Israeli History/The Zionist Movement

The story of Israel is like no other. The country of Israel you see on the map today is named after the ancient kingdom of Israel in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament). People of the Jewish religion believe that the kingdom was granted to the Jews by God. But the modern state of Israel is not a direct continuation of this ancient kingdom. It has its origins in the political Zionist movement of the 19th century.

The Old Yishuv under the Ottoman Empire

Painting of Jaffa (south of modern Tel Aviv) in 1887

Since ancient times, Jews had been moved from Israel, by necessity or by force, to various places around Europe and other parts of the world. By 1516, only a small community of 5,000 remained in Galilee. At that point, the first pre-modern aliyah (return) began, with Sephardic (Spanish-speaking) victims of the Inquisition arriving in Israel with the approval of the Ottoman Empire.[1] Together, these Jews formed a community called the Old Yishuv (settlement), centered in Safed in Galilee. They were joined in the 19th century by Jewish religious movements from other parts of Europe,[2] notably among which, were the disciples of the Goan of Vilna, who settled in Jerusalem beginning in 1808, by 1810 they numbered 511 families.

The Jews called their homeland Eretz Israel, meaning the Land of Israel, as opposed to the nation of Israel consisting of all Jews. The Ottoman Empire did not administer Eretz Israel under any particular designation. The region was officially under the control of the provinces of Syria and Palestine/Lebanon, but the Ottoman government was weak (it was the Decline of the Ottoman Empire) and day-to-day affairs were dictated by local leaders. Eventually, Jerusalem and Jaffa were given their own division.[3]

Who else lived in Palestine?


There were many kinds of people in Palestine. The majority were Arabs, but there were also Greeks, Armenians and many others (Christian and Muslim), as well as the Old Yishuv.

The population of Jerusalem is composed of Muslims, Jews, Greeks, Latins, Armenians, Syrians, Copts, Abyssinians, Greek Catholics and a handful of Protestants. One hundred of the latter sect are all that dwell now in this birthplace of Christianity. The nice shades of nationality comprised in the above list, and the languages spoken by them, are altogether too numerous to mention. It seems to me that all the races and colors and tongues of the earth must be represented among the 14,000 souls that dwell in Jerusalem.
—Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad. 1867.

Under Ottoman rule, only Muslims were allowed to hold land. The Ottomans also attempted to retard Jewish immigration with various local laws. In practice, though, a well-educated Jew could deal with Turkish officials to legally immigrate, and then establish a semi-legal hold on land by farming it. The true problems began for the nascent Zionist movement when they encountered the overwhelming Arab majority as well as the existing Old Yishuv community.[4]

The Birth of Zionism


Although the earliest Christians tolerated Jewish communities, antisemitism arose during several periods in the Middle Ages. Jews lived separately from Christians and adhered to kashrut (kosher) laws and other customs that seemed mysterious and alien. Most jobs were forbidden to Jews as an "out-group", so they took up money-lending and intellectual studies, leading to a popular conception that they profited from the work of other people.[5]

By the 10th century, most of Europe was under the rule of Christian monarchs. As the Jews managed the debts of the monarchs, expelling the Jews was an efficient way to balance a failing kingdom's budget. In Germany the persecution of Jews was renewed in 1096 during the Crusades. Jews were expelled from England in 1291, from France in 1391, from Austria in 1421, and from Spain in 1492. Anti-Jewish laws such as the yellow badge were commonplace in most European countries, and mob violence was common. Martin Luther, the leader of the Protestant Reformation, also wrote a book entitled On the Jews and Their Lies, which fueled more antisemitism. The strongest retaliations occurred in the seventh century as mass expulsions and forced conversions occurred in many European countries.

Among Jewish communities the solution to this violence was not entirely clear. It was believed that in a future messianic age, their ancient kingdom would be restored;[6] hence prayers on Yom Kippur and Passover would conclude (and still do) with "Next Year in Jerusalem".

