Herzl and the Non-Promised Land

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After over 70 years of existence, It’s impossible to imagine the Jewish State being located anywhere other than Israel. But in the early days of Zionism, there was a push to establish a homeland in a non-Promised Land in East Africa. This week, Noam Weissman gets to the heart of the Uganda Plan and discusses why the movement’s leaders felt they needed to come up with a solution — any solution — to combat the rampant antisemitism of the day.

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Episode Transcript

What do Grand Island, New York; the Benguela Plateau in Angola; Madagascar; Port Davey, Tasmania; and Suriname all have in common?

Each of them were at one point considered as potential locations for the creation of a Jewish state.

Imagine a world in which the Jewish state was actually…not in the ancestral Jewish homeland.

Well. for a hot minute, there was actually a serious option on the table — and it was called the Uganda Plan.
Close your eyes for a moment. Imagine that you were going to the Jewish State for a work trip, a vacation, or whatever. You board El Al flight LY001, and instead of flying to the land of Israel, your flight lands in the Savanna.

In today’s episode we will be telling the incredible story of how Theodor Herzl, credited as the father of political Zionism, brought the Uganda Plan to the table. Why did he bring this idea to the fore? Who agreed with him and why? And who fought hard against this?

As we jump into this story, I want us to think about why the Jewish people even considered settling a land they were not historically connected to? And, why ultimately, and pretty quickly, they tossed this idea out like yesterday’s newspaper.

Let’s jump right in.

Born in 1860 in Hungary, Herzl was a secular Jewish playwright and journalist. He spoke no Hebrew or Yiddish, and had no Jewish education. The one thing he knew about Jews was that everyone seemed to hate them. And this fact really, really bothered him.

In the 1890s, Herzl became obsessed with finding a way to overcome antisemitism and deal with the “Jewish question.” His first solution might surprise you. Living in Austria at the time, the future father of Zionism envisioned a mass conversion of Jews to Christianity. That’s right. The situation for Jews in Europe was so bad that he actually dreamed up the idea that under the auspices of the Pope, every Sunday, thousands of Jews would descend upon Vienna’s largest cathedral and baptize! Individual Jews wouldn’t feel the stigma of converting and collectively they would end the Jewish question!

Thankfully, this idea was not taken too seriously by others, but for this assimilated minor playwright who celebrated Christmas instead of Chanukah, he could not understand why the Jews wouldn’t just deal with their problem.

Herzl would spend much of his time ruminating about how to end antisemitism. It became his mission. Herzl, the dreamer, was convinced that the Jews needed a better option. That option would be Zionism, the idea that the Jewish people could re-form (not reform) their peoplehood and return to their historic land with self-determination. Herzl’s ideal vision: the “rejects” of the world would return, in millions, to a land from which they had been exiled 2000 years earlier, the ruling powers in the European and Arab world would be OK with that, and this would eradicate antisemitism around the world.

At the time, most people thought his ideas were crazy messianic fantasies. Delusions, even. Think about it: How could the Jewish people scattered across the globe possibly come together? There were no iPhones, no email marketing campaigns, no Facebook, no Instagram. You get it: It would not be easy. There was no central governing body of Jewish people across the world who would convene and figure out how to solve this. In the early summer of 1895, he wrote a 68 page memorandum which he titled “Speech to the Rothschilds.” All the details for his brand of Zionism were there…but he was not taken seriously.

If he had stuck around another 44 years, he would have lived to see the fulfilment of his Zionist idea — the establishment of a Jewish state.

Herzl decided to write the book on the Jewish State

(For real, it was called the Jewish State or the “The Jews’ state” depending on how you translate “Der Judenstaat”). But the movement that would later be called Zionism had already existed for decades. Since the 1860s, thousands of Jews had been immigrating and building communities in the Ottoman controlled region of Palestine and reviving the Hebrew language. Most were escaping catastrophic antisemitism. But many Jews moved in an effort to return to the land where they had maintained a historic and religious connection for thousands of years. There were Zionist leaders who pre-dated Herzl like Leon Pinsker and Avraham Mapu, and true, they don’t get enough credit for their roles in cultivating Zionism, but there was something different about Herzl (and no, it was not just his hipster beard).

So why am I telling you all of this?

Because Herzl was instrumental in the development of Zionism. He managed to turn informal and theoretical Zionism into a modern political nationalist movement. He wasn’t the first to express the idea that the Jews were a nation, but he was the first to bring it to life. Herzl argued that a nation without a homeland is an unwelcome stranger to other nations. And to Herzl, this was the cause of antisemitism: The Jews were the only people in history who persisted to exist after losing their homeland. And because of this they were wandering strangers. The ultimate Other. If they wanted to be accepted by everyone else, then they had to be like everyone else. Not in a cultural way, but they had to EXIST as everyone else — and have their own country.

Think about like this. We all gravitate to people who look like us, talk like us, dress like us, and think like us. so Herzl figured, for people to like us, we’ve got to be like them. In modern parlance, it’s kind of like, “if you can’t beat them, join them” For all my basketball lovers out there, just think of Kevin Durant…I went there.

