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Possible Jewish state in 'Uganda' ('Azania' is an ancient term that could cover a wide area including Northern Kenya, Somalia and South Africa)


The same issue of Der yidisher arbeter (No 6, 1899) which contained Mill's call for a non-territorial Jewish national autonomy also contained an article, 'Socialism or Zionism', attacking Zionism, by Chaim Zhitlovsky, a friend of the Bund leaders in Berne, but himself more closely associated with the populist Social Revolutionaries (the Agraro-Socialist League formed in 1899, which became the Party of Socialist Revolutionaries in 1902, successors of the pre-Marxist Peoples Will and Black Repartition movements). Zhitlovsky criticised Zionism as a middle class response to anti-semitism whose solution to the problem was impractical: 'with a tiny state of two million Jewish inhabitants one cannot help the entire Jewish people which in Russia, Poland and Galicia alone is over six million people.' Nor was there any prospect of establishing a Socialist state in Palestine. One could not 'carry through in Turkey what is still impossible in Europe' (Frankel. pp.272-3). But what was worse was that the influence of Zionism was imposing on Jews a passivity that rendered them useless for any sort of militant political activity: 'It has to be shown that the entire Jewish people is God-fearing, innocent and far - so help us - from today's revolutionary ideas; that the Jewish worker will not bring the terrible plague of socialism and class war to Turkey - Heaven forbid!'

This was indeed a problem for the Zionists of the time. There was no prospect of a mass transfer of Jews to Palestine without the consent of the Ottoman rulers. Herzl was dismissive of what had been achieved by the colonists of the 'first aliyah' (discussed in an earlier article in this series (4)):

'Should the powers show themselves willing to grant us sovereignty over a neutral land, then the Society will enter into negotiations for the possession of this land. Here two regions come to mind: Palestine and Argentina. (5) Significant experiments in colonisation have been made in both countries, though on the mistaken principle of gradual infiltration of Jews. Infiltration is bound to end badly.' (6)

(4)   Church and State, No.141, July-September, 2020 and

(5) The establishment of Jewish agricultural colonies in Argentina was a particular project of the banker, Baron Maurice de Hirsch, founder of the railway linking Constantinople and Europe and in 1891 of the Jewish Colonisation Association.

(6)  Herzl: The Jewish State, quoted in Gur Alroey: '"Zionism without Zion"? Territorialist ideology and the Zionist movement', Jewish Social Studies, Vol 18, No 1 (Fall 2011), p.5

Given the impossibility of a direct exodus to Palestine, Herzl in 1902 thought in terms of territory close to Palestine, territory held by Britain, traditionally sympathetic to the Zionist idea. In October 1902 he obtained an interview with Joseph Chamberlain, at the time Secretary of State for the Colonies under Salisbury as Prime Minister. According to his diary (7)

'I expounded to the immovable mask of Joe Chamberlain the entire Jewish Question . . . my relations with Turkey, etc.

'“I am in negotiation with the Sultan,” I said. “But you know how it is with Turkish negotiations. If you want to buy a carpet, you must first drink half-a-dozen cups of coffee and smoke a hundred cigarettes; then you proceed to family-gossip; and, from time to time, you throw in a few words about the carpet. Now, I may have time to negotiate, but my People have not. They are starving in the Pale. I must bring them immediate succour ...” and so on.

'At the bit concerning the carpet, the Mask [his characterisation of Chamberlain's style - PB] laughed.

'I then came to the territory which I want to get from England: Cyprus, El Arish [a town in the North of Sinai - PB] and the Sinai Peninsula.

'Chamberlain began by saying that he was only at liberty to discuss Cyprus. The rest concerned not him but the Foreign Office. But, as to Cyprus, this was how the matter stood. That island was inhabited by Greeks and Moslems, whom he could not evict for the sake of new-comers. On the contrary, he was in duty bound to take their side. If the Greeks —encouraged perhaps by Greece and Russia—were to resist Jewish immigration, the deadlock would be complete. He personally had nothing against the Jews. And, had there been a drop of Jewish blood in his veins, he would have been proud of it. But, voilà, he had no such drop. He was, however, willing to help if he could; he liked the Zionist idea, etc. Ah, if I could show him a spot in the British Dominions where there was no white population yet, then we could talk! . . .

'he had no idea where El Arish was, and so we went over to a big table, where he hunted out an atlas, among other big books, and looked in it for Egypt. As he did so, he said, “In Egypt, you know, we should have the same difficulties with the natives (as in Cyprus).”

'“No,” said I, “we won’t go to Egypt. We have been there before.”

'At this he laughed again, stooping low . . . over the book. It was only now that he understood fully my wish to have a place of assembly for the Jewish people in the neighbourhood of Palestine.

