The Empire Endorses the State
His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.
—Balfour Declaration, 1917
Life in the Yishuv was improving, but in Europe, catastrophe loomed. The century would witness the worst bloodbath in human history. In the two world wars that would cast their pall upon the first half of the century, some eighty to one hundred million people—combatants and civilians—would die. Stalin would then murder some twenty million more.
Ze’ev Jabotinsky was one of those who had seen the devastation coming. Predicting a tragedy akin to the World War I before it began, he spoke of “a devastating war between two or more first-class powers, with all the grand insanity of modern techniques . . . with an incredible number of casualties and with such an expenditure of money—direct, indirect and incidental—that there would not be enough digits for accountability.”1
Still others understood that whatever was to transpire, the horror about to unfold would not end quickly. British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey remarked, “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”2
FOR THE ZIONISTS, ONE critical question on the eve of World War I was whether the Ottomans would lose control over the Middle East and whether, if they did, Britain would assume control of the region. The movement quickly divided over how to handle the uncertainty. Max Nordau insisted that the Zionists should curry the Ottomans’ favor to whatever extent possible. As if to prove him wrong, though, Djemal Pasha, who had recently been appointed as Ottoman commander of the Egyptian front, made his anti-Zionist stance eminently clear just a few weeks after the Ottomans entered the war. He disbanded a Turkish-loyalist Jewish defense organization, which had been founded by labor leaders Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi; he closed down the Zionist newspaper Ha’achdut; and he proclaimed every Zionist an enemy of Turkey and liable to death.
Ben-Gurion had initially thought that the Zionists’ hopes lay with the Ottomans, but when the Turks began deporting Jews from Tel Aviv, he realized he had been mistaken and switched his allegiance to the British. Others, Jabotinsky chief among them, had insisted from the outset that aligning the movement with the British was the best way to advance their cause. Convinced that continued Ottoman rule would make creating a Jewish state virtually impossible,3 Jabotinsky was both anxious to see the Ottoman Empire dismantled and certain that it would happen. He thought the time had come to prevail upon British political leaders, who were about to go to war against Germany and the Ottomans (among others), and to impress upon them the justice of the Zionist cause. “If we do not declare any orientation, if we play with both sides, we shall lose everything. We must come out in favor of the Allies and help them, with our Jewish soldiers, to conquer Eretz Israel.”4
When Djemal ordered mass deportations of Jews from Palestine, some were sent to the Gabbari barracks in Egypt. Jabotinsky was among those deported, and it was at Gabbari that he first met Joseph Trumpeldor. Born in the Caucasus in 1880, Trumpeldor had lost his left arm in 1904 while fighting for the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War. Decorated five times for gallantry by the czar himself, he eventually became the second Jew to become an officer in the Russian army. In 1912, he departed Russia to Palestine and worked the fields near the shores of the Sea of Galilee. In 1914, Djemal deported him along with thousands of others.
At the same time, Lieutenant Colonel John Henry Patterson, an Irish Protestant veteran of the Boer War in South Africa, arrived in Egypt just as the British were seeking an officer to command a Jewish military unit to help fight the Turks. Patterson, deeply knowledgeable of Jewish history and sympathetic to the Zionist cause, got the post. Ultimately, Jabotinsky and Trumpeldor worked with Patterson (who later described Trumpeldor as “the bravest man I ever knew”) to form the Zion Mule Corps.
The Zion Mule Corps, the first organized group of Jews to fight under a Jewish flag since Bar Kokhba had led his revolt against the Romans some eighteen hundred years earlier, came to symbolize the renewal of an ancient Jewish pride. Several of its members later formed the core of what would become the Israel Defense Forces. Ironically as a result of Djemal’s mass deportation, for the first time in two thousand years, the Jews had the beginnings of an army.
