Why did Rabbi Reines, the founder of Religious Zionism, support the British Uganda Proposal?
An uproar filled the large hall in the Swiss city of Basel. The shouting of the delegates participating in the 6th Zionist Congress in the summer of 1903, accompanied by a variety of dramatic gesticulations, was overwhelming. The conference later came to be known as the “Uganda Congress.” It is difficult to overstate the drama that took place at this historic event, in which a significant rift emerged in the young Zionist movement. Theodor Herzl’s proposal, to create a (temporary!) shelter for Jews in Africa, was accepted. However, following that vote, a group of Russian Zionist delegates left the hall and shut themselves in another room, where they proceeded to mourn the destruction of Jerusalem. According to one of the descriptions, when Herzl asked to come into the room and speak to them, they refused, with one even calling him a “traitor.” Herzl ended the congress with a promise that the Uganda Proposal was only a temporary solution and swore: “If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill.”
It is worth mentioning the events that led to Herzl’s rushed decision to advance the rather strange idea of settling Jews in East-Central Africa. On Easter 1903, antisemitic riots broke out in the city of Kishinev, then part of the Russian Empire, with mobs of local residents descending upon Jewish homes and businesses, unimpeded by military or police forces. Thousands of shops were looted or demolished, houses were set on fire, and it is best not to go into detail about the other horrific events that took place. Approximately 50 Jews were murdered, and around 600 were brutally wounded. The event left a brutal, profound impression on the Jewish population around the world – as well as on Herzl, who decided to accelerate his efforts to attain approval from a major world power that would allow Jews to settle in a designated location somewhere across the globe. As far as he was concerned, this was a transitional stage in which several Jewish colonies would be established in different locations, where Jews would then undergo training in order to later establish a state in the Land of Israel.
The Uganda Proposal received many votes in the Zionist Congress thanks to the support of one of its major factions: The “Mizrachi” movement – the religious Zionists. Rabbi Yitzchak Yaacov Reines, the leader of the movement and one of the founders of the stream of Religious Zionism, was an associate of Herzl and firmly supported his plan. Many historians have wondered about his support, which, at face value, seems out of the ordinary in the context of Religious Zionism. However, historian Dr. Moshe Berent argues that Reines’ position adheres to the principles of early Religious Zionism. These Mizrachi members solved the alleged contradiction concerning the goals of Zionism with the religious prohibition against “hastening redemption”, arguing that Zionism’s goal was to carry out an immediate, material, and political redemption. According to the members of Mizrachi, there was no connection between Zionism and the spiritual redemption of the Jewish people. The spiritual redemption that would eventually come in the Land of Israel would occur only through the will of God and not through any human actions.
Reines believed that the existence of Jewish autonomy would reinforce religious sentiment among the Jewish people. Where that autonomy would exist was another matter. Contrary to the competing argument that Judaism would be saved only if the Jewish National Home were to be be established in the Land of Israel, Reines argued that in order for there to be Judaism, there must be Jews as well – and therefore, the salvation of the people themselves was of the highest priority. Reines saw the issue of Europe’s Jews as the most urgent matter on the agenda, arguing that the very real physical danger superseded any “spiritual” interests. Furthermore, surely if the danger arose because of a person’s Jewishness, he or she could easily be tempted to throw it away. Thus, Reines’ position was justified as a measure against assimilation.
This does not imply that Reines did not believe, as an ideal, in a Jewish revival in the Land of Israel. However, he laid emphasis on his practical motives, saying: “We agreed to the African proposal because we took heed of the needs of our people, whom we love more than the land.”
As aforementioned, the British proposal for Jewish autonomy in East Africa was accepted in the “Uganda Congress”. However, as you may be aware, it wasn’t actually carried out. The political drama that took place in Basel was only the start of long months of turbulent debate within the Zionist movement. After a compromise was settled upon, a delegation was sent to East Africa to examine the area and its suitability for the establishment of a Jewish colony. The report presented to the 7th Zionist Congress was unfavorable, and, consequently, the proposal was rejected. British enthusiasm for the idea also waned after the Minister of the Colonies was replaced.
Less than a year after the “Uganda Congress” crisis, Herzl died prematurely. Rabbi Reines continued to lead the Mizrachi movement until his death in 1915.
One Last Bonus:
The best-known opponents of the Uganda Proposal were the members of the “Zionists of Zion” faction. Most were Russian Jews, headed by Menachem Ussishkin and Chaim Weizmann. Herzl was supported by his friend Max Nordau, British Zionist activist Israel Zangwill, and, as mentioned above, leaders of the “Mizrachi” movement. However, the “African Proposal,” as it was called, had a few more surprising supporters. One of the most vocal was a prominent Zionist activist, who had already settled in Jerusalem decades earlier, named Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the “reviver of the Hebrew language”. In addition to enthusiastic articles endorsing the proposal, which he published in his journal “HaZvi,” Ben Yehuda wrote and published a pamphlet called “The Jewish State,” detailing the reasons that led him to support the idea. This was what he wrote in the first chapter: “Has nothing been learned from the Chronicles? Will we, too, sin as our ancestors sinned for one thousand and eight hundred years, by closing their eyes to reality and satisfying themselves with hope only?”
The Jewish Cause: An Introduction to a Different Israeli History, [Hebrew] Moshe Berent, Carmel Publishing, 2019, pp. 196-234,
Herzl, Amos Elon, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1976