Zionism-Israel

A Brief History of Zionism and the Creation of Israel

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A Brief History of Zionism and the Creation of Israel

See also - Detailed history of Zionism and the creation of Israel   Timeline of Zionism and Israeli History   Photo Gallery of Zionist History

Introduction - What is Zionism?

Zionism is the Jewish national movement. "Zionism" derives its name from "Zion," (pronounced "Tzyion" in Hebrew) a hill in Jerusalem. The word means "marker" or commemoration. "Shivath Tzion" is one of the traditional terms for the return of Jewish exiles. The term "Zionism" was coined by the Zionist publicist Nathan Birnbaum in 1890.

Click here for definitions of Zionism

Background - When did Zionism Begin? Love of Zion in Jewish History

Zionism did not spring full blown from a void with the creation of the Zionist movement in 1897. Jews had maintained a connection with Palestine, both actual and spiritual. This continued even after the Bar Kochba revolt in 135, when large numbers of Jews were exiled from  Roman Palestine, the remains of their ancient national home. The Jewish community in Palestine revived. Under Muslim rule, is estimated to have numbered as many as 300,000 prior to the Crusades, about 1000 AD. The Crusaders killed most of the Jewish population of Palestine or forced them into exile, so that only about 1,000 families remained after the reconquest of Palestine by Saladin. The Jewish community in Palestine waxed and waned with the vicissitudes of conquest and economic hardship. A trickle of Jews came because of love of Israel, and were sometimes encouraged by invitations by different Turkish rulers to displaced European Jews to settle in Tiberias and Hebron. At different times there were sizeable Jewish communities in Tiberias, Safed, Hebron and Jerusalem, and numbers of Jews living in Nablus and Gaza.  A few original Jews remained in the town of Peki'in, families that had lived there continuously since ancient times.

In the Diaspora, religion became the medium for preserving Jewish culture and Jewish ties to their ancient land. Jews prayed several times a day for the rebuilding of the temple, celebrated agricultural feasts and called for rain according to the seasons of ancient Israel, even in the farthest reaches of Russia. The ritual plants of Sukkoth were imported from the Holy Land at great expense. A Holy-Land centered tradition persisted in Diaspora thought and writing. This tradition may be called "proto-nationalist" because there was no nationalism in the modern sense in those times. It was not only religious or confined to hoping for messianic redemption, but consisted of longing for the land of Israel. It is preserved in the poetry of Yehuda Halevi, a Spanish Jewish physician, poet and philosopher, who himself immigrated to "the Holy Land" and died there in 1141.

From time to time, small numbers of Jews came to settle in Palestine in answer to rabbinical or Messianic calls, or fleeing persecution in Europe. Beginning about 1700,  groups of followers led by rabbis, reached Palestine from Europe and the Ottoman empire with various programs. For example, Rabbi Yehuda Hehasid and his followers settled in Jerusalem about 1700, but the rabbi died suddenly, and eventually, an Arab mob, angered over unpaid debts, destroyed the synagogue the group had built and banned all European (Ashkenazy) Jews from Jerusalem. Rabbis Luzatto and Ben-Attar led a relatively large immigration about 1740. Other groups and individuals came from Lithuania and Turkey and different countries in Eastern Europe.

At no time between the Roman exile and the rise of Zionism was there a movement to settle the holy land  that engaged the main body of European or Eastern Jews, though many were attracted to various false Messiahs such as Shabetai Tzvi, who promised to restore Jews to their land. For most Jews, the connection with the ancient homeland and with Jerusalem remained largely cultural and spiritual, and return to the homeland was a hypothetical event that would occur with the coming of the Messiah at an unknown date in the far future. European Jews lived, for the most part in ghettos. They did not get a general education, and did not, for the most part, engage in practical trades that might prepare them for living in Palestine. Most of the communities founded by these early settlers met with economic disaster, or were disbanded following earthquakes, riots or outbreaks of disease. The Jewish communities of Safed, Tiberias, Jerusalem and Hebron were typically destroyed by natural and man-made disasters and repopulated several times, never supporting more than a few thousand persons each at their height. The Jews of Palestine, numbering about 17,000 by the mid-19th century, lived primarily on charity - Halukka donations, with only a very few engaging in crafts trade or productive work.

