How Kenya almost became the Promised Land for Jews


The scout’s verdict was eagerly awaited. The world held its breath as optimists prayed that Kenya would be the Promised Land for the long-suffering, homeless race.

The decision to dispatch a three-member team to Africa in search of a homeland for God’s ‘chosen race’ — the Jews — had been acrimonious. Some opposed the move, while others hailed it as the final solution to their homelessness.

The echoes of the heated debate bounced around in Europe before they finally reached Nairobi, where the white settlers received them with hysterical opposition.

The idea of establishing an exclusive Jewish state within Kenya, then known as the East Africa Protectorate, was triggered by an incident in Kishinef village in Russia on April 19, 1903.

According to Julius Carlebach, author of The Jews of Nairobi, 1903-1962, Kishinef exploded in anti-Semitic demonstrations, which saw hundreds of Jews massacred and thousands rendered homeless after their houses were torched.

As the orgy of violence spread during that bloody Easter holiday, hundreds of Jews were slaughtered and an estimated 2,000 families rendered homeless.

As the horrified world scratched its head for a solution, one of the Jewish leaders, Theodore Herzl, who had heard of East Africa’s breathtaking beauty from Joseph Chamberlain, made a proposal.

Herzl through Jewish Colonial Trust Limited approached Britain’s Foreign Office, proposing that a Jewish Settlement be established in East Africa.

Britain, sympathetic to the suffering Jews, was swift with its response, which was written by Clement Hill on August 14, 1903, stressing that if such land was available, the government had no objections to the establishment of a Jewish state.

Financial responsibility

The only precondition was that His Majesty’s government would not shoulder the financial responsibility of running the autonomous state within a state.

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

Armed with this proposal, Herzl confidently approached the Sixth Zionist Congress in Brussels from August 23, 1903 attended by 600 delegates and 2,000 observers.

Herzl was, however, rudely shocked when his proposal almost triggered a riot among the delegates and tore the Zionist leadership down the middle.

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

So divided was the conference that when a vote on the issue was held three days after debate, only 295 delegates supported establishing a homeland in Kenya while 175 rejected it and 90 abstained. A section of disgusted delegates and observers stormed out of the meeting.

The victory was pyrrhic for the Zionist movement for although Herzl’s proposal was passed, the congress denied it money to finance a team to travel to Kenya to examine the suitability of the promised land.

When news of the Zionist Congress Movement finally reached Nairobi on August 27, 1903, the tide of outrage was fast and furious, as white settlers poured scorn on the government’s philanthropy.

At the time, Nairobi was not a city as we know it today — some settlers then described it as just a swamp full of croaking frogs and tin shacks where the only permanent structure was the Railway camp.

Lord Delamere, the leader of the settlers, sent a scathing opinion article to the Times in London, protesting that "allowing a flood of people of the class of Jews was sure to lead to trouble, with half tamed natives jealous of their rights".

The settlers’ mouthpiece, The East African Standard, weighed in with editorial columns opposing the giving away of "one of the most valuable pastoral areas in the world".

The settlers interpreted the giving away of the land to the Jews as transforming such a valuable asset into a playground for philanthropists.

The then Commissioner of the protectorate, Sir Charles Elliot, laughed off the opposition exclaiming it was absurd for the settlers who were so few to talk about their rights as they contributed negligible amounts in terms of tax.

Delamere and friends

It was erroneous, the Commissioner declared in a letter to The East Africa Standard on September 23, 1903, for such a minority to pretend to be the voice of determining the destiny of Kenya, against a government that was spending 256,000 pounds annually to finance operations.

This did not prevent Delamere and his colleagues from organising a protest demonstration at the Uganda Railways premises in Nairobi claiming the "intruders" would incite the locals.

As the ping-pong of words and opinion flowed back and forth, the Jewish settlement in Kenya lay in abeyance and Herzl’s heart was broken from disappointment. He ultimately died on July 3, 1903 before the Jews had a homeland.

