Kenya was supposed to become the Zionist homeland. How would that have worked out?
A little more than four decades before they transformed Mandatory Palestine into the modern state of Israel, the leaders of the Zionist Movement, invited by Joseph Chamberlain, then British Colonial Secretary, turned their eyes to East Africa as a potential settlement for the world’s persecuted Jews.
Known as the Uganda Scheme, the initiative would have seen the relocation of hundreds of thousands of primarily eastern European Jews into what is now central-western Kenya; at the time, this region was part of the Uganda Protectorate, hence the name of the scheme. The sixth Zionist Congress, which was held in 1903 in Basel, Switzerland, dispatched a three-man commission to survey the land and report on its suitability for the venture.
According to a report from the meeting, published in a Jewish magazine of the time, the British offer was for the Zionists to set up “an autonomous Jewish settlement in East Africa, with Jewish administration, Jewish local government, with a Jewish governor at its head […] under British suzerain control.”
East Africa was not the first territory to which the Zionists, and their enablers, had turned their eyes in their quest to find a modern homeland for Jews. Nor was it the last. But it was the one that, outside of Palestine itself, was taken with a significant level of seriousness. It became particularly urgent following a deadly pogrom in Kishinev (modern Chisinau, Moldova) in April 1903.
Obviously, the initiative didn’t succeed. Its failure has been attributed, variously, to opposition by the then emergent white-settler community in Kenya, a malaise of indecision within the Colonial Office regarding how to administer the nascent East Africa Protectorate and, perhaps most importantly, the reticence of the Zionist leaders themselves.
Having long set their eyes on Palestine and its neighbourhood as the rightful place for a Jewish national homeland, the Zionists, at their seventh Congress, in Basel in August 1905, seized on the negative aspects of the fact-finding commission’s reports and rejected the British offer. Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement and main proponent of the Uganda Scheme, had died the year before.
The Zionists would eventually set up a Jewish national homeland in Palestine, but that was still two world wars and a Holocaust away. And when it finally came into being, its history proved, alas, to be one of near constant conflict with its neighbours and, especially, with the Palestinian Arabs who initially made up the territory’s majority population.
In moments like the present one, when tensions between Israel and its Palestinian neighbours have flared into orgies of violence, one cannot help but wonder whether it would have been better for the world if the Zionists had gone ahead with the Uganda Scheme. Would it have spared the world the Holocaust, along with the later fights between Israel and Palestine (and its backers)? Or did Kenya narrowly dodge a bullet?
It's hard to say. 1903 was far enough in the past that even the smallest unmade decision, had it been taken, would have changed world history drastically. The Ottoman Empire still controlled Palestine; British colonial officials’ understanding of their protectorate on the east African coast was woefully inadequate; and the African independence movement there had yet to even take shape.
It's impossible to say how much opposition the Jews would have faced from the natives – given that the opinions of the latter were hardly consulted in the process – and whether the Jewish polity would have sought independence along with other African countries or stayed under British sovereignty. Most importantly, would the granted land have served as an adequate homeland for the Jews?
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There will never answers to these questions; only the authors of alternate histories have the license to grapple with them (I particularly liked Adam Rovner’s award-winning “What If the Jewish State Had Been Established in East Africa”).
What we have, instead, is reality, and in that reality, the Israelis and Palestinians have been at each other’s throats, like fratricidal brothers, for the better part of a century now. In our reality too, Israel has cultivated very strong ties with Kenya.
This relationship got its toughest test in 1976, when Kenya supported the famous Israeli mission to rescue 106 passengers and crew of Air France Flight 139, who were being held hostage in Uganda by a group of Palestinian and German hijackers, under the patronage of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.
Embarrassed by the raid, Amin had his security forces murder 245 Kenyans then resident in Uganda. Around 3,000 others fled the country. Kenya, in retaliation, expelled hundreds of Ugandans. Over the next several weeks, relations between the two countries deteriorated to their worst state ever.
So it was that Israel, which, had history played out just a bit differently, would have been a buffer state between the two countries, ended up bringing them nearly to blows. Luckily, the situation was eventually defused. Amin would go on to lose his office after picking a fight with Tanzania. Israel’s problems with the Palestinians, however, continued to fester, leading right up to the present crisis.
The story of the Entebbe raid is much better known in Kenya and in the rest of the world than that of the Uganda Scheme. Those who know about the latter hardly think about what it would have meant for East African natives had the Zionists taken more than a passing fancy to our lands.
In light of what’s happening between Israel and Gaza right now, perhaps it’s just as well we don’t think about it.
Mathew Otieno is a Kenyan writer, blogger and a dilettante farmer. Until 2022, he was a research communications coordinator at a university in Nairobi, Kenya. He now lives in rural western Kenya, near the shores of Lake Victoria, from where he's pursuing a career as a full-time writer while concluding his dissertation for a master's degree. His first novel is due out this year.
Image: screenshot Arab News
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