Trumpeldor died in 1920 while defending the settlement of Tel Hai, saying as he died, according to Zionist tradition, “It does not matter, it is good to die for our country.” When Jabotinsky founded Betar three years later, he named it not only for the place in which the Simeon Bar Kokhba had made his last stand, but for Trumpeldor, as well.*
THOUGH THE ZIONISTS were not naive about the Ottomans’ antipathy to the Zionist movement, many of them thought it unwise to take sides in the conflict between the Ottomans and the British. So the movement opened a liaison office in Copenhagen, which was in a neutral country. Others, though, were much more confident that the British would prove victorious and would acquire Palestine, and they thus worked feverishly to cultivate relationships with London.
No one was better suited to that task than Chaim Weizmann, who would later become Israel’s first president. Born in 1874 in Motal, near Pinsk (in today’s Belarus but then part of the Russian Empire), Weizmann was, like many other Zionist leaders of his era, the product of a traditional Russian Jewish family; he, too, was then drawn to the broader intellectual world Europe had to offer. Deeply intelligent, he was also an intellectual free spirit; one of his first teachers would later remark, “He was either going to be a genius or a convert.”5
Weizmann studied chemistry, first in Germany and then at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, where he earned a Ph.D. in organic chemistry in 1899. Weizmann had not attended the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897 (though he had intended to), but he was present at all subsequent gatherings and rapidly became a central figure in the movement. One of his chief early causes was advocating the creation of institutions of higher learning in Palestine. He was instrumental in the creation of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and his efforts to create a university focused on science and technology ultimately resulted in the founding of the Technion—Israel’s Institute of Technology—in 1912. He was also among the founders of the Weizmann Institute of Science, which became an internationally renowned research center, in 1934.
In 1904, Weizmann was appointed senior lecturer at Manchester University, where he was introduced two years later to Arthur Balfour, an up-and-coming Member of Parliament. Balfour, who had initially supported the idea of the Uganda Plan, was impressed with Weizmann. Gradually, Weizmann was able to draw Balfour closer to the Zionist cause.
In 1916, Weizmann became director of the British Admiralty laboratories and moved from Manchester to London to carry out his work. His research led to the development of acetone, a critical ingredient in the naval explosive cordite, which played a central role in the British war effort. Widely lauded for this discovery, Weizmann was able to capitalize on his newly minted status to gain access to influential British figures of which other Zionist leaders could only dream.
MEANWHILE, AS IT BECAME clear that the Ottoman Empire was crumbling, Britain and France began to consider how they would divide the Middle East between them, even though neither of those powers yet had any real claim to the land.
Toward the end of 1915, the two nations convened a series of meetings in which both could present their expectations. As its representative, Britain appointed Sir Mark Sykes, a Catholic who had studied the Middle East, traveled to Palestine during his honeymoon in 1903, and spent much of his career at the Foreign Ministry. The French appointed François Georges-Picot, also a career diplomat who was the first secretary of the French embassy in London at the time of the negotiations. Sykes had previously recommended that Palestine should come under Britain’s control, though without stipulating what the boundaries of its territory should be. The agreement reached by Sykes and Picot, technically called the “Asia Minor Agreement” but commonly known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, gave the French control over modern-day Syria and Lebanon. Britain, which needed unfettered access to the Suez Canal (see Map 8) because of the importance of India to the empire (Britain’s need for the canal would later figure centrally in Israel’s 1956 war, the Sinai Campaign), was to get control of the coastal strip from the Mediterranean Sea to the river Jordan, an area of land that comprises modern-day Jordan, southern Iraq, the ports of Haifa and Acre and the entire Negev. Western Palestine, south of the Sea of Galilee and north of Gaza, would be under international rule, according to the agreement.6 The agreement also made provisions for the holy sites of Jerusalem and proposed placing them under international supervision and administration.
