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Herzl’s Uganda Proposal received support from unexpected corners

Theodore Herzl gets a lot of flack for floating the idea of Jewish settlement to Uganda, but the story is far more complex. By the time you’re done reading this, you may have a different view on the controversy.

Amit Noar recently investigated the Uganda Proposal for the National Library of Israel “Librarians” blog.

Rabbi Reines, from the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

It was 1903 and the Sixth Zionist Congress was meeting in Basel, Switzerland. Herzl made the controversial proposal to establish a temporary shelter for Jews in East Africa. The motion passed, but following that vote, a group of Russian Zionist delegates left the hall and shut themselves in another room. According to one of the descriptions, when Herzl asked to come into the room and speak to them, they refused, with one even calling him a “traitor.”

Herzl ended the congress with a promise that the Uganda Proposal was only a temporary solution and swore: “If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill.”

It’s easy today to say that Herzl’s proposal was odd (to say the least), but there’s a reason why Herzl suggested it.

Here’s what Naor writes:

“On Easter 1903, anti-Semitic riots broke out in the city of Kishinev, then part of the Russian Empire, with mobs of local residents descending upon Jewish homes and businesses, unimpeded by military or police forces.

“Thousands of shops were looted or demolished, houses were set on fire, and it is best not to go into detail about the other horrific events that took place.

“Approximately 50 Jews were murdered, and around 600 were brutally wounded.

“The event left a brutal, profound impression on the Jewish population around the world – as well as on Herzl, who decided to accelerate his efforts to attain approval from a major world power that would allow Jews to settle in a designated location somewhere across the globe.

“As far as he was concerned, this was a transitional stage in which several Jewish colonies would be established in different locations, where Jews would then undergo training in order to later establish a state in the Land of Israel.”

In short, Herzl felt the Uganda Proposal would save Jewish lives. And others agreed with him, such as Rabbi Yitzchak Yaacov Reines, the leader of Mizrachi, a Religious Zionist movement.

For many, it was surprising that a Religious Zionist, who by definition believes in resettling the Land of Israel, would support Herzl’s East Africa proposal.

According to Naor: “Reines believed that the existence of Jewish autonomy would reinforce religious sentiment among the Jewish people. Where that autonomy would exist was another matter.

“Contrary to the competing argument that Judaism would be saved only if the Jewish national home were to be be established in the Land of Israel, Reines argued that in order for there to be Judaism, there must be Jews as well – and therefore, the salvation of the people themselves was of the highest priority.

“Reines saw the issue of Europe’s Jews as the most urgent matter on the agenda, arguing that the very real physical danger superseded any ‘spiritual’ interests.”

He was also pragmatic, realizing that being in physical danger would tempt Jews to abandon their Judaism and assimilate into secular culture.

Concludes Naor:

“This does not imply that Reines did not believe, as an ideal, in a Jewish revival in the Land of Israel. However, he laid emphasis on his practical motives, saying: ‘We agreed to the African proposal because we took heed of the needs of our people, whom we love more than the land.’”

So do you still think the Uganda Proposal is as outlandish as it sounds?

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