Emancipation and its effect on Zionism

The French revolution and the rise of Napoleon hastened the emancipation of European Jewry, who were no longer confined to the ghettos of European cities, and became citizens like everyone else. Eventually, the liberalization reached Eastern Europe and Russia as well. The enlightenment of the 18th century and the  emancipation of the 19th were a great shock for Jewish culture and identity. Jews split into several groups during the nineteenth century.  Ultraorthodox Jews remained faithful to the culture of the ghetto, which excluded the possibility of intermingling in modern society or gaining a modern education. A second group attempted to assimilate completely into European society, converting to Christianity and losing their Jewish identity. A third group believed that they could assimilate as modern citizens, with equal rights and still maintain their Jewish faith, while renouncing any cultural or group allegiance to Judaism. In effect, their Judaism became somewhat like a section of the Protestant religion. They found various euphemisms for their identity, such as Hebrews or Germans of the Mosaic faith. This group founded the Reform Judaism movement. The assimilationist viewpoints took it on faith that once the Jews "became like everyone else" they would be accepted in society as equals, and would become Germans, Italians, Englishmen or Frenchmen. However, it became increasingly evident to many during the nineteenth century that assimilation was not necessarily desirable. Perhaps it was impossible as well, since anti-Jewish feeling did not abate. The newly coined Christians and "Germans of the Mosaic Faith" found themselves the objects of increasing anti-Jewish sentiment, which took on the title of "anti-Semitism" in 19th century Germany.

Proto-Zionism

Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh Kalischer (Kalisher) Forerunner of modern Zionism

At the same time, after the French Revolution and the emancipation of European Jewry,  the vague spiritual bonds of the Jewish people began to express themselves in more concrete, though not always practical ways. About 1808, groups of Lithuanian Jews, followers of the Vilna Gaon (a famous rabbi and opponent of Hassidism) arrived in Palestine and purchased land to begin an agricultural settlement. In 1836, Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer petitioned Anschel Rothschild to buy Palestine or at least the Temple Mount for the Jews.  In 1839-1840, Sir Moses Montefiore visited Palestine and negotiated with the Khedive of Egypt to allow Jewish settlement and land purchase in Palestine. However, the negotiations led to nothing, possibly frustrated by the outbreak of an anti-Semitic blood-libel in Damascus. Thereafter, Montefiore continued with less ambitious philanthropic schemes in Palestine and in Argentina. In the 1840s, Rabbi Kalischer in Poland, and Rabbi Yehuda Alkalai, a Sephardic Jew, wrote articles urging practical steps for hastening redemption by settling in the Holy Land, to be sponsored by the efforts of philanthropists.

Rabbi Judah Alkalai (Alkali) - forerunner of modern Zionism
Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh Kalischer (Kalisher)
(1795-1874)
Rabbi Judah ben Shlomo  Alkalai (Alkali) (1798-1878)

British Zionism - The idea of a Jewish restoration also took the fancy of British intellectuals for religious and practical reasons. The restoration was championed in the 1840s by  Lords  Shaftesbury and Palmerston, who in addition to religious motivations thought that a Jewish colony in Palestine would help to stabilize and revive  the country, Jewish national stirrings were also voiced by novelists and writers such as Lord Byron, Benjamin Disraeli, George Eliot and Walter Scott. ( for a detailed discussion of British Zionism click here ).

Role of Sephardic Jews - Through an accident of history, European (Ashkenazy) Jews took the lead in organized Zionism for many years. However, Sephardic (Spanish) Jews and Jews in Arab lands maintained a closer practical tie with the holy land and with the Hebrew language than did Ashkenazy Jews and also influenced and participated in the the Zionist movement  from its inception.  Sarajevo-born Judah ben Solomon Hai Alkalai (1798-1878,) is considered one of the major precursors of modern Zionism. Alkalai believed that return to the land of lsrael was a precondition for the redemption of the Jewish people. Alkalai's ideas greatly influenced  his Ashkenazy contemporary,  Rabbi Tsvi Hirsch Kalischer. Alkalai was also a friend of the grandfather of Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. Another Sephardi Jew,  David Alkalai,  a grand-nephew of Judah Alkalai, founded and led the Zionist movement in Serbia and Yugoslavia., and attended the first Zionist Congress in Basel (1897).

Early Zionists

The modern formulation of Zionism was divorced from religious aspirations. The 19th century enlightenment allowed the Jews to leave the ghettos of Europe for the first time. Some converted to Christianity and assimilated to surrounding society. Others, exposed to a general education, dropped their religious beliefs, but understood that both they and others still considered them to be Jews. This suggested a conundrum. If one could be a non-believer and still be a Jew, then "Jew" must be more than just the name of a religion. German racists solved this conundrum by inventing a racial theory, which lacked any real scientific basis. Socialists cited the aberrant class structure of Jewish society and labeled Jews a "caste.". Zionists solved the conundrum by declaring that Jews are a people, a fact implicit in the Jewish biblical and cultural concept of "am Yisrael."  The Jews were a people without a country however, and would remain politically powerless as long as they did not have a national home. They would be guests everywhere and at home nowhere, according to Zionist ideology. This homelessness was the cause of the "Jewish Problem," and it could not fail to be exacerbated by the rise of nationalism and nations in the 19th century. This explained why, paradoxically, anti-Jewish sentiment might become more pronounced in "enlightened" Europe than it had been in previous centuries. 

Moses Hess, a more or less secular Jew and a socialist, was probably the first to enunciate these ideas in so many words in his book Rome and Jerusalem, published in 1862, calling for a Jewish national movement similar to the Italian risorgimento nationalist movement. These and similar sentiments were adopted by numerous small groups that formed primarily in Eastern Europe, but also in Britain and  in the United States.

