History of Israel


The major event that led to the growth of the Zionist movement was the emancipation of Jews in France (1791), followed shortly thereafter by their emancipation in the rest of continental and Central Europe. After having lived for centuries in the confines of Jewish ghettos, Jews living in Western and Central Europe now had a powerful incentive to enter mainstream European society. Jews, who had previously been confined to petty trade and to banking, rapidly rose in academia, medicine, the arts, journalism, and other professions. The accelerated assimilation of Jews into European society radically altered the nature of relations between Jews and non-Jews. On the one hand, Jews had to reconcile traditional Judaism, which for nearly 2,000 years prior to emancipation had developed structures designed to maintain the integrity and separateness of Jewish community life, with a powerful secular culture in which they were now able to participate. On the other hand, many non-Jews, who prior to the emancipation had had little or no contact with Jews, increasingly saw the Jew as an economic threat. The rapid success of many Jews fueled this resentment.

The rise of ethnically based nationalism in the mid-nineteenth century gave birth to yet another form of anti-Semitism. Before the mid-nineteenth century, European anti-Semitism was based mainly on Christian antipathies toward Jews because of their refusal to convert to Christianity. As a result, an individual Jew could usually avoid persecution by converting, as many did over the centuries. The emergence of ethnically based nationalism, however, radically changed the status of the Jew in European society. The majority gentile population saw Jews as a separate people who could never be full participants in the nation's history.

The vast majority of Jews in Western and Central Europe responded by seeking even deeper assimilation into European culture and a secularization of Judaism. A minority, who believed that greater assimilation would not alter the hostility of non-Jews, adopted Zionism. According to this view, the Jew would remain an outsider in European society regardless of the liberalism of the age because Jews lacked a state of their own. Jewish statelessness, then, was the root cause of anti-Semitism. The Zionists sought to solve the Jewish problem by creating a Jewish entity outside Europe but modeled after the European nation-state. After more then half a century of emancipation, West European Jewry had become distanced from both the ritual and culture of traditional Judaism. Thus, Zionism in its West European Jewish context envisioned a purely political solution to the Jewish problem: a state of Jews rather than a Jewish state.

For the bulk of European Jewry, however, who resided in Eastern Europe's Pale of Settlement --on the western fringe of the Russian Empire, between the Baltic and the Black seas--there was no emancipation. East European Jewry had lived for centuries in kehilot (sing., kehilah), semiautonomous Jewish municipal corporations that were supported by wealthy Jews. Life in the kehilot was governed by a powerful caste of learned religious scholars who strictly enforced adherence to the Jewish legal code. Many Jews found the parochial conformity enforced by the kehilot leadership onerous. As a result, liberal stirring unleashed by the emancipation in the West had an unsettling effect upon the kehilot in the East.

By the early nineteenth century, not only was kehilot life resented but the tsarist regimes were becoming increasingly absolute. In 1825 Tsar Nicholas I, attempting to centralize control of the empire and Russify its peoples, enacted oppressive measures against the Jews; he drafted a large number of under-age Jews for military service, forced Jews out of their traditional occupations, such as the liquor trade, and generally repressed the kehilot. Facing severe economic hardship and social upheaval, tens of thousands of Jews migrated to the cities, especially Odessa on the Russian coast. In their new urban environments, the restless and highly literate Jews clamored for the liberalization of tsarist rule.

In 1855 the prospects for Russian Jewry appeared to improve significantly when the relatively liberal-minded Tsar Alexander II ascended the throne. Alexander II ended the practice of drafting Jewish youth into the military and granted Jews access, albeit limited, to Russian education institutions and various professions previously closed to them. Consequently, a thriving class of Jewish intellectuals, the maskalim (enlightened), emerged in cities like Odessa, just as they had in Western Europe and Central Europe after emancipation. The maskalim believed that Tsar Alexander II was ushering in a new age of Russian liberalism which, as in the West, would eventually lead to the emancipation of Russian Jewry.

The hopes of the maskalim and of Russian Jewry in general, however, were misplaced. Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, and a severe pogrom ensued that devastated Jewish communities throughout the Pale of Settlement. The new Tsar, Alexander III, enacted oppressive policies against the Jews and denied police protection to those Jews who remained in the countryside. As a result, a floodtide of impoverished Jews entered the cities where they joined various movements that sought to overthrow the tsar.

