The Uganda Plan is Proposed, 1903
On This Day in Jewish History: August 26, 1903
On this day, 1903, the Uganda Scheme was proposed by Theodor Herzl at the Sixth World Zionist Congress. This settlement plan presented a refuge opportunity in East Africa for Eastern European Jewry to escape rising levels of antisemitism. However, the proposal was met with strong opposition from Jewish attendees who stood against settlement in a land extrinsic to Jewish indigeneity. Despite the immediate and threatening levels of antisemitism Eastern European Jews faced, they refused to relinquish their dream of a return to Zion. Subsequently, in the Twelfth Zionist Congress, the Balfour Declaration was ratified by the Allied powers, which thus granted the return of a Jewish homeland “in relations of harmony and mutual respect with the Arab people.”
The objective of the Zionist movement was never to establish a settlement in land that is foreign to Jews, such as Uganda; Since the expulsion of (most) of the Jews from the province of Judea in 74 AD, the Jewish people have longed for a return to “Zion” (synonymous to Jerusalem or Israel). While the Zionist movement was a 2,000-year old phenomenon, the plan of a return to Eretz Israel came into fruition with 19th century intellectuals’ introduction of Modern Zionism. Among these intellectuals was Herzl, whose “Der Judenstaat” set forth the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. That congress, which is now known as the Basel Program, promised Jews a long-awaited homecoming to Zion, then known as Ottoman- Palestine.
But after several failed negotiations made by Herzl (and others) of resettlement in the Mideast, and as antisemitism levels dangerously continued to increase in Europe, desperation for a Jewish homeland grew. It was then when Joseph Chamberlain, British Colonial Secretary, had proposed a plan to colonize a segment of East Africa for the Jews. While settler colonialism was ordinary and routine procedure at the time for the British, the Jews refused to partake in such activity. This strong objection can be perhaps explained by the intergenerational trauma suffered by Jews at the hands of White colonialism. From the Romans, to the Crusaders and the Ottomans, the Jewish nation had been plagued by the forced imposition of foreign powers in Zion, which often led to defacement of sacred sites, mass slaughter and exile.
Resultantly, upon hearing Chamberlain’s proposal for Jewish participation in settler colonialism, Russian Jewish delegates stormed out of the convention and did not return for several hours. They viewed it as a betrayal of the Basel Program, and ultimately of the Zionist movement as a whole. In response to the opposition, Herzl has been quoted to have replied: “These people have a rope around their necks, but they still refuse” (in reference to the immediate danger of the deadly pogroms in Eastern Europe). Herzl’s unpopular, nonchalant response to the proposal of colonization can be explained by his urgency to find a solution to the Jewish Question, as well as by certain elements of his Jewish identity that had been co-opted by White-European notions. For example, before witnessing the Dreyfus Affair, Herzl believed that, through European self-cultivation, Jews such as himself could escape their "shameful Jewish characteristics" caused by long centuries of impoverishment and oppression, and become civilized Central Europeans. Fortunately, many European Jews, such as the 537 delegates who refused the Uganda scheme, dislodged themselves of Germanophilia and European race science and ensured to maintain Jewish indigenous ties to the land of Israel by re-establishing a Jewish nation and achieving decolonization.