The "First Aliya"

The first groups of immigrants who came to the land with the idea of turning the land into a national home for the Jews are known as the "first Aliya." "Aliya" literally means "going up" and it is term Jews have used for a long time for coming to the holy land.  Beginning in the 1870s, religious and nonreligious Jews established several study groups and societies for purchasing land in Palestine and settling there. In 1870 the Alliance Israelite, an ostensibly non-Zionist organization, founded the Miqve Yisrael agricultural school near Beit Dagan.  The BILU movement and Hibat Tziyon organized by  Leon Pinsker  followed suit in the 1880s. Zionism began from inside the "old" Jewish Yishuv as well: Joel Solomon led a group of orthodox Jews out of Jerusalem to found Petah Tikva in 1878. Eliezer ben Yehuda begin the revival of Hebrew as a modern language.

Theodor Herzl and the Foundation of the Zionist Movement - "What year did Zionism Start?"

The Dreyfus affair, which developed in France beginning in 1894, made Western European Jews conscious of their national identity, and in particular, affected a young Vienna journalist, Theodor Herzl. His  pamphlet Der Judenstaat, The Jewish State, was published in 1896.  Herzl's plan for creating a Jewish state, which evolved after he had weighed other solutions as well, provided the practical program of Zionism, and led to the first Zionist Congress in Basle, Switzerland, in August, 1897.

After the first Basle Congress, Herzl wrote in his diary, “Were I to sum up the Basle Congress in a word- which I shall guard against pronouncing publicly- it would be this: ‘At Basle, I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. If not in 5 years, certainly in 50, everyone will know it.’”

Zionism: Theodore Herzl - Founder of the Zionist movement
Theodor Herzl  (1860 -1904)

Herzl thought that diplomatic activity would be the main method for getting the Jewish homeland. He called for the organized transfer of Jewish communities to the new state. Herzl attempted to gain a charter from the Sultan of Turkey for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, then ruled by the Ottoman Empire. To this end he met in 1898 with the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, in Istanbul and Palestine, as well as the Sultan, but these meetings did not bear fruit. Later, Herzl negotiated with the British regarding the possibility of settling the Jews on the island of Cyprus, the Sinai Peninsula, the El Arish region and Uganda. All these negotiations came to naught. The insistence of Eastern European Jews on Palestine as the Jewish homeland, coupled with the failure of alternatives, maintained the focus of the Zionist movement on Palestine.

The Second Aliyah and Socialist Zionism

The "political Zionism" approach originally tried by Montefiore, Pinsker and Herzl, which attempted to obtain a Jewish homeland from colonial powers, failed to attain results at least initially. Meanwhile, however, practical settlement efforts gradually increased the Jewish population of Palestine from about 25,000 in 1882 to approximately 85,000 to 100,000 just prior to World War I. 

A fresh wave of anti-Semitic pogroms in Russia provided the impetus for a second wave of immigration, beginning about 1904 and called the  Second Aliyah. At the same time, the rise socialist - Zionist stirrings had inspired several socialist Zionist movements.  Thousands of new immigrants dedicated to the conquest of labor ethic and socialist ideals arrived in Palestine. Their Zionism was typified by the thinking of men like Ber Borochov and A.D. Gordon. Hapoel Hatzair, ("The young worker") was founded by A.D. GordonPoalei Tziyon ("workers of Zion") , and later Hashomer Hatzair ("the young guard) were inspired by Ber Borochov.  Borochov, an ideologue of the Poalei Tziyon movement,  did not cite anti-Semitism as the basis or motivation of Zionism. According to him, the Diaspora produced aberrant social conditions that  made Jews economically inferior and politically helpless. The normal organization of society was a pyramid, according to Borochov, with a large body of workers and smaller groups of intelligentsia, land owners and capitalists.  The Diaspora had created an 'inverted pyramid' in  Jewish society, with no Jewish peasant or worker class. Self-liberation of the Jews would come about by proletarianization of the Jews in their homeland, and the nascent Jewish proletariat would join the socialist international.  Similarly, A.D. Gordon, inspired by 19th century romanticism, called for a Jewish return to the soil and virtually made a religion of work. These ideas fused into the ideals of "productivization" (returning the Jews, who engaged mostly in professional and mercantile trades, to productive labor) and  "conquest of labor" (kibbush ha'avoda). "Conquest of labor" later took on additional meanings. (See also Labor Zionism and Socialist Zionism )

Labor Zionism - Meeting of Hapoel Hatzair in 1909
Labor Zionism - Detail of photo showing delegates to the fourth meeting of the Hapoel Hatzair, about 1909. Click here for full photo and more about labor Zionism and socialist Zionism.