The openly anti-Semitic policies pursued by the new tsar and the popularity of these policies among large segments of the nonJewish population posed serious political, economic, and spiritual dilemmas for Russian Jewry. On the economic level, the tsar's antiSemitic policies severely limited Jewish economic opportunities and undermined the livelihood of the Jewish masses. Many impoverished East European Jews, therefore, emigrated from the Russian Empire. Between 1881 and 1914, an estimated 2.5 million Jews left the empire, 2 million of whom settled in the United States.

For many Jews, especially the maskalim, however, the pogroms and the anti-Semitism of the new tsar not only meant economic hardship and physical suffering but also a deep spiritual malaise. Before 1881, they had been abandoning the strict confines of the kehilot en masse and rebelling against religious orthodoxy, anxiously waiting for the expected emancipation to reach Russia. The 1881 pogroms and their aftermath shattered not only the faith of the maskalim in the inevitable liberalization of tsarist Russia but also their belief that the non-Jewish Russian intellectual would take an active role in opposing anti-Semitism. Most of the Russian intelligentsia were either silent during the pogroms or actually supported them. Having lost their faith in God and in the inevitable spread of liberalism, large numbers of Russian Jews were forced to seek new solutions. Many flocked to the revolutionary socialist and communist movements opposing the tsar, while others became involved with the Bund, a cultural society that sought to establish a Yiddish cultural renaissance within Russia.

A smaller but growing number of Jews were attracted to the ancient but newly formulated notion of reconstituting a Jewish nation-state in Palestine. Zionism as it evolved in Eastern Europe, unlike Zionism in the West, dealt not only with the plight of Jews but with the crisis of Judaism. Thus, despite its secularism, East European Zionism remained attached to the Jewish biblical home in Palestine. It also was imbued with the radical socialist fervor challenging the tsarist regime.

Zionism's reformulation of traditional Judaism was deeply resented by Orthodox Jews, especially the Hasidim. Most East European Jews rejected the notion of a return to the promised land before the appearance of the messiah. They viewed Zionism as a secular European creation that aspired to change the focus of Judaism from devotion to Jewish law and religious ritual to the establishment of a Jewish nation-state.

Zionist Precursors

The impulse and development of Zionism was almost exclusively the work of Ashkenazim--Jews of European origin; few Sephardim were directly engaged in the movement in its formative years. (In 1900 about 9.5 million of the world's 10.5 million Jews were Ashkenazim, and about 5.2 million of the Ashkenazim lived in the Pale of Settlement.)

The first writings in what later came to be known as Zionism appeared in the mid-1800s. In 1840 the Jews of Eastern Europe and the Balkans had been aroused by rumors that the messianic era was at hand. Various writers, most prominently Rabbi Judah Alkalai and Rabbi Zevi Hirsch Kalisher but including many others, were impressed by the nationalist fervor of Europe that was creating new nation-states and by the resurgence of messianic expectations among Jews. Kalisher wrote that Jewish nationalism was directly akin to other nationalist movements and was the logical continuation of the Jewish enlightenment that had begun in France in 1791 when Jews were granted civil liberties. Alkalai consciously altered his expectations from a miraculous messianic salvation to a redemption by human effort that would pave the way for the arrival of the messiah. Both authors urged the development of Jewish national unity, and Kalisher in particular foresaw the ingathering to Palestine of many of the world's Jews as part of the process of emancipation.

Another important early Zionist was Moses Hess, a German Jew and socialist comrade of Karl Marx. In his book Rome and Jerusalem, published in 1862, Hess called for the establishment of a Jewish socialist commonwealth in Palestine. He was one of the first Jewish thinkers to see that emancipation would ultimately exacerbate anti-Semitism in Europe. He concluded that the only solution to the Jewish problem was the establishment of a national Jewish society managed by a Jewish proletariat. Although his synthesis of socialism and Jewish nationalism would later become an integral part of the Labor Zionist movement, during his lifetime the prosperity of European Jewry lessened the appeal of his work.

Political Zionism

Political Zionism was emancipated West European Jewry's response to the pervasiveness of anti-Semitism and to the failure of the enlightenment to alter the status of the Jew. Its objective was the establishment of a Jewish homeland in any available territory--not necessarily in Palestine--through cooperation with the Great Powers. Political Zionists viewed the "Jewish problem" through the eyes of enlightenment rationalism and believed that European powers would support a Jewish national existence outside Europe because it would rid them of the Jewish problem. These Zionists believed that Jews would come en masse to the new entity, which would be a secular nation modeled after the post-emancipation European state.

