Come for the dramatic stories. Stay for the knowledge that helps you make sense of it all.
From ancient history to current events, take yourself on a journey through the story of the Jewish People, from someone who has led hundreds of Jewish young professionals on trips throughout Israel. From the beginning of creation to modern Israel, each short episode is geared to appeal both to someone looking for the Jewish 101, as well as to those looking to go a bit beyond the basic story they already know.
The 1920s finds the Yishuv — the Jewish community in Palestine — building up the institutions that would carry it through statehood. David Ben Gurion, Israel’s most famous leader, steps onto the scene. Left wing, socialist, Labor Zionist, Ben Gurion begins to lead the Yishuv as farms, cities, cultural life, academia, and Jewish self-defense are all growing during a time of economic prosperity and more Jewish immigration.
Into our storyline steps David Ben Gurion, who ranks amongst the giants of Jewish history. His life mirrors that of the Zionist movement’s pre-state focus, and he will go on to declare the establishment of the State of Israel and serve as its first Prime Minister.
Born in Poland, he credited his commitment to Zionism to his love for the Jewish homeland, rather than the anti-Semitism of Eastern Europe. His idealism landed him in Palestine in 1906 where he became a committed Labor Zionist, working on kibbutzim around the Sea of Galilee at a time when Zionism was focused on developing the land. He was also active in the nascent Jewish self-defense movement and was deported to Egypt by the Ottomans during World War One. He went to America in 1915 to campaign on behalf of the Ottomans, hoping that if they won they would reward their Jewish support by carving out a homeland in Palestine. But when the British issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917 Ben Gurion fought against the Ottomans.
Following the war, as the Zionist Movement emphasized institution building, Ben Gurion took on progressively higher Labor Zionist leadership roles. He became the leader of the Histadrut, the largest trade union in Palestine, in the 1920s. He turned it into the central institution of the Yishuv, the region’s largest employer, and a powerful political force.
Ben Gurion’s focus was on Jewish immigration, which he considered an economic and moral imperative to create a prosperous Jewish homeland. The historian Paul Johnson cites Ben Gurion’s three principles: that Jews should make it their priority to return to Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel. That this community of Jews in Palestine should be built on a socialist framework. And that the cultural binding of Zionist society must be the Hebrew language. He was Vladimir Jabotinsky’s nemesis, for while Jabotinsky, on the right, believed in the urgent need for massive immigration, Ben Gurion, on the left, was more focused on establishing the necessary socialist conditions for later mass migration.
The problem was that immigration wasn’t going so well in the 1920s. Global economic prosperity and Arab violence made emigrating to Palestine a less attractive opportunity. Still, tens of thousands came in, comprising what became known as the Third and Fourth Aliyah. The Third Aliyah were Ben Gurion’s kind of people: left, socialist, and idealistic, strengthening his power base. The large influx also angered the Arabs. The Fourth Aliyah were blue collar workers who moved to the larger urban areas, joining the Histadrut in large numbers.
In 1922 Winston Churchill credited the Zionists with a range of accomplishments in Palestine. A quarter of Jews were farmers and farm laborers. There was an elected assembly for domestic concerns, and an elected Chief Rabbinate for religious ones. Hebrew was the vernacular, with a vibrant press. The Yishuv had a distinctive intellectual life and considerable activity. The next few years saw more building: new neighborhoods in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa. An airport was built. The agricultural market had matured. Cultural life and the arts were flourishing. And the Haganah defense organization was getting better organized. The Yishuv was burgeoning into a pre-state homeland.
The very first scientific lecture at the Hebrew University was given by Albert Einstein on the Theory of Relativity.
Einstein willed all his papers, including his original E=mc2 formula, to the Hebrew University upon his death in 1955.
David Ben Gurion offered Einstein the presidency of Israel in 1952. Einstein reluctantly refused, claiming he wasn’t enough of a people person to do the job well.
Albert Einstein: strongly identified as Jewish and an influential supporter of the Zionist movement, Einstein was skeptical about the need for an exclusively-Jewish state. He believed in the historical and moral case for the Jewish people to have a home in their native land but he worried about the trappings of nationalism. He hoped the state would be bi-national, shared by Jews and Arabs alike. “I am glad,” he said, “that there should be a little patch of earth on which our kindred brethren are not considered aliens.”
Judah Magnes: rabbi from Oakland, California, who became the first chancellor of the Hebrew University when it opened in Jerusalem on April 1, 1925. Like Einstein, Rabbi Magnes was a Zionist but didn’t support the idea of linking Judaism and nationalism. He was determined to use the university to promote equal rights and relations between Jews and Arabs.
