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Zionism: from 1890

Ever since the loss of a national home in Palestine, with the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in AD 70, the idea of a return to Jerusalem has been a romantic and indeed ritual part of the shared religious life of Jewish communities spread around the world. The service on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar) ends with the words 'Next year in Jerusalem'.

This remains a distant dream until a few authors in the early 19th century begin to advocate the establishment of a real Jewish home in Palestine. They have little practical influence, but at the end of the century the idea begins to gather political momentum, being known from 1890 as Zionism. The turning point comes in 1896 with the publication of Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State) by a secular Jew, the journalist Theodor Herzl. The book is his response to a recent and rapid increase in anti-Semitism in many parts of Europe, particularly in Russia but also to a marked degree in Herzl's own region, Austria-Hungary.

The attempt to achieve a Jewish homeland in Palestine becomes the dominant political ambition of Herzl's life. In the mere nine years between The Jewish State and his early death at the age of forty-five, he devotes himself, in a whirlwind of activity, to securing an audience with a succession of powerful international leaders, to whom he presents his case often with considerable success. The movement attracts more and more followers, and they finally achieve a breakthrough of great significance when the British foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, is persuaded in 1917 to sign a letter to Lord Rothschild, a leader of Britain's Jewish community.

Jewish immigration to Palestine: from 1882 The letter, subsequently known as the Balfour Declaration, states: His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours 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 becomes both a powerful document, as a very strong endorsement of a Jewish national home in Palestine, but it is also a controversial one. It is argued by many that the provision for protecting the rights of non-Jewish Palestinians has been disregarded since the creation of the modern state of Israel.

The encouragement given by the Balfour Declaration is a major factor in the growth of Jewish immigration to Palestine. From the 1880s to the Balfour Declaration the average number of new arrivals has been about 900 per year. Following the Declaration, during the 1920s, that goes up to 12,000 per year. And the terrifying rise in anti_Semitism during the 1930s, not only in Nazi Germany, increases that figure again to 30,000 per year. This brings the Jewish population from 5% of the Palestinian Arabs in 1880 to more than 40% in 1939.

The pattern of early immigration by small groups establishes the important Israeli tradition of the kibbutz, originally a purely agricultural settlement, of a utopian socialist nature based on shared rights and ownership. Kibbutzim (the Hebrew plural of the noun) are sited wherever land is available, either by purchase from Palestinians or in places too barren to have been farmed by others. They therefore tend to be isolated and difficult to defend whenever their Arab neighbours become hostile. But their number grows rapidly, in later years often being factory-based. And even though the majority of immigrants have from the 1930s been individuals settling in towns, there are still in the early 21st century more than 250 kibbutzim in Israel. The first kibbutz was established in 1909-10 at Degania, south of the Sea of Galilee, by a small group of immigrants from Russia.

The British mandate: 1922-39

After World War I Palestine acquires a new governing power, Britain. For more than four centuries it has been part of the Turkish Ottoman empire, since its conquest by the sultan in 1516. But Turkey is a loser in the First World War, having sided with Germany. As with Germany and Austria-Hungary, the League of Nations is given the task of dismantling the empires of the defeated nations.

In May 1920 the League announces its decision for the Turkish territories east of the Mediterranean. France is given a mandate to govern Syria and Lebanon. The mandated territories entrusted to Britain are Iraq and Palestine, with the region east of the Jordan to be administered separately as Transjordan (the definition and boundaries of these territories are defined by the League on a largely arbitrary basis). It is specifically stated that Palestine is to be an exception to the principle of self-determination that defines League policies elsewhere. Clearly an Arab Palestinian state would immediately prevent the creation of a homeland for the Jews.

The hardest task confronting Britain is to keep the peace between the Jews and the more numerous population of Palestinian Arabs, resenting the arrival of so many foreigners and well aware of the Zionist dream of creating a state of Israel. During the 1920s the policy of Britain in relation to these two rival communities is unclear and vacillating. At first Jewish immigration is encouraged, in keeping with the Balfour Declaration, but problems arising from Arab opposition soon modify this policy.

From the very start, from the announcement of the British mandate (formally established not until 1922), there are clear indications of the strength of hostility within the Arab community. As early as 1920 there are attacks on Jews, resulting in a few deaths, in four days of rioting during the annual Nebi Musa festival in and around Jerusalem. These attacks, followed by more serious ones in 1921, prompt the formation of the Haganah, a Jewish paramilitary group of volunteers committed to the defence of Jewish settlements. They also prompt the first concession to Arab opinion. The British are well aware of the need to avoid giving offence to neighbouring Arab states and to the millions of Muslims in India. In the short term immigration is suspended, followed by a promise that henceforth it will be strictly controlled.

During the rest of the period between the wars there is a gradual increase in the violence and extent of Arab riots against Jews. A particularly extreme outburst occurs in 1929. Beginning with an Arab attack on Jews at the holy Western Wall of the Temple (also known as the Wailing Wall), the violence rapidly spreads throughout Palestine. Within the next few days 133 Jews are killed and 87 Arabs, many of the latter by British troops trying to restore order. These dangers are met by a corresponding build-up of Jewish paramilitary groups, in particular the Haganah. By the early 1930s David Ben-Gurion, has become the de facto leader of the Jewish community as leader of the left-wing political party Mapai (founded by the merger of two parties in 1930), and from now on he is the main contact between the community and the British.

