First Person: Why the journey to statehood is so amazing

I love reading about Israel. Here’s the history I’ve come to admire.

The existence of Israel as a modern Jewish nation is a miracle.

The timeline from the late 19th century to Israel’s birth on May 14, 1948, is fascinating. If it wasn’t all true, the intrigue and suspense would make a great novel. The original Zionists overcame impossible circumstances to make Israel a reality.

First and Second Aliyah

There has been a Jewish presence in the geographic region of Syria Palaestina since Biblical times. Starting in the 1880s, antisemitism in Eastern Europe and Russia, followed by vicious pogroms, provided a major impetus for a wave of Zionist immigration to Ottoman-controlled Palestine.

The First Aliyah between 1881 and 1903 came from Eastern Europe and Yemen. These early Zionists defined their goal as the national, political and spiritual resurrection of the Jewish people in Palestine. Many chose rural agricultural settlements called moshavot as a way of life. These first settlers built the foundations for future Jewish settlements in Israel.

The Second Aliyah took place between 1904 and 1914. Worsening antisemitism and economic hardship in Eastern Europe and Russia were the two main factors fostering this emigration. Many of these immigrants were idealistic young people who sought to create a communal agricultural existence. The Kibbutz Movement was founded, beginning with Degania in 1909. Revival of the Hebrew language, the first Hebrew school and the creation of Hashomer, a security organization, all happened during the Second Aliyah.

These pioneers laid the groundwork enabling the Yishuv (Jewish community) to chart its course toward statehood.

Hebrew language revived

An important challenge facing late 19th century and early 20th century Jewish communities in Palestine was the need to revive the Hebrew language. The process began as a diversity of Jews started arriving and establishing themselves among existing communities.

There needed to be a “bridge language” so people from different backgrounds could communicate with each other. Most of these new immigrants realized that acceptance of Hebrew as their common language was necessary for the development of a national home for the Jewish people.

Zionism

Zionism is a religious and political movement that succeeded in bringing thousands of Jews from the Diaspora back to the Middle East to re-establish a Jewish homeland in Israel.

Theodor Herzl was responsible for establishing Zionism as a modern political organization in 1897. Herzl was a Jewish journalist living in Vienna. He published a pamphlet, “Der Judenstaat” (The Jews’ State) in 1896 that called for recognition of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

The Dreyfus Affair, which erupted in France in 1894, had a profound effect on Herzl. Alfred Dreyfus was a French Army officer who was branded a traitor simply because he was Jewish. Herzl soon realized that antisemitism was so deeply ingrained in European society that only the creation of a Jewish state would enable the survival of the Jewish people.

Before the Holocaust, Zionists aimed to recreate a Jewish national home and cultural center in Palestine; however, after the Holocaust, the movement focused on creating an independent Jewish nation.

The Balfour Declaration

The Balfour Declaration was a letter written by British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Baron Rothschild on November 2, 1917. It expressed the British government’s support for the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. Although falling short of all Zionist expectations and in some ways deliberately ambiguous, it was still enthusiastically received and seemed to fulfill the aims of the World Zionist Organization.

Two prominent Zionists, Chaim Weizmann and Nahum Sokolow, played key roles in obtaining the Balfour Declaration. Weizmann, a noted chemist and ardent Zionist, was able to cultivate many important political connections with top decision makers in the British government and secure their support for the Zionist cause.

Sokolow traveled to France and Italy in April and May of 1917. He was able to get commitments from the French and Italian governments and even support from Pope Benedict XV. He also made a key ally in U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, who lobbied in favor of the Balfour Declaration.

The support of Britain’s French and American allies as well as the Vatican was a necessary precondition for issuing the Balfour Declaration. The League of Nations gave it international legitimacy when it was incorporated into the Mandate for Palestine.

British Mandate for Palestine

The British Mandate for Palestine was approved by the League of Nations on July 22, 1922. The terms of the mandate stated that Britain had a “dual obligation” toward both Arabs and Jews. This meant creating the necessary conditions required so each community could govern themselves. Instead, two distinct social systems developed, each with their own welfare, educational and cultural institutions. They soon became politically and economically separate entities often at odds with each other.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, violent confrontations between Arabs and Jews took place, costing hundreds of lives. After the 1929 conflict, the British set up a commission of inquiry to investigate the conflict and another one after the Arab Revolt in 1936. In 1939, the British issued the White Papers stating that Palestine should be a bi-national state inhabited by Arabs and Jews. It enacted several Draconian measures restricting Jewish immigration and land purchases. These restrictions were met by Zionist groups organizing illegal immigration into Palestine.

The deteriorating situation was tantamount to Britain announcing its intention to terminate the mandate and return control to the United Nations. After the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the resolution to partition Palestine on November 29, 1947, Britain terminated the mandate effective May 15, 1948. At midnight on May 14, 1948, Israel declared its independence.

Richard Lieberman lives in Mequon with his wife Laurie. He owned a printing company in Milwaukee for 40 years and is now retired.