During the Age of Enlightenment, many European countries granted Jews equal rights. An intellectual class developed among both Jews and Gentiles which considered the abandonment of old traditions and the assimilation into the European lifestyle the key to the success of the Jewish people. One Russian socialist wrote the following about his view of ethnicity:

You well know that I hate Judaism exactly as I hate all other nation "hoods" and national "isms" [...] but I am not ashamed of my Jewish descent, and, among the other oppressed, I love that part of humanity whom the ruling national and religious principles single out as Jews. And again, indeed, I do not love them all, but only the suffering masses and those capable of joining us. Otherwise I should not deserve the name of socialist.
—Aaron Samuel Lieberman, quoted in Halpern 2000, p. 143

However, antisemitism did not fade but merely changed its target, segregating the Jews as an "un-European" ethnic group. Ashkenazi Jews experienced hundreds of bloody mob attacks throughout Eastern Europe during the pogroms. When European intellectuals saw that merely changing their lifestyles was insufficient, allegiance to the Jewish people began to seem like an acceptable option. (American Jews did not experience systematic and government-enforced antisemitism, and thus tended to downplay ethnic alliances.)[7] An exemplary Russian Jew who changed his mind about settlement in Israel was Moshe Leib Lilienblum, who first aimed towards economic independence in America, then decided that only in Israel could Jews live without alienation from society.[8]

In a proto-Zionist essay hinting towards a desire to resettle in Palestine, Moses Hess bemoaned the secularism of intellectuals, and reminded them of the sacred place of pious Jews:

It seems that on account of the hatred which surrounds him on all sides, the German Jew is determined to estrange himself from Judaism as far as possible, and endeavors even to deny his race. No reform of the Jewish religion, however extreme, is radical enough for the educated German Jew. [...]

My grandfather once showed me some olives and dates, and remarked, with beaming eyes, "These were raised in Eretz Israel." Everything that reminds the pious Jew of Palestine is as dear to him as the sacred relics of his ancestral house.

—Moses Hess, "Rome and Jerusalem". 1862.

The political motivation for Zionism began to form in the 1860s and 1870s. The first "Zion Society" formed in Germany in 1861. In 1870, the Alliance Israélite Universelle founded an agricultural school called Mikveh Israel near the city of Jaffa. The land for this school was granted by the Ottoman Sultan.

The first Zionists immigrate

If we already knew where to direct our steps, were we compelled to emigrate again, we could surely make a vast step forward. We must set vigorously to work to complete the great task of self-liberation. We must use all the resources which human intellect and human experience have devised, instead of leaving our national regeneration to blind chance. The territory to be acquired must be fertile, well-situated and sufficiently extensive to allow the settlement of several millions. The land, as national property, must be inalienable.
—Leon Pinsker, "Auto-Emancipation". 1882.

In the same year that Pinsker's essay was published, the first Zionist Aliyah occurred. Roughly 30,000 Jews left Eastern Europe to become farmers in the Ottoman Empire. While previous aliyah had been religious in nature, this one was purely political-- an escape from antisemitism, with the goal of creating a sustainable Jewish community in Eretz Israel. However, half of the settlers eventually left the country.[9] Many of them came on a 30-day pilgrimage visa, and stayed past its expiration date. The pasha (governor) of Jerusalem attempted to expel them from the Empire, but was rebuked by foreign ambassadors; in 1889, he was replaced by a more liberal pasha.[10]

We have made it a rule not to say too much, except to those ... we trust ... the goal is to revive our nation on its land ... if only we succeed in increasing our numbers here until we are the majority .... There are now only five hundred [thousand] Arabs, who are not very strong, and from whom we shall easily take away the country if only we do it through stratagems [and] without drawing upon us their hostility before we become the strong and populous ones.
—Letter from Ben-Yehuda and Yehiel Michael Pines to Rashi Pin, October 1882.[11]

Theodor Herzl and the World Zionist Congress


Zionism had already developed by the time of the First Aliyah, but those who promoted it were working at cross purposes. The Orthodox Jews behind Religious Zionism were willing to cooperate with secularized Jews to the extent of sending people to Israel, but wanted simultaneously to teach them about their duties to God, and agitated for those living in Eretz Israel to live under the rule of the Torah.[12] Both the Religious Zionists and the Old Yishuv were unhappy at the prospect of secular Jews tilling the land during a sabbath year; an attempt to appease them by subletting the land to non-Jews while the work was being done fell through.[13] Additionally, there was a growing coalition of Labor Zionists who wanted Eretz Israel to be a breeding ground for intentionally organized collectives, a land which would be controlled by its own working class.

