A short history of the modern state of Israel: Part 2 (from Herzl to the First World War)

Herzl and the Jewish National Home

Just over a hundred years ago, a Viennese Jewish journalist and visionary, Theodor Herzl, launched the modern Zionist movement at a meeting in Basle of Jews from all over the world.  The first Zionist Congress published a document which opened with the following statement:

The task of Zionism is to secure for the Jewish people in Palestine a publicly recognised, legally secured homeland

At the time, Palestine was ruled by the Turks as part of the Ottoman Empire. 

Theodor Herzl (1860-1904) and the birth of Zionism

Herzl’s observations as a journalist reporting on the Dreyfus affair fuelled his conviction that the Jewish people could not rely on the goodwill of the nations among whom they lived.  His answer was Zionism.  At the time of the first conference, about 20,000 Jews lived in Palestine, mostly as farmers.  The majority of farmers had arrived during the previous 30 years (the First Aliyah), mostly escaping persecution in the Russian pogroms.  They had been inspired by a precursor of the Zionist movement known as Lovers of Zion which addressed the issue of how the Jews might best preserve their physical security and material welfare when the expected realignment of European territories occurred.  It actually happened with the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War.

The ZO (Zionist Organisation) adopted the following official statement (called The Basle Program) of Zionist purpose:

The aim of Zionism is to create for the Jewish people a home in Palestine secured by public law.  The congress contemplates the following means to the attainment of this end:

1    The promotion, on suitable lines, of the colonisation of Palestine by Jewish agricultural and industrial workers.

2    The organisation and binding together of the whole Jewry by means of appropriate institutions, local and international in accordance with the laws of each country.

3    The strengthening and fostering of Jewish national sentiment and consciousness.

4    Preparatory steps toward obtaining government consent, where necessary, to the attainment of the aim of Zionism.

The Jewish State

Herzl’s book, ‘The Jewish State’, was a passionate appeal for a Jewish homeland.  He believed European powers would help Jews obtain sovereignty over an extra-European territory.  He was helped by Hechler, the British Embassy Chaplain in Vienna who had strategic contacts all over Europe.

Herzl’s negotiations with the Ottoman Empire failed, which was to be expected because a Jewish homeland ran counter to fostering relations with Turkey.  So the Jews at large took up the cause of restoration.  The ZO established a Jewish National Fund for purchasing land for the settlement of Jews in Palestine.  There were several influential Christians in high places in Britain who were sympathetic and supportive of their cause.

Land purchase

Three years later the first land purchase was made: Kfar Hittim (Grain Village) in Galilee.  The first Zionist pioneers to live there were Polish Jews.  It was an uphill struggle with infertile land, uncooperative neighbours and the risk of malaria.  But they were determined to succeed.

A great challenge faced the ZO.  Many Jews worldwide up to this point had been content to play a constructive role in the country where they lived in the hope that they would be accepted.  Others had been drawn to the cause of international socialism and brotherhood (even revolution), scorning the idea of nationalism.

The Second Aliyah

The second Aliyah brought 32,500 Jews to Palestine between 1903 and 1914, and during this time the ZO established an office in Palestine.  Most important for the future cohesion of the nation, and for the practical ability of people from many countries to work together, the Hebrew language became the language of everyday life.  Up until then it had only been the language of prayer.

To promote the ideal of farming the land the first collective farm or kibbutz was established at Deganya just south of the Sea of Galilee; it was here that Moshe Dayan, a future Israeli Chief of Staff and Minister of Defence was born.

The First World War (1914-1918)

Britain attacked the Ottoman Empire on three fronts, and because Jews in Palestine hoped the defeat of Turkey might enable them to advance the Zionist ideal, Ottoman authorities were suspicious and expelled many to British-ruled Egypt.  These fought as allies of the British.  Behind Turkish lines, a group of Palestine Jews provided the British with vital information about the position and strength of the Turkish forces, and about the best lines of advance from the Sinai into Palestine.  The brother of one Jewish spy, Aaronsohn, later impressed British politicians by his faith in the future of Palestine as a self-sufficient agricultural country founded on Jewish enterprise.

Promise of reward

In recognition of the help given to Britain, and hoping to persuade Jews in Russian and the US to spur their respective governments into supporting the war against Germany, British Foreign Secretary, Lord Balfour, sent a letter to Lord Rothschild, the leader of British Jewry, promising a Jewish National Home in Palestine if the Turks were defeated.  Russian-born Chaim Weizmann headed up the ZO in Britain and helped persuade British leaders to support his cause.

Three prerequisites

For Britain to gain control of Palestine and the Balfour Declaration to be agreed, 3 things had to happen simultaneously: the military had to gain a victory on the ground in the region; the Zionist proposal (Chaim Weissman) had to fit with Britain’s imperial plans; the French, Vatican, Russian and especially Americans had to agree.  Thankfully Woodrow Wilson believed in restoration; he was a Bible believing Christian and gave his approval.

The Balfour Declaration (1917)

The city of Beersheva (Beersheba) was attacked and won in one day (Charge of the Australian Light Horse, 1917).  On the same day, unaware of victory, the Balfour Declaration was ratified:

Dear Lord Rothschild,

I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty's Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet.

His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours 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, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.

Allenby’s forces advanced on Jaffa and Jerusalem from Gaza.  In December 1917 he marched into Jerusalem and entered the Old City.  This was considered to be the supreme event of the war by T E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia).  Allenby issued a proclamation: Britain would respect the rights of all citizens.  This included the 50,000 Jews, a minority among half a million Arabs.

The war continues

The European war continued with US assistance.  Two young Palestinian Jews, David Ben Gurion (30 years later the first Prime Minister of Israel) and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi (later the second President of the new state) travelled to the US to recruit American Jews (many were Russian born) to fight in the British Army for the liberation of Palestine as members of the Jewish Legion, and then after the war to settle as pioneers.

At the end of the First World War the Jews expelled by the Turks returned to Palestine.  Encouraged by the British authorities Jews canvassed British church leaders.  A Zionist Commission, headed by Chaim Weizmann, reached Palestine and began to explore the possibilities for widespread immigration development.  Back in Britain, Jan Christian Smuts, a member of Lloyd George’s war cabinet, expressed that supporting the Jews was a debt of honour which must be fulfilled.

The task of Zionism is to secure for the Jewish people in Palestine a publicly recognised, legally secured homeland

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