Palestine: Part One.
The Jewish Question.
Summary: Every story has a beginning. Every conflict has its roots. For some, the Israel/Palestine conflict is rooted in scripture and written in blood. Others claim it boils down to a deadly dispute over real estate. There’s a reason why “peace in the Middle East” feels out of reach and why so many have thrown their hands up. It’s complicated. But it’s not impossible to understand. We begin our journey in earnest by tackling the so-called “Jewish Question” and uncovering the roots and motives of the Zionist movement.
“The Jewish question is indissolubly bound up with the complete emancipation of humanity. Everything else that is done in this domain can only be a palliative and often even a two-edged blade, as the example of Palestine shows.” -Leon Trotsky, 1937.
You’ll forgive the brutish oversimplification of world history.
Finding a starting point in this journey is precarious considering we’re talking about the cradle of civilization. While we’re going to provide some cultural, religious and territorial background to the part of the world known as Palestine, the inflection point of our inquiry is an event in France in 1894. Not only does this year and specific event conveniently bridge our work in the socialism series, it is considered by many to be the birth of the Zionist movement. More on that in a bit.
First, let’s zoom out to identify the origins of the protagonists in our story: the Israelis and the Palestinians. These are modern nationalistic identities of Jews and Muslim Arabs who live in the territory between Galilee region in the north and the Sinai Peninsula to the south, and from the Jordan River in the east to the Mediterranean Sea. We’ll begin by examining what was widely referred to as “The Jewish Question.”
Chapter One: Diaspora.
The territory of Palestine and the modern-day nations that surround it were predominantly housed within a series of enormous empires throughout history. If we look at it in the Common Era, these territories were part of the Roman Empire and then the Eastern Roman Empire until they were absorbed into a series of Islamic Caliphates. Over decades and centuries, vast swaths of land would fall under dynastic rule within the major Caliphates, until the mid 16th Century when the Ottoman Empire consolidated much of these territories. Roughly, the Ottomans ruled from 1516 to 1918.
The Ottoman Empire is important to know, because the Jewish people found a safe haven here for centuries before the Empire crumbled during World War One. This area covers the Balkans down through Turkey, all of the Middle East to the border of Persia, or modern-day Iran, the Arabian Peninsula, and Egypt and Northern Africa to the border of Morocco. James Gelvin, author of The Israel-Palestine Conflict writes:
“As in the case of other early modern empires, religion provided one of the cornerstones of dynastic legitimacy in the Ottoman Empire. The empire was the preeminent Sunni Islamic empire of its time.”
At the center of it all, in the middle of three continents and all of history, lies Jerusalem.
Using the vast area surrounding Jerusalem as a focal point, we can bring in the experience of the Jewish people, beginning with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Until this point Jerusalem had been occupied, and at times controlled, by those who professed belief in Judaism, paganism and the newly formed Christianity. But, for the most part, it was just another important city in vast empires throughout antiquity.
In the centuries prior to Common Era, Jerusalem was both a secular and religious enclave that was swallowed up by Egyptian, Babylonian and Persian rule, and the Jewish people were among those who alternately resisted, but sometimes assimilated, into these empires. Of relative importance to this period is that the people of this land, including the Jews, were still polytheistic. But with the construction of the First Temple and the organizing of the Torah, the Jewish people began to consolidate their faith and mythology to create a unified identity. Note that I’m not using mythology as a derogatory term, rather to emphasize that the faith and traditions were cultivated over long periods of time into a singular narrative. What’s important is the idea that Jews began to build a distinct cultural and religious identity prior to their expulsion from this area after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
This is what gives us our first key term: diaspora. The term diaspora can be applied to any group of people with a common identity who are expelled from their native land. Today, we mostly refer to the Jewish Diaspora because of the very specific nature of the Jewish people, which will come into play later when we speak about nationalism. One of the reasons I referred to the Jewish experience as “singular” throughout history in the introduction to this essay is because Jews are the only people that can be identified by any combination of culture, ethnicity or religion. One can be Jewish but not religious or the other way around; one can convert to Judaism, but be of another heritage or ethnicity.