Theodor Herzl entered into the Zionist movement fully aware of these competing interests, and considered their balance "an egg dance".[14] Herzl was a journalist from Vienna assigned to the Dreyfus Affair. Alfred Dreyfus was a Jewish officer in French Army accused of passing military documents to the German Embassy. Despite the lack of any conclusive evidence, he was convicted of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment. From the Dreyfus Affair, Herzl concluded that antisemitism was difficult to escape no matter how "enlightened" a country one lived in.

He interviewed with Baron Maurice De Hirsch, one of the wealthiest men of his time. De Hirsch had founded the Jewish Colonization Association with the aim of settling Jews from Russia and Romania to Argentina and other parts of the Americas. Herzl came with 22 pages of notes arguing for a political organization to rally Jews under their own flag rather than leave it to philanthropists like the Baron. De Hirsch was uninterested in this suggestion. This led to Herzl publishing a pamphlet called The Jewish State.

Let all who are willing to join us, fall in behind our banner and fight for our cause with voice and pen and deed.

Those Jews who agree with our idea of a State will attach themselves to the Society, which will thereby be authorized to confer and treat with Governments in the name of our people. The Society will thus be acknowledged in its relations with Governments as a State-creating power. This acknowledgment will practically create the State.

Should the Powers declare themselves willing to admit our sovereignty over a neutral piece of land, then the Society will enter into negotiations for the possession of this land. Here two territories come under consideration, Palestine and Argentine. In both countries important experiments in colonization have been made, though on the mistaken principle of a gradual infiltration of Jews. An infiltration is bound to end badly. It continues till the inevitable moment when the native population feels itself threatened, and forces the Government to stop a further influx of Jews. Immigration is consequently futile unless we have the sovereign right to continue such immigration.

The Society of Jews will treat with the present masters of the land, putting itself under the protectorate of the European Powers, if they prove friendly to the plan. We could offer the present possessors of the land enormous advantages, assume part of the public debt, build new roads for traffic, which our presence in the country would render necessary, and do many other things. The creation of our State would be beneficial to adjacent countries, because the cultivation of a strip of land increases the value of its surrounding districts in innumerable ways.

[...] If His Majesty the Sultan were to give us Palestine, we could in return undertake to regulate the whole finances of Turkey. We should there form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism. We should as a neutral State remain in contact with all Europe, which would have to guarantee our existence.

—Theodor Herzl, "The Jewish State". 1896.

Formation of the Congress


Zionists responded eagerly to Herzl's suggestion to meet and unify their diverse organizations. The First Zionist Congress was convened in Switzerland in August 1897. There were 200 delegates representing every aspect of Jewish religion, cultural philosophy, and thought. The 3-day congress founded the World Zionist Organization with Herzl as president.

During the First Zionist Congress, the following agreement, commonly known as the Basel Program, was reached:

Zionism seeks to establish a home for the Jewish people in Palestine secured under public law. The Congress contemplates the following means to the attainment of this end:

  1. The promotion by appropriate means of the settlement in Eretz Israel of Jewish farmers, artisans, and manufacturers.
  2. The organization and uniting of the whole of Jewry by means of appropriate institutions, both local and international, in accordance with the laws of each country.
  3. The strengthening and fostering of Jewish national sentiment and national consciousness.
  4. Preparatory steps toward obtaining the consent of governments, where necessary, in order to reach the goals of Zionism.[15]
Die Welt, the newspaper of the World Zionist Congress. It was printed in German.