At no point did Sykes or Picot consider the interests of either the Zionists or Palestine’s Arab population, and both Arabs and Jews were appalled by the agreement. The Arabs, who resented two foreign powers taking it upon themselves to divide the Middle East (before they had even won the war, no less), were livid. In earlier discussions between Sir Henry McMahon (the British high commissioner in Egypt) and Hussein bin Ali (the sharif of Mecca), McMahon had urged the Arabs to overthrow the Ottomans. They convinced Ali that it was in British interests not only to rid Palestine of the Turks but to work toward the establishment of an Arab state between Syria in the north and Yemen in the south. The Sykes-Picot Agreement seemed to them an outright violation of that British promise, as well. Relations between the British and the local Palestinian population were off to a most inauspicious start.
The Zionists were just as unhappy. Given French antipathy to Zionism, joint French-British control was likely to undermine their aims. Weizmann and other Zionists much preferred the idea of a British protectorate, believing that Britain “afforded her (white) colonial subjects more liberty than any other imperial power did,” whereas France, they felt, “insisted upon making her colonial subjects into French citizens, erasing their national identities.”7 The Zionists, therefore, were determined to ensure that Palestine came under British control. They were going to be disappointed, however, when they eventually discovered that the British would be much less supportive of the Zionist cause than Weizmann and others had hoped.
AS ALL THIS WAS UNFOLDING, the Jews of Palestine witnessed the Ottoman massacre of its Armenian population. Beginning in 1915, forced labor of the able-bodied male population followed by the deportation of women and children on death marches into the Syrian desert led to the deaths of approximately one and a half million Armenians. The Yishuv was deeply worried; if the Ottomans could commit genocide against the Armenians, would they hesitate to do the same with Palestine’s Jews?
A small group of Jews, working on their own initiative, decided to help rid Palestine of the Ottomans. Formed and then led by the Aaronsohn family, a small spy ring banded together. The primary operatives were Aaron Aaronsohn, an agronomist who had earned a degree of fame for his discovery of an ancient form of wheat in the Galilee; his sisters, Sarah and Rivka; and Avshalom Feinberg, Rivka’s fiancé. The group called themselves Nili.*
When a plague of locusts struck the area, the Turks appointed Aaron Aaronsohn to head the effort to contain the outbreak. This immediately gave Aaronsohn virtually unfettered access to government offices and military installations throughout the area, where he gathered copious amounts of information that he then offered to the British. Initially dubious, the British ultimately decided that Aaronsohn could be useful. He stayed in Cairo, serving as a contact with the British, while his sister Sarah, brother Alexander, and Feinberg (along with some twenty to sixty others—estimates vary) carried out the day-to-day work of the spy ring.
Nili’s principal activity was communicating information regarding Ottoman fortifications and troops, rail lines, and water sources to the British, all to assist them with their plans for a surprise attack. Nili transmitted the stolen information by means of a secret code and signal lights with a small British naval yacht that anchored off the coast of Atlit (just south of Haifa) every two weeks. When the ship stopped coming, they began to use homing pigeons instead.
The homing pigeons, however, led to the group’s demise. In September 1917, the Turks intercepted one of the pigeons with a coded message attached to it, giving the Ottomans proof that a spy ring was at work. By the fall of 1917, most of Nili had been arrested. Several of them, subjected to relentless torture, gave up information about the others. Some were sentenced to death, and one was publicly hanged in Damascus.
When Sarah, then twenty-eight years old, was arrested in Zichron Yaakov, she, too, was viciously tortured. Using a ruse, though, she received permission to return to her home, ostensibly to retrieve some fresh clothes to replace the blood-soaked clothing in which she had been tortured. Determined not to break, she shot herself in the mouth with a pistol she had hidden at home. She lingered several days before dying.
Nili’s activities likely had no significant impact on the outcome of the war. Yet the story of Nili and of Sarah’s self-sacrifice became Yishuv legend, in no small measure because it illustrated with utter clarity the sort of determination and courage that would be required to get foreign powers—first the Ottomans, and several decades later, the British—out of Palestine.
IN LONDON, CHAIM WEIZMANN was meanwhile working tirelessly to advance Zionism’s cause. He held no official position in the movement, though, and many thought him a loose cannon. Yet disciplined or not, he had unparalleled access to the British corridors of power, access that he used to charm, cajole, and argue the cause of the Jews in Palestine.