Throughout most of recorded history and even in antiquity, where many of our religious narratives have their roots, the Jewish people lived peaceably among other cultures and faiths, and under dynastic rule. The periods of persecution and expulsion that shaped modern Jewish traditions were few and far between, but tended to be brutal and all-encompassing. Most of us in western culture have a passing notion of the diaspora at the beginning of the Common Era because it represents the birth of Christianity and the modern calendar. The dominant monotheistic religions took shape under the yoke of the Roman Empire, and the rise of Christianity marked a seminal change in the course of western empires over the next few centuries.
Over the first half of the millennium, the Jewish Diaspora spread throughout the Mediterranean region from Northern Africa to the Iberian peninsula, where several Jewish communities thrived and Jewish people comfortably assimilated. Jews played a significant role on the Iberian peninsula, in particular, until the Visigoth rule that forced all inhabitants to accept Christianity by decree in 1492, the same year that asshole Columbus sailed the ocean blue. This is the population referred to as Sephardic Jews. Again facing expulsion from a region they had set longstanding roots, some sought refuge in Eastern Europe, and others within the burgeoning Ottoman Empire. And even before the Ottomans pushed further east, Jewish people also thrived in Arabic territories where Islam was already flourishing.
Chapter Two: Beyond the Pale.
When the Russian Empire started its historic expansion during the reigns of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great in the 1700s, many of the territories previously accepting of Jewish families quickly turned hostile. By this time, about 75% of the Jewish population globally lived in eastern Europe, mostly in what is modern day Poland. As Gelvin writes:
“The sudden appearance of large numbers of Jews within their empire was a matter of concern to Russian imperial elites. In 1791, Catherine the Great hit upon a novel plan to deal with them: Henceforth, Jews living within the empire were to reside in a specially designated area on the empire’s western fringes.
“The Jewish Pale of Settlement, as this area was called, stretched from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south and included within its boundaries territories that make up the contemporary states of Lithuania, Belarus, and Moldova, and parts of contemporary Ukraine, Poland, and Latvia. The Russian government permitted Jews to live outside the pale only under special circumstances and only with special permission.”
Gelvin makes an interesting point about Jewish culture during this period that is worth noting. Throughout the long century from the establishment of the Pale and the turning point of Zionism, several laws were passed designed to target and isolate Jews in the Russian Empire. This included a conscription law bluntly titled, “Memorandum on Turning the Jews to the Advantage of the Empire by Gradually Drawing Them to Profess the Christian Faith, Bringing Them Closer to, and Ultimately Completely Fusing Them with, the Other Subjects of the Empire.” I shit you not, this was the title of the law. But back to Gelvin’s point:
“Because anti-Semitism did not distinguish between observant and nonobservant Jews, it had the effect of strengthening the belief within the Jewish community that shared history and culture, not religious belief or practice, made their community a community.”
This is such an important point to make, especially in today’s context, when we see so many secular Jews with divergent opinions on the state of Israel, where Jews belong in society and the Jewish faith in general. It’s critical to understand just how deep the ties are that bind the Jewish community together; ties that have held together a common identity for thousands of years, despite the absence of a homeland. Understanding the Zionist commitment to the state of Israel depends upon this historical appreciation.
This appreciation among the Jewish people of eastern Europe in particular is referred to as the Haskalah, otherwise known as the Jewish Enlightenment. Like the Enlightenment proper, this movement helped fuse science and reason with culture and was appended to the Jewish experience and traditions. Thus began a rational exploration of the Jewish faith, a quest to understand the Jewish existence in the context of both history and faith. This is similar to the early Enlightenment thinkers that we’ve covered who sought to contextualize their faith within political and economic doctrines. But for Jewish intellectuals, known as the maskilim, it incorporated the question of persecution. Why were Jews continually expelled and driven from lands where they not only assimilated culturally, but contributed to incredible societal gains? For the maskilim, the answer was found in the ancient texts, and the way forward was expressed in a concept known as Zionism.
