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Theodor Herzl with a Zionist delegation in Jerusalem, 1898. Wikimedia Commons
December 14, 2020

Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, and the East Africa Scheme

In August of 1897, after putting together the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Theodor Herzl, resplendent in his white tie and tails, his noble visage self-consciously groomed, rose to speak. He had to wait for a quarter of an hour for the applause to die down. A few days later, the congress ended as it began – with thunderous applause, this time with the younger delegates lifting and carrying  Herzl on their shoulders around the hall. [1]  

Six years later, in 1903, at the Sixth (and Herzl’s last) Zionist Congress, Herzl, who had less than a year to live, strained to breathe as he spoke, and had a rebellion on his hands. Only after declaring in Hebrew “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning” did the aggrieved party, the Russian caucus of the Zionist delegates, agree to come back into the hall.  [2] Herzl had suggested that the Congress consider the British offer to create a Jewish homeland in East Africa (modern-day Kenya), which was such a point of contention that it threatened to split the World Zionist Organisation. Herzl’s dear friend and right-hand man, Max Nordau, was even the target of an attempted assassination shortly thereafter. What happened in these six years to the Zionist Organization? The answer might be found in a closer examination of the relationship between Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, and a young rival, Chaim Weizmann, the future first president of the State of Israel. 

Chaim Weizmann was roughly fifteen years Theodor Herzl’s junior. Unlike Herzl, an assimilated Central European Jew, Weizmann hailed from Russia, and in addition to his doctorate in chemistry, was the beneficiary of a traditional Jewish education and upbringing. Weizmann first laid eyes on Herzl at the Second Zionist Congress in Basel in 1898. [3] The two men maintained a correspondence, and actually found common ground in Weizmann’s goal of establishing a Jewish university in Palestine. 

But by 1901, a growing number of younger Zionists were unhappy with the slow progress of the Zionist movement. These young men, mostly Russian, as was Weizmann, felt that though Herzl had given Zionism a shape, he was off the mark when it came to its substance. Weizmann’s anti-Herzl agitation (“Herzl has no idea of Russian Zionism and of Russian Zionists”) served to make a name for himself, and more critically, led to a meeting with Herzl. Though Weizmann was spoiling for a fight, the elder statesman recognized the need for the younger generation to have their own conference, which took place shortly before the Fifth Zionist Congress in 1902. Though there was some chafing between Herzl and the younger group, which called itself the Democratic Fraction, Herzl tried to work with them and keep the Zionist movement unified. By 1903, shortly before the Sixth Zionist Congress, Weizmann was at the helm of the Fraction, which, for all its animated discussions, hadn’t achieved much. 

The violent pogroms in Kishinev in April of 1903 alarmed Herzl to the point where he very seriously considered accepting the British government’s offer to establish a Jewish homeland in East Africa. Though Weizmann initially heard Herzl out on the idea, he was amongst the many Russian delegates who vociferously opposed the resolution at the Congress in August of that year. Pandemonium broke out, with the Russian delegation splitting off and having their own meeting, passing a resolution refusing to ratify any formal consideration of the East Africa scheme. [4] In this separate meeting, Weizmann denounced Herzl as “not a nationalist, but a promoter of projects.” [5]

In fact, Herzl never denied the centrality of Palestine to the Jewish people. Despite the Fraction’s claims earlier that Herzl didn’t understand Russian Zionists, it was the existential threat to Russian Jews that made Herzl consider the scheme as a temporary measure to ensure their safety. This reassurance, echoed by Nordau at the lectern, incidentally, was enough to placate at least two other Russian delegates: Weizmann’s brother and father. [6]

Though the Congress closed with an agreement to send some delegates to get the lay of the land without any formal commitments, the East Africa scheme caused a major rift and power struggle in the Zionist Organisation. Weizmann, who had been agitating against Herzl’s political Zionism for a few years now, took full advantage of this rift in order to boost his own profile as well as the commitment to the Land of Israel. Immediately after the Congress, he launched an all-out attack on the East Africa scheme, focusing solely where it had support: Western Europe. And as his professional opportunities dried up in Switzerland, Weizmann’s two callings — chemistry and Zionism– intersected, and Weizmann found himself pursuing both in what had been Herzl’s territory: the United Kingdom. 

The African scheme fizzled out by December of 1903, as a result of opposition by British colonists in  East Africa. And yet, it still held the Zionist Organization in a power struggle. By July of 1904, Herzl was dead, and the Zionist Organization was bereft. Nordau, the natural choice for Herzl’s successor, declined. Weizmann, who finally had his ducks in a row, moved to the UK a few months later. En route, he met with Nordau, who mused that some day, the young Weizmann would take up the mantle of Zionist leadership. [7]

Weizmann had already done a lot of campaigning for his cause – that of the Land of Israel for the Jewish homeland – on his pilot trip to London in 1903. If anything, Herzl had achieved a landmark in getting the British Empire to recognize the Zionist cause. Weizmann picked up where Herzl left off. And two years later, in 1906, Weizmann had his first meeting with Lord Balfour. Weizmann’s refusal to contemplate the East Africa scheme had a profound impact on Lord Balfour, though it would be another decade until Weizmann would pull off one of the most remarkable diplomatic achievements of the 20th century: the Balfour Declaration. This  British commitment to a Jewish homeland in the Land of Israel was a long road that was paved by Weizmann, but one blazed by Herzl.

 

  1. Howard M. Sachar, A History of Israel From the Rise of  Zionism to  Our Time (New  York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), p. 46
  2. Anita Shapira, Israel: A History, trans. Anthony Berris (London: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 2014), p. 23
  3. Norman  Rose, Chaim Weizmann: A  Biography (New  York: Viking, 1986), p. 49
  4. Derek Penslar,  Theodor  Herzl: The Charismatic  Leader (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2020), p. 192
  5. Rose, p.  73
  6. Rose, p. 72
  7. Rose,  p. 85
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