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1882-1922: The Inspiring Story Of Our Return to Israel (Early Years)

The story of how the Jews organized themselves and began to return to Israel is rarely told these days. I will try.

In 1880 there were about 30,000 Jews in Palestine. Less than 1000 earned their living through agricultural labor. These Jews lived mainly in Jerusalem, Tzfat, Hebron and Tiberias.

In April 1881, pogroms began in Russia. Pogroms occurred in at least 160 cities over the course of a few months. There were about 5 million Jews in the areas controlled by Russia.

Most Jews in Russia began to realize they had no future there. Of those who left, most went to America (until America closed its doors in 1924). A small percentage set their sights on Palestine.

Land was purchased and a few agricultural settlements were founded in places such as Rishon Le-Zion, Zichron Yakov, and Petach Tikva. The land was generally barren. There was malaria all around and swamps had to be drained.

In Sept. 1882, Dr. Leo Pinsker, an assimilated Russian Jew, published Auto-Emancipation. He called on the Jews to organize themselves and attempt to find their own territory.

One scholar has summarized: “By 1895…[the Hovevei Zion movement] had contributed to the creation of nine tiny settlements, with a total population of 4000…without any real economic foundation or capacity for self-defense, without even having been granted the real protection of the Turkish authorities. It was an achievement, to be sure, but a very small one….” Edmond de Rothschild of France provided much financial help to these settlements.

In 1896, Theodor Herzl, a journalist centered in Paris, wrote The Jewish State. He explained that antisemitism would never end, and that the Jews needed their own state. He also took the next step and wrote out a detailed plan for how the Jews should organize themselves to obtain this state. (Fortunately, he never read Pinsker’s book; otherwise he would not have written his own.)

Herzl became the leader of the Zionist movement. He arranged for the first Zionist Congress in 1897 in Basel. His plan was “Political Zionism,” an internationally guaranteed state. He did not want the movement to be spending money buying land for settlements which could easily be eliminated by a government.

He knew that the Ottoman Empire had severe financial problems. His plan was to get them to lease Palestine to the Jews. But they would not. He then tried to negotiate with Britain for some area under its control. He was not successful and died at age 44 in 1904. But the movement’s organizations had been created.

For the first few years, the Zionist Organization deferred to Herzl’s approach and put on hold those who believed in “Practical Zionism”=buying land and settling it.

Finally, at the 8th Congress in 1907, “Synthetic Zionism” (a synthesis) became the philosophy of the movement. The goal was a political result, but practical settlement would be encouraged as a means to attaining this goal. Shortly thereafter land was purchased and Tel Aviv was founded.

At the various Congresses, the different problems of Eastern European and Western European Jewries were discussed. Eastern European Jewry faced physical threats, while Western European Jewry faced endless racial prejudice against them.

In 1914, World War I began. Chaim Weizmann was one who predicted the victor would be Britain and its allies.

Weizmann was a Russian-born chemist living in England. Through his work he was able to meet leaders of the British government and helped convince them that a Jewish state in the area of Palestine was in their interest and to issue the Balfour Declaration (BD). At this time, Britain was a part owner of the Suez Canal and ruled India. A reliable ally in the Suez region was crucial to them.

The BD was issued in 1917 on the eve of the British conquest of Palestine. U.S. President Wilson was consulted in advance and approved it.

When World War I was over in 1918, Britain and its Allies were very generous to the Arabs. They began the process of letting the Arabs set up Arab states in 98-99% of the territories liberated from Ottoman rule. The Arab world had no legitimate ground to object to an exception in Palestine, a small, undeveloped, underpopulated area. The plan was that the Arabs in Palestine would eventually live under a Jewish majority and would benefit economically. They could simply move elsewhere nearby if this was intolerable to them. The Arabs of Palestine had no separate “Palestinian” identity.

Here is the language of the BD: “His Majesty’s Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine…”

That the vision of the Declaration was to create a Jewish majority is seen from the sentence: “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine…” There was no reason for that sentence unless the goal was to create a Jewish majority. Moreover, Britain would have had no reason to create a conflicted state in Palestine, with Jews and Arabs vying for control. How would that have helped Britain which needed a stable ally there?

Palestine was not defined in the BD. But after the war, Britain had to be specific. There was a large area that Britain had loosely been calling “Palestine” over which Britain had control. This area covered Western Palestine (up to the Jordan River) and Eastern Palestine, perhaps all the way to the new state of Iraq. Britain could have applied the BD to much of this area. But In 1921, in response to Arab pressure, Colonial Secretary Churchill decided that the BD would not apply east of the Jordan River. Eastern Palestine was going to be set aside to create the Arab State of “Transjordan.” Churchill was given reason to believe that the Arab world would make no claim to Western Palestine once the Arab state of Transjordan was set up in Eastern Palestine. Moreover, there was an understanding that Transjordan could serve as a state where Arabs who left Western Palestine for any reason could live.

After the war, in 1922, the text of the BD was incorporated into Britain’s legal obligation to the League of Nations (representing 52 nations). The U.S. approved it separately.

Around this same time in 1922, in response to Arab pressure, Britain issued a “White Paper” and reinterpreted its obligation under the BD. Here they suddenly declared that the purpose of the BD had never been to create a Jewish majority in Palestine. Rather, the goal had been merely to create a national home for the Jewish people within Palestine, a center that world Jewry could take pride in. They also began to severely limit Jewish immigration.

It was only with the UN approval of the Partition Plan in 1947 that we obtained international approval of a state (one that we still had to defend with a military victory). During the period from 1922-1947, the Jewish population in Palestine grew significantly and there already was a de facto Jewish State in large areas of Palestine by the time of the 1947 vote. I will discuss the Partition Plan in a separate column.

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The Zionist movement was not trying to oust the Arabs. The goal was always to develop Palestine, an undeveloped and underpopulated area, into a state with a Jewish majority, and that the Arab residents would share in the economic prosperity.

Daniel Pipes wrote recently: “So far as I know, only one country was purchased rather than conquered. Ironically, that country is also the one most accused of having “stolen” the land it now controls. That country is Israel. The making of the Jewish state represents perhaps history’s most peaceable in-migration and state creation. Zionist efforts long ago had a near-exclusively mercantile, not military, quality. Jews lacked the power to fight the Ottoman or British empires, so they purchased the land, acre by acre, in voluntary transactions. Only when the British withdrew from Palestine in 1948, followed immediately by an all-out attempt by Arab states to crush the nascent Israel, did Israelis take up the sword in self-defense and go on to win land through military conquest.”

Some further reading: “Harvest in the Desert” (1944); “Trial and Error” (1949, Weizmann’s biography); and “Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn” (2016, D. Gordis.)


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected].

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