Ironically, after the Zionist movement declined to fund the trip to East Africa, some sympathetic Christians contributed money, which enabled Major H Gibbons of Foreign Office, Alfred Kaiser and engineer Wilsbrich to visit Kenya.

At the time, Carlebach explains, the territory earmarked for the proposed nation was 6,000 square miles, extending from Keremakie River, all the way to Kerio Valley right to Lake Rudolph (Lake Turkana).

To the west, the territory extended to Kisimchanga mountain and went as far as Maragoli Hills, while its Southern flank covered the area extending up to Elgeyo plateau.

At the time, Uasin Gishu plateau, which was part of the proposed Jewish state was not occupied, except for occasional grazing by the neighbouring Nandi community, as the Maasai had vacated the area in 1883.

By then Kenya’s western frontiers extended from Lake Rudolf (Lake Turkana) through Naivasha to a point 50 miles east of Lake Natron in Tanzania.

The commissioners spent three months, scouring every breadth and length of the extensive land before they vacated and compiled a joint report, which sealed the fate on the proposed state.

Although beggars cannot afford to be choosers, the commissioners rejected the territory with Wilsbrich, arguing that the land could not accommodate the estimated 20,000 Jews who were supposed to migrate from Russia.

According to his calculations, the entire territory could accommodate 500 families only, since each family would require between 5,000 to 10,000 acres each to break even.

Seventh Zionists

Kaiser too rejected the gift horse, saying the prevailing economic conditions could not favour a Jewish settlement since the plateau was very remote from the outside world and the Jews would be vulnerable to attacks by the local communities.

Gibbons who was the leader of the mission was more optimistic, suggesting that 100 intelligent Jewish peasants be sent to the area on a pilot basis, although he was convinced such a project could be too costly in time and money.

When the reports were presented to the Seventh Zionist congress held in Brussels in July 1905, it was unanimously agreed that Kenya could not be transformed into a legally secure and publicly recognised home for the Jews.

"The congress resolves to thank the British government for its offer of its territory in British East Africa for the purposes of establishing a Jewish settlement with autonomous rights," the delegates stated.

Despite the rejection of the Jewish settlement in Kenya, a number of immigrants from Europe had already streamed into the country.

Some of the earliest Jewish settlers were Abraham Block in 1903, who as The Jews of Nairobi details, found Marcus already settled.

Interestingly Delamere, who was fervently opposed to the establishment of a Jewish nation, assisted Block who was not financially endowed until he stabilised.

By 1912, the Jews who had increased to 30 laid the foundation stone on June 20, amidst an elaborate Masonic ceremony where coins and the edition of that day’s East African Standard was buried in a specially created vault.

It would be many decades later when the Nazi regime in Germany, under their charismatic leader Adolf Hitler targeted Jews for extermination in November 1933 that the issue of settling immigrants cropped up again.

Although a Jew, Bloom, from Tanganyika (Tanzania) proposed in February of 1934 the starting of Jewish Settlement in East Africa, where land was to be purchased, the plan never materialised.

At the height of Hitler’s viciousness in exterminating the Jews, which ultimately led to the killing of six million, a number of Jews were warmly received in Kenya by one of Nairobi’s most notorious killer of locals, Ewat Grogan.

But even though Jews from Germany were sympathetically treated, Britain detained a bunch of them in 1945 for political incitement.

The 262 Jews from Palestine were regarded as terrorists by British authorities and were detained at camp number 119 at Gilgil, although the government feared they might escape through Somalia and Abyssinia (Ethiopia).

But even after putting its security agents in the entire North Frontier District, the Jews still managed to escape from Gilgil by digging a tunnel out where Koilel High School is situated and escaped to Palestine on March 13, 1947.

Had the Zionist Congress approved the proposal 106 years ago, Kenya would be a different country with the State of Israel sitting between Kenya and Uganda, whose frontiers at the time were at Naivasha.

In the Middle East where billions of dollars and thousands of lives have been squandered in fighting between Israel and her neighbours, the region would perhaps be more peaceful.

As it is, Israel established in 1948 in the holy land has to contend with living in a sea of hostility near Jerusalem, while Kenya remains a country of black people.