David Ben Gurion: born David Gruen in the Russian part of Poland in1886, his father ensured that Ben Gurion from an early age hit all the Zionist checkboxes — youth movements, advocacy for Jewish workers, immigration to Palestine, and, perhaps most important, a love for the Promised Land. Ben Gurion personified the Zionist Movement’s transformation into the State of Israel and served as its first Prime Minister.
Paula Munweis (Ben Gurion): a Russian-American, she met David Ben Gurion on his first trip to the United States. He later said of her, “she was not a Zionist, she had very little Jewish feeling, she was an anarchist. She had no interest in Israel.” But he convinced her to move there with him, and she remained his closest confidant and advisor for the rest of her life.
Goldie Mabovitch (Golda Meir): born in Kiev in 1898, her family moved to Milwaukee when she was eight years old. A prolific fundraiser for the Zionist cause, she met David Ben Gurion during his 1915 trip to the U.S. Ben Gurion later called her “the best man in government.” Under her adopted name, Golda Meir, she went on to serve as the first, and so far only, female Israeli Prime Minister in the 1970s.
THE BIG IDEAS
The 1920s was an era of institution building in Palestine. The biggest were Hebrew University and the Histadrut, both of which still exist today. The Histadrut was the workers union, but Ben Gurion made it more than that. He turned it into the central institution of the Yishuv and the single largest employer and owner of a wide range of companies. The Histadrut therefore had considerable political and economic clout, ensuring that its left-wing leadership, with Ben Gurion at the top, were also highly influential.
Although immigration slowed compared to the earlier decade, the 1920s saw two waves of immigration from Europe. The Third Aliyah immigrants, about 40,000, came immediately after World War One and were mostly from Eastern Europe. Having received agricultural training back in Russia, these immigrants mostly settled on the expanding kibbutzim, especially in the north.
The mid-1920s saw another wave, the Fourth Aliyah. These were mostly blue collar workers from Poland, but unlike their predecessors they settled in urban centers like Tel Aviv. They built the Yishuv’s urban economy, joining the Histadrut in large numbers and expanding the organization’s mission to include classic social safety net features.
Vladimir Jabotinsky advocated for a Jewish “iron wall” to defend against Arab aggression. He believed that the Arabs would never accept a Jewish homeland, and thus the Jews would have to develop an impenetrable system of self-defense to make Palestine their home. His thinking is the foundation of right-wing politics in Israel today.
Vladimir Jabotinsky was born in Russia in 1880. Having witnessed firsthand the violent oppression of the Jewish community there, he was determined not to see the same fate befall the Jews of Palestine. He dedicated himself to building a strong Jewish fighting force for self-defense. He gained prominence during the 1920 Jerusalem riots, which led him to assume a leadership position in the Zionist movement. But pretty quickly he developed three serious disagreements with the movement’s strategy.
One: the nature of relations with the Arabs. Chaim Weizmann and the “mainstream” movement adopted a “gradualist” approach of patience, restraint, and collegiality with the British and relationship-building with the Arabs. Jabotinsky rejected this as unrealistic. In 1923 he wrote a manifesto titled “The Iron Wall,” arguing that the Arabs would never voluntarily accept a Jewish homeland. The only way they would accept it would be if the Jews were so strong that it would be impossible to defeat them.
Two: Jewish immigration to Palestine. Jabotinsky was a “maximalist.” He interpreted the Balfour Declaration to allow massive Jewish immigration that was neither gradual or limited. The goal was for the Jews to become the majority population in Palestine, so that the British couldn’t ignore them and the Arabs couldn’t defeat them.
Three: How much territory should constitute the Jewish national home. Jabotinsky was here, too, a maximalist. He insisted that the Jewish homeland should reside on the land where the Jews were indigenous and where their ancient kingdoms stood. That would include most of modern-day Israel, the West Bank of the Jordan River, today’s Jordan, and parts of Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt.
The Arabs have the whole Middle East in which to live, he figured, while the Jews in Europe were faced with destruction. And so the moral case was clear and urgent, and could not suffer any compromise with the rejectionist Arabs.
Unable to reconcile his viewpoint with the mainstream movement led by Weizmann, Jabotinsky broke off in 1925 and formed a separate Zionist tree branch: Revisionist Zionism. The goal was to renegotiate the Zionists’ relationship with the British to get the British onboard with his three major principles around the Arabs, immigration, and territory.
At the same time, he was open to the idea of bi-national state shared with the Arabs. “I am prepared to take an oath binding ourselves and our descendants that we shall never do anything contrary to the principle of equal rights, and that we shall never try to eject anyone.”
In 1903 the Zionist Congress passed a vote to investigate Uganda as a possible Jewish homeland. It was ultimately rejected, but other places considered were Libya, Iraq, Australia, Canada, and Texas. Ten thousand Jews went to Galveston before World War One.
In 1921 the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine) pooled together various self-defense units into one central body called Haganah — which means, “the defense.” The Haganah formed the basis of the future Israel Defense Force.
In 1922 there were only 87,000 Jews in Palestine — and 650,000 Muslims
Vladimir Jabotinsky: One of the most influential Zionist leaders, he founded the right-wing branch of the Zionist tree. His perspective most clashes with the Arabs, most aggressively seeks as much land as possible for the Jewish state, and sets up antagonistic relations with other branches of the Zionist tree that Israel is still fighting over today. But from Jabotinsky we also get the Jewish self-defense movement to defend Jewish settlements and lives from attack. He was also an advocate for equal rights for Arabs, and for a social-democratic form of government in the Jewish state.
Yosef Chaim Brenner: early pioneer of Hebrew literature. Arrived in Palestine with the Second Aliyah. Aligned with the Labor Zionist tree branch, he maintained a pessimism that Zionism was the solution to the Jews’ powerlessness. He became a symbol of Zionist persistence and hope after being murdered by an Arab mob in 1921.
Chaim Weizmann: leader of the Zionist Movement. He was a moderate to Jabotinsky’s maximalist perspective, and believed in a more deferential relationship with the British.
THE BIG IDEAS
In 1923 Jabotinsky wrote that the Arabs would only ever accept a Jewish homeland “when there is no longer any hope of getting rid of us, because they can make no breach in the iron wall.” In other words, the Arabs will accept the Jewish presence in Palestine only because they have to, not because they want to. His “Iron Wall” essay espoused an organized system of Jewish self-defense that would see the Jews rely only on themselves for their security. Though aggressive, Jabotinsky viewed this system as purely defensive, not to be used to attack the Arabs.
The Zionist movement debated different ideas for the future territory of the Jewish homeland. If the goal was to be safe from anti-Semitism, then anywhere the Jews could establish a majority of the population to ensure their security would be good enough. The homeland could be anywhere in the world. If Palestine, however, is the essential Jewish homeland, then the territory should encompass the ancient holy sites, which are located in what is today the West Bank and parts of Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. This would not include the coast, i.e. where Tel Aviv is located, because there is no real connection to Jewish history there. But Jabotinsky and his followers believed in territorial maximalism in which the Jewish homeland, under the Balfour Declaration, ought to include anywhere the Jews were indigenous and had sovereignty in ancient times, an area that includes not only modern-day Israel but also the Kingdom of Jordan and other parts of the Near East.
In 1925 Jabotinsky broke away from the mainstream Zionist movement, led by the Labor Zionists, to start his own tree branch called Revisionist Zionism. His intent was to revise the relationship between the Zionists and the British. He wasn’t against the British. He wanted them to interpret the Balfour Declaration as propounding his maximalist viewpoints on the Arabs, immigration, and territory. Revisionist Zionism became the basis for the political right-wing in Israel.
The violence we associate with the Arab-Israeli conflict began on March 1, 1920, in a tiny Jewish settlement called Tel Hai, just a few miles south of today’s border with Lebanon.
The Jewish settlement of Tel Hai sat in the border region between British-controlled Palestine and French-controlled Lebanon. The Arabs were fighting the French and frequently came into Tel Hai to search for French military activity. On March 1, 1920, several hundred Arabs came down from Lebanon, though it remains unclear whether they were looking for the French or were, instead, intent on raiding Tel Hai. A Jewish farmer signaled for help from the nearby village of Kfar Giladi and Joseph Trumpeldor led a group of HaShomer, the Watchman, to respond. A firefight broke out over what both sides later described as a misunderstanding, but Trumpeldor, five other Jews, and five Arabs were killed. The Arabs burned down Tel Hai.
A month later a riot broke out in Jerusalem’s Old City after Arab officials, crying “Death to the Jews!” during a protest, called for Arabs to attack the Jews. The riot resulted in the death of five Jews, four Arabs, and swath of destruction across the city, made worse by the British military’s decision to evacuate its troops from the Old City — what they later admitted was a mistake.