The work was not easy. The largely Arabist Foreign Office believed that the Arabs had a stronger claim to Palestine, and as a practical matter, was loath to arouse the ire of Palestine’s Arabs.8 Opportunity struck, however, when David Lloyd George became prime minister in 1916. Lloyd George, who had served as the lawyer representing the Zionist movement’s interests at the time that Herzl was negotiating the Uganda Plan, both acknowledged Zionism’s ancient roots and had no doubt that the Jews would do more for the land than would its Arab inhabitants. “The Four Great Powers are committed to Zionism,” he said. “And Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, and future hopes of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land. In my opinion that is right.”9
Sensing a rare opportunity with Lloyd George’s political rise, Weizmann charmed both Lloyd George and Balfour (who was then serving as the United Kingdom’s foreign secretary). He also worked his relationship with Sykes, the influential British Foreign Office diplomat, referring to him as “one of our greatest finds.”10
There was feverish action on both sides. While Weizmann pushed his agenda relentlessly, some Jewish MPs continued to rail against Zionist ambitions, fearing a rise in anti-Semitism in Britain and elsewhere, particularly if Arabs responded angrily. Sykes and others in the Foreign Office worked to convince other government officials that the Jews had a legitimate claim to Palestine.
Weizmann won. What was by far his life’s greatest accomplishment—Lloyd George later wrote in his memoirs that the Balfour Declaration was given to Weizmann as “a reward for the important work he had done in producing acetone”11—came in the form of a letter that Balfour wrote to Lord Walter Rothschild* on November 2, 1917. It read:
Dear Lord Rothschild,
I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet.
“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.”
I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.
Arthur James Balfour12
Only twenty years had passed since Herzl had gathered his fledgling movement in Basel in 1897, and now, the most powerful empire on the planet had recognized the Zionist movement, had sided with it, and had promised to do what it could to advance its cause. Had he not died thirteen years earlier, Herzl would have been astounded.
CONSIDERING ITS HISTORIC IMPORTANCE, the Balfour Declaration of 1917 is an astonishingly ambiguous document. While it speaks of a “national home for the Jewish people,” there is no mention of a Jewish state. There was no timetable as to when (or how) this “national home” would be created. There was no indication of how a “national home” for Jews could be created in Palestine without somehow impinging on “the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” Nor was there any indication of what the declaration meant by “Palestine,” for it provided no maps or definitions of the territory. Finally, the document did not acknowledge the fact that at the time of the declaration, Palestine was still under control of the Ottomans. Though the British were confident that they soon would, they did not then even have Palestine to offer.
There were, however, at least implicit answers to some of these questions. Among British political leaders, there did seem to be a sense that the intent was to create a state in areas where Jews constituted a majority of the population.13 The intended territory was apparently vast. Some twenty years later, the Palestine Royal Commission of 1937 stated that “the field in which the Jewish national home was to be established was understood at the time of the Balfour Declaration to be the whole of historic Palestine,” meaning both sides of the Jordan River in what is today Israel and Jordan. (See Map 3.)
As for the fact that Britain did not yet control Palestine, they were certain that the Ottoman Empire was crumbling and that given the understandings outlined in Sykes-Picot, Palestine would soon be theirs. Indeed, within six weeks of the Balfour Declaration’s publication, the Egyptian Expeditionary Force under the command of General Edmund Allenby drove the defending Ottomans out of Jerusalem. In a ceremony filled with British pomp, hundreds of onlookers and soldiers from armies that had fought for Jerusalem alongside the British lined the streets as Allenby entered Jerusalem’s Old City through the Jaffa Gate on foot out of deference to the sanctity of the city.14
The British now had Palestine—and they had promised it to the Jews. They would retain control of the Jew’s ancestral homeland for thirty-one years, until May 1948—when the State of Israel would be established.