Arthur Ruppin and Practical Zionism

In 1907, a young economist named Arthur Ruppin was sent to Palestine to study the conditions of the Yishuv. Ruppin's report and ideas formed the basis for the Zionist action program in the coming years, and shaped the second Aliya as well as the future of Zionist settlement and the character of the state. Rupin understood that it was impossible to continue with the plantation model introduced by the first Aliya settlement program. He backed a small group of socialist settlers who wanted to found a commune at Sejera. This became Kibbutz Degania in 1909, later followed by Kinnereth, Merchavia and other kibbutzim.  The arrangement, originally thought to be temporary, proved to be practical, as well as suited to the socialist ideals of the new settlers. It soon inspired several other kibbutzim (collective farms). The Kibbutz movement was to become the backbone of Labor Zionism in Palestine, and eventually provided political and military leadership. Kibbutzim provided ideal places for hiding arms from the British and recruiting and training troops, as well as for organizing local defense and guarding borders.

The British Mandate - The first Achievement of Political Zionism

The Zionist movement did not give up efforts to find a political solution. The political Zionism and practical settlement approaches were merged into "Synthetic Zionism" advocated by Chaim Weizmann. The  efforts ultimately bore fruit in the Balfour Declaration, a promise by Britain to further efforts for a Jewish national home in Palestine. and in the League of Nations Mandate, which give international sanction to the Jewish national home. Weizmann became head of the Zionist organization and later was the first President of Israel.  The British split the large area of Transjordan from the Palestine Mandate (see map at right). This was part of the basis for an eventual split in the Zionist movement. The revisionists refused to accept the loss of Transjordan and eventually left the Zionist movement over that and other issues.  In 1923 the British also split off a tiny portion of northern Palestine, northeast of the sea of Galilee, and gave it to French mandated Syria.

Palestine: Map of British Mandate for Palestine and Transjordan

Jewish Immigration under the Mandate

Jewish immigration after the British entered Palestine is somewhat arbitrarily divided into three further Aliyoth (plural of Aliya):

The third Aliya - The third aliya consisted mostly of Eastern European and Russian Jews including some who had left or been expelled by the Turks during the war. This immigration began about 1919 when Palestine was still under British military rule and is considered to have ended about 1923. Perhaps 35,000- 40,000 Jews came to Palestine in this period.

The fourth Aliya - After the institution of the mandate, immigration quotas were established, and applicants had to prove that they had some capital with which to begin life in Palestine. The fourth Aliya lasted from 1924 to 1929 or 1932 and consisted in large part of Polish Jews who were motivated to come to Palestine by the anti-Zionist regime and the new immigration quotas imposed in the United States. The fourth Aliya is generally considered to have ended in 1929, after Arab Riots and Massacres in Jerusalem and Hebronseemed to show that settlement in Palestine was not a safe solution for Jews, or in 1932, after which immigrants began coming from Nazi Germany in large numbers. About 60,000-70,000 Jewish immigrants came to Palestine in this period.

The fifth Aliya - The fifth Aliya lasted from 1929 or 1933 to 1939, when the British White Paper closed the gates of Palestine to Jewish immigration due to the Arab revolt and international Arab pressure on Great Britain. About 200,000- 250,000 Jews arrived in this period, 174,000 of them came between 1933 and 1936, when severe quotas were first introduced. Many of them were German Jews fleeing Nazism. The Germans allowed the Jews to leave in part because of the "hesder" or "ha'avara" agreement under which the property Jews took with them was treated as "export goods" in return for a ransom paid to the Reich.

The Jewish Agency

The Jewish Agency was set up in 1929 through the efforts of Chaim Weizmann and others, in accordance with the stipulation of the League of Nations Mandate that an  agency comprised of representatives of world Jewry assist in the establishment of the Jewish National Home. The agency was the official interlocutor for the Jews of Palestine and the Zionist endeavor with the British Mandate and the League of Nations. The Jewish Agency was not a Zionist organization however, since it was set up by the World Zionist Organization and non-Zionist groups and leaders, including Leon Blum, Felix Warburg and  Louis Marshall.

Zionism and the Arabs

When Zionism had its first beginnings, in the early 19th century, there were about 200,000 Arabs living in all of the land, mostly concentrated in the countryside of the West Bank and Galilee, and mostly lacking in national sentiment. Palestine was, in Western eyes, a country without a nation,  as Lord Shaftesbury wrote. Early proto-Zionists did not trouble themselves at all about the existing inhabitants. Many were heavy influenced by utopianism. In the best 19th century tradition, they were creating a Jewish utopia, where an ancient people would be revived. They envisioned a land without strife, where all national and economic problems would be solved by good will, enlightened and progressive policies and technological know-how. Herzl's Altneuland was in in fact just such a utopia. Jewish population grew, but Arab population grew more rapidly. By 1914, there were over 500,000 Arabs in Palestine.

At the same time,  Zionist pronouncements and outlook were often frankly colonialist, especially when addressing leaders of foreign powers. The plantations sponsored by Baron Rothschild were modeled on plantation settlement in Algeria and other colonies. Colonialism was fashionable and "progressive," and early Zionist leaders saw nothing wrong in assimilating this idea to Zionism along with other "modern" ideas such as socialism, utopianism and nationalism.

