Although the state of Israel celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 1998, the story of the country’s establishment dates back to the nineteenth century, when immigrants, mainly Russian, began acquiring land and creating settlements in what was then Turkish Palestine. In 1896, Hungarian-born Theodor Herzl took the significant step of founding the World Zionist Organization and calling for massive Jewish immigration to Israel. The first Zionist Congress met at Basel in September of the next year; at the end of that gathering, Herzl prophetically wrote in his diary: “At Basle I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. Perhaps in five years, and certainly in fifty, everyone will know it.” In 1947, exactly fifty years after the First Zionist Congress, the United Nations would vote to make Herzl’s dream a reality.
Even in the Jewish community, not everyone shared Herzl’s optimism or his dream. Baron Edmond de Rothschild willingly financed settlements in Israel, but he feared that the rapid growth of the Jewish population that Herzl envisioned there would anger the Turks. Many nonreligious Jews throughout the Diaspora believed that the key to Jewish success lay in assimilation. Orthodox Jews disliked Herzl’s secular vision. These early conflicts persisted as fault lines in late twentieth century Israel. The ultra-Orthodox, for example, do not serve in the Israeli armed forces, and the religious student Yigal Amin assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on November 4, 1995, because of Rabin’s willingness to trade what Amin considered sacred land for peace.
Despite such opposition, Herzl persevered, but the creation of the Jewish state did not come easily. Gilbert might have adopted as the epigraph for his book Vergil’s statement in Book I of the Aeneid: “So hard it was to found the race of Rome.” The fifty years between the First Zionist Congress and the creation of Israel witnessed difficult times for Jews in Israel and the Diaspora, culminating in the Holocaust. Gilbert notes that the impulse behind Zionism lay as much in contemporary political reality as in the two-thousand-year-old dream of return to the land of Israel. In 1893, the anti-Semitic Karl Lueger was elected mayor of Vienna; in December, 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus of France was falsely convicted of treason; in Russia, pogroms were routine. So precarious was the situation of Jews in Europe that in 1903 Herzl accepted British colonial secretary Joseph Chamberlain’s offer of a Jewish homeland in Uganda. Herzl was able to force the Sixth Zionist Congress (held in Basel in 1903) to agree to this proposal, but with Herzl’s death in 1904, the idea died, too. In 1903 in Paris, a Russian-born Jewish student fired on Max Nordau for supporting Herzl, though in fact Nordau had concurred only reluctantly. Such violent extremism is a theme that pervades Gilbert’s narrative.
As more Jews moved to Israel, Arab opposition increased, as did attacks on Jewish settlements. In November, 1917, in the midst of World War I, British foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour persuaded the cabinet to state that “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.” The Balfour Declaration, as it is known, rested on an idealistic recognition of the Jewish right to a refuge, but it was prompted by Great Britain’s desire to curry favor with the large Jewish population of Russia, a country that was growing increasingly disenchanted with the war and that would indeed shortly conclude peace with Germany. England also hoped that the declaration would bolster its postwar claims to Turkish territory in the Middle East. While Balfour remained highly respected among Jews for the rest of his life, secret agreements that Britain concluded with France and the Arabs at the same time as it was promising a Jewish homeland rendered the Balfour Declaration meaningless from its inception.
Throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s, Britain increasingly opposed Jewish settlement in Israel, precisely as the extinction of European Jewry grew ever more imminent. Gilbert, though himself British, does not mask the hostility to Jewish immigration that Britain showed during this period. On March 10, 1938, Britain limited to 3,000 the number of Jews it would allow into Palestine over the next six months. Five days later, Adolf Hitler entered Vienna, adding Austria with its more than 200,000 Jews to the German Reich. Even after World War II began, Britain did not relax its opposition to the entrance of Jews into its mandate. Not until 1943 did Winston Churchill reverse this policy.
Gilbert shows that in the interwar years, Jewish factionalism also hampered settlement efforts. In 1933, for example, Chaim Arlosoroff, a leading Zionist, was killed, perhaps by Jewish militants. These...
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