The first Jew to articulate a political Zionist platform was not a West European but a Russian physician residing in Odessa. A year after the 1881 pogroms, Leo Pinsker, reflecting the disappointment of other Jewish maskalim, wrote in a pamphlet entitled Auto-Emancipation that anti-Semitism was a modern phenomenon, beyond the reach of any future triumphs of "humanity and enlightenment." Therefore Jews must organize themselves to find their own national home wherever possible, not necessarily in their ancestral home in the Holy Land. Pinsker's work attracted the attention of Hibbat Tziyyon (Lovers of Zion), an organization devoted to Hebrew education and national revival. Ignoring Pinsker's indifference toward the Holy Land, members of Hibbat Tziyyon took up his call for a territorial solution to the Jewish problem. Pinsker, who became leader of the movement, obtained funds from the wealthy Jewish philanthropist, Baron Edmond de Rothschild- -who was not a Zionist--to support Jewish agricultural settlement in Palestine at Rishon LeZiyyon, south of Tel Aviv, and Zikhron Yaaqov, south of Haifa. Although the numbers were meager--only 10,000 settlers by 1891--especially when compared to the large number of Jews who emigrated to the United States, the First Aliyah (1882-1903), or immigration, was important because it established a Jewish bridgehead in Palestine espousing political objectives.

The impetus to the founding of a Zionist organization with specific goals was provided by Theodor Herzl. Born in Budapest on May 2, 1860, Herzl grew up in an environment of assimilation. He was educated in Vienna as a lawyer but instead became a journalist and playwright. By the early 1890s, he had achieved some recognition in Vienna and other major European cities. Until that time, he had only been identified peripherally with Jewish culture and politics. He was unfamiliar with earlier Zionist writings, and he noted in his diary that he would not have written his book had he known the contents of Pinsker's Auto-Emancipation.

While working as Paris correspondent for a Viennese newspaper, Herzl became aware of the pervasiveness of anti-Semitism in French society. He saw that emancipation rather than dissipating antiSemitism had exacerbated popular animosity toward the Jews. The tearing down of the ghetto walls placed Jews in competition with non-Jews. Moreover, the newly liberated Jew was blamed by much of non-Jewish French society for the socioeconomic upheaval caused by both emancipation and accelerated industrialization.

The turning point in Herzl's thinking on the Jewish question occurred during the 1894 Paris trial of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army, on charges of treason (the sale of military secrets to Germany). Dreyfus was convicted, and although he was eventually cleared, his career was ruined. The trial and later exoneration sharply divided French society and unleashed widespread anti-Semitic demonstrations and riots throughout France. To Herzl's shock and dismay, many members of the French intellectual, social, and political elites--precisely those elements of society into which the upwardly mobile emancipated Jews wished to be assimilated--were the most vitriolic in their antiSemitic stance.

The Dreyfus affair proved for Herzl, as the 1881 pogroms had for Pinsker, that Jews would always be an alien element in the societies in which they resided as long as they remained stateless. He believed that even if Jewish separateness in religion and social custom were to disappear, the Jews would continue to be treated as outsiders.

Herzl put forth his solution to the Jewish problem in Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State) published in 1896. He called for the establishment of a Jewish state in any available territory to which the majority of European Jewry would immigrate. The new state would be modeled after the postemancipation European state. Thus, it would be secular in nature, granting no special place to the Hebrew language, Judaism, or to the ancient Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Another important element contained in Herzl's concept of a Jewish state was the enlightenment faith that all men--including anti-Semites--are basically rational and will work for goals that they perceive to be in their best interest. He was convinced, therefore, that the enlightened nations of Europe would support the Zionist cause to rid their domains of the problem-creating Jews. Consequently, Herzl actively sought international recognition and the cooperation of the Great Powers in creating a Jewish state.

Herzl's ideas were not original, his belief that the Great Powers would cooperate in the Zionist enterprise was naive, and his indifference to the final location of the Jewish state was far removed from the desires of the bulk of the Jewish people residing in the Pale of Settlement. What he accomplished, however, was to cultivate the first seeds of the Zionist movement and to bestow upon the movement a mantle of legitimacy. His stature as a respected Western journalist and his meetings with the pope, princes of Europe, the German kaiser, and other world figures, although not successful, propelled the movement into the international arena. Herzl sparked the hopes and aspirations of the mass of East European Jewry living under Russian oppression. It was the oppressed Jewish masses of the Pale, however--with whom Herzl, the assimilated bourgeois of the West, had so little in common--who absorbed his message most deeply.