The thinking went like this. By establishing a modern political Jewish state, Jews would be like everyone else, with their own state. And if they were like everyone else, well, there shouldn’t be antisemitism…

In 1897, Herzl did the impossible. He convened hundreds of Jews from across the world for the first Zionist Congress. And as opposed to some conferences, where you leave saying, “Well the networking was good, but I am not sure exactly what we did,” Herzl ensured there were serious takeaways:

One of the main takeaways was defining the aim of Zionism as the following” Zionism aims at establishing for the Jewish people a publicly and legally assured home in Palestine.”

So, if the goal from the beginning was “fostering the settlement of Palestine,” exactly where does Uganda fit in to all this?

The answer is Kishinev. Heard of this place before? Probably not.

How about the word “pogrom”?

A pogrom is basically a state-inspired outburst of violent antisemitism.

On Easter Sunday, April 19th 1903 in Kishinev (which is in modern day Moldova), hundreds of rioters began their day by vandalizing Jewish homes, businesses and property. The situation escalated in an unimaginable way. Supported and cheered on by local police, 49 Jews were murdered including men, women and children, including 2 babies — with hundreds of women and young girls being raped. The barbarism displayed by the Russian rioters was simply horrific beyond imagination, with torture and mutilation. A journalist who arrived in the town soon after the pogrom took note that the non-Jewish citizens displayed “neither regret nor remorse”.

Soon after the pogrom, the Jewish Historical Commission had asked Chaim Nachman Bialik to go to Kishinev to interview the survivors and tell their story. Bialik was considered one of, if not the best Hebrew writer of his generation.

What Bialik saw in Kishinev shocked him to his core. His literary response was the now iconic poem, “Al Hashechita” “In the City of Slaughter,” which not only directed his fury and anger at the murderous mob, but rather the poem attacked the Jews themselves. No, this was not “victim blaming” to use a modern term. It was outright shame. In the middle of the poem, Bialik described the basement of a house, where a gang of Cossacks raped the Jewish women over and over again. According to Bialik, while the outrageous assault was taking place, the Jewish men hid, unable to stop the attackers and too afraid to even try. Bialik, sardonically and powerfully, writes with heavy irony that these “sons of the Maccabees” are exactly what is wrong with European Jewry.”

For Herzl, Kishinev was further proof that the Jews desperately needed a home, wherever they could create it — because he was making little progress with the Ottomans on acquiring Palestine. Herzl, the dreamer, we’ll see was also a pragmatist.

At the Sixth Zionist Congress in 1903

Herzl invoked Kishinev, arguing that Kishinev was not an event or place but a condition of the Jewish people. Herzl said “Kishinev exists wherever Jews undergo bodily or spiritual torture, wherever their self respect is injured and their property despoiled because they are Jews. Let us save those who can still be saved!” Herzl then wrote to his colleague Max Nordau in Paris, who was a prominent figure in the Zionist movement, as well as a doctor and journalist. Herzl told Nordau that the Zionist movement should accept Great Britain’s offer of territory in East Africa. “That offer is the only one, we must in a word, play the politics of the hour”. Nordau supported his friend’s idea, at great risk — he knew it was a controversial idea. He learned just how controversial it really was when someone attempted to murder him at a Hanukah party, screaming “Death to Nordau, the East African.”

These politics were a proposal by the British Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, who Herzl had been negotiating with. In response to Herzl’s diplomatic pressure, Chamberlain suggested that instead of returning to Palestine – which by the way was not under British control at the time and not looking like a realistic option at that point — the Jewish people should accept a piece of land in East Africa, a territory already belonging to the British Empire. Remember, Herzl was the guy with two very big missions:

  1. Mission one — end antisemitism.
  2. Mission two — foster a mass return to the Land of Israel for the Jewish people

Herzl said to himself, “antisemitism is just so rampant….what can I do?” So, he presented what would eventually be called the Uganda plan to the Zionist Congress. P.S. If you want to sound smart at a party, you can always tell people that the territory was actually in modern day Kenya.

The ensuing debate over the Uganda Plan was vicious, divisive and existential to the Zionist movement itself. Those who supported the Uganda plan argued that “Uganda” wouldn’t be the final destination for the Jewish people, rather a stopover on their eventual return to ancestral Israel. Shockingly, even some Religious Zionist candidates led by Rabbi Isaac Jacob Reines, who if we take a look at most of the religious Zionist leaders now — most would imagine them not wanting to cede an inch of the land of Israel — voted in favor of the Uganda Plan, sharing Herzl’s sense of desperation for the safety of European Jewry. To use a rabbinic term, for Reines, the Uganda plan was “pikuach nefesh.” It was an attempt to save lives.

