OTTO WARBURG - A biographical note

Herzl sought Warburg’s help for two reasons, first he was writing his book “Altneuland” and was in need of Warburg’s knowledge about the flora and fauna of Palestine, as well as its other resources and especially water. Secondly, he decided that if Otto Warburg would become a central figure in the Zionist movement, his prominence in German academic circles and his expertise in Botany and industrial agriculture would be a great advantage to the Zionist movement. To his delight Warburg agreed stating, however, that he would agree to become actively involved only in “practical” issues concerning Zionism and not in its ideological-philosophical deliberations. It was the practical ideas which Herzl put forward that fascinated Warburg and made him a Zionist and thus the second phase in Warburg’s career started. It began in 1899-1900, the turn of the Millennium, when Otto Warburg undertook an extensive trip of Palestine, Cyprus and Anatolia. In Palestine he investigated possibilities of new agricultural products, as he had in Africa, in line with his promise to Theodor Herzl. He also investigated the flora and fauna of the land so as to help Herzl in completing his writing of Altneuland. In Cyprus Warburg was interested in the possibilities of Jewish settlements in a Garden-City in Famagusta whilst in Anatolia he investigated the advantages of cotton cultivation. During his relatively lengthy stay in Palestine, Warburg met with Selig Sosskin, Joseph Treidel and Aharon Aronson, all three of them had previous knowledge of agriculture in Palestine and they became his partners in future ventures in Palestinian settlements which he initiated. It was following his return from this trip that Herzl asked him to lead a delegation to investigate Jewish settlements in El-Arish and parts of the Sinai Peninsula. Herzl reported to him enthusiastically that the British Government had granted permission for such an investigation and following Ottoman decline to grant the Zionist movement a Charter for settlements in Palestine, it was urgent to exploit this opportunity. Warburg expressed his misgivings about the region, mainly because of the scarcity of water for irrigation and livelihood and reported to Herzl accordingly. By then the British government, through the “good offices” of Lord Chamberlain, had withdrawn its previous endorsement of the plan, following the intervention of Lord Cromer, Britain’s Consul-General in Cairo and other British officials in the region, who distrusted Herzl and his plans and feared Arab opposition. They suggested Uganda as a possible alternative.7 Warburg’s joining the Uganda mission, which was ordered in 1903 by the 6th Zionist Congress in Basel to investigate the Uganda proposal, was the next venture in Warburg’s Zionist activities. He presented the mission’s findings to a divided Zionist movement at its next congress in August 1904, without stating his own negative views on the issue. But by then opposition to Uganda both in the Zionist movement and in the British government was growing and the report was shelved without further debate.

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