In 1897 Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. The first congress adopted the goal: "To create for the Jewish people a home in Palestine secured by Public Law." The World Zionist Organization was founded to work toward this goal, and arrangements were made for future congresses. The WZO established a general council, a central executive, and a congress, which was held every year or two. It developed member societies worldwide, continued to encourage settlement in Palestine, registered a bank in London, and established the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemet) to buy land in Palestine. The First Zionist Congress was vital to the future development of Zionism, not only because it established an institutional framework for Zionism but also because it came to symbolize for many Jews a new national identity, the first such identity since the destruction of the Second Temple in A.D. 70.

Cultural Zionism

The counterpoint to Herzl's political Zionism was provided by Asher Ginsberg, better known by his pen name Ahad HaAm (One of the People). Ahad HaAm, who was the son of a Hasidic rabbi, was typical of the Russian maskalim. In 1886, at the age of thirty, he moved to Odessa with the vague hope of modernizing Judaism. His views on Zionism were rooted in the changing nature of Jewish communal life in Eastern Europe. Ahad HaAm realized that a new meaning to Jewish life would have to be found for the younger generation of East European Jews who were revolting against traditional Jewish practice. Whereas Jews in the West could participate in and benefit from a secular culture, Jews in the East were oppressed. While Herzl focused on the plight of Jews alone, Ahad HaAm was also interested in the plight of Judaism, which could no longer be contained within the limits of traditional religion.

Ahad HaAm's solution was cultural Zionism: the establishment in Palestine of small settlements aimed at reviving the Jewish spirit and culture in the modern world. In the cultural Zionist vision, a small number of Jewish cadres well versed in Jewish culture and speaking Hebrew would settle in Palestine. Ahad HaAm believed that by settling in that ancient land, religious Jews would replace their metaphysical attachment to the Holy Land with a new Hebrew cultural renaissance. Palestine and the Hebrew language were important not because of their religious significance but because they had been an integral part of the Jewish people's history and cultural heritage.

Inherent in the cultural Zionism espoused by Ahad HaAm was a deep mistrust of the gentile world. Ahad HaAm rejected Herzl's notion that the nations of the world would encourage Jews to move and establish a Jewish state. He believed that only through Jewish self-reliance and careful preparation would the Zionist enterprise succeed. Although Ahad HaAm's concept of a vanguard cultural elite establishing a foothold in Palestine was quixotic, his idea of piecemeal settlement in Palestine and the establishment of a Zionist infrastructure became an integral part of the Zionist movement.

The ascendancy of Ahad HaAm's cultural Zionism and its emphasis on practical settlement in Eretz Yisrael climaxed at the Sixth Zionist Congress in 1903. After an initial discussion of settlement in the Sinai Peninsula, which was opposed by Egypt, Herzl came to the congress apparently willing to consider, as a temporary shelter, a British proposal for an autonomous Jewish entity in East Africa. The Uganda Plan, as it was called, was vehemently rejected by East European Zionists who, as before, insisted on the ancient political identity with Palestine. Exhausted, Herzl died of pneumonia in 1904, and from that time on the mantle of Zionism was carried by the cultural Zionists led by Ahad HaAm and his close colleague, Chaim Weizmann. They took over the WZO, increased support for Hibbat Tziyyon, and sought Jewish settlement in Palestine as a prerequisite to international support for a Jewish state.

Labor Zionism

The defeat of Herzl's Uganda Plan ensured that the fate of the Zionist project would ultimately be determined in Palestine. In Palestine the Zionist movement had to devise a practical settlement plan that would ensure its economic viability in the face of extremely harsh conditions. Neither Herzl's political Zionism nor Ahad HaAm's cultural Zionism articulated a practical plan for settlement in Palestine. Another major challenge facing the fledgling movement was how to appeal to the increasing number of young Jews who were joining the growing socialist and communist movements in Russia. To meet these challenges, Labor Zionism emerged as the dominant force in the Zionist movement.

