Even the most casual student of Zionism learns the story of how Theodor Herzl was willing to accept Uganda as the future homeland of the Jewish people.
As is often the case, however, the reality behind this confounding fact about the founder of modern political Zionism is a little more complicated.
Herzl first became interested in the Jewish question while studying law in the early 1880s. But it wasn’t until 1895, when as a journalist from Vienna he witnessed the anti-Semitism surrounding the trial of French Capt. Alfred Dreyfus that he became convinced of the need for a Jewish homeland.
The following year, he published his famous manifesto “Der Judenstaat” (“The Jewish State”). In it, Herzl wrote that the Jews future homeland could be anywhere the Jewish people wanted it to be — but he preferred it to be in the historic land of Israel.
Herzl’s ideas did not come out of a vacuum: They emerged out of the zeitgeist of nationalism that had swept across Europe in the 19th century. In the previous 30 years, both Germany and Italy had been unified into nation-states, for example.
But if Herzl was a practical man, he was also a visionary. In a later novel titled “Altneuland” (“Old-New Land”), he wrote about a Palestine in which men and women, Arab and Jew, have equal rights. He concluded the novel with what became a famous Zionist slogan, “If you will it, it is no dream.”
Herzl was certainly not lacking in will.
In 1897, he convened the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, the first international gathering of nationalist Jews. The congress adopted what came to be known as the Basel Program, which stated, in part, that “Zionism seeks to establish a home for the Jewish people in Palestine under public law.”
In the following years, as president of the World Zionist Organization, Herzl devoted himself to earning international recognition of Jewish national legitimacy.
When Herzl presented the “Uganda scheme” to the Sixth Zionist Congress in August 1903, then, it seemed he did so mainly as a tactical maneuver.
He had already realized that support from Britain, then the world’s greatest power, was a necessary prerequisite for the Jews to achieve a homeland. Indeed, this was why the Jewish National Fund was incorporated as a British company and why the Fourth Zionist Congress was convened in London.
In June 1902, Herzl had traveled to the British capital to testify before the Royal Commission for Alien Immigration. There, he declared that while the Zionist movement was committed to settling in Eretz Yisrael, it would consider plans to alleviate the plight of Jews in any method possible. He later explained to reporters that he was specifically referring to Cyprus and the Sinai Peninsula.
Later that year, British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain rejected the idea of Cyprus, but was intrigued by the Sinai proposal. A commission was formed to study the idea, but when the Egyptian government withdrew its support, so, too, did Britain.
When Chamberlain first raised the possibility of Jewish settlement in British East Africa in a meeting in April 1903, however, Herzl rejected it.
Only after Chamberlain reiterated the idea in a meeting with the journalist L.J. Greenberg did Herzl begin to see its value. He not only wanted to maintain warm relations between the Zionist movement and Britain, he also apparently believed that the granting of an autonomous Jewish settlement in East Africa under British authority might serve as the first step of the political recognition of the Jewish nation.
It is not clear if Herzl’s move won him any diplomatic points. It certainly didn’t among the Zionist delegates from Russia at the Sixth Zionist Congress, some of whom walked out when the Uganda plan was discussed — on the basis that it violated the Basel Program. Herzl attempted to win them back by declaring at the congress’ final session the words of the famous Psalm 137, “If I forget thee O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning.”
He managed to convince the Zionist Greater Council in Vienna in 1904 of the sincerity of his intentions to establish a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael.
The story provides a window into the founder of modern political Zionism: pragmatic, unafraid of controversy, and, above all, dedicated to giving his life for the creation of a homeland for the Jewish people.
Indeed, many observers say the Uganda controversy aggravated Herzl’s heart condition and helped contribute to his death in 1904, at the age of 44, shortly before the Seventh Zionist Congress voted down the Uganda Scheme and reaffirmed its support for a homeland in the land of Eretz Yisrael.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.