The Arabs were protesting two grievances. They were angry about the failure to obtain an independent Arab empire which had been promised them by the British during World War One. And they were angry about the 1917 Balfour Declaration and the possibility that the majority Arab population would have to live under a minority Jewish rule. They worried that Balfour would lead to massive Jewish immigration to Palestine
Amin al-Husseini, scion of one of the most prominent local Arab families, emerged as the first major leader of the Palestinian Arabs of Palestine. His inflammatory speeches incited violence against the Jews and the British, and he refused to compromise on any point that would, in his view, be favorable to the Jews.
In an attempt to improve their management of Palestine, under the direction of the League of Nations the British switched from a military regime to a civilian-run administration. It was organized under the High Commissioner, a kind of colonial governor, with Herbert Samuel, a Jew, serving as the first one. He had a mixed record of supporting Zionism but also bending over backwards to appease the Arabs, creating a muddled policy of lasting confusion and conflict.
In May, 1921, riots broke out in Jaffa, a mixed city of Arabs and Jews. The violence soon spread to other cities. Forty-seven Jews and forty-eight Arabs were killed in a sign that the conflict had spread far beyond the confines of Jerusalem.
Herbert Samuel mostly blamed the Jews, temporarily suspending immigration to Palestine to appease the Arabs. The British issued the Churchill White Paper in 1922, which limited the Jewish homeland to lands west of the Jordan River and restricted Jewish immigration to the “economic capacity” of Palestine to absorb them. Though it also reaffirmed Britain’s commitment to the spirit of the Balfour Declaration of 1917. The Zionists, though disappointed by the White Paper, opted to accept the terms. The Arabs rejected it.
Finally. Herbert Samuel appointed Amin al-Husseini as the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who thus became both the religious leader and political head of the Muslim community in Palestine. His elevation to the leadership of the Arab community guaranteed lasting, bitter, and violent conflict between Arabs and Jews for the next thirty years and beyond.
Joseph Trumpeldor, by the age of 39, had been the most decorated Jew in Russian military history, a prisoner of war of the Japanese, and a farmer at Israel’s first kibbutz, Degania.
Trumpeldor’s last words are said to have been, “En davar, tov lamut be'ad artzenu”. “Never mind, it is good to die for our country.”
The largest city in Israel’s north, Kiryat Shmona, or the Town of Eight, is named after Trumpeldor and seven other Jews killed at the beginning of the conflict.
NAMES TO KNOW
Joseph Trumpeldor: One-armed Zionist hero from the First World War who formed and led the Zion Mule Corps at the Battle of Gallipolli. He was killed in battle with the Arab at Tel Hai in 1920.
HaShomer (the Watchman): early, local Jewish self-defense group.
Amin al-Husseini: Palestinian leader who led Arab rejection of Zionism, Balfour, and the Jews, forever refusing any compromise. Appointed Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, making him the Islamic religious leader of the city as well as the top political representative of the Muslim community to the British High Commission.
Herbert Samuel: a British Jew, the first to serve as High Commissioner for Palestine. He had good intentions, but appeased Arab violence by conceding to their demands.
Winston Churchill: Colonial Secretary in charge of Britain’s overseas colonies. A supporter of Zionism and Balfour who made a deal with the Arabs to cease their violence in exchange for securing autonomy in Transjordan, which was a part of Palestine.
KEY CONCEPTS TO KNOW
The Arabs worried that the Balfour Declaration would lead to massive Jewish immigration to Palestine, which would give the Jews political and economic power. They were right to be worried because that is what happened, and that was a major goal of Zionism. To ensure the Jewish homeland was a place of safety and revival, the Jews had to be in the majority with a monopoly on power. Jewish immigration was therefore the key to achieving this.
The clashes with the Jews in the 1920s brought Arab nationalism to the forefront. It was based on the idea of establishing a sovereign homeland for the Arabs in the Middle East to, like Zionism, renew Arab culture, language, history, and identity. But they were much younger and less unified than the Zionist movement, and struggled to achieve the diplomatic success of Zionism, which led to frustration and the view that Zionism, with its ties to the British, was a colonialist movement.
The violent Arab protests of 1920 and 1921 resulted in the British limiting Jewish immigration to appease Arab demands. From this the Arabs learned that violence works. This set the stage for a strategy that would continue over the next century, as the Arabs repeatedly employed violence to achieve political results, often with success. The British didn’t seem to appreciate that there was no scenario in which the Arabs would accept the Balfour Declaration, and yet the High Commission kept trying anyway. For the Zionists, this was a key pillar in the development of right-wing Zionism.
In November, 1917, Britain issued the Balfour Declaration. It is one of the key foundational documents of Israel. Yet it was so vaguely written that anyone can project what they want to see. For the Zionists it was the first definitive international support for establishing the Jewish homeland. For the Arabs it was a betrayal of their rights. For Britain, it was the beginning of a thirty-year muddle in the Middle East. Either way, it’s essential to understanding modern Israel.
The short text of the Balfour Declaration read: “His Majesty's government view with favor 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 was the first time that a major European power had positively acknowledged Jewish national aspirations, a major goal of the Political Zionist tree branch and a huge win for the movement. But Balfour also contained a lot of ambiguities that made it hard to assess just how much of an achievement it really was.
First, Palestine wasn’t a part of the British Empire yet, and the British weren’t in a position to guarantee that it would be, so the promise of territory, let alone a Jewish home, was premature.
Second, the Declaration doesn’t say that the Jews will get a state but a “home”, making no promises about the Jews having sovereignty over that territory.
Third, the Declaration didn’t define the territorial boundaries of Palestine, so there was no determined border for the future Jewish homeland.
Finally, the Declaration refers to an understanding that nothing will done to prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine. That demographic comprised about 90% of the total population. The Declaration also doesn’t say anything about the non-Jews’ political rights in the future Jewish homeland, although it does, in the next phrase, talk about protecting the rights and political status of Jews in any other country.
Meanwhile, as the Zionists were happy to use British imperialism for their own ends, so, too, were the Arabs, who had also made a deal with the British to create an Arab empire in the Middle East. The Arabs, led by Emir Faisal bin Hussein, hoped to get Zionist support for an Arab state in exchange for Arab support for the Balfour Declaration. Weizmann agreed, and the two were prepared to present a unified front at the 1919 Paris Conference. But the French were against the Arabs, Weizmann couldn’t go to bat for the Arabs with the British, and the Arabs opposed Balfour — so Arab-Jewish cooperation came to a swift and resentful end.
One story goes that when a member of the House of Lords asked Weizmann why the Jews insist on Palestine when there are so many other undeveloped countries that would be more convenient to settle, Weizmann replied: ““That is like my asking you why you drove twenty miles to visit your mother last Sunday when there are so many old ladies living on your street.”
The Jews and Arabs came close to a permanent agreement when Weizmann and Emir Fairsal agreed that Faisal would support the Balfour Declaration in exchange for Jewish support for the creation of an Arab state in the Middle East.
NAMES TO KNOW
Chaim Weizmann: he became the British Jewish community’s leading Zionist supporter and a confidant of the highest levels of British leadership. He weathered local Jewish opposition to the Zionist movement to convince the British that it was in their military, political, and Christian philosophical interests to support a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
Emir Faisal bin Hussein: one of the most prominent Arab leaders, who allied with the British in the hopes of securing an independent Arab empire. A cautious supporter of the Balfour Declaration — on the condition that the Jews would support his goals — Faisal fought a war with the French over Syria. He lost, but the British made him King of Iraq in 1921.
KEY CONCEPTS TO KNOW
There is a challenge in parsing the exacting meaning of the Balfour Declaration’s reference to Jewish political rights and the civil and religious rights of non-Jews. The reference to the Jews was an effort to pre-empt any efforts, elsewhere in the world, to forcibly evict Jews or eliminate their citizenship status once a homeland in Palestine was established. The reference to non-Jews was an effort to clarify, for the Jews of Palestine, that they could not do the same to non-Jews in their future homeland. But in doing so Balfour created a contradiction in prioritizing the rights of the Jews in Palestine (the minority population) over the rights of the non-Jews who formed the majority.
Although the Balfour Declaration is commemorated as one of the essential founding documents of Israel, reducing the existence of Israel to the colonialist policies of the British invalidates the decades of Zionist development that led to this moment. Zionism wasn’t an outcome of British policies, but a liberation and justice movement organized around the right of the Jewish People to self-determination. The recognition of the Balfour Declaration, while a critical political development, was not the raison d’etre of Zionism, nor its fulfillment. The movement still had a long way to go.
Emir Faisal, having failed to secure Zionist support for his own dream of Arab independence, was the first in a long line of Arab leaders who would learn the hard way about trying to make peace with the Jews. And Chaim Weizmann, in reaching the limits of what the Jews were able to accomplish within the constraints of British policy, was the first of his people to appreciate that it just wasn’t going to be possible to join in a unified way with the Arabs. Although people on both sides wanted to find agreement, Arabs and Jews seemed destined to continuously find themselves at a disappointing impasse.