The intellectual founders of Labor Zionism were Nachman Syrkin and Ber Borochov. They inspired the founding of Poalei Tziyyon --the first Labor Zionist party, which grew quickly from 1906 until the start of World War I. The concepts of Labor Zionism first emerged as criticisms of the Rothschild-supported settlements of the First Aliyah. Both Borochov and Syrkin believed that the Rothschild settlements, organized on purely capitalist terms and therefore hiring Arab labor, would undermine the Jewish enterprise. Syrkin called for Jewish settlement based on socialist modes of organization: the accumulation of capital managed by a central Jewish organization and employment of Jewish laborers only. He believed that "antiSemitism was the result of unequal distribution of power in society. As long as society is based on might, and as long as the Jew is weak, anti-Semitism will exist." Thus, he reasoned, the Jews needed a material base for their social existence--a state and political power.

Ber Borochov's contribution to Labor Zionism was his synthesis of the concepts of class and nation. In his most famous essay, entitled Nationalism and Class Struggle, Borochov showed how the nation, in this case the Jewish nation, was the best institution through which to conduct the class struggle. According to Borochov, only through the establishment of a Jewish society controlling its own economic infrastructure could Jews be integrated into the revolutionary process. His synthesis of Marxism and Zionism attracted many Russian Jews caught up in the revolutionary fervor of the Bolshevik movement.

Another important Labor Zionist and the first actually to reside in Palestine was Aaron David Gordon. Gordon believed that only by physical labor and by returning to the land could the Jewish people achieve national salvation in Palestine. Gordon became a folk hero to the early Zionists by coming to Palestine in 1905 at a relatively advanced age--forty-seven--and assiduously working the land. He and his political party, HaPoel HaTzair (The Young Worker), were a major force behind the movement to collectivize Jewish settlements in Palestine. The first kibbutz was begun by Gordon and his followers at Deganya in eastern Galilee.

Before Gordon's arrival, the major theorists of Labor Zionism had never set foot in Palestine. Zionism in its theoretical formulations only took practical effect with the coming to Palestine of the Second Aliyah. Between 1904 and 1914, approximately 40,000 Jews immigrated to Palestine in response to the pogroms that followed the attempted Russian revolution of 1905. By the end of the Second Aliyah, the Jewish population of Palestine stood at about 85,000, or 12 percent of the total population. The members of the Second Aliyah, unlike the settlers of the first, were dedicated socialists set on establishing Jewish settlement in Palestine along socialist lines. They undertook a number of measures aimed at establishing an autonomous Jewish presence in Palestine, such as employing only Jewish labor, encouraging the widespread use of Hebrew, and forming the first Jewish self-defense organization, HaShomer (The Watchmen).

The future leadership cadre of the state of Israel emerged out of the Second Aliyah. The most important leader of this group and the first prime minister of Israel was David Ben-Gurion. Ben-Gurion, who arrived in Palestine in 1906, believed that economic power was a prerequisite of political power. He foresaw that the fate of Zionist settlement in Palestine depended on the creation of a strong Jewish economy. This aim, he believed, could only be accomplished through the creation of a Hebrew-speaking working class and a highly centralized Jewish economic structure. Beginning in the 1920s, he set out to create the immense institutional framework for a Jewish workers' state in Palestine.

Revisionist Zionism

Labor Zionism, although by far the largest organization in the Yishuv (the prestate Jewish community in Palestine), did not go unchallenged. The largest and most vocal opposition came from a Russian-born Jewish intellectual residing in Odessa, Vladimir Jabotinsky. Jabotinsky was both a renowned writer and the first military hero of the Zionist revival; he was commander of the Jewish Legion. While residing in Italy, Jabotinsky became attached to the notions of romantic nationalism espoused by the great Italian nationalist Giuseppe Garibaldi. Like Garibaldi, Jabotinsky viewed nationalism as the highest value to which humans can aspire. He called for massive Jewish immigration to Palestine and the immediate declaration of Jewish statehood in all of biblical Palestine. He viewed the world in Machiavellian terms: military and political power ultimately determine the fate of peoples and nations. Therefore, he called for the establishment of a well-armed Jewish self-defense organization.

Jabotinsky sharply criticized Ben-Gurion's single-minded focus on creating a Jewish working-class movement, which he felt distracted the Zionist movement from the real issue at hand, Jewish statehood. He gained wide popularity in Poland, where his criticisms of socialism and his calls for Jewish self-defense appealed to a Jewish community of small entrepreneurs hounded as a result of anti-Semitism.

Israel History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress