"Rise Up and Build" (1917 to 1939)

History repeats itself, it is often said. The modern story of the people of Israel after World War I does indeed seem to closely parallel the Bible's account of the return to the Land following the Decree of Cyrus. Like their ancient forefathers, the 20th century Jewish pioneer builders were to find their initial enthusiasm tempered by frequent setbacks, and by the threats and violence of their enemies. The unfolding plan of God was not to be quick or easy.

To many Zionists, the Balfour Declaration of 1917 seemed the fulfillment of their dream, the consummation of Zionist enterprise begun in the mid-19th century. In reality, it was merely the threshold. The Declaration itself, which announced Britain's support for a "national home" for the Jewish people, made no specific proposals about how that goal was to be accomplished, except that it be done without the prejudice of the "civil and religious rights of non-Jewish communities in Palestine."

Britain envisioned a politically strategic region inhabited by friendly Arabs and grateful Jews, all loyal to the Empire. The Jewish National Home was expected to integrate itself harmoniously into the larger Arab society of Palestine. Zionists, on the other hand, foresaw the establishment of not just a "national home," but an independent Jewish State; a time when Palestine would be "as Jewish as England is English," a phrase later coined by Zionist statesman Chaim Weiz-mann. But neither the Jews nor the British gave due consideration to the potential difficulties involved in relations with Palestine's half-million Arabs, who had their own designs for independence.

Arab Relations

Arab nationalism was a force consistently underestimated by British and Zionist planners. Under Turkish rule, Arabs were necessarily secretive about their nationalist activity, making it harder for outsiders to discern. During the war with the Ottoman Empire, the British had elicited Arab support by granting various assurances. Just two years before the Balfour Declaration, Britain had promised that in return for a revolt against Turkey, it would recognize and support independence for the Arabs. Though this promise was not intended to include Palestine as a territory for Arab independence, the Arabs nevertheless felt that the Balfour Declaration was a violation of the prior commitment, and resentment against Jewish colonists and their British sponsors grew.

There is no doubt that Zionist activity provided an economic boon to the Arab inhabitants of Palestine. The transformation of the Land begun by the influx of Jewish immigrants created prosperity for the Arabs as well, and many flocked to Palestine from surrounding areas.

It was thought that this mutually beneficial situation was, in itself, enough to ensure Arab cooperation; but as the success of the Zionist movement grew, so did the flames of Arab nationalism. Arab leaders who, at first, had seemed sympathetic to the plight of the Jews and welcomed collaboration with their "cousins in race," began to see the activity of Zionism as a threat to their own way of life and their own nationalist hopes.

Outbreaks of Arab violence began. In March 1920, an attack on the Jewish outpost of Tel Hai in northern Palestine resulted in several deaths, including that of Joseph Trumpeldor, a prominent Zionist leader. News of the attack heightened tensions elsewhere, and in the following year at an Arab festival in Jerusalem, thousands of Arabs rioted against Jewish residents. The British military administration (which had never been enthusiastic about the implementation of the Balfour Declaration and usually turned a blind eye to Jewish/Arab skirmishes) on this occasion actually spent most of its efforts obstructing Jewish defense groups trying to reach Jerusalem with aid.

Later that same month, the Supreme Council of European Powers met in San Remo, Italy, to decide the disposition of the former provinces of the Turkish Empire. The riot in Jerusalem was supposed to have had the effect of demonstrating opposition to any decision of the Supreme Council that would be in conformity with the Balfour Declaration, but instead it only hastened a vote by the Council to resolve the uncertainty and strife in Palestine by awarding it to Great Britain as a mandated territory. The San Remo Decision (formalized two years later) called for a civil administration to replace the occupational military government that had been in control since the end of the First World War, and it was made clear that Britain was to administer the mandate under the terms of the Balfour Declaration.

The British Mandate

The new government was to be headed by Sir Herbert Samuel, a former British cabinet member who was also a loyal Jew and Zionist. The selection of Samuel came as a relief to the Yishuv ("settlement," i.e., the Jewish settlement in Palestine). He was known to be fair-minded, and intended his administration to be impartial. But his very fairness became a problem from the Zionist perspective, and his appointment of some anti-Zionists to posts in the new government as a conciliatory gesture only seemed to further encourage Arab nationalism. At one point, in response to Arab grievances, he brought a halt to Jewish immigration. Though the ban was temporary, it was replaced with rigid controls and quotas which deeply upset Zionists, who began to see a British retrenchment on the "national home" policy of the Balfour Declaration.

Zionist concerns were well-placed. Though it was an impossible juggling act for the Mandatory government, Samuel's decisions set the course for the next two decades of British rule. As the Arabs became increasingly emboldened, more and more concessions were made that were anathema to the Zionist movement. The two peoples who, it had been hoped, could live together in harmony and cooperation, became the bitterest of enemies. Arabs began to demand nothing less than the repudiation of the Balfour Declaration and a complete halt to Jewish immigration. The Yishuv found obstructions to its development at every turn, and episodes of violence escalated.

