Friday, February 5, 2010

Modern Israel Lesson 1

OK, started my Modern Israel Culture and History Class today, very cool.  I’ve already had a request for a little lesson on Modern Israel, so here it begins…

This will be lesson 1 of I don’t know how many… hopefully several lessons.  I’m basically abbreviating this from my 2.5 hours of class notes. I can’t do the well animated Professor Jonathan Kaplan (not the actor, nor the rugby player) justice, the class was awesome, but I’ll do my best…

The Formation of Modern Israeli Society

The discussion of modern Israeli Society, its formation and structure properly begins with Zionism.  This term, like most “isms” is fluid, has changed over time and has different meanings and nuances to different people and places.  Most generally Zionism refers to the movement, desire, interest to reestablish the Jewish people as a nation in some form. That’s a really lose definition, but will suffice for now. 

But before you can discuss the Jewish people as a “nation” you must define “nation.”  Remember that for nearly 2,000 years the Jewish people existed in various places around the world as part of the diaspora (dispersion of the Jewish people from their land).  It is quite amazing that the people retained any form of identity at all – which must be a testament to God’s future plans for them.  Anyhow, in the late 1800’s several important Jewish thinkers from various places in the world were beginning to formulate the notion of returning to the land. There are 4 basic elements that are common each of them.

1) The concept that the Jewish people are a Nation:

This may seem obvious, but not necessarily the case.  Many of the Jewish people had attempted to simply mesh with the society in which they were found, but for whatever reason, they kept coming under persecution.  What began to change in the 1800’s was that this persecution was now “nationally” or “racially” motivated, not religiously.  For years, the Jewish people could escape persecution by converting to Catholicism for example, but now, the religion wasn’t the issue.  They were being singled out simply for being Jewish by race.  This persecution motivated them begin thinking about finding a place to call home.

Now there were 4 primary people involved in this process, each with their own motivations and perspectives:


  1. Theodore Herzl is considered the “founder” of modern Israel. This handsome bearded man was a free thinking journalist for a Vienna paper.  He at first advocated the Jewish people integrating in various forms but eventually gave up that notion in favor of forming a new nation. He formed the first Zionist council and presided as the first president in 1897. The strongest motivation for him was escaping the persecution.


  1. Ahad Ha’am (changed his name from Asher Ginsberg, Ha’Am means ‘one of the people’). Came from Western Russsia, trained in Torah school, eventually became an  important tea merchant.  For him, the most important motivation was the common culture of the Jewish people that he felt was being diminished because of their dispersion among the various cultures in the world.


Ber Borochov was a maxist zionist. For him there’s  only one cause for Zionism: economic / material.  The Jewish people had a common economic profile that he felt defined them as a nation – they tended to be a part of the aspiring middle class, managers instead of laborers, middle class. 




  1. Rabbi A.I. Kook held that of-course they are a nation because they are defined as such by God.  Therefore they must return to the land to start what will ultimately be fulfilled by Messiah.  For R. Kook, the Messianic promises of the land were the reason to return.


[Interesting Note: this very notion is opposed by many anti-zionists, orthodox and ultra-orthodox Jews because they believe to attempt to establish what Messiah Himself will do when He comes is to presume to take the place of God]. 


OK, now that we’ve described the key players in early Zionism, we return to the common motivating factors:

2) The Diaspora is fundamentally defective or harmful

All the Zionists were critical about Jewish life in the Diaspora.  Each had a different emphasis. Herzl (the journalist) it leads to discrimination.  For Ha’am it bleeds the life out of the Jewish culture.  Borochov was concerned that the Jewish people would get caught in the struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.  Kook saw that the exile banished the people from the holiness of the land – a Jewish person must be in the land to be holy.  

3) The Solution: Ingathering of (some) Jews in the Land of Israel under conditions of autonomy.

So, to solve this problem all the Zionists saw true national status to mean a people separated in a land of their own under their own control  There are three parts to this…

Some Jews

      • Herzl: felt all Jews would come fairly quickly, whatever Jews remain outside the state will eventually assimilate. Not ALL Jews needed to return, the problem was that there were just too many in the Diaspora.  If most would return to the nation, then the few remaining could assimilate into society and be fine.
    • Ha'am: it will take time to build the society, build markets, etc… can't build a society immediately, in the meantime most will continue to live in the Diaspora

Land of Israel

Believe it or now, Palestine wasn’t the only choice.  Early options included the Sinai peninsula, Argentina and Uganda.

