Before Israel, Jews considered settling in western Kenya

Friday September 04 2015

This picture dated May 1941 shows foreign Jews, especially Polish Jews, get off the train in Pithiviers, France. More than 3,000 Jews where arrested by the Paris police and imprisoned in the transit camps of Pithiviers. Inset, British East Africa Protectorate. PHOTOS | AFP | FILE

In a little-known episode in East Africa’s history, advocates of a Jewish homeland decided 112 years ago to authorise an expedition to today’s Kenya in response to a British proposal to establish a “Jewish territory” on the Uasin Gishu Plateau.

Meeting in Switzerland, the Sixth Zionist Congress voted 295-178 on August 26, 1903, to send this “investigatory commission” to an area bounded by Lake Nakuru, Kisumu, Mount Elgon and the equator.

Earlier that same year, Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain had suggested to Zionist leader Theodor Herzl that this roughly 16,300-square-km portion of the British East Africa Protectorate could be designated for Jewish settlement. Chamberlain, who had recently visited the area, said the plateau had “an excellent climate suitable for white people.”

The territory would be locally administered by a “Jewish official” and be given a “free hand” in religious and domestic matters, Sir Clement Hill, Superintendent of African Protectorates, wrote in the run-up to the August 26, 1903, vote. The Jews’ local autonomy would be conditioned on the British government “exercising general control,” Sir Clement added.

The subsequent history of East Africa, as well as that of the Jewish people, would have proved quite different from what actually transpired had a large number of Jews settled in today’s western Kenya.

Prof Adam Rovner, author of In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands Before Israel, speculates that a Jewish settlement may have been acceptable to the African inhabitants of the region. And it is likely, the US-based scholar adds, that many Jewish lives would have been saved if East Africa had offered a refuge from the Nazi Holocaust.


As it was, the idea of a Jewish settlement in East Africa was ultimately voted down by the Zionist Congress that met in 1905. The majority viewed Palestine as the only suitable site for Jews to settle en masse.

Jews felt “no emotional connection” to East Africa, comments Rabbi Berel Wein, head of a Jerusalem-based foundation focused on Jewish history. For that reason, he adds, East Africa was seen as no more acceptable as a home for Jews than were several sites suggested in the 19th and early 20th century, including Madagascar, parts of Argentina and Chile, and the island of Tasmania off the southern coast of Australia.

Arguing in favour of the East African option in 1903, Herzl made it clear that he viewed it as offering only a temporary safe haven for Jews. The ultimate aim, Herzl pledged, would still be to establish a Jewish state in Palestine, which was then under Turkish control.

And that did occur in 1948, with the declaration of the state of Israel in what Jews viewed as their ancient homeland.

The Zionist majority that did narrowly agree in 1903 to at least consider the British proposal for an East African haven believed that Jews urgently needed a place where they would be safe from the massacres, or “pogroms,” they regularly suffered in parts of Europe.

Dozens of Jews were killed by mobs in Russia three months prior to the vote to dispatch the exploratory expedition to today’s western Kenya.

The three-member commission that travelled to the Uasin Gishu Plateau split 2-1 against what was referred to at the time as the Uganda Plan.

Alfred Kaiser, a Swiss scholar who had converted to Islam, opposed the idea on the grounds that a more suitable site could be found elsewhere in the British Empire. Nahum Wilbush, a Jewish engineer, was wholly unsympathetic to the plan for an East African enclave. And British explorer Hill Gibbons suggested setting up an experimental settlement to gauge whether the region could actually accommodate a significant number of Jews.

The Zionist Congress that formally rejected the Uganda Plan in 1905 reaffirmed Palestine as the place where Jews should seek to establish a homeland.

But many Zionists viewed the congress’s opposition to the East African option as a mistake. These dissidents formed the Jewish Territorialist Organisation which aimed to establish a Jewish territory anywhere judged appropriate, not only in Palestine.

A few Jews had been living in the East Africa Protectorate during the first decade of the 20th century, but their presence was not a factor in the formulation of the Uganda Plan, contemporary scholars say. In general, there were no cultural or historic links between Jewry and the land that was to be set aside in today’s Kenya.

Some British settlers in the East Africa colony spoke out against a move by Jews to the region. Commentators in the East African Standard denounced the threat of “pauper alien Jews” transforming the highlands into “Jewganda.”

The views of the local African population, consisting mainly of Maasai, were not known, says Prof Rovner, who recounts the debate over the Uganda Plan in a chapter of his book, published last year by New York University Press.

“The Maasai were not politically organised at the time and did not appear to have expressed opposition to the plan, though they may not have known of the idea and would not have been consulted, either,” Prof Rovner wrote in an e-mail message to The EastAfrican.

At least a few Jews did worry about the proposed settlement’s potential impact on the plateau’s African inhabitants.

Prof Rovner, who teaches at the University of Denver in the United States, cited comments at the time by Ber Borochov, whom he describes in his book as “an original thinker and fiery orator” who sought to blend Zionism with Marxism.

Borochov warned, Prof Rovner writes, that the “influx of large numbers of Jewish immigrants into an undeveloped territory in British East Africa or elsewhere at the behest of a European colonial power would undo the fabric of the cultural and economic life of the land.”

But Borochov dismissed the possibility that Jews would brutalise the indigenous people of East Africa much as the British had done in Australia. He reckoned that “The eyes of the entire world would look upon our actions in our ‘territory,’ and the smallest report, even if false, of unjust treatment of the locals” would result in “horrifying propaganda against us.”

Asked to speculate on what might have occurred if Jews had established a settlement in what is now western Kenya, Prof Rovner suggested that “many aspects of history might have been different.”

Jews would have had a place to escape from the Nazis, he noted. In the years preceding World War II, he pointed out, “The countries of the world shut their doors to Jews seeking to flee from the Reich.” Had there been “a sanctuary of even limited territorial borders in the Uasin Gishu Plateau, hundreds of thousands — or millions — of Jews might have been saved.”

The Mau Mau uprising may or may not have displaced a Jewish territory, Prof Rovner added.

“I like to think that a Jewish entity in Kenya would not have been exploitative of other tribes in the area and would have perhaps even sided with the Mau Mau to throw off British colonial rule, which might have played to both groups’ end goals,” he wrote.

Semi-facetiously, the professor and author further suggested that Jomo Kenyatta might have been educated in a Jewish university “and become a Yiddish-speaking revolutionary.” Might he then, Prof Rovner wondered, have sided with local Jewish radicals “to create a workers’ paradise and African Zion?”