Why you should care

Because geography is destiny, in so many ways.

It seems that Israel is in the news every day — and with it much of the Middle East. But interestingly enough, while the Jews have deep ties to the Biblical homeland on which Israel stands today, there once was a discussion about locating the Jewish state elsewhere — in Africa, of all places.

The British Uganda Programme was an idea offered up by British officials to provide land for a Jewish state on a 5,000-square-mile area in what is today Kenya and Uganda. The offer was first made in 1903 as dangerous pogroms continued across Russia. Heavy debate ensued within the Jewish state movements. Some feared that by accepting such an offer in a place where there was no historical tie, the Jewish goal of a long-term state in Palestine would be undercut. The idea went to a vote at the Zionist Congress, and after the Russian delegation walked out in progress, by a vote of 295 to 177, the Zionists voted to explore the idea. The new location was ultimately rejected. But the possibility is still referenced in current debates when Israelis perceived as compromising historical and geographical integrity in exchange for peace are mocked by their opponents as “Latter-Day Ugandists.”

Was the Uganda plan a missed opportunity for the Jewish people?

An illustration describing a British offer of territory in British colonial Africa to the Jewish people as a homeland, circa 1905. The illustration shows Britain, personified by the figure of John Bull (right) in a dialogue with the Jewish people. The ori

An illustration describing a British offer of territory in British colonial Africa to the Jewish people as a homeland, circa 1905.

But was the Uganda plan a missed opportunity for the Jewish people? They would have to wait almost 50 more years for their current location and endure numerous forced relocations in the interim. And while the Jewish delegation sent to investigate the Mau Plateau acreage in 1903 found it fraught with many dangers, ranging from lions to Maasai tribesmen who did not particularly want to host the new Jewish state, it is unlikely that the site would have fostered a tenth of the turmoil in Palestine over the past 60 years. And who knows what the presence of an official state would have meant for Jews looking for a safe haven from Nazi Germany. One genocide that could well have been avoided by the presence of an armed Jewish state in Uganda was Idi Amin’s slaughter of over 300,000 Ugandans in the 1970s.

An African home would also have given Israel a foothold in a rising continent — one that it has tried and failed to acquire in the succeeding century. Many in Israel, including Golda Meir, viewed the young African states struggling to shake off the yoke of colonialism as natural allies for a Jewish state. In fact they tried desperately to build geopolitical alliances with them in the 1950s and ’60s — an effort that was ultimately undone by the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and an illicit affair between Israel and apartheid-era South Africa. An Africa-based Israel with broad alliances today might mean not only a more peaceful Middle East but also a more stable Africa.

Golda Meir Foreign Minister of Israel is interviewed during her arrival at Ciampino Airport. She later became Prime Minister of Israel, on March 17th 1969.

Golda Meir

Of course, it is possible that a Jewish state in Africa would have created its own perpetual conflict. Nation-building is a dangerous business (especially when you are carving out a new one), and it is governed mostly by the law of unintended consequences. Still, it is interesting to think what would have happened if Israel had been in Africa for the last 100-plus years. How do you think things would have been different had the Red Sea parted again?

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