The "conquest of labor" movement, intended to make room for Jewish workers, displaced some Arab watchmen  and led to violence. While the actual number of persons displaced or dispossessed may have been small, and may have been offset by real economic benefits and increased employment provided by Zionist investment, the feeling grew among the Arabs that the Zionists had arrived to dispossess them. A Nazareth group complained that the Zionists were "a cause of great political and economic injury... The Zionists nourish the intention of expropriating our properties. For us these intentions are a question of life and death." (Morris, loc cit.)  As the conflict intensified, the Zionists formed a guard association, Hashomer, to guard the settlements in place of Arab guards. The attempts to retake land and disputes with Jewish guards led to increased violence beginning in the second half of 1911.

Soon after World War I, Zionist leaders clearly recognized the problem of conflict with the Arabs. David Ben Gurion told members of the Va'ad Yishuv (the temporary governing body of the Jewish community in Palestine) in June 1919:

But not everybody sees that there is no solution to this question. No solution! There is a gulf; and nothing can bridge it.... I do not know what Arab will agree that Palestine should belong to the Jews...We. as a nation,. want this country to be ours; the Arabs, as a nation, want this country to be theirs.

(Benny Morris, Righteous Victims, Knopf 1999 Page 91)

By 1923, in his Iron Wall article, Jabotinsky had answered his own question. He argued that agreement with the Arabs was not possible, because they

...look upon Palestine with the same instinctive love and true fervor that any Aztec looked upon his Mexico or any Sioux looked upon his prairie. To think that the Arabs will voluntarily consent to the realization of Zionism in return for the cultural and economic benefits we can bestow on them is infantile.

Meanwhile the Arab and Jewish communities grew progressively apart. Arabs refused to participate in a Palestinian local government which gave equal representation to the Jewish minority. The British, nearly bankrupt after WW I,  insisted that the mandate should be self-sufficient. Mandate services were paid for from taxes paid by the Jewish and Arab inhabitants of Palestine. Additional services were funded by philanthropists from abroad and from membership dues in various organizations. Zionist philanthropy and organization far-outstripped what Palestinian Arabs could provide.  Neither Arabs nor Jews wanted integrated schools. Zionist groups funded religious, secular and labor-Zionist educational networks for Jewish children in Hebrew, but few comparable schools were set up for Arabs. The Zionists founded the Histadruth Labor federation to encompass Jewish workers, providing Hebrew education, medical care, worker-owned enterprises and cultural facilities as well as representation of labor rights. No comparable association was created by the more numerous Arabs of Palestine, though the Histadruth made some efforts to organize Arab labor beginning in 1927, and the Palestine Communist party attempted to represent both Jewish and Arab labor.

The Mandate: Zionism, the Arab Revolt and the Conflict With Britain

From the beginning of the British Mandate, Arab opposition to Zionism coalesced into organized resistance, taking the form of riots and later a revolt. The chief architects of this mischief were the Husseini clan led by Haj Amin El Husseini, the Grand Mufti. The Mufti and others convinced Palestinian Arabs that the Zionists were going to dispossess them of their lands by force, and spread false rumors that the Jews were going to desecrate the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. Riots and pogroms  were instigated in 1920, 1921 and 1929 resulting in deaths and injuries in Jaffa, Hebron, Jerusalem, Motza and elsewhere. The British government increasingly  understood that its promises to the Zionists and Mandate obligations were very unpopular in the Arab world. They split off a large part of the Palestine Mandate territory to form Transjordan and issued the  Passfield White Paper   that proposed  limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine. The Passfield White Paper was quietly withdrawn under pressure from Zionists, from British public opinion and from the League of Nations. However, Palestine did not remain quiet. The Mufti allied himself with Fascist Italy and Germany, and probably was was funded by the Italian government beginning about 1936.

In 1936, in response to the large Jewish immigration from Europe, open revolt broke out. Three years of bloody riots instigated by the Mufti and his allies resulted in hundreds of Jewish casualties and an estimated 1,500 Arabs were killed, many by the Mufti. The rioting forced the British to take draconian measures. The Mufti fled to Iraq in 1937  and then to Nazi Germany in 1941 after instigating a coup in Iraq.   In 1937, the British proposed tentatively to partition Palestine in the Peel report. This caused additional divisions in the Zionist movement. Some believed in a bi-national Jewish Arab state and objected to the idea, contained in the Peel recommendations, of transferring Arabs "voluntarily" out of the territory to be allotted to the Jewish state. The revisionists and religious Zionists, on the other hand, objected to giving up any part of the territory of Palestine. Subsequently the British issued the  White Paper of 1939, severely limiting Jewish immigration. The Revisionists formed the Irgun underground army, which attacked  British soldiers and administrators and perpetrated terror attacks against Arabs in retaliation for Arab attacks on Jews. ( See also Zionism and its Impact

