hanukkah party.

 

ZIONISM IN CRISIS

As stated in the previous slide, the Uganda Plan was met with an uproar. Some delegates claimed that if Jews resettled in Uganda, they wouldn’t want to then have to move again, this time to the Land of Israel; in other words, they worried that the goal for Jewish sovereignty in the Jewish ancestral homeland would be forgotten. Others believed that settling anywhere outside of the ancient Jewish homeland would be a betrayal of Jewish values. Even secular Zionists stated: “Giving up Zion for even an hour seemed like a severe and elemental ideological heresy.”

Notably, the Jewish delegates from Russia even walked out of the congress in protest.

However, due to the desperate situation for European Jewry, when the delegates at the congress held a vote regarding the Uganda Plan, the results were as follows: 295 in favor, 178 against, and 98 abstentions. Not for one moment, however, did any of these delegates see Uganda as a replacement for Palestine. Some religious Zionists considered the Uganda Plan an instant of the Jewish value of “pikuach nefesh” — that is, that preserving life overrides virtually all other Jewish laws. Others stated that there was no way Jews could ever forget the desire to return to the Land of Israel; after all, the desire to return to our ancestral homeland is imprinted all throughout our culture.

Nevertheless, the Uganda Plan created a deep schism in the Zionist movement. Herzl realized his mistake, and in 1904, he stated: “For us, a solution can only be found in Palestine.” By the next Zionist congress — which came in 1905, after Herzl’s death — the Uganda Plan was rejected.

 

OTHER PROPOSALS

Despite the fact that the Uganda Plan was rejected in 1905, some fringe Zionists, led by Israel Zangwill, thought of other possible temporary homes to save European Jewry. Some ideas included relocation to Canada and Australia. Neither country, however, was receptive to the idea of an influx of Jewish refugees, so those plans were also quickly rejected.

Expeditions were also sent to Iraq, Libya, and Angola to assess those possibilities, but nothing came of them.

One plan, however, did sort of come to fruition. This plan was known as the Galveston Scheme, which proposed a temporary refuge for Jews in the American southwest. With the help of a wealthy American Jew named Jacob Schiff, around 9,300 Jewish refugees were able to settle in Texas between 1907-1914.

Similarly, in 1889, 824 Jews fleeing antisemitic violence in Russia purchased 600,000 hectares of land in Argentina, establishing a Jewish territory, which they named “Moiseville” (meaning Moses’ village). Some 2,200 Jewish refugees settled in the village. Nowadays, most of that land is no longer owned by Jews.

None of these plans were meant to be a permanent solution, but rather, a refuge stopover on the way to the Jewish ancestral homeland. There was no interest in colonising or collectively permanently settling in any territory to which the Jews had no historical claim.

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