ALL THE WHILE, the Yishuv continued to develop. The Eleventh Zionist Congress, held in Vienna in 1913, determined that a university should be established in Jerusalem and that its construction should begin within five years.15 On July 24, 1918, less than a year after Balfour, thousands of people gathered for the ceremonial cornerstone laying for Hebrew University on Mount Scopus. The centrality of intellectual life to the Yishuv and to the state it would ultimately create was clear from the outset.
With the end of World War I in 1918, it was once again possible for people to move across the globe. That freedom of movement, combined with a new round of anti-Semitism in Europe and armed clashes in Russia in which some 100,000 to 200,000 Jews were killed, led to the next wave of immigration to Palestine. The Third Aliyah (1919–1923) brought 35,000 people to Palestine. Spurred by the changed international landscape that the war had wrought, the members of the Third Aliyah helped build the developing prestate institutions that would eventually make Jewish sovereignty possible. This first wave of Jewish immigration after the Balfour Declaration brought to Palestine the first immigrants to come with the sense that their cause was now internationally recognized.
The influx helped bring about technological advances in numerous areas; prime among them was water, a scarce commodity in that part of the world. In fact, when the British limited Jewish immigration during that period, they justified the move by claiming that the region’s natural resources could not support the thousands of Jews who hoped to immigrate to Palestine.16 That made water research an urgent matter. Leaders of the Yishuv understood that they not only needed to provide water to those who had already arrived, but needed to prove to the British and the world that the region could support significantly more immigration than the British claimed it could.
Given the nature of the land, that was going to be no small challenge. Most of the Zionist movement’s land purchases in the period of 1880–1914 were centered in the coastal plain between Jaffa and Haifa in the west and the Jezreel and Jordan valleys in the east, and the lands they acquired were largely swamp-ridden, undeveloped, and void of inhabitants. In the first village they established, Petach Tikvah, the Russian immigrant-pioneers had to leave because of an outburst of malaria. More than half of the inhabitants of Hadera died in the first two decades of its existence, also of malaria.17 But undeterred, they pressed on. Pioneers returned to Petach Tikvah only two years later, drained the swamp, worked the soil, and transformed the area into a hub for citrus, known especially for its orange groves. David Ben-Gurion, too, contracted malaria while working in the orange groves in Petach Tikvah.
Kibbutzim shared in the effort of draining swamps and ridding the land of the disease. Baron de Rothschild was also instrumental in the process and brought in Egyptian workers whose assistance in draining the swamps and ridding the land of malaria was critical. Slowly and determinedly, the members of the kibbutzim made progress.
At the same time, the Zionist movement’s leadership displayed vision to match the courage of those on the ground. They bought seemingly uninhabitable swampland, often at a steep price. When questioned about the wisdom of such a move, Menachem Ussishkin, who had been secretary of the First Zionist Congress and later headed the Jewish National Fund, insisted that virtually no price could be too high. “The cost of land in Palestine would increase from year to year; while what was not redeemed today could quite possibly never again be redeemed by us.”18
Their progress was extraordinary. By 1938, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture sent Walter Clay Lowdermilk, a soil scientist, to do a survey of the soil of Europe, North Africa, and Palestine, the Yishuv had advanced water technology far beyond what it had been when the Jews arrived. Lowdermilk wrote that he was “astonished” by what the Jews had accomplished and described the agriculture land reclamation in which the Yishuv was engaged as “the most remarkable” such work he had seen during his extensive travels throughout the world.19*
The Yishuv also developed its political institutions during that same period. On April 19, 1920, it held elections for the Asefat Hanivharim (“Assembly of Representatives”), the parliamentary assembly of the Jewish community in British-controlled Palestine. There were 314 seats in the Assembly (the one and only time there were so many representatives). Continuing the voting tradition of the World Zionist Organization from Herzl’s day, parties were allocated seats proportionally, based on the percentage of the vote that they received. A party that received 30 percent of the vote would be awarded 30 percent of the seats, and so forth.