Zionism during the Holocaust

The murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime in the Holocaust has become inevitably and inextricably bound up to the history of Zionism. The relation of the Holocaust to Zionism has provoked controversy and resentment, particularly among anti-Zionists. Zionists have been accused of indifference to the plight of European Jews. To an an extent it was true at first. Initially, the reports of Nazi persecution did not seem to be any worse than persecution of Jews that had occurred in Europe for hundreds of years - confiscation of businesses, discriminatory legislation and expulsion. The Yishuv was struggling with an Arab revolt and trying to build a Jewish society. The tiny, more or less powerless and poor Israeli Yishuv and the Zionist movement that supported it, could do very little to aid the Jews of Europe in any case. Nonetheless, the Zionist organization and the Yishuv ransomed Jews from Nazi Germany in return for economic concessions. The Zionists managed to save over 200,000 European Jews before World War II. When the British responded to Arab pressure and ended Jewish immigration to Palestine, the Zionists, attempting to rescue Jews from the Nazis, organized illegal immigration  through the "Institution for Illegal Immigration" (Hamossad L'aliya Beth).  

Illegal immigration was organized between 1939 and 1942, when a tightened British blockade and stricter controls in occupied Europe made it impractical, and again between 1945 and 1948. To circumvent British regulations against creating new settlements, the Zionists initiated the "stockade and tower" ("homa umigdal") program, that allowed overnight creation of a new "settlement," consisting of a wall and watch tower. Under the law, the British could not destroy such an 'established' settlement.

Reports of Nazi atrocities became increasingly frequent and vivid. Despite the desperate need to find a haven for refugees, the doors of Palestine remained shut to Jewish immigration. The Zionist leadership met in the Biltmore Hotel in New York City in 1942 and declared that it supported the establishment of Palestine as a "Jewish Commonwealth." 

Following World War II, Britain continued to limit Jewish immigration to Palestine. The Zionist factions united and conducted an underground war against the British, as well as applying pressure on the British government through the United States. In June of 1947, the British rammed the Jewish illegal immigrant ship Exodus (formerly "President Warfield") on the high seas. They towed it to Haifa where it was the subject of extensive publicity, generating public sympathy for the Zionist cause. The passengers were eventually disembarked in Hamburg. The incident set world opinion, and particularly US opinion against the British, and caused the British to intern illegal immigrants thereafter in Cyprus, rather than attempting to return them to Europe.

History of Zionism: The refugee ship Exodus - 1947

The Exodus - 1947

Israel - a State is born

The British found it necessary to maintain a large military establishment in Palestine to enforce the draconian immigration policy and respond to Jewish underground attacks on British personnel. This policy was increasingly unpopular at home and forced the British to announce in February 1947 that they were returning their mandate to the UN. A special commission, UNSCOP, was set up to recommend a solution to the UN. The commission recommended partition. The Arabs were opposed to either partition or a binational state. The U.S. and the USSR supported partition of Palestine, and carried a large bloc of votes with them. On November 29, 1947, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states in General Assembly Resolution 181. A war broke out in fact, while the British were still in Palestine.  The Arabs initiated a war against the Jewish community and the the Jewish state, with the declared aim of "driving the Jews into the sea." There was little doubt about their intentions. The Mufti, a Nazi collaborator who escaped the clutches of the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal, had told the British that in his view the preferred solution for the Jews of Palestine was the one adopted in Europe, in other words, annihilation. Almost as soon as the UN decided on partition of Palestine, Arabs began attacking Jews, beginning with lethal riots in Jerusalem and attacks on Jewish transportation. The British allowed a volunteer army under Fawzi El Kaukji, to enter Palestine in January of 1948. During the fighting, with Jerusalem virtually blockaded, the state of Israel was established on May 15, 1948. Arab countries, chiefly Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq, invaded almost immediately.

Map of Israel-Palestine UN Partition Plan 1947

Map of the UN Partition Plan for Palestine, 1947

Zionism, the Establishment of Israel and the Palestinian Refugee Question

In addition to the plans of the Mufti, hair-raising vows to "Drive the Jews into the sea" and Arab promises of carnage to surpass that of the Mongols, massacres of Jews such as occurred to the convoy of 35 and in Gush Etzion, and ethnic cleansing of Jews from Palestinian areas, such as occurred in Gush Etzion and Jerusalem, convinced the Jews of Palestine that they were facing a war of extermination. However, the Arabs of Palestine were not well organized and could not attain their goal of cleansing Palestine of Jews. Likewise, the Jews were able to hold their own against the invading armies of Arab states.  Instead, it was they who suffered expulsion. As a result of the war, between 600,000 and 800,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes. Massacres and ethnic cleansing are deplorable, but they often happen as a result of war. The Czechs expelled the Sudetens Germans after World War II, because like the Arabs of Palestine, the Germans of Czechoslovakia sought to destroy the state in which they lived.  It is absurd to claim that the Czechs had planned to expel the Germans since the beginnings of Czech nationalism.  In a civil war such as occurred in 1948, armed militias use villages and neighborhoods as bases. Civilian casualties were therefore inevitable, and it was very likely that once the war was initiated, one side or the other would suffer massive displacement and tragedy.  For the Arabs of Palestine, their Nakba, or catastrophe,  vindicated their fears that the Zionists were bent on dispossessing them.