In the Russian Empire during the late 1800s, Jews were being persecuted once again after being falsely blamed for the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. Pogroms spread like wildfire throughout the empire, and Jews once again found themselves seeking refuge in other parts of the world. In all, more than two million Jewish people fled Russia for parts of Europe, South America and the United States. But there were some who had a different vision. A dream of returning to a homeland to fulfill a prophecy. The Hebrew people’s return to the land of Israel. The First Aliyah had begun. The Jews were coming home.
Chapter Three: France, The birthplace of Zionism.
Every nation is steeped in mythology. Hard edges are rounded off, exploits are glorified and combatants are martyred in the practice of building a national identity. For the Jewish people, the story of Israel took on something more than mythological status. It was prophesy.
“He will raise a banner for the nations and gather the exiles of Israel; he will assemble the scattered people of Judah from the four quarters of the earth… They will swoop down on the slopes of Philistia to the west; together they will plunder the people to the east.” - Isaiah, 11:10
“‘I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.’” - Jeremiah, 29:14
Theodor Herzl was born into a prosperous Hungarian family in 1860. Though educated as an attorney, Herzl eventually landed work as a journalist and worked as a reporter in Paris in the 1880s. It was during his time there that he witnessed the Dreyfus Affair in 1894, whereby a Jewish officer in the French army was wrongly accused of a crime, publicly humiliated and stripped of his rank and sent to prison. The event, as we covered in our socialism series, sent shockwaves throughout Europe and contributed to the fear among Jewish people who were already on heightened alert from the rise of anti-Semitism. For Herzl and other Jews, if liberal and enlightened France proved unsafe for Jews, then nowhere would be.
As former U.S. envoy to the Middle East Dennis Ross writes in his book The Missing Peace, “Herzl authored a book, The Jewish State, in 1896 and founded the World Zionist Organization the following year, even while remaining largely unaware of the activities of Russians beginning to immigrate to Palestine—activities that included reintroducing Hebrew as the national language. Herzl lobbied world leaders to gain support for a Jewish state. He pressed the leaders of the Ottoman Empire, including the Sultan, to lift the restrictions they had imposed on Jewish immigration and land purchases in Palestine.”
Here is Herzl in his own words:
“The Jewish Question still exists. It would be foolish to deny it. It exists wherever Jews live in perceptible numbers. Where it does not yet exist, it will be brought by Jews in the course of their migrations. We naturally move to those places where we are not persecuted, and there our presence soon produces persecution. This is true in every country, and will remain true even in those most highly civilised - France itself is no exception - till the Jewish Question finds a solution on a political basis.”
To Zionists, the Jewish question was clearly answered in secular terms first, doctrinal terms later. And the matter of where was secondary to the matter of what. A homeland to the Zionist leaders meant a state, not simply a home. This distinction remains central to understanding the nature of Jewish settlement in Palestine, and a theme we’ll return to when we cover the period between the Second World War and present day.
For centuries, Jews lived comfortably alongside Turks, Arabs and Egyptians, most of whom were Muslim. Rashid Khalidi, author of The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine, describes this coexistence through to the first decade of the 20th Century when, “a large proportion of the Jews living in Palestine were still culturally quite similar to and lived reasonably comfortably alongside city-dwelling Muslims and Christians. They were mostly ultra-Orthodox and Mizrahi or Sephardic, urbanites of Middle Eastern or Mediterranean origin who often spoke Arabic or Turkish.”
The Palestinian people prior to the First Aliyah—the term used to describe Jewish immigration to Palestine, and literally translates to “ascend”—occurred prior to Herzl’s declaration of a movement. Tens of thousands of eastern European Jews fleeing persecution in the expanding Russian empire had migrated to Palestine to form agrarian communities known as kibbutzim. Why Palestine, when the new world was accepting of Jewish migrants? For some, it was uncertainty. But for others, it was natural and more economical than starting over an ocean away.
