Formative Groups and Ideologies

By: Jonathan Kaplan

When the state of Israel was declared on May 14, 1948, there were already some 650,000 Jews living in the "Yishuv", the Jewish settlement in British governed Palestine. Motivated by a Jewish nationalist vision often combined with socialist ideals, successive waves of Jewish immigrants beginning in the 1880s had fled manifestations of European anti-semitism and sought refuge and Jewish fulfillment in the Land of Israel. New forms of settlement had been developed over the years, and certain regions had become a focus for the building of new communities. The Yishuv had developed its own political parties and quasi-government, labor union, school system, universities, Hebrew press, medical institutions, defense organizations as well as institutionalized bodies for dealing with finances, immigrant absorption and foreign affairs. Much of the ideological and social basis of Israeli society was laid during this pre-state period.

Zionist Ideology: 
The most fundamental ideological element of this new society in the making was Zionism, which appeared as a popular movement in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. Although a variety of Zionist streams soon emerged, all were united on four basic common denominators.

1. The Jews comprise a nation: 
As opposed to most Jewish ideological or organizational expressions of the nineteenth century, both religious (Reform Judaism, Neo-orthodoxy) and secular (for example, the Alliance Israelite Universelle) which viewed Jewish identity in terms of religious belief, Zionism defined the Jews as a nation, ie. a group of people sharing a particular history, culture, language, territory (or at least aspiration to one) and sense of belonging. There were various opinions on what exactly united and characterized this nation: anti-semitism (Herzl), common culture (Asher Ginzberg, better known as Ahad Ha'am), predominance of middle class attributes (socialist Zionists) or divine election (religious Zionism).

2. The Diaspora is fundamentally defective: 
All Zionist streams contended that for the Jews as a national group, life in the diaspora had severe limitations and defects. Emancipation and integration into general society were either impossible or undesirable options. The critics of Jewish diaspora life pointed to widespread anti-semitism (Herzl), cultural disintegration and deterioration (Ahad Ha'am), a distorted Jewish economic structure lacking a significant working class (socialist Zionists) and to a detachment from the land (A.D. Gordon) or from holiness (A. I. Kook). Generally, Zionist writers referred to the diaspora as "galut" (exile), suggesting that Jews in the diaspora had been cast out of their native land into foreign and unnatural surroundings.

3. The solution to the Jewish problem is the ingathering of a large number of Jews in the Land of Israel under conditions of autonomy moving in the direction of sovereignty For Zionism, the ultimate solution to the shortcomings of diaspora life was not to be found in the diaspora: only a concentration of Jews in their own territory could provide the necessary security and preconditions for a cultural, economic or religious renaissance. Indeed, in the early stages of Zionism there was debate as to whether Zionist settlement should be confined to the Land of Israel or whether an alternative could be found elsewhere due to the pressing needs of Eastern European Jewry and the serious obstacles encountered in trying to settle Palestine. However, by 1905 this debate had more or less run its course and Eretz Israel emerged as the undisputed objective of Zionist activity. Opinions were also divided regarding the schedule of Jewish settlement: some felt that Zionist settlement would move essentially all Jews to Palestine in a relatively short period of time leaving only a small assimilable minority in the diaspora. Others felt that Jewish settlement would be a long, drawn-out process and that most Jews would continue to reside in the diaspora for the foreseeable future. The issue of sovereignty was also a matter of discussion. While spiritual Zionists tended to emphasize the importance of creating a new Jewish culture as Zionism's primary task, political Zionists pointed out the necessity of a state. Vladimir Jabotinsky, the fiery leader of Revisionist Zionism in the 1920s and 1930s, was adamant that the Zionist goal must be the creation of a Jewish majority and a Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan river.

4. The means to realizing the Zionist goal are within the realm of human understanding: 
Traditional Jews had for generations believed that they were a separate people with a unique culture and way of life. The diaspora was perceived as exile, divinely ordained as a time of repentance and preparation for the return to the Land of Israel, which would constitute the ultimate resolution of Jewish problems in the diaspora. To a large extent, Zionism continued these ideas. However, in implementing the solution to the Jewish problem, Zionism rejected the traditional view that Jews must wait for the coming of the messiah before effecting their own return to the Land of Israel. All Zionists, including orthodox religious Zionists, felt that the Jews themselves had to take action in order to realize Zionist goals. Debate centered on the most advisable tactics: diplomatic activity (Herzl), settlement and development (practical Zionism) and educational or cultural activity (Ahad Ha'am). Chaim Weizmann argued at the Eighth Zionist Congress in 1907 that these divisions were artificial and that a tactical success in one area could only improve the chances of success in another. 
These fundamental ideas left a deep imprint on society in the Yishuv and later in the State of Israel. Basic attitudes toward the diaspora, Jewish immigration ("aliyah") and the goals of the Jewish state originated in this ideology.