< Israel: Map of Green line armistice borders, 1948

Map of the Israel  "Green Line" Borders

Both anti-Zionists and right-wing Zionists have claimed that the expulsion of Arabs in 1948 was a more or less  deliberate result of Zionist policy and ideology. Anti-Zionists make this claim to discredit Zionism, while right-wing Zionists make this claim in order to justify possible transfer or expulsion of Arabs in the future. This is the main basis of the often repeated "Zionism is Racism" slogan. The evidence does not seem to support those claims. From the first, the Zionist plan was to buy land and not to expel Arabs by force. Arthur Ruppin, the Palestine land agent, described in detail some of the difficulties involved in Palestine purchases. Purchase of land was hampered by lack of money, by the unwillingness of Palestinian landowners to sell land to Jews, and by the arduous conditions obtaining in the Middle East in those days. Additionally, and perhaps more important, there was not much land to buy. Under Turkish law, most of the Arab inhabitants of Palestine leased their land from the government or cultivated village land that was held in common. The Turks had introduced private landownership in the Tanzimat reform of 1858. However, as few wished to pay taxes, they did not register their lands. Large tracts were bought by notables close to the ruling circles, but much of this land was in the  the West Bank. Land was also purchased in the Galilee, and part of this land was purchased by the Jewish Agency. Some land was and is owned either by the Waqf (Muslim religious endowment), The Greek Catholic Church or other religious institutions. The Greek Orthodox church was and remains one of the largest landholders in Palestine, and some of this land was leased by the Zionist leadership, including the land where the Israeli Knesset (parliament) is located. The Greek Orthodox  Church however, could not sell its land. The British regularized the registry of land to the extent that land that was not village land or government or waqf land was considered taxable, regardless of who owned it. The person or persons  who worked the land paid taxes and it was theirs to use, but not to sell as long as the land did not lie fallow for three years. The lands of the Negev, which were not arable before the national water carrier was built, were owned by the government and were not for sale. The government owned about 48% of the land.  The Jewish Agency managed to purchase only about 6% of the land area of Palestine that became Israel by 1948. This was a small percentage of the total area, but it was a large percentage of the land that was privately owned and could be bought. 

The UN Partition Resolution and Israeli Legitimacy

Some argue that it was "understandable" that the Palestinians would defy the U.N. partition resolution, because the resolution "took Palestine away from them and threatened to dispossess them of their homes. However, there is no evidence that Jewish leaders planned to dispossess Arabs or threatened to do so. Just before the establishment of the State of Israel, Chaim Weizmann, head of the World Zionist Organization and first President of Israel, wrote in his autobiography, Trial and Error, "... the world will judge the Jewish state by what it will do with the Arabs." (Chaim Weizmann, Trial and Error, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1949, p. 566). That was Zionist policy and intent, but the war forced upon Israel by the Palestinians and the Arab states produced an impossible reality. The right of the Jews to self-determination in Palestine was recognized not only by the United States, South American and  Western European countries, but by the USSR as well. There is hardly a more eloquent defense of Zionism then the one given by the Soviet representative, Andrei Gromyko in the United Nations:

The delegation of the USSR maintains that the decision to partition Palestine is in keeping with the high principles and aims of the United Nations. It is in keeping with the principle of the national self-determination of peoples...

The solution of the Palestine problem based on a partition of Palestine into two separate states will be of profound historical significance, because this decision will meet the legitimate demands of the Jewish people... UN Debate on Palestine Partition- November, 26, 1947

Besides, the disposition of Palestine as a Jewish national home had already been recognized as part of the post World War I peace settlement, and in the League of Nations British Mandate for Palestine. Those who claim that this settlement was illegitimate because it was inspired by imperialism and colonialist greed, must remember that the same arrangements created all the Arab states of the Middle East as well as Czechoslovakia, Poland and other countries. The Arab defiance of the UN in 1947 was not very different than the German defiance of the League of Nations when Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938. Indeed, the Nazis used parallel arguments: the Versailles treaty was unjust, Czechoslovakia was an "artificial state" and the Sudetens Germans had, according to Hitler a "general right to self-determination."

The Holocaust in Zionist Controversy

The Holocaust and the historical view of the Holocaust has been made into a major item of contention by anti-Zionists. The Holocaust was the tragic and dramatic fulfillment of Zionist claims that Jews would never be safe without a sovereign Jewish homeland. This prophecy was not just an abstract ideological principle. In particular, the revisionist Zionist leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky repeatedly warned Polish Jews of the coming catastrophe. For example, in August of 1938, he wrote, in an article published in Warsaw:

 "...it is already three years that I am calling upon you, Polish Jewry, who are the crown of world Jewry. I continue to warn you incessantly that a catastrophe is coming closer. I became gray and old in these years, my heart bleeds, that you, dear brothers and sisters, do not see the volcano which will soon begin to spit its all consuming lava. I know that you are not seeing this because you are immersed in your daily worries. Today, however, I demand your trust. You were convinced already that my prognoses have already proven to be right. If you think differently then drive me out from your midst.