Herzl met with the Ottoman Sultan and asked for a charter that would allow Jewish mass immigration to Palestine. This request was denied. Knowing the overwhelming support for a Jewish state in Eretz Israel, he then met with Great Britain and discussed making Jewish settlement in Sinai Peninsula, part of their client state of Egypt. This too failed, but the British suggested making room in "Uganda" (actually Kenya) instead. Herzl brought this idea to the Zionist Congress in 1903. The debate over the Uganda option was so heated that the Congress nearly schismed into two rival factions.

Responses to Zionism


By 1904, cultural Zionism was accepted by most Zionists and a schism was beginning to develop between the Zionist movement and Orthodox Judaism. In 1912, World Agudath Israel was founded by Orthodox Jews in response to the popularity of Zionism, socialism, and communism. It aimed to promote the traditional forms of the Jewish religion, although there was and is much diversity within Orthodox Judaism.

Second Aliyah


Between 1904, when pogroms in Eastern Europe intensified, and 1914, when World War I began, there was a Second Aliyah. Once again, half of the pioneers left Eretz Israel eventually, but the Second Aliyah had more successes than the first. The settlement of Tel Aviv was founded by political Zionists on a sand dune north of Jaffa, and its founding families built roads and a water system for themselves. Today, Tel Aviv is the second largest city in Israel. The Second Aliyah Zionists also founded a self-defense group called the Hashomer, built a high school, and they cast off the Yiddish of their European ancestors to begin a revival of the Hebrew language. Use of Hebrew had been attempted during the First Aliyah, but the language only took root during the Second. Pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary were standardized, textbooks were written, and by 1913 when a German Zionist group attempted to start a technical university taught in German, the entire Yishuv rebelled against them.

The Labor Zionists who arrived during the Second Aliyah discovered that the settlers of the First Aliyah had become landlords, paying Arabs to tend their land for them.

We were happy enough working on the land, but we knew more and more certainly that the ways of the old settlements were not for us. This was not the way we hoped to settle the country—this old way with Jews on top and Arabs working for them; anyway, we thought that there shouldn't be employers and employed at all. There must be a better way.
—Yossef Baratz, founder of the first kibbutz[16]

Baratz and his fellow olim (Jews arriving in Israel) knew that they could not maintain independent farms. The poor land conditions and weak government meant that settlers had to rely on each other. Instead, Baratz and eleven of his companions established a communal farm called Degania at the southern end of the Sea of Galilee. Their community would grow into the first kibbutz.

The founders of Degania worked backbreaking labor attempting to rebuild what they saw as their ancestral land and to spread the social revolution. One pioneer later said "the body is crushed, the legs fail, the head hurts, the sun burns and weakens." At times half of the kibbutz members could not report for work. Many young men and women left the kibbutz for easier lives in Jewish cities on the East Bank of the Jordan or returned to the Diaspora. But despite the difficulties, by 1914, Degania had fifty members. Other kibbutzim were founded around the Sea of Galilee and the nearby Jezreel Valley.


  1. Halpern 2000, p. 37
  2. Halpern 2000, p. 39
  3. Halpern 2000, pp. 26-27
  4. Halpern 2000, pp. 51-53
  5. Norman Roth. Medieval Jewish Civilization. p. 263
  6. Taylor, A.R., 1971, 'Vision and intent in Zionist Thought', p. 10,11
  7. Halpern 2000, p. 23
  8. Halpern 2000, p. 19
  9. Jewish Virtual Library
  10. Halpern 2000, p. 83.
  11. Benny Morris, Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001. Vintage Books, 2001, p49.
  12. Halpern 2000, p. 137
  13. Halpern 2000, p. 106-9
  14. Halpern 2000, p. 119
  15. The Basle Program. Resolutions of the First Zionist Congress August 30, 1897 (mideastweb)
  16. Baratz, Joseph. A Village by the Jordan: The Story of Degania. Tel Aviv: Ichud Habonim, 1956, p. 52.


  • Ben Halpern and Jehuda Reinharz. Zionism and the Creation of a New Society. Hanover, NH: Brandeis University Press, 2000.
Israeli History
The Zionist Movement Palestine under the Mandate