How Israel Nearly Ended Up In Kenya

Theodor Herzl in 1888

Before the establishment of Israel in 1948, the world's Jewish population had no place to permanently call home. In the early 20th century, a Zionist leader named Theodor Herzl led the crusade for the establishment of a Jewish state and, today, many Jewish scholars refer to Dr. Herzl as the father of modern Israel. What many people don't know, however, is just how close this Jewish state came to being located in eastern Africa. That's right; if not for a series unusual events (and perhaps some Divine intervention), the Holy Land very well might have been populated with Jews... as well as wildebeests, giraffes, and rhinoceroses.

Dr. Herzl began his crusade in 1895, when he wrote Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), a book which recommended that Europe's Jewish population re-settle in another location. As for the location of this Jewish state, Herzl pushed for the site of modern-day Israel, but was also willing to settle for Argentina. Herzl's book spurred the Zionist movement, and eventually led to Herzl being named president of the Sixth Zionist congress, which met in Basel, Switzerland, in 1903. It was at this time Dr. Herzl announced to the world that Great Britain had offered the Jews a large tract of land for colonization-- in East Africa.

Of course, this offer from the British Empire didn't exactly fit Herzl's original plan of establishing a Jewish state in the Middle East, but, at the time, it seemed like a pretty good idea. Just a few years earlier, Herzl failed to establish a Jewish state on the Sinai Peninsula; his plan collapsed after Herzl failed to reach an agreement with Sultan Abdulhamid II of the Ottoman Empire. In the summer of 1896, Herzl traveled to Constantinople in order to present his plan to the sultan.  Herzl was unable to arrange a meeting with Sultan Abdulhamid II, but did meet with the Grand Vizier to propose his plan. Under Herzl's plan,  the Jews would pay the Turkish foreign debt if they were given a Jewish homeland under Turkish rule.

Although the Turkish plan failed, Herzl's efforts resulted in support from members of British Parliament, and during the Sixth Zionist Congress, Herzl announded what would later come to be known as the "Uganda Project" (though the land was actually located in Kenya). The offer was made by British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, who offered the Jews 5,000 square miles at Uasin Gishu in modern-day Kenya. At the Sixth Congress a fierce debate ensued, but the Zionists voted 295-177 in favor of the plan. A committee was then formed to send a delegation to Africa in order to inspect the land offered by the British Empire. In other words, the Zionists essentially agreed to establish a Jewish state in Africa.

However, the Zionist expedition concluded that Kenya was no place for a Jewish settlement. The three-man delegation found Kenya to be a dangerous place filled with lions and other frightening creatures, such as the native Maasai- a warrior tribe which didn't take too kindly to outsiders. In 1905, the Zionists politely declined the British offer, and the "Uganda Project" was scrapped.

How close did Israel come to being located in Africa? Dozens of European Jews actually did relocate to Kenya, and their descendents remain there to this very day. Thanks to these "Jewish Pioneers of the African Plain", Judaism slowly gained a foothold on the untamed African continent; the Abayudaya are a 2,000-member group of devout Rabbinical Jews who live in Uganda, while Ethiopia boasts a Jewish population of over 4,000.

Theodor Herzl, unfortunately, did not live to see the rejection of the "Uganda Project". He died in 1904, after battling years of heart disease. In his will, Herzl insisted upon a poorest-class funeral, devoid of any speeches or flowers. His will also stated: "I wish to be buried in the vault beside my father, and to lie there till the Jewish people shall take my remains to Palestine." A year after Israel was established and Herzl's dream of a Jewish homeland were fulfilled, his remains were reburied near Jerusalem, atop thje mountain which now bears his name.