Our story begins in Europe in the 18th century. At that time, Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire. More specifically, it was generally considered part of the Greater Syrian Province, an area that includes modern day Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq west of the Euphrates. At that time, Ottoman Law protected the rights of all Jews and Christians living within their borders…
Over the next few episodes, in Season 2, we will dive deep into the events that led to the formation of the State of Israel. Together, we will understand the roots of the Palestine-Israel Conflict, and understand the history of this important region of the Muslim world.
Anti-Semitism in Europe
Our story begins in Europe in the 18th century. At that time, Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire. More specifically, it was generally considered part of the Greater Syrian Province, an area that includes modern day Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq west of the Euphrates. At that time, Ottoman Law protected the rights of all Jews and Christians living within their borders.
The situation in Europe, however, was a different story. In Eastern Europe, Russia and Ukraine, many Jews lived in rural, agricultural communities called shtetl. The locals made Jews their scapegoats for any political and economic turmoil. This led to a concept called Pogroms i.e. organized campaigns of violence and discrimination against the Jewish community. A good example of this is what occurred in 1882. A major pogrom was ordered by Tsar Alexander III which included many laws that limited where Jews could live and which occupations they could hold. These Pogroms served as a distraction for the community from the growing public frustration with poor conditions in Russia.
In Western Europe, the situation wasn’t much better. Most Jews lived in urban centers. In order to be accepted in society and to escape explicit anti-Semitism, many chose to secularize. The only alternative was retaining a visible Jewish expression, but this often meant living in ghettos, a segregated community that did not mix with broader society.
Secularized Jews felt that by becoming secular and/or converting to Christianity, they would be seen as assimilated and accepted in western countries like Germany, Austria, Great Britain and France, though anti-Semitism was still present, lurking under the surface.
But one event in 1894 changed everything and shook the Jewish community of Europe. This is known as the Dreyfus Affair.
The Dreyfus Affair and the Birth of Zionism
Captain Alfred Dreyfus was an officer in the French Legion. When military secrets were leaked, the commander needed a scapegoat. So Dreyfus was wrongly accused of reason for supposedly communicating French military secrets to German embassy officials in Paris.
Dreyfus was not given a fair trial and was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, even after the actual culprit was discovered (and acquitted). This exposed the deep anti-Semitism of the French, as they were satisfied with the outcome, and ignored the injustice that they had done. It showed that even the most liberal and enlightened French people at that time had a deep dislike for the Jews.
This incident caused a media frenzy. Many journalists began to write about the topic, exposing the hypocrisy of the French government. The most important of these writers was Emile Zola. This caused a political crisis and eventually led to a retrial of Dreyfus. However, despite the clear proofs of his innocence, he was still given a 10 year sentence. Eventually, he was pardoned, but it was only in 1906 that he was fully exonerated from these crimes.
The entire incident shook the Jewish community to its core, both in France and elsewhere. They now felt that no level of assimilation or stature would immunize them from anti-Semitism. They needed a solution. Some of their thinkers arrived at an idea to protect them from Anti-Semitism: Zionism.
Zionism is the idea of establishing a Jewish State in the original land of Israel, which at that point in time was Palestine, a province of the Ottoman Empire. Many Jews became convinced that they needed to migrate to Palestine and established their own land where they could be safe from Anti-Semitism. So began a mass migration of Jews to Palestine.
The mass migration of the Jews to Palestine is known in Hebrew as the Aliyahs. There were three major Aliyahs before the establishment of Israel. The first Aliyah took place between 1882 and 1903. During this time, thirty-five thousand Jews migrated from Russia and Yemen to Palestine. They established their own agricultural communities to support themselves there.
The second Aliyah took place between 1904 and 1914. During this period, over forty thousand Jews migrated, mainly from Russia, to Palestine. During this period, they revived the Hebrew language and established the Kibbutzim system. The Kibbutzim system refers to the sharing of communal wealth between the immigrants. This eased the path of immigration for many poorer Jews.
Finally, from 1919 until 1923, another forty thousand Jews migrated to Palestine. This time they came from various countries, including the Soviet Union, Poland and Romania. They further developed the agricultural sector the new Jewish community and established a National Council and various other administrative systems. Now there were more than one hundred thousand Jews settled in Palestine, they began to mobilize to formulate their own state.
World War I
World War I was an event that forever changed the Muslim world. We discussed the effects of this war in details in episodes one and two of season 1. You can listen to those episodes for more details, but for now we will react the events that directly relate to the formation of Israel. Several events during World War I led to the formation of Israel. These include the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the British making multiple contradictory promises to various parties including the Arabs and Jews, and the division of the conquered Arab lands among Britain, France, and their allies. Let’s begin by recapping the British alliance with the Arabs, and the results of that.
The British needed allies in the Ottoman Empire to divide/fracture it. They found their ally in Sharif Husayn. Sharif Husayn is the appointed custodian of Mecca/Medina, or governor of Hijaz.
Despite being appointed by the Ottoman Empire, Husayn does not see eye to eye with them. Husayn, along with Faisal of Iraq, is convinced of the importance of unity among Arab speaking regions of the Ottoman Empire.
Join us next time as we dive deeper into the events leading to the formation of Israel during the aftermath of World War I.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this episode and don’t forget to let us know your thoughts.