In Palestine, they found other Jews as well as indigenous Muslim, Christian and Druze Arab populations. Moreover, many found meaningful work, though not as much as those in the First Aliyah hoped. Contrary to the modern portrayal of the indigenous population, the industrial revolutions and concepts of nationalism had already penetrated the region. As Gelvin writes:
“It was the obstreperous warlord of Egypt, Mehmet Ali, who introduced Palestinians to the techniques of modern statecraft during the decade-long (1831–41) Egyptian occupation of Palestine…For Mehmet Ali, this territory—also known as ‘Greater Syria’ (the territory of present-day Syria, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, and Jordan)—was a prize worth fighting for. Occupying this territory would enable the Egyptians to control the commerce passing through the eastern Mediterranean…After the Ottomans, with British assistance, expelled the Egyptian army and administration from Palestine, not only did they retain many of the innovations introduced by the Egyptians, they expanded them.”
Even still, Palestine was rural and less developed compared to their European contemporaries. But it was far from the wasteland some make it out to be. Once the Ottomans expelled the Egyptians, they set about building railroads and planting crops such as wheat, barley, cotton, tobacco and castor oil plants. As Gelvin notes, “On the coast between Haifa and Jaffa, the process of recultivation was slower but still irreversible.”
Again, this isn’t to suggest that “larger Syria” was thriving in the same fashion as the European states; merely to demonstrate that it wasn’t dependent upon imperial rule and oversight in the same way many other colonized agrarian nations were when under the thumb of colonial rule.
One of the Ottoman inventions in 1858 would ultimately come back to haunt the people of Palestine: private property. As we espoused in the socialism series, the two pillars of Marxism are the abolition of private property and internationalism. The advent of private property—again, we’re talking about productive agrarian land and not individual homes—meant that it could be controlled. More importantly to our story, it could be bought and sold.
The Jewish National Fund (JNF) was established in 1901 for the express purpose of purchasing land to protect the rights of Jewish settlers throughout the world. The 1858 Ottoman land code provided the ability to do just that, a distinction that makes this part of the world amenable to settlement. It’s also why modern Zionists can rightly claim that much of the land settled by Jews throughout the 20th Century was indeed purchased, and not stolen.
Moreover, because of the expansiveness of the Ottoman Empire, many of the larger land owners in Palestine were absentee Arab landowners. Some were financed by British authorities, others by French and Russian concerns. Regardless of the origin of their capital, they had little connection to the land in Palestine other than to view it as an investment. “When representatives of the Jewish National Fund came around offering top dollar for land on which to establish Jewish settlements,” writes Gelvin, “many did not hesitate to sell.”
As Herzl and others quickly mobilized the World Zionist Organization, they began looking for settlement options. Because the British had an early foothold in the region and were so intimately involved in Northern Africa, it took it upon itself to first offer Uganda. And, in fact, Herzl was open to the idea. But Palestine had a few advantages in the eyes of the Zionist movement.
First off, there were already Jews who had moved there in the First Aliyah. Second, the 1858 land code gave the JNF the ability to begin purchasing large tracts of land. Because of the preponderance of cheap but skilled Arab labor, this would enable the Jewish settlers to get up and running faster than anywhere else. And then there was the doctrinal narrative. With options foreclosing quickly in eastern Europe, and western Europe following a similar path, the Palestine option became the most expeditious way to safely move what would be hundreds of thousands of Jews. Not even Herzl, who died in 1904, could have imagined the catastrophic horror that awaited those who did not join the subsequent aliyot.
Chapter Four: A congress in search of a state.
The First Aliyah occurred during a global economic crisis. As such, upwards of 65% of the first wave of Jewish settlers wound up leaving Palestine by 1902. Nevertheless, tens of thousands of settlers remained and assimilated into the culture and economy alongside the Arab population. As Gelvin writes, “The first aliyah also raises the always intriguing question of what might have been. During the Aliyah, there was an intimate economic relationship between Jews and Arabs.”
