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Not Uganda or Israel, but Uganda and Israel
Last uploaded : Wednesday 9th Jun 2004 at 23:06
Contributed by : Frank Shapiro


Not Uganda or Israel, but Uganda and Israel
An exercise in counterfactual history
Frank Shapiro

Just over one hundred years ago, on August 26, 1903, Theodor (Binyamin Ze?ev) Herzl, the founder and President of the World Zionist Organization, proposed a daring and revolutionary idea to the 6th Zionist Congress, then convening in Basel, Switzerland. In a dramatic volte-face he broke with the Basel Program (aiming to create a Jewish homeland solely in Palestine) and called for the establishment of an autonomous Jewish homeland, not in Palestine, but instead in Uganda, then a British colony, situated in central-eastern Africa.

It was Joseph Chamberlain, the dynamic British colonial minister, who first suggested this novel idea to Herzl, who decided to support it on pragmatic grounds. The ?Uganda Plan?, as it became known, was proposed as an instant solution to the persecutions and pogroms currently being perpetrated against the Jews in Czarist Russia. Obviously, Britain?s apparently magnanimous offer was not evoked entirely out of compassion but also veiled significant Machiavellian goals. Channeling Russian Jewish immigration to Uganda ?would spare Britain an additional influx of ghetto types. The British also hoped that opening up East Africa to Russian Jews would enable the area thus far unsuccessfully colonized to be developed by a combination of Jewish capital and labor?.

But Britain?s motive for this unusual offer was of little consequence to Herzl. Treading warily, he publicly qualified his reasons for agreeing to the proposal, by maintaining that Uganda would serve as a temporary solution at this time of crisis, and that it was only reasonable to alleviate the plight of Jews in any way possible.

Nevertheless, conflicting views still resonate regarding Herzl?s true motives in accepting the Uganda option. Some say it was just a tactical decision hewn from realpolitik and that Herzl was never really intending to implement the plan, but rather set his sights on winning Britain?s influence to further the Zionist-Palestine goal. He had already reached the conclusion that support from Britain, then the world's greatest power, was a prerequisite for a Jewish homeland. Incorporating the Jewish National Fund as a British company and convening the Fourth Zionist Congress in London buttressed this view. Establishing an autonomous Jewish settlement in East Africa under British authority could also provide the first stage of political recognition of the Jewish nation. The more fervent of Herzl?s cohorts accepted Herzl?s declaration that this was nothing more than a pragmatic move aimed at obtaining a temporary asylum (Nachtasyl), while continuing simultaneously to push for Eretz Israel (Palestine) as the ultimate Jewish homeland.
It seems that Herzl?s humanitarian weltanschauung also included ideas for promoting civilizing projects in Africa itself. In his diary he describes ?the African question? and records ??those terrible episodes of the slave trade, of human beings who, merely because they were black, were stolen like cattle, taken prisoner, captured and sold?.once I have witnessed the redemption of the Jews, my people, I wish also to assist in the redemption of the Africans.?
Herzl?s convictions had little effect on the outcome: the Uganda proposal shocked the Zionist Congress, evoking bitter and stormy conflict. His main opposition came from the Zionist delegates from Russia who were staunch advocates of the original Basel Program, namely, the Eretz Israel-only plan. Disgusted at the Uganda proposal, they stormed out of the Congress claiming that the Ugandists were intent on burying Zionism and its soul - the Basel Program. Herzl was at first astounded at their opposition, claiming ?these people have a rope around their neck, and still they refuse!? He then attempted to win them back by quoting at the Congress' final session the words of the famous Psalm 137, "If I forget thee O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning." The Ugandists, on their part, were definitely not hypocrites for they did claim that ?we do not attach any real value to our supposed ?historical rights? to that country (Eretz Israel)?. As a result, the conflict split the Zionist Movement into two camps, between those advocating a Jewish homeland solely in Palestine and those supporting the Uganda Plan.

And yet, despite the acrimonious eruption, the Zionist Movement did not immediately reject the Uganda Plan. At the same Zionist Congress 295 deputies voted against 178 in favor of sending out an investigatory commission to examine the proposed territory. Nevertheless, it finally came to nothing. Two years later, at the Seventh Zionist Congress in 1905, and following Herzl?s untimely death, the idea petered out and the Uganda Plan was officially rejected by the World Zionist Organization.

