31. In the Land of Poetry
It’s the beginning of the most important theme in Israeli history: Jewish immigration to the Holy Land. Persuading Jews to move to Palestine was a difficult task, and the Zionist Movement was divided over how best to achieve it. The different Zionist tree branches — Political, Cultural, and Labor — approached the task of settling the Land of Israel with different ideologies, motivations, and urgencies.
Palestine was a rough place to eke out a living in the late 1800s and early 1900s. There was a lack of everything: not enough food, water, infrastructure, jobs, health care, or education. But there was an ample supply of extreme heat and tropical disease. The First Aliyah — waves of immigration to Palestine — brought around 25,000 Jews to the land. They were financially supported by the ultra-wealthy Jewish philanthropist Baron Edmond de Rothschild. He bought up tons of land and funded the necessary services, establishing Israel’s earliest communities like Rishon LeZion and Zichron Ya’akov. But without proper farming skills or capacity to develop the land amidst such hardship, most immigrants left soon after arriving.
It was the Second Aliyah, from about 1900-1914, that found success in developing Jewish agricultural communities, small new towns, and the institutions that would turn the the Jewish homeland into the State of Israel. Their ideological orientation was socialist, and they largely belonged to the Labor Zionist tree branch. Rachel Blustein, a poet, and her sister came with this second wave, brimming less with Zionism than with romantic idealism and a desire to escape European oppression. She exemplified the classic experience of the chalutzim — “the pioneers”: falling in love with an idealized version of Eretz Yisrael, yet melancholy about the extreme difficulties of life there. Rachel the Poetess died young, but her works later made her a national hero in Israel.
The Second Aliyah immigrants were determined to build more than just agricultural communities. They wanted industries and factories and Jewish neighborhoods and cities, and to move forward with the practical approaches to building the Jewish homeland. The Jewish National Fund was created in 1897 to buy up as much land as possible and to build schools, plan cities, and develop essential infrastructure.
Arthur Ruppin was the man chosen to lead this effort. He believed that the most essential element in the creation of a Jewish state then was to buy land and settle it as quickly as possible by any means possible. It didn’t matter if it was urban or rural, as long as the Jewish settlement could be economically viable, safe, and thriving.
Ruppin got a JNF loan for a small group of people to create a Jewish suburb next to the ancient port of Jaffa. They wanted to create the kind of small city they had left behind in Europe to be a center for Zionist culture: Hebrew in nature and adopting modern urban aesthetics. Sixty-six families chose plots of land on April 11, 1909 and a year later gave their new town a name that evoked both the ancient past as well as Jewish renewal: Spring Hill — or, in Hebrew, Tel Aviv.
Rachel and her sister learned Hebrew by hanging out at the local kindergarten.
To start the Jewish National Fund, the first donation was made in the amount of ten pounds. Theodore Herzl provided the second donation to the organization, and the first tree the JNF planted was in his posthumous honor.
By the 21st century the JNF has planted over 250 million trees in Israel, making Israel the only country in the world to enter that century with more trees than it had at the start of the 20th.
The sixty-six families who gathered on a beach to start Tel Aviv in 1909 drew color-coded seashells to determine who got which plot of land.
NAMES TO KNOW
The Yishuv: the collective term for the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine.
Rachel the Poetess: one of Israel’s earliest national heroes. She arrived in Palestine at age 19 and went to work at an agricultural school along the Sea of Galilee. Her poetry evoked both the romantic idealism of the early pioneers as well as the extreme hardships they endured to develop the land. When Rachel contacted tuberculosis her kibbutz kicked her out, and she died at the age of 40 in Tel Aviv in 1931.
Baron Edmond de Rothschild: scion of the famous Jewish banking family, his philanthropy paid for the earliest Zionist enterprises in Palestine. A huge supporter of Zionism, he had no patience for Theodore Herzl or other movement leaders, insisting that his Zionist colonies were his to do with as he pleased.
Arthur Ruppin: chief “doer” of the Zionist movement in Palestine, placed in charge of executing the practical necessities of developing Jewish settlement. He created two of Israel’s most famous and lasting institutions: Tel Aviv and the kibbutz.
KEY CONCEPTS TO KNOW
Aliyah means to “go up” or “ascend” (see Episode 27), and is the term used to mean immigrating to the Land of Israel. The history of aliyah is divided into different eras. The First Aliyah, or major wave of immigration, ran from roughly 1880 to the early 1900s, while the Second Aliyah, considered more consequential, ran from the early 1900s until the beginning of World War One. Tens of thousands of Jews came from Europe, but only a small percentage actually weathered the hardships to permanently settle. Each Aliyah wave shaped the Yishuv's — and then Israel’s — demographics in meaningful ways.
In 1901 Theodore Herzl proclaimed the creation of the Jewish National Fund (JNF), an organization to raise money to buy up land in Palestine for Jewish settlement. In 1905 the JNF started planting trees, and also served as a crucial agency for managing water resources, planning cities, organizing education, and researching new agricultural techniques. By the 21st century the JNF had developed over 250,000 acres of land, built a couple hundred reservoirs and dams, built the infrastructure for more than 1,000 communities, and created several thousand parks.
In 1909 the JNF gave Arthur Ruppin a loan for a small community to start a new neighborhood on the beach outside Jaffa. They called this new village Ahuzat Bayit, meaning “homestead,” and they wanted it to be a Hebrew version of the small European towns they had left behind. It began with just sixty-six families, and they soon renamed their town Tel Aviv, meaning “Spring Hill,” which was the Hebrew title given to Herzl’s 1902 book Altneuland, Old New Land.