1903 Zionist Congress Proposed Kenya as a Jewish Settlement in East Africa

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On August 26, 1903, the founding father of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, proposed British East Africa as a safe haven for Jews, speaking at the Sixth Zionist Congress. Herzl brought this proposal before the Sixth Zionist Congress in Basel, where delegates did vote, 295-178, to send an “investigatory commission” to check out the territory.

The “Uganda scheme,” as it is usually called, even though the territory proposed was parts of Nyanza, Western, and Rift Valley regions in Kenya caused bitter controversy within the Zionist movement.

In 1896, Herzl published his book “Der Judenstaat” – “The Jewish State”, and convened the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland the next year. That congress adopted what became known as the Basel Program, which aimed to establish “a legally assured home in Palestine” for the Jewish people.

The “Uganda scheme” is often misunderstood as a plan to abandon the dream of a Jewish state in the Mideast and opt for the next best thing instead. But for Herzl, Uganda was a stopgap measure to protect Jews from anti-Semitism and violence until the Zionist dream of a homeland in Palestine could be fulfilled.

Theodore Herzl

The idea that the beleaguered Jews should settle in Kenya came from the British after a meeting that took place in 1902 between Herzl and Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain. Herzl tried in vain to convince him to allow Jewish settlement in Cyprus or Sinai as a temporary solution for endangered Jews

When the two met again the following year, in April 1903, Chamberlain made his own proposal: Jewish settlement in Eastern Africa. The British clarified their intentions regarding Uganda (actually, a 15,500 square km territory in today’s Kenya) in a letter written in August 1903. 

Sir Clement Hill, Superintendent of African Protectorates, wrote that Chamberlain “will be prepared to entertain favorably proposals for the establishment of a Jewish colony or settlement” in East Africa.

In 1905, the investigatory commission reported on its findings from East Africa at the Seventh Zionist Congress. The scheme was voted down.

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