Many argue today over the term settler-colonial to describe the actions of the Jewish people in Palestine. But, at the formation of the Zionist movement, it was widely understood that this was indeed the mission. Here are the four main tenets that emerged from the First Zionist Congress:
- The promotion, on suitable lines, of the colonization of Palestine by Jewish agricultural and industrial workers.
- The organization and binding together of the whole Jewry by means of appropriate institutions, local and international in accordance with the laws of each country.
- The strengthening and fostering of Jewish national sentiment and consciousness.
- Preparatory steps toward obtaining government consent, where necessary to the attainment of the aim of Zionism.
The first is a clear declaration of intent. To colonize the land known as Palestine. A few thoughts on this. First off, colonial rule was a normal way to pursue territorial expansion. It was practiced by all of the imperial powers and even by empires before. Attempting to whitewash or minimize this takes away from the discussion. It’s the second part of the first declaration that proves more interesting.
“Colonization by Jewish agricultural and industrial workers.” Lost in modern discussions is the fact that many Zionists of the time were socialists and viewed Zionism through a utopian socialist lens. This plays a significant role in the formation of early governance in Israel and disputes between what is colloquially referred to as “labor zionism” and “land zionism”, something we’ll explore more fully when we cover the formation of the Likud Party in the 1970s.
The second declaration is interesting. “In accordance with the laws of each country.” If we think about this for a moment, it reveals an obvious tendency. Most of the proposed territories were not yet seen as countries. Therefore, the options were either regions within empires or fully formed nation-states. The former would ultimately inform the decision to settle in a territory that had yet to be claimed by imperial interests.
The third declaration is self-evident. To succeed, the Zionists needed more than a homeland. They needed an identity. Because Jews viewed themselves along a spectrum of culture, ethnicity and religion, there was no singular definition. Centuries of diaspora meant that Jewish culture mirrored their settled lands. Ashkenazi Jews from eastern Europe had little in common with Arabic Jews or Sephardic Jews, for example. Furthermore, it meant there wasn’t a shared language, a critical ingredient in establishing a national identity. And because religious adherence ranged from the ultra-orthodox to secular, religion alone wasn’t a determining factor. The modern nation-state requires defined borders, governing principles, shared language and an identity.
On the last declaration—“consent where necessary to the attainment of the aim of Zionism”—this refers to the consent of the nations that mattered in the imperial designs of empires and nation-states. For the Zionists, Britain would take the lead; but France, Russia, Germany and ultimately the United States would provide such consent at different but critical junctures along the way.
So, if aligning the Jewry of Palestine into a singular identity was of paramount importance to the Zionist movement, it begs several questions. Who ultimately immigrated to greater Palestine, when and where. In answering these questions, we begin to see the vision coalesce, albeit in fits and starts. Again, Gelvin:
“Although the first aliyah did not provide viable economic and social structures that would support the Jewish colonization of Palestine, the second and third aliyot, which took place in the periods 1904–14 and 1918–23 respectively, did. These two waves of immigration brought approximately 75,000 new settlers to Palestine.”
So, the First Aliyah had brought agrarian settlers from the Pale of Settlement and other regions of greater Russia to Palestine in the hope of settling farming communities. It was important to determine a degree of self-sufficiency among those who settled the kibbutzim. Those who stayed comprised the bedrock of the Zionist labor movement determined to bring a democratic socialist vision to life. The Second and Third Aliyot were of a different character, as Europe descended into the chaos of World War One and shortly thereafter. The conquest of labor turned to the conquest of land and brought Jews from all over who were determined to “make the desert bloom.” While still labor-minded at heart, these waves brought with them an understanding that this was it. They were a full generation into the Zionist movement, and this was to be their homeland. No more running.
The socialist-minded Jews who first settled Palestine were also beneficiaries of prior socialist experiments such as Robert Owen’s New Harmony. As Gelvin observed:
“If utopian socialism provided the immigrants of the second and third aliyot with a set of guidelines, economic imperative provided them with the incentive to apply them. As we have seen in the case of the first aliyah, it was all too easy for Zionists to grow dependent on Arab labor, which was both cheap and plentiful. But employing Arabs could only undercut the Zionist project. Not only would it inhibit the emergence of an autonomous, self-sufficient Jewish nation in Palestine, it would expand the pool of available labor, depress wages in the Yishuv, and discourage Jewish workers and artisans from immigrating to Palestine.”