'In El Arish and Sinai, the country is untenanted. England can give it to us. In return she would gain an increase of her power and the gratitude of ten million Jews. All this . . . impressed him.

''I summed up:

'“Would you agree to our founding a Jewish colony on the Sinai Peninsula?”

'“Yes!” he replied, “if Lord Cromer [Consul-General of Egypt - PB] is in favour.” . . .'

(7)  This and the following quotes from Julian Amery: The Life of Joseph Chamberlain, Vol 4, 1901-1903, London, Macmillan and Co Ltd, pp.259-267.

As Chamberlain's biographer, Julian Amery, comments: 'a Jewish colony in Sinai might prove a useful instrument for extending British influence into Palestine proper, when the time came for the inevitable dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire.' 

The following day, Herzl returned:

'Yesterday, I believe, was a great day in Jewish history. . . . At 2.15 I entered Chamberlain’s office-salon. For that is what the Colonial Secretary’s office reminds you of: the drawing-room of some shipping magnate.

'Chamberlain rose, very busy. He could only spare me a few minutes. But he said it in the most engaging manner. . . .

'He said to me:

'“I have arranged a meeting between you and Lord Lansdowne [Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs - PB]. He expects you at half-past four in the afternoon. I have already prepared the way for you. Put the whole matter before him, but do not mention Cyprus. The Cyprus part of it is my concern. Be careful to tell him that your projected settlement is not a jumping-off place with the point directed at the Sultan’s dominions.”

'He positively beamed as he said that. Altogether, the Mask was amazingly alive to-day and full of sustained mirth.

'I said:

'“Of course there can be no question of that, as I want to go to Palestine only with the Sultan’s consent.”

'He looked at me with amusement, as if to say: “The deuce you do.” But aloud he said:

'“Reassure Lord Lansdowne that you are not intending a Jameson raid from El Arish upon Palestine.”

“I shall reassure him, Mr. Chamberlain!” said I, laughing in my turn . . .'

Soon after this encounter, Chamberlain went to East Africa and on December 21, 1902 noted in his diary: 'If Dr. Herzl were at all inclined to transfer his efforts to East Africa, there would be no difficulty in finding suitable land for Jewish settlers. But I assume that this country is too far removed from Palestine to have any attractions for him.'

He had found a suitable 'spot in the British Dominions where there was no white population ...'

Herzl met Chamberlain again in April, by which time a Zionist commission had visited Sinai and reported on it negatively. On that occasion Chamberlain floated the idea of 'Uganda' (actually a fertile region in Kenya). At the time Herzl was unenthusiastic:

'“In the course of my journey I saw the very country for you,” said the great Chamberlain. “That’s Uganda. The coast-region is hot, but the farther you get into the interior the more excellent the climate becomes, for Europeans too. You can plant sugar there, and cotton. So I thought to myself: that would be just the country for Dr. Herzl. But then, of course, he only wants to go to Palestine, or somewhere near.”

'“I can’t help myself,” I replied. “Our starting-point must be in or near Palestine. Later on we could also colonise Uganda; for we have vast numbers of human beings who are prepared to emigrate. We must, however, build upon a national foundation; that is why the political attraction of El Arish is indispensable to us. ... As a land-speculation the thing would be bad. No one would give a penny for country of that sort. No-one but ourselves, because of that underlying political purpose of ours. But, be it well understood, we are not going to place ourselves under Egyptian, but only under British rule.”

'He: “I expect that that is how matters will remain. We shall not leave Egypt. Originally that was our intention. I know what I’m saying, for I was in the Government at the time. In the ’Eighties, we thought we should relinquish Egypt. But we have had to sink so much money in the country, and we have so many interests there, at the present time, that we can no longer get away. Thus, you with your Settlement will be sharing the fortunes of a British Dependency. Should things change in Egypt at some future time, and your Colony be strong enough, I am sure it will not fail to assert itself.”'

It seems to have been the Kishinev pogrom that decided Herzl in favour of the 'Ugandan' offer, as the need for a Jewish homeland seemed to have become pressing. That, and the fact that British water engineers had surveyed Sinai and concluded that the scheme (which would have involved a diversion of the waters of the Nile) was impractical. It should be said, though, that there were limits to British generosity. According to Amery's account: 'In its original form, the draft agreement submitted by Herzl presumed the establishment of a virtually independent Jewish State; and Lansdowne minuted on it, “I fear it is throughout an imperium in imperio". After some modification, however, by the Foreign Office, a more suitable text was agreed. This provided for the settlement in East Africa of a Jewish community to be organised under a Jewish “Super-Mayor” with a wide measure of “municipal” autonomy.'