Recalling that there were fewer than 25,000 Jews living in the region of Palestine, then known as Ottoman Syria, in the year 1880, the relative success of those people had sent a signal to Jews from across the world, particularly in Eastern Europe, and sparked their interest in a return to their homeland. Due to continued and increasing anti-Semitism, especially in Russia and Poland, Eastern European Jews began immigrating in large numbers to the former land of Israel in an event known as the first Aliyah (“Ascent”). Their success would lead to the second Aliyah, beginning in 1904 and lasting until the beginning of the First World War in 1914. Together, these mass relocations almost quadrupled the Jewish population in less than 25 years, with almost half of these people living in the city of Jerusalem itself. Some of the Jews going to Palestine during the waves of immigration during this period were merely travelling to Jerusalem or other holy cities as part of religious pilgrimages. A significant portion of the migrants sought to escape the pogroms, organized campaigns of anti-Semitic violence, which had become common in Russia as well as Eastern Europe as a whole.
It was during this time, that the Zionist ideology began to take shape and dreams of the creation of a Jewish state came to spread across the Jewish population of the world. Continuing the legacy of anti-Semitism dating back to the time of the early Christians, Jews were stigmatized across Europe, particularly wherever they were found to be financially successful, and as a result, early Zionist pioneers sought to free the Jewish people from the horrors of ethnic/racial violence and provide their future generations with a free and safe homeland. While at first there were considerations of taking any other available territory, Zionists eventually came to feel that Palestine, their historic homeland, would be the best place for them to settle.
This newfound zeal for reclaiming a safe haven for Jews was fueled by the 2.5 million Jews who were forced to leave Russia in the late 19th century, following the relatively prosperous years under the reign of Czar Alexander ll, who had allowed the Jews to flourish to some degree. This ended in 1881 when his death left his radically anti-Semitic son, Alexander lll, in power. With Alexander lll came the pogroms and waves of racially motivated riots. Most of the Jews escaping Russia fled to the United States, their desperation and the hardships of having to immigrate to a totally new society (with its own share of anti-Semitic sentiments) emboldened the Zionist movement and gave rise to the radical determination that was needed to forge an entirely new nation.
It was during these years following the Jewish flight from Russia that Zionism began to proliferate. First written of in widely circulated political pamphlets and private letters to prominent Jews from their allies and friends, Zionists texts eventually began to emerge as serious works of political philosophy by academics of Jewish heritage. These writings circulated across the Western world throughout the 1880s and 90s. It was during this time that the father of modern political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, came to seek the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine as a solution to the continuous state of crisis which had racked the Jewish people for centuries, and which showed no signs of improving.
In 1896, Herzl published Der Judenstaat (“The Jewish State”), an assessment of the bleak situation of Jews across the world and an argument in favour of the creation of a Jewish state in their ancient homeland, proclaiming “Palestine is our ever memorable historic home. The very name of Palestine would attract our people with a force of marvelous potency.” By August 1897, in Basel, Switzerland, Herzl convened the first World Zionist Congress, bringing together Jews from across the world. And establishing the World Zionist Organization (WZO). Due to these efforts, the movement for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine continued to gain support amongst Jews from across Europe, particularly Eastern Europe and Russia, and the WZO proved to be massively popular organization which rallied Jews from across the world, bringing a widely disparate population of people together into a unified nation in diaspora.
Furthering his goals for the Jewish people, Herzel negotiated for land with a number of heads of state, from the Kaiser of Germany, to the Ottoman Sultan, as well as numerous other European leaders and even the Pope. For a Jew to be granted such meetings, to be received at all by such dignitaries and in such numbers, was ground breaking, as no other person in the history of the Jewish people had even remotely accomplished such a feat. While Zionism faced some resistance from within its own population, it was primarily only from a small number of orthodox Jews who opposed it, rejecting it on grounds that returning to the holy land before the coming of the Messiah was against Jewish scripture. This small minority of religiously minded Jews aside, support for Zionism continued to grow into a secular and socialist movement with acceptance for all ethnic Jews regardless of religious affiliation.
While Herzl passed away in 1904, the Zionist movement continued to grow even without his leadership, Jews continued to seek acquiescence from the Ottoman rulers of Palestine for their settlement of the region. This goal was not without serious obstacles however, by the beginning of the First World War there were over half a million Arabs in Palestine and only 100,000 Jews, and many of these native inhabitants to the region were not pleased with the arrival of large numbers of Jews claiming it as their historic home. Nonetheless, Jews sought and received permission from Ottoman rulers to settle in the area, and thus continued to do so.
The First World War brought a slowing of Jewish immigration to the region, however, as wartime hostilities prevented freedom of travel and uncertainty surrounding Palestine’s fate made many Jews hesitant to start a new life there. Nonetheless, Zionists were determined to make the best of a bad situation and increasingly entreated Britain to allow them to settle in Palestine should it defeat the Ottoman empire and take the region, which was the British Empire’s ambition. As a result of the Zionist movement’s undeniable success, the Balfour Declaration was issued by the British government in 1917, publicly announcing its support for the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. Sent to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain by the Office of the Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, the British government gave the Zionists a clear message that it recognized their need for a Jewish homeland and would support their right to build one should Britain come into possession of the desired lands.
This document proved to be a world changing political paper as it brought widespread support for the Jews from across the world and presaged a unanimous approval by the United States Congress in 1922 for support of the Zionist objective of a homeland for the Jewish people; thus earning the Jews the widespread support of nations from around the world. Ultimately, the British war effort would prove successful, toppling the Ottoman empire along with its allies, the German Empire, and Austro-Hungarian Empire. By the end of the war in 1918, Britain and its own allies, France and Russia, having emerged victorious, set out to divide the colonies of the defeated powers and take them as their own. Palestine was agreed to become part of the British empire under the Mandate for Palestine (or “Palestinian Mandate”), a territory that included all of what is the modern nation of Israel as well as the kingdom of Jordan.
In keeping with their word, the British government supported Zionist ambitions and allowed for Jewish immigration into the former homeland of the Jews, bringing about an era of Jewish rebirth and sovereignty and the rise of the Yishuv, the Jewish community and government which would later rise to become the State of Israel. Prosperity was far from certain for the Jews of the Palestinian Mandate, however, as a number of great challenges awaited them on their way to independence in the decades to come, including increased hostilities from local Arabs who do not wish to see the Jewish presence in Palestine increase, and the eventual souring of relations with Britain as anti-Semitism once again saw a rise in the United Kingdom and the lives of Jews soured as a result.
Written by David Proulx – UTKM White Belt
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