Vetoing the Uganda option was not unexpected. The Zionists claimed that had they not at the time been single-minded, ideologically obsessed with the heart of their cause, and focused all their energy on promoting a Jewish homeland in Palestine, Israel would not have come into being. Chaim Weizmann describes how in a conversation with the British Foreign Minister, James Balfour, when the latter questioned the wisdom of rejecting the Uganda scheme, Weizmann retorted: ?Mr. Balfour, supposing I were to offer you Paris instead of London, would you take it? ?He (Balfour) sat up, looked at me, and answered: But Dr. Weizmann we have London.? ?That is, true? I said, but we had Jerusalem when London was a marsh.?

Weizmann?s response undoubtedly underscored a profoundly genuine approach to the value of establishing a Jewish homeland solely in Palestine. However, another aspect underpins the abandoning of the Uganda Option and the pursuit of the one-dimensional goal of Eretz Israel. In short-term strategy planning, Uganda served no purpose - it was superfluous, because up to the first two decades of the twentieth century finding political asylum was not particularly problematic. Jews suffering persecution could - and did - escape en masse, by immigrating to another country. An escape valve existed. Hence, during the period between the 1881 (when pogroms broke out in southern Russia) and the outbreak of the First World War, the largest Jewish emigration wave in history took place: almost two million Jews fled Eastern Europe, particularly Russia, and resettled in the West - mainly in the United States.

But as the world?s humanitarian open-door policy began to change so Uganda?s crucial relevance re-emerged. A mere two decades after the Uganda debate, country after country successively enacted anti-alien legislation limiting refugee immigration partially or entirely. ?Enlightened? western countries emulated the role models of Britain and America who had respectively enacted the 1905 Aliens Act and the 1924 Immigration Act. As the world firmly locked its gates to large numbers of potential immigrants, a frightening new situation came into being: the vast majority of persecuted Jews had nowhere to flee to. Even African countries, such as South Africa and Southern Rhodesia erected a legal anti-alien wall. And the heart of the matter was that no Jewish Uganda existed to welcome oppressed souls!

The Kishinev pogroms in 1903, which had provided the impetus to the Uganda option, represented a mere stepping-stone in an awakening, far more dreadful, ongoing anti-Jewish scenario. Newly installed Fascist governments, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, fanned the flames of anti-Semitism as an integral part of their declared ideology and internal policy. And German National Socialism garbed the theories of racial anti-Semitism in concrete procedures. German pre-war barbarism reached its peak in the Kristallnacht pogrom, perpetrated on the night of the 9-10 November, 1938. Throughout Germany and Austria, the Night of the Broken Glass proved to be the key event and trigger which jolted European Jewry into an acute awareness of the dreadful reality now facing them. As the situation deteriorated among the Jewish communities of Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia, the persecuted were willing to take visas to any possible asylum.

But the world was reluctant in proffering salvation to oppressed Jewry. Instead of opening their gates wide and welcoming Jewish refugees, the free western democracies hardened their hearts. Although there was no lack of high-level rhetoric and sympathy for the persecuted Jewish population, especially at the international conference on refugees at Evian in France in July 1938, not one government rescinded or amended its immigration policy. And as a result of the White Paper on Palestine even this logical and legitimate land became virtually closed to all but a few. Thus it transpired that the Jews had nowhere to flee to! And a Jewish Uganda - a Zion in Africa - was but a lost haven!

The West?s abandonment of the Jews, by refusing to accept them, was a crucial factor in the molding of Hitler?s plans for the liquidation of the Jews. The free world did not take up the gauntlet and challenge Hitler?s design to expel the Jews. Consequently, Hitler raised the stakes and mass murder was substituted for forced expulsion.

Jewish collective influence proved to be considerably ineffective when it came to goading the West into more dynamic and positive action. This helplessness was the direct result of Jewish collective powerlessness, whereby the Jewish people bereft of sufficient political power had depended on the non-Jewish world to save them.

Could Jewish destiny have trodden another more beneficial path?