"However, if you do believe me, then listen to me in this 11th hour: In the name of G-d, Let any one of you save himself as long as there is still time. And time there is very little.

Jabotinsky's warnings went largely unheeded.

The Holocaust seemed to be a solemn warning that Jews could not ever integrate securely into European society. That question itself became moot after World War II, because there were so few Jews left in Europe, and there was so much revulsion at the crimes of the Nazis, that for a long period anti-Semitism seemed to have disappeared entirely. Nonetheless, the Holocaust remains a major embarrassment for anti-Zionist ideologues, and they in turn, have attempted to counter this impression in different ways. Some have resorted to Holocaust denial, others insist that the Zionists were somehow at fault for the Holocaust, because they didn't do enough to save European Jewry. Others insist that "the Zionists" have made too much of the Holocaust and have created a "Holocaust industry," and that in fact, the Holocaust was not aimed particularly at Jews, since some gypsies and homosexuals and mental defectives were also killed by Nazis.

To an outsider it may seem that the state of Israel would not have come into existence without the Holocaust. Anti-Zionists have used this impression to claim that the state was "given" to the Jews by the world as a "special favor" and that therefore the legitimacy of the existence of Israel depends on the morality of Israeli acts, as judged by them. The same people often give the idea that there were no Jews in Palestine before World War II, and that immediately after the war, Zionists brought hundreds of thousands of Jews, creating the state at the expense of the Palestinians, to atone for European misdeeds. That idea is certainly false, since most of the 1948 Jewish population of Palestine had arrived before the war, and since Zionism, born in 1897, could not have been motivated by the Holocaust that happened nearly half a century later.

While it is certain that the Holocaust helped to mobilize international opinion in favor of a Jewish state, it is by no means certain that it was a critical factor or necessary cause. Sever Plocker and Tom Segev have both argued that without the Holocaust, a Jewish state would have been born in any case, and it would have been much stronger because of the support and presence of European Jews. Certainly, the Zionists envisioned that the Jewish state would be built by European Jews. The Holocaust, and the imprisonment of Soviet Jewry made this impossible and changed the nature of the state, exacerbating the problems it faced.

Zionism After the Establishment of the State of Israel

The Zionist organization has continued to function after the establishment of the Jewish state. It has helped to bring millions of new immigrants to Israel, encourages the teaching of Hebrew and Jewish culture abroad, lobbies for Israel with the US and other governments, and rallies support to Israel in times of crisis. However, in Israel, "Zionism" became somewhat of a pejorative, associated with government propaganda, super-patriotism and regimentation. The Labor Zionist movement, that had founded the state, eventually found itself in a minority, replaced in large part by more militant religious Zionists and the Likud party, which inherited the mantle of revisionism, carried on by Menachem Begin after the death of Ze'ev Jabotinsky.

For many people in Israel and abroad, "Zionism" came to imply support for the settlement of Jews in the territories occupied by Israel in the six-day war, and assumed a very negative connotation for those who oppose the occupation.

Post-Zionism - Beginning in the 1980s, some Israeli historians and sociologists began to question facts about the official history of Israel and Zionism, as well as the Zionist ideology. They reasoned that Zionism had accomplished its purpose in creating the Jewish state, and that now it was time to move on.  They posited that Israel and the Zionists had a large share of the blame for the animosity between Jews and Arabs, and had in fact, ignored the existence of the Arabs in Palestine and then dispossessed the Palestinians by force. This reasoning was supported by new histories, that talked frankly about less savory aspects of Israeli history that had been previously ignored.  The new historians made a case that at least part of Zionism had always envisioned expulsion or transfer of the Arabs, and described massacres and expulsions which took place in 1948, often claiming that these were part of a deliberate policy. The historians claimed that these new facts were revealed by declassified archives.  Actually, the main facts supposedly "revealed" by the new historians were known to all Israelis who wanted to know them, though perhaps not in detail, and not presented in the particular way that new historians presented them, and not written up in English.  These ideas, called by some "post-Zionism," do not necessarily form a coherent ideology and their practitioners do not generally see themselves as members of a movement or followers of a distinct philosophy. Some "post-Zionists" like Ilan Pappe are indistinguishable from anti-Zionists, while others, like Benny Morris, use the same facts to arrive at very different conclusions that might support a militant Zionist ideology.  Post-Zionism attained a wide popularity for a while, but fell into eclipse after peace negotiations between Palestinians and Israel failed, and violence flared in September of 2000.

Ami Isseroff

See here for a Detailed history of Zionism and the creation of Israel  

See here for details about  the Arab-Israeli conflict and History of Israel and Palestine.

 

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