Adam Rovner, Ph. D.
My current research project centers on the history of several plans to create autonomous Jewish territories prior to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. The most famous of these proposals, the so-called “Uganda Plan,” is familiar to many students of modern Jewish history. And while many are aware of this abortive effort to found an East African Zion, few know that the “Uganda Plan” was never about Uganda. The history we think we know is a misnomer. The actual territory offered by the British Government to Theodor Herzl and the Zionist Congress in 1903 was an area then called the East African Protectorate, now Kenya. Herzl himself conditionally backed the plan at the Sixth Zionist Congress, thereby generating a split in the Zionist movement. The resulting controversy led directly to an assassination attempt against Max Nordau, Herzl’s right-hand man, and has been blamed for hastening Herzl’s death the next year. Despite this internal upheaval, a Zionist-funded expedition to the Guas Ngishu Plateau of Kenya set off in 1904-05 to examine the land’s suitability for Jewish colonization.
Thanks to the generosity of the Dr. Irwin E. Vinnik Fellowship, I was able to subsidize my research travel to Israel where I conducted research at the Central Zionist Archives (CZA) in Jerusalem. The CZA holds the largest collection of documents related to efforts to develop Jewish colonies around the world. Included in their treasure trove of documents are the original reports filed by the 1904-05 expedition to Kenya. These include letters, contracts, maps, packing lists, latitude and longitude coordinates of sites visited, and several official reports filed by the mission participants. The Vinnik Fellowship allowed me to review these one-of-a-kind documents and other materials not available elsewhere. In particular, I examined CZA materials related to British Victorian-era writer and Zionist activist Israel Zangwill. Following the collapse of the East African proposal, Zangwill continued to press for a territorial solution to Jewish homelessness in Africa and elsewhere through his Jewish Territorial Organization, a spurned offshoot of the Zionist movement.
The central goal of my research in Israel at the CZA is to publish a wide-ranging literary and social history of several visions of possible Jewish homelands. Ultimately, my book project, “Promised Lands: The Untold Story of the Search for a Jewish Homeland,” will complicate existing notions of the process of Jewish national revival, and uncover marginalized visions of Jewish continuity within literature, political thought, and historiography. The Vinnik Fellowship has enabled me to advance my research in a concrete way and I remain grateful for this support.
Adam Rovner, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of English and Jewish Literature