Pennine Productions -- details of
"Israel in East Africa"
[first picture, if available]
Network:  Radio 4
Monday, June 30, 2003
Mark Whitaker
Mark Whitaker
Repeat date: 
Repeat time: 
Believed taken before World War I. Abraham Block is the guy on the right who looks like he's in charge, and the others are "a group of pioneering friends" (picture courtesy of Ruth Rabb)  



In August 1903 Theodor Herzl delivered a bombshell in his opening speech to the sixth annual congress of the World Zionist Organisation in Basle. He revealed that Joseph Chamberlain, the British Colonial Secretary, had offered him a large area of East Africa as a homeland for the persecuted Jews of Eastern Europe - and that he didn't think it should be refused. This was Zionism's first great crisis, with the movement split in two over what became known as the 'Ugandan Scheme'. It wasn't for another two years that the British offer was finally refused. And as a result a breakaway group, the Jewish Territorial Organisation (led by 'the Jewish Dickens' Israel Zangwill), set about trying to find a homeland in such places as Libya, Australia and Angola. On the hundredth anniversary of Chamberlain's offer, this programme looks at a forgotten moment that reveals much about both Zionist and British colonial history.

Zionism was created and impelled by the persecution of Jews in Russia and Eastern Europe during the last years of the nineteenth century : and the movement's 1903 Congress was held against the backdrop of the worst pogroms of all. As Herzl said to the delegates : "many of us thought that things could not get worse, but they have ; misery has swept across Jewry like a tidal wave." He thought the humanitarian imperative of finding a safe haven for the Jews outweighed Zionism's commitment to establishing a homeland in Palestine. He also saw that Chamberlain's offer amounted to the first recognition by a Big Power of the Jews as a 'nation'. But Herzl's position led him to be branded a traitor by many Zionists - especially Russian ones. His death in 1904, at only 44, is often put down to the stress caused by the 'Uganda' issue.

For Britain, the offer of land in what's now Kenya was intended to kill two birds with one stone. It would take the pressure off Jewish immigration into London's East End, which was the 'asylum seekers' issue of the day : and it would provide white settlers for a bit of the Empire that few British people wanted to go to. But the small community of British settlers in East Africa, led by Lord Delamere, orchestrated a vicious campaign against the offer of land to 'pauper aliens'.

Using letters, documents and debates from the time - as well as interviews with historians and the descendants of the few European Jews who did go to East Africa in response to the offer - the programme reveals the complex arguments within early Zionism. The establishment of Israel in Palestine wasn't an inevitable outcome : for many Jews in the early 20th century it seemed the wrong place for them to go.

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