It is an extraordinary fact that it was only just over 50 years from the First Zionist Congress organized by Theodor Herzl in Basel in 1897, to the founding of the State of Israel by David Ben Gurion in Tel Aviv in 1948. This summary seeks to recount what happened in those turbulent intervening years based on a superlative lecture given by Elkan Levy at Netanya AACI.
It was the Dreyfus case in Paris in 1895 that provided the catalyst for the Austro-Hungarian Jewish journalist Theodor Herzl to become the ardent founder of the Zionist movement. He heard the French mob baying for Jewish blood, while their national motto of “liberté, egalité, fraternité” was swept aside, and while the innocent French Jew Alfred Dreyfus was degraded in public. It marked the turning point in Jewish history when the secular Jew Herzl concluded that Jews could never be accepted in Europe and he set about founding a Jewish State. It took him only two years to organize the First Zionist Congress in Basel that set the groundwork of the modern Zionist movement.
Even though the bulk of the Jewish world was then in Central and Eastern Europe, the focus of actual events that led to the founding of the Jewish State took place in Britain. Herbert Samuel was Home Secretary in the Liberal Government of Herbert Asquith in 1909 and was the first Jew in the British Cabinet. When he met Chaim Weizmann, German Jewish emissary of the Zionist Movement in Britain, Samuel was already a convinced Zionist.
When Turkey entered WWI in 1914 it became expedient for the British Government to support the Zionist cause. Their motivation was against Turkey and also to rally Jewish support around the world to the British side. But, in addition to that there was a romantic strain in Protestant Christianity that saw the return of the Jews to the Holy Land as a fulfilment of God’s plan. Alfred Lord Balfour, who was British Foreign Secretary, was just such a Christian and so the eponymous consequential Declaration that committed the British Government to found a Jewish Homeland in Palestine was promulgated in 1917. This Declaration was elevated to the level of international law when it was incorporated into the San Remo Treaty of 1920 that broke up the defeated Turkish Empire and was subsequently the basis for the Mandate of Palestine that was granted to the British by the League of Nations, the precursor to the UN, in 1922.
British Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill cut off the East Bank of the Jordan river portion from the Mandate to establish the Arab State of Transjordan (later Jordan) in 1922 to satisfy British commitments to Sherif Hussein of Mecca. When the British Mandate was established, Samuel was appointed the First British High Commissioner of Palestine. One of his first actions was to appoint Haj Amin al-Husseini to be the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. This turned out to be a big mistake since Husseini was pro-German and organized anti-British and anti-Jewish Arab riots and a 6-month Arab strike. In 1937 he managed to escape from Palestine and went to Berlin, where he was courted by Adolf Hitler. Husseini subsequently helped the Nazis form a Balkan Muslim SS unit. Of course he advocated extermination of all Jews.
Since the situation in Palestine was becoming uncontrollable, the British Government sent out a Commission under Lord Peel in 1936 to investigate the situation and make recommendations. Meanwhile, due to the Arab strike, the Jews and the British developed the ports of Haifa and Tel Aviv that out-flanked the Arab port of Jaffa. The Peel Commission Report of 1937 was used by the British Government to decide on its future policies as set out in the White Paper of 1939 that severely restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine, just at a time when it was urgently needed because of the rise of Nazi Germany. During WWII the Jews in Palestine stopped their agitation against the British and indeed many thousands of them volunteered for the British Army in Egypt, where they gained valuable military experience.
In 1944, the British finally allowed the formation of a separate Jewish Brigade as they had in WWI. The JB saw action in Italy and was conveniently located to aid the illegal movement of Jewish refugees from Europe to Palestine after the horrors of the Holocaust had been revealed. In 1944 also, a pair of Irgun Zvai Leumi (National Army Organization) operatives assassinated Lord Moyne, a British representative thought to be pro-Arab, in Cairo. This antagonized Churchill, who was Moyne’s cousin, and much of the British public. Meanwhile Jews who had survived and returned to their homes in Poland were massacred, such as at Kielce where 46 were killed .
After the War, the British did their best to try to halt Jewish immigration to Palestine. British Labour PM Clement Attlee and FM Ernest Bevin became strongly anti-Zionist, looking to curry favor with the Arabs. Ben Gurion did two things, he organized the illegal Jewish immigration from Europe to Palestine by buying ships and converting them to take as many persons as possible, and knowing that the Arab States would attack the nascent Jewish State he also set about acquiring arms and planes. This process is described in an excellent book “The Pledge” by Leonard Slater.
Given the state of the Jewish survivors in Europe, Pres. Truman issued a statement proposing that the British allow 100,000 Jews to enter Palestine. An Anglo-American Commission was set up to investigate and when they saw the state of the survivors in Europe they agreed with Truman’s proposal. But, the British Govt. did not budge. On the night of June 16, 1945, “the night of the bridges,” the Haganah blew up 11 bridges around Palestine essentially isolating the country. In retaliation, the British raided kibbutzim and confiscated arms that they needed to protect themselves against Arab attack. Then in 1946 the Irgun blew up the King David Hotel, HQ of the British command, and 91 were killed. This proved to be a turning point, in 1947 the British Mandatory Govt. ordered all British women and children to be returned to Britain.
Then things took a turn for the worse. There was the Acre jail breakout by the Jewish forces, shown so dramatically in the movie “Exodus.” Then three Irgun members were hanged in Acre jail. At this time there were five times more British soldiers in Palestine than in the whole of India. In Netanya, two British sergeants, Martin and Paice, were kidnapped by the Irgun and hanged in retaliation. This led to a rampage of British soldiers in Tel Aviv and attacks on synagogues in the UK. But, it became clear that the British could no longer control Palestine, and after WWII Britain was broke and exhausted.
The UN sent out a fact-finding mission, UNSCOP, and at the same time the ship Exodus that had been a US coastal steamer, now filled with over 4,400 Jewish survivors, sailed for Palestine. It was intercepted by a British warship and three passengers were killed in the ensuing battle and it was then towed into Haifa harbor, where the survivors were treated brutally. UNSCOP who saw this happening then proposed a Partition Plan, that was voted on by the UN General Assembly in 1948 and was passed by a two-thirds majority (33 for, 13 against, 10 abstentions).
Although this validated a Jewish State, the rejection of the Plan by the Arab side and their subsequent invasion made the UN Partition Plan invalid. It was then up to the Jews to decide what to do. By a narrow majority they voted to declare independence, which Ben Gurion did on May 14, 1948 in the Museum of Modern Art in Tel Aviv, naming the Jewish State, Israel.. He also annulled the immigration provisions of the White Paper, but instituted all other laws of the British Mandate. Thereby the State of Israel became the inheritor of the British Mandate and could legitimately claim all of its former territory.
But, then six Arab armies (Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia) and the local irregulars of El Kaukji attacked and the Israelis, only 650,000 of them, beat all of them and survived. Note, there were no “Palestinian” Arabs then, and no PLO and no two state solution. For further details see “Oh, Jerusalem” by Lapierre and Collins, and “Genesis 48” by Dan Kurzman. It was a very tumultuous, but miraculously successful struggle.