The Progress of Labor

In spite of all the setbacks, the Jewish community in Palestine was making enormous progress. It was one of Zionism's early principles that agriculture and manual labor must be the foundation upon which the Jewish State would be built. The Land would be reclaimed by actual attachment to its soil: "A homeland has to be built by the sweat of your brow," David Ben-Gurion once wrote. At first, the cultivation of swamps and arid wastes seemed an insurmountable task, and many Jewish immigrants found life so harsh and difficult that they returned to Europe or went on to America shortly after their arrival. But other pioneers remained, and in the decades following the Balfour Declaration, the number of agricultural settlements in Palestine blossomed into the hundreds, some of which grew into small towns. It became a complaint of the Arabs that Jews owned the best of the cultivable land in the country, but it was because of Jewish labor, capital, and tenacity, that desert and swampland were transformed into rich fields and orchards. Previously undiscovered water resources were multiplied by the use of deep boring, and irrigation brought the precious commodity to land that was otherwise useless. New immigrants were trained in scientific methods of farming developed at several agricultural schools that had been established. The promise of Isaiah 35:1 seemed a reality: "The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose."

The advances of agriculture were matched by progress in industry, like the Palestine Electric Corporation which was eventually to supply power to thousands of factories and farms. Immigrants fleeing the anti-Semitism of Europe brought new skills, initiative, and machinery that fueled tremendous industrial and economic growth. Refugees from Poland (many who were textile workers) brought that industry with them to their new home. Others from the west established factories for diamond cutting and polishing, and making precision optical and scientific instruments. Palestine Potash Ltd., another industrial giant, developed processes for extracting an almost unlimited supply of potash and other minerals from the Dead Sea. The General Federation of Jewish Labor, otherwise known as the Histadrut, was founded in 1920, and by the end of the decade had established itself and its unique cooperative enterprises as a dominant force in the development of the Yishuv.

Education and public health also made marked progress. In all areas of life, economic, cultural, and social advances were being made at an almost unbelievable rate, and by 1929 it was apparent that the growing Jewish community in Palestine was becoming a national entity. In that year, the Great Depression began in America, gradually spreading to the rest of the world throughout the 1930's; but aside from some curtailment of Jewish donations abroad, Palestine's economy seemed immune.

The Rise of Hitler

Far away in Germany, events were beginning to take shape that were to have a profound effect on world Jewry, and the development of the National Home in particular. The worldwide economic depression of the 1930's only worsened what was already an untenable economic situation that had existed throughout the previous decade. It was a period known as the Great Inflation, and of all the events following Germany's loss in World War I that left a mark upon the German spirit, none was more traumatic.

To an economy already crippled by the human and material cost of the war, the reparations demanded by the peace treaty of Versailles were an impossible burden. The value of the German mark began to slip against other major currencies, and in late 1923 collapsed completely. Two years earlier, German currency was valued at 64.9 marks to the American dollar, but by November 1923 it had eroded to an incredible four trillion marks to the dollar! Adjustments to prices were made daily, then twice a day. Complete economic chaos reigned. Landlords found that replacing a pane of broken glass cost more than all the rent they had ever collected from their tenants, while the few who might have access to a few American dollars became trillionaires overnight.

Into this chaotic setting stepped the National Socialist Party, headed by (after a series of political coups) the young and ambitious Adolph Hitler. The Nazis, as they were called, armed themselves with policies and propaganda aimed at exploiting the frustration and bitterness of the German populace; and those whom they could not convert were coerced into submission with threats and intimidation. Hitler's program was a strange mixture of anti-capitalism, ultra-nationalism, and most notably, anti-Semitism. Economic woes were blamed on Jewish bankers and financiers who, it was felt, controlled the world's money. At party meetings, and on posters and flyers, Nazi anti-Jewish rhetoric rose to the ridiculous, but it was nonetheless effective. Of course, anti-Semitism was nothing new, having been the prophesied lot of the Jewish people from ancient times, and more recently exhibited in both the Tsarist and Revolutionary regimes in Russia; but Hitler took it to new and lethal extremes.

Following his appointment as Chancellor in 1933, Hitler acted quickly. His anti-Jewish policies began with a boycott of Jewish store owners; by 1935, legislation was enacted depriving Jews of German citizenship and property rights. By 1939, Jews throughout Nazi-dominated Europe were being rounded up and forced to live and die in ghettos and "labor camps."

A Critical Phase

Throughout this bleak period, and the unspeakable horrors soon to follow, God had not forsaken His people. "Though I make a full end of all nations whither I have scattered thee, yet will I not make a full end of thee," was God's solemn promise through the prophet Jeremiah. As the Bible account of Joseph and his brothers illustrates, the purpose of God may require a complex web of seemingly unconnected events over a long period of time for its completion, and its path may be strewn with obstacles and trials as a necessary prelude to future blessing.

In the hindsight with which the ways of Providence are usually discerned, nothing was to provide greater impetus to the cause of Zionism in both the hearts of world Jewry, and in global public sentiment, than Nazi persecution. But at the time, while Jews were fleeing Europe for their lives, the place that was supposed to be their refuge remained under strict immigration quotas as the triangular conflict between the British, the Jews, and the Arabs escalated to new heights of animosity. The Yishuv was about to enter its most critical phase, and a new era of prophetic fulfillment was about to begin.

Todd Treadway
Denver, Colorado


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