Gradually, the nature of the farming homesteads changed from the communal kibbutzim to the cooperative moshavim that allowed for individual ownership within settlements.
As we’ll cover in the next essay, the wave of immigration during the Second and Third Aliyot was the true beginning of the fracture with the indigenous population in Palestine who were about to be both carved out of imperial conquests and left behind by their Arab neighbors.
These were the so-called “facts on the ground” that the Zionists sought to change. This is a popular term that is important to understand, as it is still invoked today in Zionist policy circles. Changing the facts on the ground means to shift consciousness through land ownership. For example, if Jewish settlers move to occupy a territory, then after a period of time, it becomes a fact; something that must be factored into future decisions.
Steadily altering the facts on the ground through land purchases, and then expansion, was an essential part of the Zionist strategy that worked for Arabs employed by the expanding settlements and the Jewish immigrants. But as immigration increased and Jews no longer required Arab labor, inequity started to eat away at the Palestinian people. But, beyond the facts on the ground, there was another seismic event that occurred in 1917 that produced consequences that remain to this day.
“His Majesty’s government view with favour 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, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”
This statement is what is known as the Balfour Declaration, something you’ve probably heard a lot about in recent weeks. Arthur James Balfour, secretary of state for British foreign affairs, wrote the declaration in November of 1917.
On the eve of the war, the Ottomans made a gross miscalculation and sided with the central powers against the Allies in Europe. This was mostly a reflection of the power structure being centered in modern day Turkey, as the Turks and Germans were more closely aligned. The Balkans were also drawn into the conflict on the side of Germany, and these territories had far more in common with the Ottoman Turks than the imperial forces of the Allies, who were seen as a more of a threat to Ottoman sovereignty. On this point, they were correct. But the Turkish estimation of the German forces, spurred on by early victories, led to the miscalculation. Not only would this lead to the end of the Ottoman Empire, it would deliver their worst fears of imperialist exploits.
The British took Jerusalem in 1917, and immediately set about consolidating their newfound holdings in the surrounding territories. The Balfour declaration, therefore, had the dual purpose of both defining a new imperial outpost for the British and to satisfy the Jewish question that was subsequently dropped on its doorstep. At the conclusion of the war, with nascent Arab states having been drawn all around Palestine, the Palestinian Arabs suddenly found themselves in a no-man’s-land. And the only rights being granted within this nation-in-waiting were offered to the newly settled Zionists.
The League of Nations, the precursor of the United Nations designed around Woodrow Wilson’s infamous Fourteen Points, borrowed liberally from the Balfour Declaration when drawing up plans for British rule in Palestine. Here’s Khalidi:
“The Mandate not only incorporated the text of the Balfour Declaration verbatim, it substantially amplified the declaration’s commitments…One of the key provisions of the Mandate was Article 4, which gave the Jewish Agency quasi-governmental status as a public body with wide-ranging powers in economic and social spheres and the ability to assist and take part in the development of the country. Article 7 provided for a nationality law to facilitate the acquisition of Palestinian citizenship by Jews. This same law was used to deny nationality to Palestinians who had emigrated to the Americas during the Ottoman era and now desired to return to their homeland. Thus Jewish immigrants, irrespective of their origins, could acquire Palestinian nationality, while native Palestinian Arabs…were denied it.”
A confidential memorandum from Balfour himself, declassified 30 years after the war, lays the plan out in stark terms.
“For in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country…The Four great Powers are committed to Zionism. And Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.”
The British Mandate encouraged a new wave of immigration, or the Fourth Aliyah, beginning in 1924. Over the next five years, it’s estimated that an additional 80,000 Jews migrated to Palestine, with more than half of them fleeing from new waves of anti-Semitic legislation and actions in Poland. As Gelvin writes, these settlers were, “more akin to refugees than their ideologically inspired predecessors…Many were small businessmen and shopowners. As a result, most did not subscribe to the socialist principles of the second and third aliyot.”