Waves of Immigration: 
Jews came to the Land of Israel in several different waves of immigration. Each wave had its own characteristics in terms of geographical origin, causes, dimensions, dominant ideas and achievements in Palestine.

Old Yishuv - During the last decades of the eighteenth and the early years of the nineteenth century, orthodox Jews, primarily from Eastern Europe, settled in the four Holy Cities of the Land of Israel: Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed and Tiberias. These Ashkenazi Jews (Hassidim as well as opponents of the Hassidim - the Mitnagdim) joined the few thousand Sephardi Jews already in the Holy Land and formed what became known as the "Old Yishuv". The new arrivals aspired to create a society of Talmud scholars in the Land of Israel and devoted themselves entirely to religious study and prayer which they felt held universal Jewish significance. Consequently, these Jews functioned in the framework of a "kollel" or adult yeshiva (Talmudic academies) which received funds ("chalukah") from Jewish donations abroad. As the years passed and numbers grew, chalukah funds proved insufficient to sustain the entire Old Yishuv. In the largest center of the Old Yishuv, the Jewish Quarter in the walled Old City of Jerusalem, conditions became so cramped that individuals began looking for possibilities of settlement outside the city. The members of the Old Yishuv, some 26,000 in the 1880s by one estimate, did not subscribe to Zionist principles when the movement began to develop. On the whole they opposed the new trend as secularizing and even heretical in that Zionism sought to create a Jewish national center before the appearance of the Messiah.

First Aliyah - Prompted by the outbreak of riots against Jews in Southern Russia in 1881 and the hostile policies of the Tsar Alexander III, hundreds of thousands of Jews began to emigrate from Russia, mainly to the United States and other western countries. A much smaller stream, motivated by the desire to return to the Land of Israel and create model Jewish settlements there, moved to Turkish held Palestine between 1882 and 1904. In all some 30-40,000 Jews immigrated during this period, and although many joined the Old Yishuv, some formed what became known as the "New Yishuv", that settlement which was motivated by modern nationalist ideals. The primary achievement of this wave of immigration lay in the establishment of "moshavot" (colonies) mainly in the central coastal and the extreme northern regions of the country. Rishon Le-Zion, Zichron Ya'akov, Petach Tikvah and Rosh Pina were established at this time. Due to a lack of agricultural expertise and financial means, the situation of the colonies deteriorated until they reached the verge of bankruptcy, only to be saved by Baron Edmond de Rothschild who took over the settlements and appointed expert officials to supervise all operations. The colonies were run henceforth on a more businesslike basis and agricultural work was carried out largely by local Arabs.

Second Aliyah - Many of Israel's symbols, ideals, leading personalities and political ideologies have their roots in the second wave of Jewish immigration to Palestine which lasted from 1904 until 1914. As in the first wave, most of the immigrants came from Russia and an increasing number had been exposed to socialist ideas there. Of the 22,000 Jews who immigrated during these years, a small group of no more than a few thousand young and idealistic pioneers had the greatest impact. This group was influenced by the Marxist-socialist ideas of Dov Ber Borochov and the mystical "religion of labor" advocated by Aaron David Gordon. Borochov argued that a natural process of anti-semitism and migration was channeling Jews to Eretz Israel where, for want of middle class professions, they would be transformed into a working class capable of carrying out a class conflict within Jewish society. A.D. Gordon emphasized the moral and creative significance in the return of the Jew to the land. Just as the individual Jew would renew his or her creative power through working the land, so would the Jewish people be rejuvenated by returning to its native and natural soil. Although the two theories led to different practical conclusions and in fact spawned competing political ideologies and parties, both approaches stressed the supreme importance of labor. The "conquest of labor" became the aspiration of these idealists, yet they failed to compete successfully with the more experienced and less expensive Arab workers for employment in the colonies of the First Aliyah. At the initiative of the Zionist Organization's newly-created Palestine Office, agricultural schools were established, and some of the students of these institutions went on to found "kvutzot" (sing. "kvutza" - communal settlement), the first of which was established at Degania on the Sea of Galilee in 1909. The centrality of labor values can be seen in the formation before the First World War of three socialist Zionist parties: Poalei Zion (Borochovist), HaPoel HaZair (Gordonist) and the Non-Partisans, who advocated the establishment of a workers' union for all workers in Palestine. Among the activists of these parties were those destined to become some of the country's most illustrious leaders: most notably Itzhak Ben-Zvi and David Ben-Gurion. The principle of Jewish self-help was extended to the area of defense with the creation of "HaShomer", the Watchman, an association of Jewish guards set up in 1909 to defend Jewish settlements. Members of the Second Aliyah adopted the Hebrew language and thus expressed their goal of creating a new Jewish culture in the Land of Israel. Even the urban sector received a major boost at this time: the new city of Tel Aviv was founded in 1909.

