Towards the birth of the state of Israel. Zionism and the first aliyot.

Ferrara continues with this second article a series of four interesting cultural-historical summaries to understand the configuration of the State of Israel, the Arab-Israeli question and the presence of the Jewish people in the world today.

Gerardo Ferrara-July 5, 2023-Reading time: 6 minutes

Orthodox Jew in Jerusalem ©OSV News photo/Debbie Hill

The term Zionism (from "Zion", the name of one of the hills on which Jerusalem stands and, by extension, from the Psalms, of the entire holy city and the land of Israel) appeared for the first time in 1890, in the magazine "Selbstemanzipation" ("Self-emancipation"), coined by Nathan Birnbaum. It is a rather generic term, since, in its various facets and in the visions of its many exponents, the Zionist project or ideology is indeed aimed at the emancipation of the Jewish people, given the impossibility of their assimilation and integration into the Old Continent, and, however, this emancipation can be on a national and territorial basis or even only spiritual and cultural.


Its early exponents, not very famous in non-specialized circles, are Yehuda Alkalai (1798-1878), Zvi Hirsch Kalischer (1795-1874) and Moses Hess (1812-1875), author of Rome and Jerusalem, and Yehuda Leib (Leon) Pinsker (1821-1892), founder and leader of the Hovevevei Zion movement. They dreamed of a kind of redemption of the Jews, especially the marginalized masses of Eastern Europe, through a process that would lead to a freer and more conscious existence in a Palestinian settlement, albeit under the sovereignty of the Ottoman sultan. These were thus projects and aspirations for economic, social and cultural emancipation, rather than national and territorial emancipation.

However, it is considered that the Zionist par excellence was the famous Theodor Herzl (1860-1904). A native of Budapest, Herzl was a totally assimilated Jew and only began to deal with the so-called "Jewish question" in 1894, when, as editor-in-chief of the Neue Freie Presse newspaper, he was in Paris as a correspondent. In that year the "Dreyfuss affair" broke out in Paris, which, because of its anti-Semitic character, shocked the man who is considered the founding father of the State of Israel (where even a city founded in 1924, Herzliya, was named after him) and prompted him to reflect on the Jewish question (which does not seem to have aroused his interest before then) and to write a brochure entitled Der Judenstaadt (The State of the Jews), in which he imagines, down to the smallest detail, how a completely Jewish State could be founded and built.

For him, the Jewish question is no longer just a religious, cultural or social question, but a national one: the Jews are a people and must have a territory of their own in order to escape the age-old anti-Semitism that persecutes them. Thus, he founded the World Zionist Organization in 1897, on the occasion of the first Zionist Congress of Basel, whose objectives reflected the programmatic lines adopted at the same congress, namely the "Basel Program". This program had as its objective the creation of a Jewish State in Palestine, legally recognized at the international level.

It must be said that Palestine was not the only territory considered. Argentina, being rich and sparsely populated, had also been suggested by Herzl as a safe haven for the Jewish people, as well as Cyprus and South Africa. After having proposed to Sultan Abdülhamid to settle the debts of the Ottoman Empire in exchange for Palestine and having the proposal rejected, Herzl turned to Great Britain, opting for the Sinai Peninsula (the Al-Arish coast) or Uganda as possible territories for a future Jewish State, all of which came to nothing after his death in 1904.

We wrote earlier that Zionism is by no means a monolithic bloc or a project for which there is an identity of views on the part of all its exponents.

Among its main currents, we mention the following:

- Territorialist (or neo-territorialist) Zionism: its supporters, led by the English Jewish writer and playwright Israel Zangwill (1864-1926), rejected the idea of a historical link between Jews and Palestine, as well as between Zionism itself and Palestine and, through the Jewish Territorial Organization, founded by Zangwill himself, set out to find a suitable territory to allocate to the Jewish people. Among the possibilities for colonization were Angola, Tripolitania, Texas, Mexico and Australia.

- Spiritual Zionism: its main exponent was Asher Hirsch Ginzberg (1856-1927), known as Ahad Ha-Am (Hebrew: one of the people). He was convinced that Palestine was not the ideal solution because it could not accommodate the entire world Jewish population, and above all (he was one of the few to declare it): it was already occupied by another Semitic people, the Arabs, for whom he felt respect.

- Binational Zionism, whose main exponents were Judah Leon Magnes (1877-1948) and the celebrated Martin Buber (1878-1965). Buber, in particular, argued that Zionism and nationalism had nothing to do with each other, but that Zionism had to be a "power of the spirit" radiating from a spiritual center located in Jerusalem. Therefore, the foundation of a nation state on an exclusively Jewish basis was unthinkable. Instead, Jews and Arabs were to coexist peacefully in a binational state. Even after the creation of the State of Israel, Buber strongly opposed the policies adopted by the governments of his new country towards the Arab minority.