One of the most important figures in the Zionist movement emerged at this time. David Ben-Gurion, who would eventually be tapped as the first Prime Minister of Israel, came to prominence within the Zionist Party and focused his efforts on building a coalition among the laboring classes to align them politically with nationalist tendencies. His philosophy is known as mamlachtiut. While it doesn’t translate perfectly to English, the essence of it was to move the Jewish people from a class to a nation, a notion of sovereignty and self-determination that revolved around both the Jewish identity and the labor movement.
As Nathan Yanai writes in the Jewish Political Studies Review, “Ben-Gurion’s argument entailed two almost tautological propositions: one, that the labor movement must identify with the nation at large and its primary interests; two, that the labor movement was, in fact, ‘the nucleus and the future profile of a new Hebrew people.’”
Ben-Gurion was part of the democratic socialist tradition of the Zionist movement. His was a watered down vision of settler-colonialism that saw the virtues in a Jewish-run state, but one that would absorb the full citizenry of the populated territory. Ben-Gurion ultimately fused his followers into a consensus party known as the Mapai Party, which became the dominant political force in Jewish-controlled Palestine from 1930, through Israel’s founding and through to the 1970s. The ideological underpinnings of the Mapai Party were more inviting prior to Israel’s founding than afterward, but the roots were very much guided by Ben-Gurion’s specific take on labor nationalism and the belief that the way of the kibbutzim could light the path forward.
Ben-Gurion is a giant among Zionists who have contributed to the mythology over decades. However, the wave of “New Historians,” a group of Jewish historians in Israel dedicated to examining the nationalistic myths of Israel’s creation, have cast some doubt over the intentions of Ben-Gurion and the Mapai Party in recent years. The New Historians take a more cynical view of Ben-Gurion’s motives, particularly with the use of the Haganah, the paramilitary force he helped foster prior to statehood; Haganah would eventually become the Israeli Defense Force (IDF).
Ben-Gurion will play a more significant role in the post-1948 essay but his contribution to the formation of the Israeli government cannot be overstated throughout the 1930s.
The Palestinian Arabs were running out of options on the table. The British were running the territory of Palestine under the British Mandate and unbeknownst to the Palestinian people, the surrounding territories had already been theoretically committed in secret agreements reached among the Allies during the war. In March of 1915, the British reached an agreement with Russia to annex the Ottoman capital of Constantinople. In return, the Russians would cede any claims to the oil rich areas of modern-day Iraq and Iran.
In May of 1916, the British and French signed a secret accord known as the Sykes-Picot agreement, which would theoretically divide up the entirety of the Ottoman Empire should the Allies prove victorious in the war. Newly formed Lebanon would go to France. The British would take control of Iran and Iraq. Syria, Jordan and parts of Iraq would fall under French supervision and trade routes would be established between the newly formed Arab states to favor their new imperial rulers. Historical ties to Christianity and Islam and now the influx of Jewish settlers into Palestine made Jerusalem and the surrounding area a little murkier and so the Allies simply punted on the Palestine issue and instead opted to consider it an administrative territory with multiple stakeholders but no one firmly in charge.
What could possibly go wrong?
For their part, as we’ll explore, many Palestinian Arabs had hoped to fall under Syrian rule. Others felt more of a kinship with Transjordan. But Syria now belonged to the French and Jordan to the British. And because Egypt had revolted against the British a decade prior, it had already declared independence in 1922 and wasn’t inclined to extend a hand to Palestinian Arabs as they had their hands full trying to build a nation of their own.
Chapter Five: The Fifth Aliyah.
25,000 immigrants of Jewish descent came to Palestine from eastern Europe in the First Aliyah.
40,000, mostly Russian socialist Jews came in the Second Aliyah.
The Third Aliyah saw a wave of 35,000 Polish and Russian Jews under the hope and full expression of Zionism under the British Mandate.