No party won an outright majority in the 1920 elections. In fact, no party would ever win an outright majority in any subsequent vote, either in the Yishuv’s Assembly of Representatives or in the Israeli parliament, which would replace it after independence. In the vote of 1920, the Labor movement, with only 70 seats, was the largest single faction. The newly elected Assembly became the parliament of the Yishuv’s government-in-waiting.
HOW IS IT THAT the Yishuv developed a democratic tradition? Most of the immigrants to the Yishuv, after all, had come from nondemocratic countries. Russian and Polish Jews had not lived in democracies. The Jews who had lived under the Ottomans had not lived in a democracy. Nor was the Jewish tradition a distinctly democratic one. The biblical kings were not elected. The rabbis of the Talmud, while not the products of dynasties, were hardly elected through a democratic process. From where did this democratic impulse—both in the Yishuv and later in Israel—emerge?
The Jewish community’s democratic impulse had developed after exile. Forced to wander from their ancestral homeland to places throughout Europe, they continually had to build communal structures from scratch. Beginning in 1580 and continuing until 1764, the Council of Four Lands (based in Lublin, Poland) served as the central locus of Jewish authority for Greater Poland, Little Poland, Ruthenia, and Volhynia. This elected council dealt with matters such as taxation, relations with the outside Gentile community, and more. The Council of Four Lands, as well as smaller and more local councils throughout European Jewish communities, were all democratically elected. That pattern was replicated by the Zionist congresses. By the early twentieth century, European Jews had been voting, legislating, and taxing themselves for some 350 years.20
That tradition withstood the distinctly nondemocratic environment of Palestine in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and once the Jewish state was founded in 1948, it would succeed in transforming the massive waves of Jewish immigration from countries that had no democratic tradition, as well. Indeed, of the approximately one hundred countries that were created after World War II (mostly as a result of the collapse of empires), Israel would be one of the very few that began as a democracy and has continued to function as a democracy without interruption.
ON THE VERY SAME DAY in April 1920 that the first Assembly of Representatives was elected in Palestine, the fate of the Yishuv was also being discussed in Italy, in the town of San Remo. At a meeting known as the San Remo Conference, Britain, France, Italy, and Japan convened to discuss the division of the land that had been held by the Ottoman Empire. They did not draw up precise maps, but agreed on general principles. For the Yishuv, the most significant element of the San Remo Conference was that on April 25, the participants recognized the 1917 Balfour Declaration, incorporating it into its Resolutions and officially granting Britain the Mandate for Palestine.
That the Jews would have a national home in Palestine was now not only British policy—it was the express position of the victors of World War I.
Palestinian Arabs were infuriated, and, in a pattern that they would often repeat, they responded with violence. In 1920, rioting Arabs in Jerusalem killed six Jews and wounded others. In 1921, there were riots in Jaffa that soon spread; they left in their wake four dozen dead Jews, including Yosef Chaim Brenner.
Ironically, the riots also led to the early beginnings of Israel’s eventual army. There had been Jewish defense organizations for some decades already. In 1907, Bar-Giora, a small clandestine guard group, one of the first of these organizations, was founded. Bar-Giora, and others like it, were small bands of Jews who offered their services as guards for a fee; Bar-Giora guarded Sejera (today called Ilaniya), the settlement where Ben-Gurion had worked the fields shortly after arriving in Palestine. Two years later, in 1909, Bar-Giora disbanded in order to develop a larger defense group, Hashomer (“The Watchman”). Hashomer began to broaden its scope to provide security to Jews and their villages. It was the first attempt to provide organized defense for Jewish communities in Palestine.
Hashomer planned to replace Arab guards on Jewish farms and even had grandiose notions, which came to naught, of placing watchmen on farms in Ukrainian Cossack villages.21 Now, in the wake of spreading Arab violence, and recognizing that the British were not going to offer sufficient protection to the Jews, the Yishuv’s leaders decided in 1921 to create the Haganah (“The Defense”) to protect Jewish farms and villages. It broadened its mandate to include preventing and rebuffing attacks. For the first several years of its existence, though, the Haganah was only loosely organized and not entirely effective.
