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BY Mildred Europa Taylor, 1:00pm May 08, 2019,

How Kenya almost became the Promised Land for Jews in 1903

Ashkenazi Jews. Pic credit: The Conversation

Kenya would have been a different country with the State of Israel sited between it and Uganda, had a proposal to use a territory, in what is now Nairobi, as a safe haven for Jews been accepted.

Over 115 years ago, anti-Semitism was growing in Europe, and ‘God’s chosen people’, the Jews, were being targeted, thus, they needed to flee.

The idea that Kenya, then known as the East Africa Protectorate, should be the Promised Land for the long-suffering race was introduced after a violent incident in Kishinef village in Russia on April 19, 1903, an article on Standard Digital said.

Anti-Semitic demonstrations that followed led to the deaths of hundreds of Jews while thousands were rendered homeless after their houses were torched.

As world leaders looked for a solution, one of the Jewish leaders and the founding father of Zionism, Theodore Herzl, approached Britain’s Foreign Office and held a meeting with the colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain.

How Kenya almost became the Promised Land for Jews in 1903
Theodor Herzl. Pic credit: Haaretz

There, Herzl proposed that a Jewish settlement be established in East Africa, though other accounts state that the proposal came from Chamberlain.

According to Haaretz, when the two met in April 1903, Chamberlain’s East Africa settlement offer was nearly rejected by Herzl, who had actually wanted a Jewish settlement in Cyprus or Sinai. He, however, accepted the new offer, knowing that it would be good for the Zionist movement’s ties to the British.

Chamberlain reportedly offered 5,000 square miles (13,000 km2) of the Mau Plateau in what is today Kenya, with the only precondition being that “His Majesty’s government would not shoulder the financial responsibility of running the autonomous state within a state.”

The proposal further said that a chief administrator, who would be free from British rule, enjoying freedom of municipal legislation, would rule the Jewish state.

Herzl brought the proposal before the Sixth Zionist Congress in Brussels from August 23, 1903. Attended by 600 delegates and about 2,000 observers, the proposal met strong opposition from some of the delegates, who felt that the plan was against the very ideological basis of Zionism.

A section of the Zionist Movement argued that establishment of a homeland in East Africa, so far away from the Holy shrines and the Jews’ ancestral land, was unacceptable, said the Standard Digital report.

When a vote about the proposal was organized three days later, 295 delegates supported a Jewish settlement in Kenya while 175 rejected and 90 abstained. Other delegates left the meeting in anger.

How Kenya almost became the Promised Land for Jews in 1903
Victoria (Tom Mboya) Street, Nairobi in the 1900s. Pic credit: Pinterest

The Congress further refused to finance the investigative team that was to travel to Kenya to check out the territory offered in the proposal.

In Kenya, particularly what is today Nairobi, white settlers, who had then received news of the Zionist Congress Movement, also opposed the giving away of territory to the Jews.

“Allowing a flood of people of the class of Jews was sure to lead to trouble, with half-tamed natives jealous of their rights,” Lord Delamere, who was said to be the leader of the settlers wrote.

British authorities rubbished the protests and wondered why a few numbers of settlers who contributed insignificant amounts in terms of tax would question the move.

In the midst of the complaints, the investigative team that was to check the suitability of the proposed land managed to fund the trip to East Africa, following contributions received from some Christians.

For three months, the investigative team checked the suitability of the proposed Jewish settlement and left to compile a joint report. In their report, two years later, the team rejected some parts of the territory given to them.

For instance, it said the Uasin Gishu plateau, which was very remote from the outside world, had so many lions and other wild animals that could attack the Jews. The report further said that the Maasai, who were seen as the region’s fiercest warriors, used part of the Plateau as grazing fields.

When the team presented the report to the Seventh Zionist Congress held in Brussels in July 1905, delegates unanimously agreed that Kenya could not be made a home for the Jews, and thanked the British for its offer. The Zionists reaffirmed their commitment to a Jewish homeland in Palestine, according to Haaretz.

By then, Herzl had passed away due to a heart condition in 1904, a death which many blamed on the various controversies he had to deal with over the Jewish settlement proposal.

Even though the Jewish settlement plan in Kenya was rejected, scores of Jewish families did move to Kenya. There were about 20 families in Nairobi when the first synagogue was built in 1913, according to Owaahh.

This figure would increase after the Holocaust, however, it couldn’t reach the extent of Jewish settlement Chamberlain and Herzl had hoped for.

Last Edited by:Victor Ativie Updated: May 19, 2020


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