Inside Plan to Create State of Israel in Western Kenya

  • A file image of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit to Kenya in 2017
    A file image of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit to Kenya in 2017
  • Unknown to most, a plan was hatched up in the early 1900s that would have seen the resettlement of Jews and the creation of the State of Israel in Western Kenya.

    The subsequent history of East Africa, as well as that of the Jewish people, would have proved quite different from what actually transpired had a large number of Jews settled in today’s western Kenya.

    In 1903, the British colonial secretary -Joseph Chamberlain, offered the Zionists a part of the territory in Kenya where they could establish their own autonomous country.

    According to historical notes drafted during the Sixth Zionist Congress that was held during that year, Chamberlain managed to get Theodor Herzl (largely considered to be the founding father of Zionism), onboard with his grand plan.

    Road signage pictured in the town of Gilgil, Kenya.
    Road signage pictured in the town of Gilgil, Kenya.

    The colonial secretary had even gone as far as selecting a three-member commission that travelled to the Uasin Gishu Plateau to examine what was referred to at the time as the ‘Uganda Plan’ (more on the name later on).

    Some historians have argued that the proposed location of the new State of Israel would have stretched as far as present-day Gilgil, Nakuru County.

    When Herzl took to the podium during the Congress that was set to change world politics for centuries to come, he argued that the British East African land in Western Kenya could be a safe haven for Jews.

    “The goal of our present endeavours must not be the ‘Holy Land’ but a land of our own. We need nothing but a large piece of land for our poor brothers; a piece of land which shall remain our property from which no foreign master can expel us,” reads an excerpt from Chamberlain’s notes at the time.

    Herzl’s serious consideration of Kenya as a place of refuge for the Jews stemmed not from his lack of appreciation for the Land of Israel, but rather from his overwhelming desire to save Jewish lives.

    Despite being approved for consideration by the Zionists, the ‘Uganda Plan’ was almost killed in December 1903, due to difficult negotiations between Zionist leaders and the British Foreign Office.

    Hugh Cholmondeley 3rd Baron Delamere.
    Hugh Cholmondeley 3rd Baron Delamere.

    Key among the bones of contention was the exact size and location of the East Africa allocation. The region finally settled upon was the Uasin Gishu plateau. However, it soon became clear that England was offering the Jews only limited autonomy, on par with that of an English county.

    It was not only the Zionists who opposed the plan. The immediate response of Lord Delamere -a leader of the East African whites at the time, was that he did not know details of the plan, but that “generally he objected strongly.”

    On August 28, 1903, he sent a telegram to The Times (London) stating: “Feeling here very strong against the introduction of alien Jews.”

    In the midst of the Zionist movement’s internal wrangling over the East Africa plan and its intense negotiations with England, everything was thrown into disarray on July 3, 1904, by the death of Herzl.

    His successor as President of the World Zionist Organization -David Wolffsohn, reluctantly dispatched an expedition to Mombasa, Kenya, to investigate the feasibility of the East Africa plan.

    The 2-month expedition was led by Major A. St. Hill Gibbons, Professor Alfred Kaiser, and Nachum Wilbuschewitz. The 3 eventually drafted a report after touring the proposed site.

    On May 22, 1905, the Greater Actions Committee, a sub-committee of the Zionist Congress, met in Vienna to review the report and unanimously voted to recommend to the Zionist Congress that the scheme not proceed.

    The Uganda Plan was officially rejected at the Seventh Zionist Congress (1905) in Basel, and the decision was conveyed to the British government on August 8, 1905.

    The Committee then re-directed its effort towards negotiations with Turkey -which was in control of Palestine at the time, leading to the eventual resettlement of Jews in the region as well as the creation of the State of Israel.

    In regards to the ‘Uganda Plan’ monicker, confusion and misinformation still surround the identity of the region offered to the Zionists by Chamberlain.

    Even some contemporaneous sources erred with regard to the location, however, Herzl called it the 'Nairobi Plan', referring to the capital of Kenya, in a June 1903 diary entry.

    On May 20, 1903, Chamberlain also emphatically stated that the land he had in mind was not in Uganda but Western Kenya, when pressed on the matter at the time.

    Although the plan was shelved, 20 Jewish families had settled in Kenya by 1913. Notable Kenyan Jews include former Nairobi mayor Israel Somen and hotelier, Abraham Block.

    Also, despite the death of the ‘Uganda Plan’, a handful of adventurous South African Zionists moved to Kenya. Most took up farming and many continued to live there even after the project was officially abandoned.

    The State of Israel would be formed years later in 1948 as the Jews were finally settled in their historically ancestral land in what was then Palestine. The two nations have continued to feud over the control of holy sites that are claimed by both Jews and Muslims. 

    In 1963, when Kenya became independent and Israel opened an Embassy in Nairobi, the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation took on a new lease of life. 

    Due to the excellent relations that early Jews had established, the Israelis found themselves in a favourable environment, having excellent relations with Kenya’s first president - Jomo Kenyatta (and later with his successor Daniel arap Moi).

    Scores of Israelis arrived, some in the diplomatic corps, a few as professionals, but most in business. Over the years many have joined the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation and currently form about 80% of the membership.

    Notably, this eventually led to the emergence of a Kikuyu-speaking Kasuku community of 60 members, calling itself the Kasuku Gathundia Jewish community, in the Kenyan highlands area, near Nyahururu.

    Presently, the Kasuku Jews are considered full members of the Abayudaya Jewish community and part of the worldwide Conservative movement.

    A photo of a Jewish refugee who settled in Kenya in the 1930s.
    A photo of a Jewish refugee who settled in Kenya in the 1930s.
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