Yet even as the Yishuv was learning to defend itself, it suffered a serious diplomatic blow. In 1921, just four years after the Balfour Declaration and one year after Balfour was included in the San Remo Resolutions, Winston Churchill, who had been appointed Secretary of State for the Colonies and who had until then been seen as a friend of the Zionists, decided to redraw the map of the Middle East without consulting his Zionist allies.22 He carved away the portion of Palestine that was east of the Jordan River and created the country of Transjordan (later called Jordan).23
With the successes of Balfour and San Remo still fresh, those Zionists who believed that the map of the Mandate would be the map of their future state suddenly saw three-quarters of their future national home given away. The Jewish state was going to be significantly smaller than what they had imagined. Though they could of course not know it then, it would shrink even further in the decades to come.
AS CHURCHILL WAS DIVIDING UP the Mandate, Palestinian Arab anger over Jewish immigration and international support for a Jewish state erupted in renewed attacks on the Yishuv. The Zionist leadership now realized that they had not sufficiently factored Arab resistance into their planning. Ahad Ha’am noted this failing directly: “We are used to thinking of the Arabs as primitive men of the desert, as a donkey-like nation that neither sees nor understands what is going on around it. But that is a great error.”24
Ahad Ha’am, who did not seek a state, might have had some reason to hold out some hope that Jews and Arabs might live peacefully together. To those deeply committed to Jewish statehood, however, the worsening relations with the Arabs were even more ominous. No one was more direct about this mounting tension than Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who in 1923 wrote two pamphlets, “The Iron Wall” and “Beyond the Iron Wall.” It was a mistake to underestimate the Arabs, Jabotinsky insisted. They were as attached to Palestine as any other people was to the land on which it lived:
Our Peace-mongers are trying to persuade us that the Arabs are either fools, whom we can deceive by masking our real aims, or that they are corrupt and can be bribed to abandon to us their claim to priority in Palestine, in return for cultural and economic advantages. I repudiate this conception of the Palestinian Arabs. Culturally they are five hundred years behind us, they have neither our endurance nor our determination; but they are just as good psychologists as we are, and their minds have been sharpened like ours by centuries of fine-spun logomachy. We may tell them whatever we like about the innocence of our aims, watering them down and sweetening them with honeyed words to make them palatable, but they know what we want, as well as we know what they do not want. They feel at least the same instinctive jealous love of Palestine, as the old Aztecs felt for ancient Mexico, and the Sioux for their rolling Prairies.25
That meant, he said, that the Arabs would never voluntarily come to agreement with the Zionists. If the Zionists wanted a foothold in Palestine, Arab violence would have to be met with an Iron Wall:
[t]his does not mean that there cannot be any agreement with the Palestine Arabs. What is impossible is a voluntary agreement. As long as the Arabs feel that there is the least hope of getting rid of us, they will refuse to give up this hope in return for either kind words or for bread and butter, because they are not a rabble, but a living people. And when a living people yields in matters of such a vital character it is only when there is no longer any hope of getting rid of us, because they can make no breach in the iron wall. Not till then will they drop their extremist leaders, whose watchword is “Never!”26
In what would become the guiding spirit of Israel’s political Right in decades to come, Jabotinsky said, “[T]he only way to obtain such an agreement, is the iron wall, which is to say a strong power in Palestine that is not amenable to any Arab pressure. In other words, the only way to reach an agreement in the future is to abandon all idea of seeking an agreement at present.”27
Jabotinsky sadly proved prescient. A new wave of violence, which would leave an ancient Jewish community utterly destroyed, soon erupted.