    • Herzl offered Sinai, Argentina, Uganda, Palestine… for him the decision is practical, financial. Palestine is more easily sold, because it's a name the people already know. Early on considered the others but eventually decided it must be Palestine.
  • The Russian Jews rejected going to any other territory than Israel. Not a question of practical -- this is our historic homeland. Every stone, every city name is part of our tradition.
  • Zion congress of 1905 decided it would be "here" … no one defined the borders exactly, but they ruled out Uganda, for example.

Conditions of Autonomy:
Early debates asked whether they had to be truly sovereign.  Some contended that as long as they could control the schools (education of their children) and have some fundamental basic rights they would be content with that for  now, and later seek more autonomy.

Enter one more important Zionist.

  • Vladamir Jabotinsky (1880-1940), born at the time of the attacks on Jews in Russia. Sees the rise of Naziism. At the Zionist council meetings he pounds on the table and says nothing less than a Jewish majority and Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan river. He founded the Revisionist Movement, to demand a Jewish state under the full meaning of that term -- self government, army, etc… [Jabotinsky is the name of the street off of the one we live on, that I take to get to my school.]

In the end, the Zionists determine that it must be Palestine, and it must be an autonomous people in which many of the Jewish people will return.

And so they did return..


Waves of Immigration

1492: Sephardim (about 6,000)

· The Jews who came here from Spain

· All Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492

Mid 1600’s:  Old Kishuv (Settlement)

· Orthodox (some Ultra) began to come to the land and settle.  They were mainly from Eastern Europe.  They formed religious, scholarly societies to study the Jewish texts and pray. They expected the Jews of the world to support them through contributions.

By 1880 when the Zionist movement began there were about 25,000 total in the land, including the 6,000 Sephardim.

From 1881 on…

New Kishuv: 5 waves of immigration

1. Russia 1881-1904, 30K Immigrants

· Pogroms in Russia, following the assignation of Alexander II, ascension of Alexander III, who was a very repressive Czar, implements anti-Jewish policy, taxation, etc…

· Main migration at this time was to America (2 Million)

· Those who came to Palestine wanted to establish a Jewish settlement

2. Russia 1904-1914, 30K Immigrants

· Come with the idea of communes and collective settlements

· Start to build to the south western bank of Galilee

· Cradle of new socialist settlement, Kvutza(ot).  These were young mostly college age idealists who dreamed creating an egalitarian society in which everyone shared everything.

· 1907 created Hashalmer, guild of watchmen to protect themselves.

· Decide to speak Hebrew, becomes the popular language

· Establish 2 socialist political parties in 1905

· Important Leaders

· David Green, aka David Ben Gurion (for whom Israel’s Tel Aviv airport is named).

3. Russia 1918 - 1921, 37K Immigrants

· Expands the 2nd wave and form Kibbutz, mainly in the Jezreel valley.

· Established the defense force named Hashalmer a precursor to the Hagana, itself a precursor to the first Israeli army.

· Envision all of Palestine as one big commune, combined labor and management.

· Golda Meir came during this wave...

4. Poland 1924 - 26, 70K Immigrants

· Settles mainly in the cities, these are groups of revisionists, more capitalistic in mindset.  Formed the opposition (Likkud) party.

5. Central Europe 1933-39, 225K Immigrants

· Result of the rise of Naziism, 1/4 came from Germany.

· Intellectuals, industrialists, pillars of the Hebrew University.

· Einstein (who goes to America), was also one of founders of Hebrew University

· Immigration was essentially terminated in 39 by the British Mandate.



OK, let me break all this down for you in one summary paragraph.  Persecution and oppression eventually led to the organization of the Zionist movement which paved the way for the restoration of the nation of Israel in the land of Palestine under autonomous rule.  There were  as many motivations and perspectives as their were Zionists, but they all had in common a need for the people to return to the land of Palestine under autonomous rule.  Even before the Zionist movement there were two main immigration movements, but after the Zionist movement there were 5 waves, the last two being significantly larger. 

That’s the background leading up to the important years between 1939 and 1948 (nation status) plus the more recent conflicts including the important 6 day war of 1967.  But that’s another blog.


Carol Penhorwood said...

So informative. I'm learning right along with you and loving it! You are a great teacher, Eric! I'm soaking up everything you if I can just REMEMBER it! LOL

Carol Penhorwood

Edy said...

Thank you, Eric! I really appreciate this historical outline/summary you're sharing with us. Decades ago (after discovering what happened during WWII), I read all I could get my hands on about those who established the modern state of Israel. Your postings are keepsakes for my history file!