Fleeing Polish persecution in the 1920s, more than 60,000 Jews migrated to Palestine in the Fourth Aliyah.
In 1933, the Nazi Party took control of Germany. According to the Holocaust Encyclopedia:
“Between 1933 and 1941, the Nazis aimed to make Germany judenrein (cleansed of Jews) by making life so difficult for them that they would be forced to leave the country. By 1938, about 150,000 German Jews, one in four, had already fled the country. After Germany annexed Austria in March 1938, however, an additional 185,000 Jews were brought under Nazi rule. Many Jews were unable to find countries willing to take them in.”
In 1938, a conference was organized in Evian, France. Delegates from 32 countries were in attendance. President Roosevelt sent a friend from the private sector with no diplomatic authority to address the question at hand: who among the great powers of the world would take in the Jews. Implicit in the question was extermination. Only the Dominican Republic raised its hand. The Dominican dictator General Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina agreed to accept up to 100,000 Jews. Over the next seven years, a total of 645 Jews were granted safe passage.
The Fifth Aliyah saw 250,000 Jews flee the Nazi controlled parts of Europe for the haven of Palestine. It was all at once too much for Palestinian Arabs to comfortably absorb, and yet not enough for the carnage and horror to come.
The Holocaust began with isolation and persecution. Anti-Semitic laws were passed, and Jews had their homes and businesses confiscated. They were relegated to ghettos. As the Nazis advanced, the Jewish question became more intense. A mobile killing unit called the Einsatzgruppen was formed to deal with Jews in newly taken territories of the Russian Empire. These killing units were indiscriminate. Their orders were simply to gather Jews and communists in villages, have them dig trenches and then they were gunned down and poured into mass graves they had dug for themselves.
The German officials would blame the Jews for the expense of ammunition that was sorely needed on the battlefield. From the Weiner Holocaust Library:
“On 20 January 1942, leading Nazi officials met at the Wannsee Conference Villa in Wannsee, a south-western suburb of Berlin. The conference had been called to discuss and coordinate a cheaper, more efficient, and permanent solution to the Nazis’ ‘Jewish problem’. The conference was attended by senior government and SS officials, and coordinated by Reinhard Heydrich.”
This was the “final solution” to the Jewish Problem; the Nazi’s answer to the Jewish question. When modern-day Zionists speak of the Fifth Aliyah, this is what they’re referring to. The systematic annihilation of an entire people. When ghettoization didn’t work, they mowed them down. When that proved to be expensive and inefficient, they turned to mass deportation. When that wasn’t fast enough, the Nazi Party turned to the brightest engineering minds from the business community to devise methods to exterminate Jews en masse.
The delegates at Evian understood the implications of their refusal to absorb Jewish refugees. The nations of the world turned a blind eye to an entire people. The United States even passed legislation prohibiting Jewish refugee migration during the war.
Some call Israel and the partition plans that followed an act of guilt on the part of the European powers. But there’s an even more cynical view to be taken. The refusal on the part of the Allied powers of World War Two, and throughout the Nazi rule that preceded it, remained in place. While a great many Jews did ultimately immigrate to the United States and other parts of the world, the European powers didn’t extend the hand of their motherlands. They extended the hand of the imperial territory of Palestine. Guilt, it seems, has its limits.
I’ll leave you as we started with the prescient words of Leon Trotsky from a journal entry in 1940. One of the last before he was assassinated.
“The attempt to solve the Jewish question through the migration of Jews to Palestine can now be seen for what it is, a tragic mockery of the Jewish People. Interested in winning sympathies of the Arabs who are more numerous than the Jews, the British government has sharply altered its policy toward the Jews, and has actually renounced its promise to help them found their ‘own home’ in a foreign land. The future development of military events may well transform Palestine into a bloody trap for several hundred thousand Jews. Never was it so clear as it is today that the salvation of the Jewish people is bound up inseparably with the overthrow of the capitalist system.”
- Gan-Shmuel archive via the PikiWiki - Israel free image collection project. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Changes were made.