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Tracing the Complex History of the State of Israel [part 1] +

January 3, 2024

Rabbi Geier


BS"D || Rabbi Geier

Tracing the Complex History of the State of Israel [part 1] +


When we were kids, we learned about the People of Israel, the conquest of Canaan, and the declaration of the State of Israel and its pioneers. It is very likely that the early European migrants, much like our heroes from the Torah, omitted certain passages from these stories that weren't suitable for children who were meant to grow up with love for the Promised Land, its history, and its heroes.

Now that we are adults, we can acknowledge the flaws of our heroes and the mistakes in the stories they starred in. This does not diminish our commitment to the Torah or our tradition.

Similarly, the recent events in our people's history, such as the establishment and declaration of Independence of the State of Israel, are filled with lesser-known details that play a crucial role in shaping our identity as the Jewish People. These intricacies are closely connected to the history of our land and, over the past 75 years, our state, even if not every aspect was done perfectly.

Again, as adults, we are able to understand these nuances without allowing them to diminish our love for Israel, its history, its leaders, and the IDF.

Let's get started.

A global rise in anti-Semitism

At the onset of the 20th century, the global Jewish population exceeded 11 million, with nearly 7 million in Eastern Europe, 2 million in Central and Western Europe, and 1.5 million in North America. Jews from Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East amounted to less than a million.

Jewish emancipation was achieved only in North America and Western Europe. In Russia, they faced persecution, while Poland fostered discrimination. In Islamic nations, they were considered a "protected people," living as second-class citizens. Even in the United States, France, and Great Britain, emancipation was mostly a legal formality. Anti-Semitism was on the rise. As of 1897, Christendom had not reconciled with its Jewish counterpart. 

Recognizing Jews as a liberated, proud, and equal people remained a challenging notion for many.

Since October 7th, we've heard a lot about what a pogrom is. If you don't recall, a pogrom was a wave of concentrated violence against Jewish villages in Eastern Europe (shtetls) or even in Turkey. The outcome resembled what happened in Israel at the hands of Hamas, including rapes, deaths, and looting. Pogroms devastated Jewish communities, especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Devoid of a specific land or monarchy, lacking liberty and political autonomy, the Jewish people maintained their unity through religious convictions, rituals, a captivating religious narrative, and the formidable barriers of isolation imposed by the neighboring non-Jewish communities.

Secularization and to a limited extent, emancipation, undermined the traditional formula for Jewish survival. There was nothing preserving the Jews as a unique community coexisting with others. Even if they were not being systematically slaughtered by Russian Cossacks or targeted by French anti-semites, they faced a perilous threat. The viability of sustaining a non-Orthodox Jewish civilization in the diaspora became questionable.

A transformative upheaval was imperative for survival. To persevere, Jews needed to transition from a dispersed people to a self-governing one. In this context, the advent of Zionism in 1897 proved to be a brilliant concept. Visionaries, led by Dr. Theodor Herzl, demonstrated foresight and heroism.

They were not prophets foreseeing the disaster brought by the Shoah in the 20th century. However, their firsthand experience with prevailing anti-Semitism and witnessing the changes brought about by emancipation on the Jewish people's historic ideology inevitably evoked memories of the times of Hanukkah. During that time, the Jewish people similarly faced anti-Semitism and significant assimilation into Hellenism.

Returning to the land of Israel

The wave of pogroms from 1881-1884 and the anti-Semitic laws of May 1882, introduced by Tsar Alexander III of Russia, prompted the massive emigration of Jews from the Russian Empire.

On July 6, 1882, the first group of pioneers called Bilu (an acronym for Beit Ya'acov Lekhu Venelkha, which translates to "the Sons of Jacob Go and Still Continue") arrived in the land that would become the Land of Israel more than 60 years later. At that time, the territory was part of the vast Ottoman Empire that had occupied a significant portion of Southern Europe, Northern Africa, much of the Middle East, and even part of Saudi Arabia for six centuries. The group was comprised of 14 university students from Kharkiv, led by Israel Belkind, who would later become a prominent writer and historian.

When the first settlers arrived in the Land of Israel, it was not empty. While it was part of the extensive Ottoman Empire, the empire had lost its glory as movements seeking to establish a democratic government emerged. There were already small cities inhabited by Jews since the time of the Roman Empire and scattered Arab villages that contributed to the empire, collected in money and/or goods produced from the land's labor.

By 1870, the Mikveh Israel Agricultural School had already been founded, serving as the basis for this first massive aliyah for several months until the group decided to establish, along with the Hovevei Zion group, an agricultural cooperative that would be the seed of the kibbutzim that would populate the Promised Land during the 20th century. This settlement was called Rishon LeZion, "The First of Zion," on land purchased from the Turks near an Arab village called Ayun Kara.

The purchase of land in Israel and the installation of machinery for agricultural and industrial exploitation were primarily led by wealthy British Jews like Baron Edmond James de Rothschild and Maurice de Hirsch, who contributed the funds that led to the creation of the first settlements and, in this case, the local wine industry.

In 1886, the construction of a winery began in Rishon LeZion, which became a successful wine exporting company. In the winter of 1884, another group of Bilu pioneers founded Gedera. The population settled on land purchased by Yehiel Michel Pines, a member of the Hovevei Zion movement. The land was located near the Arab village of Qatra, and the land purchase was conducted under the auspices of the French consul in Jaffa.

Living alongside the Arabs

The British land purchase project, accompanied by the educational project aimed at transforming new inhabitants into agents of change for previously unproductive lands, marked each successive European Jewish migration. This approach differed significantly from the aspirations of the local Arab populations who began to see the new prospering Jews differently from what they had achieved. The growth of both populations was uneven, both economically and in the development of technology and education.

The connections between both populations were primarily labor-related, as the new Jewish populations grew and required labor for their exploitation. We cannot say that they were friendly connections except on rare occasions. Still, we also cannot ignore that both populations viewed the other as intruders in the land.

The Jews understood that they were experiencing a return to their land from which they had been systematically expelled by successive conquerors. 

This land had always been a passage and contact route between East and West, and held deep significance for them. We recognize that there were already Jewish populations in existing cities from time immemorial, even though they constituted only a small percentage of the total population.

The Arab population, on the other hand, saw the lands around them, once deserted and defenseless, being purchased, exploited and transformed into productive lands by new inhabitants who progressed on a different scale than theirs and began to be seen as new usurpers of a lifestyle they did not intend to abandon.

This situation was hardly sustainable peacefully and, indeed, it was not.

[End of part 1]

+ This article is also featured in other sections of Rabbi Geier's wepage.

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