Tensions surrounding the Temple Mount in Jerusalem had been simmering for months. In September 1928, Jews erected a temporary divider in front of the Western Wall so that men and women could pray there separately on Yom Kippur, in keeping with Jewish tradition. In response, the grand mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini, demanded restrictions on Jewish activity at the Western Wall, beginning a pattern of incitement that only further inflamed matters.28
Rumors that the Jews had designs on the al-Haram al-Sharif (“Noble Sanctuary,” known to Jews as the Temple Mount) then began to spread as did the circulation of falsified images of damage at the site of the Dome of the Rock*; Muslim leaders claimed the “damage” was done by Jews.29 On Friday, August 23, 1929, Arab youths hurled rocks at yeshiva students in Hebron. Later that day, when a young man named Shmuel Rosenholtz went to the yeshiva alone, Arabs forced their way into the building and killed him. He would be the first of dozens to die in the unfolding riot.
The following morning, on the Jewish Sabbath, Arab mobs, wielding clubs, knives, and axes, began to surround the Jewish community of Hebron. Arab women and children threw stones at the Jews, while men ransacked Jewish homes and destroyed Jewish property. The rioters turned to one of the community’s rabbis, in whose house many frightened Jews were hiding, and offered him a deal. They would spare the local Middle Eastern Jewish community if the rabbi turned over the Ashkenazi Jews. When he refused, the rioters killed him. The rioting that ensued soon spread beyond Hebron. By the end of the rampage, 133 Jews lay dead, 67 of them in Hebron alone.30 Hundreds of Jews who survived the massacre were saved by their Arab neighbors, some of whom hid Jews in their own homes at great personal peril.31 Nonetheless, the Hebron Jewish community, which had been established four centuries earlier by Jewish refugees from Spain and was one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world,32 had been utterly destroyed.
Kishinev had come to Palestine.
In reaction to the Arab riots of 1929 and the wholesale massacre of the Hebron Jewish community, the Yishuv began to develop its paramilitary capabilities. The Haganah acquired foreign arms and manufactured its own. Eventually, it established twenty branches with twenty-five thousand men and women volunteers. Within a relatively short period, it transformed itself from an untrained military into a well-organized underground force. A Jewish army was beginning to develop.
AT THAT TIME, the Haganah subscribed to a policy called havlagah, or “restraint.” Its fighters were instructed to do nothing but defend Jewish communities. They could prevent attacks to the best of their abilities, but they were not to initiate any actions before they learned that an attack was being planned.33
As Arab violence against Jews in Palestine increased, though, the havlagah policy became controversial. Zionists needed to meet violence with violence, Jabotinsky had written in “The Iron Wall,” and the situation in the Yishuv seemed to prove him right. In 1931, a group of fighters deeply influenced by Jabotinsky broke away from the Haganah, creating their own fighting faction. They would no longer wait to be attacked, but rather, they would take the battle to the enemy. The group was first called Haganah Bet (Haganah “B”). It later changed its name to the Irgun Tzva’i Leumi (the “National Military Organization”), and was known as the Irgun.* Intially, most of its fighters were members of Jabotinsky’s Revisionist movement or Betar; Jabotinsky, in fact, was the group’s supreme commander, a figurehead position since the British had exiled him from Palestine. He retained that title until his death in 1940.
The Irgun had a very different orientation to the use of force than that of the Haganah. Unlike “Hatikvah,” the anthem of mainstream Zionism (of which the Haganah was part) that does not mention war or battle, Betar’s anthem (a reflection of Jabotinsky’s worldview and the position of his disciples who would follow him in Yishuv and Israeli politics) was distinctly committed to saving the Jewish people through battle if necessary:
In the face of every obstacle
In times of ascent, and of setbacks
A fire may still be lit
With the flame of revolt
For silence is dirt
Sacrifice blood and spirit
For the hidden glory
To die or to conquer the mountain
Yodfat, Masada, Betar
AS JEWS IN THE YISHUV were slowly learning to defend themselves, Jews in Europe were becoming ever more vulnerable. As horrific as World War I had been, an even more devastating war for the Jews was about to erupt. The violence that had erupted in Kishinev and Hebron would soon pale relative to what was about to transpire in Europe. The darkest, most horrific period that the Jewish people had ever experienced was about to unfold.