On Sunday and Monday, I attended two lectures at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center on the subjects of Jewish Continuity in the Land of Israel and 20th century aliyah. The talks were given by Yisrael Medad, the Educational Programming and Information Resources Director at the Center for this year’s incoming class of Israel Government Fellows. The topics struck me as quite relevant to my research and Yisrael and the program’s organizers were kind enough to allow me to attend.
The fellowship itself is a 10-month government internship and educational program hosted by the Begin Center. For the first month, the participants attend an ulpan in the morning and lectures in the afternoons which are meant to expose them to basic discussions and debates regarding the histories of Judaism, Zionism, and Israel. Afterward, they will each be working in various government ministries. Most of the fellows have recently finished their undergraduate degrees and are taking this year before either continuing on with graduate degrees or entering the workforce. For anyone interested in the politics of Israel and the workings of government, judiciary, or bureaucracy, this is really a great opportunity.
The first lecture emphasized that Jewish presence in the land of Israel is not only rooted in a questionably historical biblical experience of some 4000 years ago, but in fact has been a constant demographic facts through ancient and modern history. Drawing from multiple historical documents and source materials, Yisrael first took on the myth of complete Jewish exile from the land following the Roman conquest, traditionally dated at 70 CE with the crushing of the Great Revolt and the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. After this, the Bar Kokhba Revolt between 132-136 took place. It was also crushed ending any vestige of Jewish sovereignty in the land until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
However, even after these traumatic events, Jewish residence and life in the land continued. Among the many examples he cited were the completion of the Talmud Yerushali by rabbinic scholars in Tiveria (Tiberius) in 200 CE, that the Sanhedrin was only final dissolved in 420 CE, and that even as the land changed hands between Byzantine and Muslim conquests, church and waqf officials as well as government documents continued to issue rulings and reports about Jewish populations in the land, their religious and cultural life, and their involvement in commerce. In addition to these sources, there are many accounts from Jewish sources about visits made to the land, the interaction of religious leadership and communities between those in the land and outside of it.
While none of this evidence suggests that Jews were always the majority of the population in what is now the State of Israel or that all Jews sought to live in Israel all the time when they were allowed, it does offer three important pieces of historical evidence. 1) Despite a long-held Jewish tradition of mourning “exile” from the land, Jews never actually left. 2) Despite lacking political sovereignty, at no time did the Jewish community cease to engage in all other regular activities of “statehood", namely commerce, cultural development, legal jurisprudence, communal education, absorption of immigrants, etc. 3) While many empires and peoples have come and gone from the land, the Jewish community in Israel, no matter how small, transient, or shifting in terms of cultural and religious practice or political loyalty, has remained perhaps the single documented historical constant in terms of demography in the land.
This perspective does not suggest that no other people have lived in the land, nor that no other peoples have a claim to continue to live in the land. Nor does it deny the cultural and religious significance that the land has for other peoples aside from Jews. It does, however, directly challenge the notion that Israel and the Israeli identity should be understood as a manifestation of European colonialism and therefore represents an intrusion of an alien culture and society upon the “indigenous” Arab one. Whatever the political implications of such a conclusion (and it has been taken many directions by Israelis, Jews, Arabs, Muslims, Christians, Europeans, and a whole host of others), one cannot deny the historical reality of Jewish continuity in the land.
The second lecture, on the history of late 19th century through mid 20th century aliyah, focused on the character of each of the six major waves of aliyah between the late 1800s until 1948, and how each wave shaped the demographic, economic, and political landscape of the land. Here, the history is fairly uncontested such that nothing presented in the lecture should be considered surprising or challenging of dominantly held beliefs about the nature of aliyah.
One contentious issue which overlays the whole discussion, however, is the relationship between Jewish suffering and immigration to the Land of Israel. It was frequently argued by early Zionists that although the land was important if not central to Jewish identity, the primary impetus for immediate aliyah and statehood lay in the threat posed to Jewish communities abroad by their gentile neighbors rather than aspirations for national sovereignty in the Jewish homeland.
Certainly many waves of aliyah were motivated by what has been called “catastrophic Zionism,” the belief that Jews must flee to Israel in order to escape persecution. This was characteristic of the second Aliyah (1904-1914)with Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia, the fourth Aliyah (1924-1929) with Jews fleeing persecution in Poland and Hungary, the fifth Aliyah (1929-1939) in the lead-up to the Second World War, and Aliyah Bet (1933-1948), to a certain extent, as both a response to the rise of Hitler and a product of the Shoah (Holocaust).
Yet the first aliyah (1882-1903) was largely religious in nature. They were motivated both by the religious Zionism of Rabbis Zvi Hirsch Kalischer and Yehuda Alkalai and the messianism of certain Jewish sects including those from Yemen who came to Israel in 1882 to establish a village in what later became the Silwan neighborhood of eastern Jerusalem. The second Aliyah, although certainly motivated in part by pogroms, also brought socialists and idealists to the land who built many of the early institutions of statehood, the kibbutz movement, and self-defense organizations.
The third Aliyah (1919-1923) built on this pattern, following the growth of national self-determination movements in Europe after the First World War, while the fifth aliyah brought hundreds of thousands to the British Mandate despite widespread Arab violence against the Jewish communities here. Finally, although Aliyah Bet cannot be understood without reference to the Shoah and WWII, many Jews chose to come first to Israel despite having the option of emigrating to western countries in the aftermath of the War.
Clearly longing for a return to the homeland and fears of persecution are hardly mutually exclusive categories for explaining the birth of the Israeli state. While many Jews only took the step to immigrate when forced by violent circumstances in their countries of origin, the power of Zionist ideology as well as pre-Zionist religious attachment to the land clearly was a decisive factor for those fleeing persecution as to where they would immigrate. Although many scholars have increasingly challenged the notion of a historically contiguous, ethnic, or biological “Jewish people”, the historical trends described above make it difficult to contest, no matter how disparate and heterogeneous Jews became over the course of 2000 years of development outside of the Land of Israel, that the land itself remained an important unifying factor.