The fact was that no Jewish national political entity existed to absorb Jewish refugees escaping Nazi Europe. Consequently, one harsh and awesome conclusion must be drawn: by having rejected the Uganda option the World Zionist Movement had turned down not only the establishment of a unique Jewish homeland - a Zion in Africa - but more to the point, the Zionists forfeited the opportunity to save one third of the Jewish people from annihilation. If Zion in Africa had existed, the dimensions and direction of the Holocaust might well have been completely different.

In 1903, the Jewish Diaspora?s largest organized communal body, the World Zionist Organization, had been presented with, for the first time in two thousand years, actual collective political power. Had this unique offer been accepted, a Jewish Uganda would have provided the Jewish people with real and immense political power at the very moment in history it needed it most. Zion in Africa could have been the motor propelling Jewish destiny toward a more promising and auspicious future.

Had the World Zionist Movement accepted the Uganda Option, most, if not all, potential victims of the Holocaust could have been extricated from Nazi-occupied Europe and relocated to Zion in Africa in a perfectly legitimate manner. After all, it was not Hitler who prevented mass emigration from the Reich prior to the outbreak of the war. Then, any Jew possessing travel documents or a visa could leave Nazi Europe. Hitler?s policy practiced from the moment of his installation in power in January 1933 up to and including the first year of the war comprised disenfranchisement of his Jewish citizens from all their civil and human rights and at the same time expelling them from the Reich. This forced emigration was coined the policy of judenrein. In accordance with this procedure the Nazis were willing to let the Jews leave, or rather expel them, although under harsh economic terms, and Nazi emigration offices, under the close scrutiny of Adolf Eichmann, were specially established to expedite this goal. Even when Hitler declared war on Poland, judenrein continued to be accepted Nazi policy.

For those escaping the hell of Nazism, Uganda would have served as the haven in Africa - a new homeland. But the Uganda issue was played down by the Zionists who repeatedly claimed that, had they not focused all their energy on the single issue of establishing a Jewish state, Israel would not have come into being. And that was, after all, the raison d??tre of the World Zionist Movement, established by Herzl in 1897. However, the point is that by first establishing a Jewish political entity in Africa, the Zionists did not necessarily have to relinquish their dream of a homeland in Palestine. By rescheduling and postponing the establishment of the State of Israel by approximately a decade, significantly more long-term beneficial results would have accrued to the future State of Israel than had been achieved in 1947.

On November 29, 1947, as the United Nations stood to vote on the proposal to establish a Jewish state, the Zionist claims for a renewal of Jewish sovereignty in Palestine were based on natural, national and historical rights. Yet the world?s ear, particularly Russia and her satellite countries, proved less attentive to rights and instead were more attuned to Israel?s case as one based on morality and sympathy in the wake of Jewry?s annihilation in the Holocaust. Consequently, the majority vote in the United Nations establishing the State of Israel emanated more out of compassion and recognition of Jewish powerlessness. Yet paradoxically the world?s considerate attitude did not bode well for the new Jewish nation.

The birth of a radically truncated State of Israel was the direct result of this collective powerlessness. In accordance with this take-it or leave-it act of kindness, a minuscule sliver of land bordering the Eastern Mediterranean emerged as the dismal handout proffered to the Zionist leadership. From Israel?s rightful and natural terrain of vast regions of Palestine as implied in the Balfour Declaration little remained. Large areas of the Galilee and Negev regions were brutally excised from the country?s landscape. The final insult cast upon the diminutive Jewish state by the compassionate United Nations was the exclusion of its historic capital - Jerusalem. This midget political entity was the backdrop to the darkest scenario about to be played out at Israel?s birth: lacking natural defendable borders, Israel stood poised to be wiped off the face of the earth by an invasion of five national Arab armies in tandem with an amassment of irregular Arab forces.

Although the Arabs lost that war as well as every ensuing one they inflicted on Israel, the cost to life on all sides was immense, and the accompanying mayhem continues incessantly. This ongoing, almost unbearable predicament is the direct result of the 1947 vote that created an almost unviable Israel. Accepting that vote and its consequences emanated from a position of desperation and powerlessness in which the Zionist Movement found itself in 1947. The circumstances and the immense pressure levered upon the Zionist Movement into accepting the worst bargain possible is the root cause of today?s on-going Israeli-Palestinian and wider regional conflict.