An Arab general strike in 1936, accompanied by a demand for an immediate end to Jewish immigration, leads to another major outbreak of violence against Jews, resulting this time in 80 Jewish and`140 Arab deaths as the British struggle to maintain order. The British response is to set up a Royal Commission, headed by Lord Peel, to investigate possible solutions to an increasingly dangerous situation. The Peel Report (1937) concludes that reconciliation is impossible and that the only solution is to set up two states, with the Jews occupying a small territory in the north of Palestine and Jerusalem retained as a permanent British mandate. Reluctantly the Jews accept this proposal, on the grounds that a small state is better than none, but it is categorically rejected by the Arabs.

Violence against Jews continues, particularly after 1938, forcing the British to intervene more actively on the Jewish side. Arms are provided to enable outlying Jewish settlements to defend themselves, contributing significantly to the growing strength of the Haganah which by1939 is a very effective fighting force armed with foreign weapons. But the approach of war soon causes another reversal in British policy.

The British mandate: AD 1939-48

Practical politics dictate Britain's decision that concessions need to be made to the Arabs in view of the danger of German forces achieving a quick route to India through the Middle East or the Suez canal. By contrast, it can be reasoned, the Jews of Palestine must inevitably support Britain in a war against Hitler.

The result is that a decision profoundly distressing to the Jews is taken. At just the time when the greatest number of Jews need to escape from Germany and eastern Europe, a limit of 75,000 is placed on immigration for the next five years, and thereafter any immigration is to be permitted only with Arab consent. This frustrates any hopes of a Jewish state, guaranteeing that Jews would remain a permanent minority within Palestine. But in the short term the calculation proves correct. In spite of the general sense of outrage at the limit on immigration. more than 30,000 Jews from Palestine volunteer to fight with British forces. In 1944 an entirely Jewish unit, the Jewish Brigade, is formed within the British army.

With large numbers of British troops in the region the war years are relatively peaceful. But the political situation strongly suggests to many that a Jewish state will only be achieved through force of arms. The Jews therefore do their best to enlist volunteers and to train them in guerrilla warfare for when the crisis comes. But a few of its members begin to take a more extreme line, believing that constant and active resistance is required against the British occupiers of Palestine.

This is a view long held by the first major splinter group from the Haganah, known as the Irgun and established in 1931. A second is formed by Avraham Stern in 1940, widely known as the Stern Gang but going by the official name of Lehi. This group believes that Irgun's tactics are too feeble and that terrorist attacks on British targets are the only way forward. By the end of the war the Irgun takes the same view. Of the four most significant attacks against the British, Lehi is responsible for the assassination in 1944 of Lord Moyne, a British minister of state in Cairo, and in 1948 of Folke Bernadotte, the United Nations Mediator in Palestine. For their part the Irgun, in 1946, blows up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem (headquarters of the British administration), resulting in 91 deaths, and in the same year plants a bomb in the British embassy in Rome.

The Irgun and Lehi also have a more recent influence in Israeli history. Two of their activists play very prominent roles in Likud, the political party that has been the dominant force in the nation's politics since 1977. Menachem Begin, who as leader of the Irgun authorizes the attack on the King David Hotel, becomes the first Likud prime minister in 1977. Yitzhak Shamir, as joint leader of Lehi, plots the two assassinations in 1946 and follows Begin as prime minister in 1986.

It has for a while been evident to both Jews and Palestinians that the departure of the British must soon be imminent and that this will inevitably be followed by armed conflict. It was essential to the Jews to have as much time as possible to build up the military strength of the Haganah, by now in effect their army. In February 1947, just months after the King David Hotel atrocity, the Zionist leader David Ben Gurion pleads with the British to stay, promising in return to put an end to Jewish terrorism. But Britain, with 100,000 troops tied up in Palestine attempting to keep an impossible peace, is interested only in a rapid departure.

In May 1947 the British government hands the problem over to the United Nations, which sets up a Committee on Palestine. In August the committee recommends that the region must be partitioned into an Arab and a Jewish state, very much along the lines of the British Peel Report of 1937 except that Jerusalem is to be administered under an international rather than British mandate. This solution is adopted by the General Assembly in November. As with the Peel Report, it is welcomed by the Jewish community but violently opposed by the Arabs. In effect it is entirely disregarded in Palestine, where the violence between Jews and Arabs is dramatically increasing, so much so that the period between November 1947 and May 1948 is often referred to by historians as the Civil War. Israelis prefer to link it to the subsequent Arab-Israeli War as the War of Independence.

Preparations for conflict are being carried out by both communities and by neighbouring Arab countries. Two atrocities stand out in particular as examples of the methods now employed by extremists on both sides in Palestine. On 9 April 1948 the small Arab village of Deir Yassin, near Jerusalem, stands in the way of a band of fighters from the Irgun and Levi who are moving towards the city in an attempt to frustrate a Palestinian blockade. An attack on the village leaves more than 100 people dead, including women and children. A few days later, in an ambush at Hadassah on a road into Jerusalem, an Arab reprisal is carried out on a medical convoy to a hospital on Mount Scopus, killing seventy-seven Jewish doctors and nurses. But there are many lesser acts of terrorism against both communities.

Early in 1948 Britain announces that the mandate will end on May 14. Knowledge of the date only serves to intensify the preparation of both sides for the conflict ahead.

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