From the beginning of the 20th century to the establishment of Israel in 1948, the World Zionist Organization (WZO) struggled to create a Jewish state in Palestine.
After Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, died in 1904, Chaim Weizmann assumed leadership of the WZO for most of the following three decades. A moderate, Weizmann had excellent connections among ranking politicians and diplomats in Britain as well as continental Europe. The WZO sought to gain support among Jews in the diaspora (Jews scattered throughout the world), to increase Jewish immigration to Palestine, to obtain funding for the purchase of land in Palestine, and to provide assistance for new Jewish settlers.
The Right of Return, whereby all Jews in the diaspora could, if they wished, become automatic citizens of the Jewish state, was a cornerstone of the Zionist movement. Jews were encouraged to make aliyah (immigration) to Palestine and to settle there permanently. The ingathering of Jews attracted mostly Jews from eastern Europe and Russia, where antiSemitism was often the most virulent. There were several waves of Jewish immigration into Palestine. The first, from 1881 to 1903, was composed mostly of Russian Jews; the second, from 1903 to 1914, attracted mostly eastern European Jews who sought to create a socialist state along Marxist lines. Another major wave of immigration occurred in the aftermath of the Holocaust and World War II.
Not all Jews supported the WZO. Orthodox Jews opposed Zionism as a political movement counter to divine will. Some Zionists in Palestine also disliked the movement because they saw it as dominated by socialists and liberals who wanted to use only Jewish labor in businesses and farms in Palestine, whereas they employed Arab labor.
In 1929 Weizmann led the creation of the Jewish Agency, based in Palestine, as an adjunct to the WZO. By virtue of his leadership of the WZO, Weizmann also became head of the Jewish Agency. However, he gradually lost control of the Jewish Agency as Zionists in Palestine secured key leadership positions. Gradually,
Jewish immigrants on their way to a settlement in Palestine in 1946. The World Zionist Organization sought to gain support among Jews in the diaspora to increase legal and illegal Jewish immigration to Palestine.
David Ben-Gurion and the Labor Party became the dominant forces in Palestine, while Weizmann continued to represent the international Zionist movement.
The 1917 Balfour Declaration, providing public support by Britain for a Jewish homeland, was a major step toward the creation of a Jewish state. After the war the British incorporated the Balfour Declaration into their new mandate over Palestine. During the mandate, from the 1920s to the 1940s, the Jewish population in Palestine increased from less than 20 percent to approximately one-third of the total population. By the end of the war, Jews owned about 17 to 22 percent of the total arable land in Palestine.
Zionists aimed to create a renaissance of pioneering Jews who would work their own land. Moshavim (cooperatives) were established, and the Jewish National Fund, which was responsible for land purchases, gave plots of land to settlers who paid rent for a hereditary lease. Land could not be sold, and by the 1930s settlers had to work the land themselves. The policy of Jewish-only workers further separated the Jewish and Palestinian Arab populations. On collective farms, or kibbutzim, property was owned communally, decisions were made in democratic “town meetings,” and work and resources were shared equally. Many kibbutzim were established along egalitarian lines between men and women, although women often worked primarily in the traditional jobs of childcare and cooking.
Although the Zionist movement sought to increase the amount of land owned and worked by Jews, the majority of new immigrants settled in the urban coastal areas, the Tiberias region, Hebron/Safed, and Jerusalem. In 1909 Tel Aviv was founded as the first Jewish city. A Hebrew school system was established, and Hebrew was to be the language of the new state. The Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa (Technion) was created in 1912, and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem was begun in 1918. A Women’s Zionist Organization supported the Hadassah Medical Organization, which provided health services. In 1920 the Histadrut was established in an attempt to unify workers into a single labor organization; David Ben-Gurion became its primary spokesperson. Although more conservative workers’ movements evolved, the Histadrut became the major Zionist force in Palestine. In 1919 the Haganah was established to defend Jewish settlements against Palestinian Arab attacks. It evolved into the Israel Defense Force (IDF) after Israeli independence. The Labor Party under David Ben-Gurion became the major political party.
However, the Zionist movement was not a monolith, and other more radical parties also evolved. Ze’ev Vladimir Jabotinsky (1880–1940) founded the Revisionist Movement, which had a maximalist position regarding the future borders of the Jewish state. The Revisionists claimed all of historic Israel including land on both sides of the Jordan River. In contrast, Ben-Gurion and the majority of Zionists were willing to accept the territory west of the Jordan River for the Jewish state. Jabotinsky split from the mainstream Zionist movement in 1935 to establish the New Zionist Organization. Jabotinsky argued that Zionists would have to use violence to establish a Jewish state because the Palestinian Arabs would not willingly cede their national rights over territory they considered theirs. The Revisionist youth movement, Betar, attracted young Jews, especially in eastern Europe. Political differences over tactics and goals also resulted in several groups breaking away from Jabotinsky.
A Revisionist underground military group, the Irgun Zvei Leumi (Etzel), was founded by David Raziel and, in retaliation for attacks on Jewish settlements, used terrorist tactics (attacks on civilians) against Palestinian Arabs as early as 1937. Members of the Irgun also opposed the liberal economic programs espoused by Labor Zionists and most members of the Haganah. After Raziel was killed assisting the British in crushing a revolt in Iraq in 1941, Menachem Begin became the Irgun’s leader.
In spite of their opposition to the mandate and British policies limiting endeavors to create a Jewish state in Palestine, the Haganah and mainstream Zionists led by David Ben-Gurion supported Britain in the struggle against the Nazis during World War II. Britain somewhat reluctantly accepted some Jewish volunteers from Palestine into its fighting forces.
More radical Zionists argued that Britain was also the enemy. Avraham Stern led a splinter group that adopted an extremely anti-British position in 1940. This group, known as the Stern Gang after its founder or as Freedom Fighters for Israel (LEHI), assassinated Lord Moyne, the deputy British minister of state for the Middle East, while he visited Cairo in 1944. The assassins were caught, tried, and, after considerable pressure from Britain, executed by the Egyptian government. LEHI also killed some Jewish opponents in Palestine. The Haganah condemned the Stern Gang, and many of its members, including Stern, were killed or imprisoned by the British.
In the midst of World War II, the WZO met at the Biltmore Hotel in New York City in the fall of 1941 to decide on the future direction for the Zionist movement. In the so-called Biltmore Program Zionists wisely agreed to shift the focus of their political propaganda and recruitment from Great Britain and the rest of Europe to the United States. Zionist leaders worked throughout the war to publicize the need for a Jewish state and to gather political and popular support in the United States for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. During the war leading Zionists visited both President Franklin Roosevelt and Vice President Harry S. Truman to brief them on the need for a Jewish state and to secure their support.
By the time the British withdrew from Palestine in 1948, Jews had created the infrastructure for an independent state complete with political parties, economic institutions including labor unions, schools, hospitals, cultural centers, and a military force. The Zionist dream for a Jewish state came to fruition with the establishment of Israel in 1948.
See also British mandate in Palestine.
Further reading: Berkowitz, Michael. Western Jewry and the Zionist Project, 1914–1931. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997; Shapira, Anita. Land and Power: The Zionist Resort to Force, 1881–1948. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992; Sternhell, Zeev. The Founding Myths of Israel: Nationalism, Socialism, and the Making of the Jewish State. Translated by David Maisel. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.