But if Jewish Uganda had existed the form and framework of negotiations and results of a United Nation vote would have been immensely different. A far more favorable outcome would have resulted, not only for Israel, but for the region and the entire world. Had Zion in Africa been included in the map of nations in 1903, Jewish sovereign political power would have provided an immense bargaining chip on the post-war?s political and diplomatic stage.

The post-war scene changed radically. The 1950s ushered in the era of African independence from the colonial powers; the dismemberment of the British and French empires in Africa was underway. Throughout the entire African continent active indigenous nationalist movements began reaping the fruits of independence.

Had Herzl and the World Zionist Movement firmly grasped Chamberlain?s offer in 1903, Uganda?s independence (possibly Kenya?s, due to the region?s specific location), some fifty years later, would have to be negotiated with Jewish Ugandan politicians and diplomats. To be sure, Jewish sovereignty in Uganda would have awarded the Jewish politicians with an entirely novel and upgraded status at the negotiating table: respected citizens of a nation among nations. From such a position of strength and legitimacy, the Zionists could have demanded a far superior quid pro quo on Palestine than actually evolved in 1947.

In exchange for granting Ugandan independence to the indigenous African population the Zionists could have demanded and received a much larger Israel, more in attune with its natural borders as designated under assorted earlier proposals. In such a position of respect, power and influence, the original concepts implied in the Balfour Declaration and drawn into the terms of the British Mandate would have been evaluated and analyzed accordingly. And in turn, the African Ugandans, in their political lobbying and efforts to obtain independence at the best possible terms would be leaning on every potential vote in the United Nations, especially drawing the Arab countries into their orbit.

The concept of Jewry would no longer be deemed solely as the People of the Book, namely, a religion, but rather as a sovereign nation. And the sovereignty, based on its political Uganda precedent would have become a fait accompli. Thus in face-to-face negotiations with its Arab neighbors, Jewish leadership would demand as a sine qua non of the entire package that Israel be accepted as a nation among nations in the Middle East. In this manner, Jewish sovereignty would have arisen on a normative and healthy basis. An Israel with viable borders would have been created, its capital Jerusalem, and legitimately accepted into the region. This newly won status and respectability at the United Nations would have negated the anomalies created in 1947 and provided the Palestinians with the motivation to concur in accepting a Palestinian state. Thus Palestinian frustrations and resentment which led to the War of Independence, as well as the ensuing Palestinian refugee problem, would all have been avoided. And the jewel in the crown: the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict might not have evolved at all.

Finally, the many millions of Jews saved from annihilation in the Holocaust - one third of the Jewish people - would have provided the State of Israel, not only with a much more affluent and sounder human potential, but with a more solid demographic base too. Thus, if Jewish Uganda had existed, a more contented, securer and normal State of Israel would have evolved one decade later. And the current repercussions of the Western-Islamic global confrontation might well have been avoided.

In the final analysis, Herzl?s motives and insight in embracing the Uganda proposal were absolutely sound and should in no way be considered as his ?worst political blunder.? His experience and wisdom armed him with the objectivity to see the complete picture. He balanced his passion to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine in the long term with the recognition of the urgency in seeking an immediate solution to current Jewish exigencies. Expanding on his long term vision, Herzl claimed, ??at Basel I have founded the Jewish state. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. Perhaps in five years and certainly in fifty, everyone would recognize this?. However in the short-range immediacy, Herzl saw Uganda not as an alternative to Palestine but exclusively as a temporary asylum - a Nachtasyl - which ?is, and must remain, an emergency measure.? And it is in this context that he agonized over Uganda.

The most salient point in the Uganda issue for Herzl remained its political potency: ?if the Zionist movement possessed a territorial base anywhere, it could enter the game of international politics and its bargaining power would increase?? And in a discussion with the Grand Duke of Baden in 1903, he pointed out the essence of the Uganda vision: ?we would gladly renounce the good land in East Africa for the poor land in Palestine.? One year later Herzl died. His outstanding industry and devotion to political Zionism created the organizational structure and motivation leading to the establishment of the State of Israel. But sadly, an important component of his vision died with him.

Frank Shapiro is author of
Haven in Africa, Gefen Publishing House, Jerusalem/NY, 2002
and co-author of
Zion in Africa, Tauris Publications, London/NY, 1999

Author's website: http://geocities.com/shapiro002/
email: fshap@012.net.il


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