- Socialist Zionism, whose objective was to liberate the Jewish people definitively from their secular subjugation not only through mass emigration to Palestine, but also through the construction of a proletarian and socialist State. Dov Ber Borochov (1881-1917), the main representative of this current, wanted to impose from above the economic and cultural assimilation, through a Marxist-style action, of a part of the population, considered backward, by a more "advanced" population that would retain a dominant position.

- Armed (revisionist) Zionism, whose greatest theoretician and advocate was the Russian Jew Vladimir Ze'ev Jabotinsky (1880-1940). He created in 1920 the Jewish Legion and in 1925 a party of extreme right, the World Union of Revisionist Zionists (Zohar) from which derived terrorist organizations such as the Irgun Zevai Leumi (National Military Organization) and the Lehi (Lohamei Herut Israel), better known as the Stern Gang. Armed struggle (both against Britain, then the mandated power, and against the Arab population) was seen as the only way for Jews to establish a state that was, among other things, anti-socialist and anti-Marxist. This form of Zionism prevailed over the others and permeated various structures of the State of Israel, in particular the doctrine of political parties and movements such as Likud, Benjamin Netanyahu's party.

Trying to make a first balance with respect to Zionism, we can affirm that, at least until 1918, it did not have much rooting among the Jews of the world. The figures of the migratory flows to Palestine between 1880 and 1918 attest to the arrival of 65,000 - 70,000 Jews; between 1919 and 1948, 483,000 arrived. However, between 1948 and 1951 alone, 687,000 emigrated to the newly founded Jewish State. In total, as many as 2,200,000 people came to Israel between 1948 and 1991, although, after 1951, the flows decreased considerably, but only until the late 1980s, the period of the great immigration from the former Soviet Union. In particular, the figures show a fundamental fact: only after the end of World War II and the Shoah, and thus the founding of the State of Israel, there was an impressive increase in migration flows.

Eretz Israel

The first great emigration of European Jews to Palestine took place in 1881. Curiously, the idea of leaving one's own country to go and live in Palestine corresponds, for a Jew, to the concept of return and, moreover, to a religious experience comparable to a pilgrimage. And, in fact, in Hebrew, "immigration to Israel" and "pilgrimage" are homonyms: the term "aliyah", which means "ascent", "ascent", is used to define them. Jews who make this immigration and ascent are called 'olìm (from the same root "על", "'al"), i.e., "those who ascend". Even the name of the Israeli national airline El Al (אל על), means "upward" (and with a double meaning: "high" is the sky, but "high", compared to the rest of the world, is also the Land of Israel, to which El Al's planes take passengers).

The year it began coincided with a series of pogroms against Russian Jews, which followed the assassination of Tsar Alexander Romanov in St. Petersburg on March 1, 1881 by members of the revolutionary organization Narodnaja Volja. This act, despite the fact that only one of the members of the organization was Jewish, unleashed anger and revenge against all Israelites in the Russian Empire, forcing a million people to flee, mostly to the United States, but also to other regions of the world, including, to a small extent, Palestine.

Some of these refugees founded an organization called Bilu (from the initials of a verse in Isaiah: "Beth Yaakov, lekhù ve nelkhà", meaning "House of Jacob, come, let us walk!"), whose members were called biluìm and which represents the first substantial nucleus of 'olìm. They were able to establish themselves thanks to the help of rich philanthropists such as Baron de Rothschild or Zionist organizations such as the Russian Hovevei Zion or the Jewish Colonisation Association.

The second "aliyah", on the other hand, occurred after 1905, following the failure of the first Russian Revolution and the publication of the Protocols of the Saviors of Zion (a pamphlet that turned out to be a forgery, published by the Tsarist secret police and attributed to an alleged Jewish and Masonic organization to spread the idea of a plot hatched by the Jews to take over the world).
This second "aliyah", whose members had more markedly socialist ideas than those of the first, increased the Jewish presence in Palestine, thanks also to the purchase of large tracts of agricultural land, obtained with the help of the international organizations mentioned above, which in many cases paid generous bribes to Ottoman officials and local landowners, who were also forbidden to sell to foreigners land that had already been inhabited or in use for generations by the fellah, the Arab peasants, who had never had to legally claim ownership.

The authorGerardo Ferrara

Writer, historian and expert on Middle Eastern history, politics and culture.

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