In April of 1903 the first pogrom broke out in Kishinev, shocking the Jewish world and causing death and destruction. Increasingly it seemed to observers that Russian Jewry was in danger. As a second pogrom in 1905 was to prove, they were tragically correct.
A few weeks after the first pogrom was the sixth Zionist Congress. There the ‘Uganda plan’ was proposed, the idea that Jews could be saved immediately by taking land in East Africa that was a British Protectorate and creating a Jewish state. Herzl among many other seriously entertained this plan since it would mean salvation from a possible catastrophe.
The Jewish love of the land of Israel and our history with the land goes back thousands of years and cannot be erased. In a dramatic moment, as the vote on the Uganda plan was taken, everyone’s eyes were on the delegates from Kishinev. They had suffered, they were scared. They had lost friends and family members – surely they would recognize the need to escape. Yet, as their turn came the delegates of Kishinev unanimously and resoundingly voted “no.” Their “no” was turning point and a moving affirmation of love for Israel.
Herzl was shocked: “These people have a rope around their necks, but they still refuse.” At this moment, according to Chaim Weizmann, Herzl became a true Zionist. He realized that it was not only about saving Jewish lives; it was about reviving the Jewish spirit in our ancestral homeland.