Third Aliyah - In many ways the Third Aliyah (1919-1923) was a continuation of the Second. Key ideas and innovations from the earlier wave of immigration were implemented and developed during the later period. The 37,000 immigrants who set out for Palestine during these years were influenced by a series of dramatic events: the First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Russian Civil War, massive pogroms in Eastern Europe and the Balfour Declaration. Appalled and disoriented by the destruction, yet encouraged by the Russian attempt to create an ideal socialist society and the British recognition of the legitimacy of a Jewish National Home in Palestine, some of these settlers came to the conclusion that they could put Jewish socialist and nationalist ideals into effect through the establishment of a socialist Jewish society in the Land of Israel. Unlike earlier settlers who had set out with virtually no agricultural experience, many of the new prospective pioneers joined the "HeChalutz" (Pioneer) movement that prepared them while still in Russia for a life of farming. Some of these went on in 1920 to form the "Gdud HaAvodah" (Labor Brigade) which, due to its communal self-sacrifice and devotion to national tasks, soon came to be regarded as a social elite. Perhaps its best known activity was the construction of roads in the Galilee. The Brigade hoped originally to create a general commune of Hebrew workers in the Land of Israel, but when this goal proved unattainable in the mid-1920s, the organization split apart, and elements of the radical left wing even returned to the Soviet Union to create a commune in Crimea. The more moderate section of the Gdud adapted its radical communal aspirations to the social reality of the country. Instead of a general commune, it founded large collectives or "kibbutzim" such as Ein Charod or Tel Yosef that could unite hundreds of members (as opposed to the small, intimate kvutzot of the second aliyah) living according to communal principles. With time, a number of kvutza and kibbutz movements were established along political and ideological lines: Chever HaKvutzot (The Kvutza Association - 1925), HaKibbutz HaMeuchad (The United Kibbutz - 1927), Kibbutz Artzi (National Kibbutz - 1927) and HaKibbutz HaDati (The Religious Kibbutz - 1935). Common to all of these settlements was the basic tenet: to each according to his/her needs and from each according to his/her ability. Property and profits belonged to the collective. Another form of settlement that evolved during the third aliyah for those who wished a greater degree of privacy was the "Moshav Ovdim" or Workers' Cooperative. While children in the kibbutz lived in separate children's houses, moshav members lived in family units. Each family farmed a separate plot of land and owned its own house. Profits belonged to the individual. Members of the moshav cooperated in the purchase of expensive equipment as well as in the areas of marketing, cultivation, mutual aid and education. The first moshav ovdim, Nahalal, was established in 1921. One final example of labor dominance during this period of time was the creation of the Histadrut, the General Federation of Jewish Labor in Palestine, in 1920. Formed as part of an effort to unify the various labor parties, the Histadrut became a unique institution. Not only did it serve as a trade union, defending the interests of the workers in Palestine, but it was also constituted as "Hevrat haOvdim" (The Workers' Company), a holding company that owned several large corporations. Thus the Histadrut represented labor while it was in effect one of the largest employers in the Yishuv. The Histadrut also ran the largest "Kupat Cholim" (Sick Fund) as well as a vocational school system (Amal), daily newspaper (Davar), publishing company (Am Oved), sports club (HaPoel) and youth movement (HaNoar HaOved), to name only a few of the Histadrut's many activities.

Jewish representative bodies were also established during the third aliyah. In April 1920, elections were held for the "Asefat Nivcharim", the National Assembly of the Jews of Palestine. The assembly elected a 36 member executive body known as the "Va'ad Leumi" (National Council), which represented the interests of Palestinian Jewry to the British authorities.

Fourth Aliyah - The fourth aliyah (1924-1926) brought some 70,000 Jews, mainly from Poland, who suffered economic discrimination in the newly reconstituted state. Unable to emigrate to the United States and other countries due to immigration barriers, this largely middle class population settled in the urban centers of Palestine, especially Tel Aviv, which increased in size from 16,000 in 1924 to 46,000 in 1929. As shopowners and small industrialists, this population had much less affinity for the socialist ideals of earlier waves of immigration. It was rather the Revisionist Zionism of Vladimir Jabotinsky, with its more middle class values and harsh criticism of socialist policies, that captured the sentiment of many of the newcomers. This period saw the opening of both the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Technion in Haifa.

Fifth Aliyah - The fifth aliyah from central and western Europe (1933-1939) was the largest of the pre-state waves of immigration and comprised some 225,000 people fleeing from Nazism and other oppressive regimes in Europe. Some 25% of the immigrants came from Germany, and they represented a more affluent and acculturated Jewish population. A number of these Jews managed to bring a small part of their wealth with them, and this facilitated a development of industry and commerce. Most settled in cities and some became pillars of the intellectual and business elites.

Questions for Discussion:

  • What were the most important Zionist values during the pre-state period? 
  • How were these values expressed in the "Yishuv"?



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27 Apr 2015 / 8 Iyar 5775 0