They also argued that unlike the secular Zionists, they had no fear of forgetting Jerusalem. Even if the Zionist movement declared a temporary refuge in East Africa, the Religious Zionists would continue to pray for the return to Zion and would never forget the ultimate goal of returning to the Land of Israel. There were religious Zionists however who were opposed to the plan such as Rabbi Meir Berlin. He said “We should be ready to accept harsh conditions and even war if that is what is needed to inherit the complete and Biblical Eretz Yisrael…. It is our belief that Eretz Yisrael in its totality belongs to us.”

Opposition to the Uganda plan was strong.

Many feared that Jews would not want to move to Uganda only to need to move again soon after. Others feared that Jews wouldn’t want to move to Uganda at all and that the Uganda Plan would derail the 2000-year-old hope of ever returning to Israel. As many Zionists emphasized, Zionism wasn’t just about establishing a national home for the Jewish people, it was about reestablishing the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people.

Ahad Ha’am, the founder of Cultural Zionism vigorously opposed the plan which he viewed as a natural consequence of the detachment of political Zionism from Jewish values. He believed that the future Jewish state in Palestine should be the cultural center that would influence and enrich Jews throughout the world.

Even many secular Zionists who didn’t feel a “religious” connection to the land, voted against the plan arguing that “giving up Zion for even an hour seemed like a severe and elemental ideological heresy.” Some of the Russian representatives, even those from the town of Kishinev who felt the desperation of a state more than anyone, were vehemently opposed to the idea of a Jewish state in East Africa, seeing it as a betrayal of the very idea behind Zionism.

Despite considerable opposition and a memorable demonstrative walk-out by the Russian Zionists, the votes were in.

Drum roll please…

For the Uganda plan — 295 in favor, 178 against and 98 abstentions. The vote concluded that a committee should be dispatched to examine the possibility of Jewish settlement in East Africa.

NEVERTHELESS, Herzl the dreamer would never forget his deep, visceral ties to the Land of Israel. In Herzl’s final speech to the Sixth Zionist Congress on erev Shabbat, August 28, 1903, he dramatically displayed his commitment to Palestine by raising his right hand and solemnly declaring in Hebrew, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its cunning”.

After the Sixth Zionist Congress, Herzl realized that he had unintentionally created a deep chasm within the Zionist movement that was now out of his control. He left the congress discouraged and in poor health. By 1904, he came to terms with the mistake he had made and at a meeting of the Zionist Executive (later dubbed the reconciliation conference), he stated “for us, a solution can only be found in Palestine.” It was clear that Herzl’s consideration of East Africa as a refuge for the Jews developed from an overwhelming desire to save the lives of Eastern European Jews.

The idea that Jews should establish a state and be settled somewhere outside of Palestine did not immediately fade away from Zionist consciousness though. The Jewish Territorialist Organization was formed when various groups supporting the Uganda Plan joined together. The worse the violence became against Eastern European Jews, the stronger their resolve became. Members of the Jewish Territorial Oranization saw no contradiction between their approach and Zionist ideology.

But it never came to fruition. By 1905 the Uganda Plan was rejected at the Seventh Zionist Congress and thrown out. The Zionist leaders would not, could not, give up on their dreams to return the Jewish people to their ancestral homeland…even if it meant curbing vicious antisemitism. Herzl did not live long enough to attend the congress. He died of heart failure in the summer of 1904.

Sadly for Herzl, he didn’t succeed in creating a state in his lifetime. But he did succeed in bringing the Zionist idea onto the world stage by establishing the annual Zionist Congress in Basel Switzerland. He later wrote in his diary: “At Basel, I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. Perhaps in five years, certainly in fifty, everyone will know it.” And almost 50 years to the day after the First Zionist Congress, the State of Israel was founded.

Herzl was not just a dreamer. He. Got. Stuff. Done.

Five Fast Facts

  1. Herzl’s first solution to antisemitism was to have all Jews convert to Christianity
  2. Herzl initially supported the Uganda Plan but Ahad Ha’am (Asher Ginsberg) opposed it.
  3. In 1903 at the Sixth Zionist Congress, Herzl presented the Uganda Plan wherein there would be a “temporary” Jewish state in East Africa.
  4. Herzl died at the age of 44 of heart failure. He didn’t see the Uganda Plan get rejected, or experience the establishment of Israel
  5. The Kishinev Pogrom stoked so much fear in the Jewish leaders, they felt they had to come up with a solution, any solution.

Those are the facts, but here’s one enduring lesson as I see it. Imagine what it feels like to be homeless, to be beaten and bruised and feel so vulnerable. Some people might look at the Uganda Plan, and say, “see, the Zionists were not really all that connected to the Land of Israel, they were just colonialists and outgrowths of Western governments.” How wrong that is. If that were the case, the Jewish people would have ended up in East Africa. But, it is precisely because the Jewish people would never give up on their dream to return home — even in the face of incessant, violent and rabid antisemitism — that the Jewish people have their home back. Grand Island, New York, the Benguela Plateau in Angola, Madagascar, Port Davey, Tasmania and Suriname — while all lovely places, for the Jewish people, none of them are “home.” The Jewish people never stopped dreaming. And because they never stopped dreaming, they returned home.

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