International Fellowship of Christians and Jews
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History of IsraelRebirth

Jews are indigenous to the Palestine region and have lived there continuously for over 3,000 years. Even after the Roman conquest in the first century, Jewish communities remained and periodically flourished, and exiled Jews returned in waves of immigration. But Jews became an oppressed minority in their homeland, and their numbers rose and fell depending on the kindness or cruelty of the region’s different rulers. In the 1700s and early 1800s, crippling taxes, discrimination, persecution and natural disasters brought the Jewish community to a new low.

In the mid-1800s, a new energy seized the Jewish community in Palestine. With help from philanthropists like Sir Moses Montefiore and donations from ordinary Jews around the world, Jews branched out from the cities and began purchasing land and building farms, villages and schools. More exiles returned. By 1854, Jews were the largest religious group in Jerusalem; by 1870, they were once again the majority of the city’s population.

Between 1882 and 1914, a new kind of Jewish immigrant arrived — the “Lovers of Zion” and other early Zionists — who laid the groundwork for the modern Jewish State.

These immigrants sought freedom from the oppression and persecution that had plagued Jews in Europe and the Middle East.

They were young, energetic idealists imbued with Western political principles and the dreams of national liberation that were sweeping across Europe.

The returning Jews had no powerful nation to help them. They had no weapons. They were often penniless.

The land was only sparsely populated, and much of it had become barren. The Jews wanted to restore the land’s once-famous fertility and build villages and communities where none existed. The region was an impoverished backwater of the Ottoman Empire. In 1880, there were only an estimated 250,000 to 400,000 people, many of whom were also recent arrivals, who had no sense of unity or ethnic or national identity. Their allegiance was to the Ottoman Empire, their religious group, their clan and their local community.

The Jews legally bought the land they developed primarily from absentee landowners. Most of it was uncultivated swampland or sand dunes.

Through backbreaking labor, the early Jewish pioneers cleared the wastelands and malarial swamps, reforested the hillsides and built towns and villages.

“Nobody knows of all the hardships, sickness and wretchedness they [the early Zionists] underwent. No observer from afar can feel what it is like to be without a drop of water for days, to lie for months in cramped tents visited by all sorts of reptiles, or understand what our wives, children, and mothers go through.… No one looking at a completed building realizes the sacrifice put into it.” — Early Zionist account of settling, 1885

The Interim Report on the Civil Administration of Palestine to the League of Nations in June 1921 said:

“Jewish agricultural colonies… developed the culture of oranges… They drained swamps. They planted eucalyptus trees. They practiced, with modern methods, all the processes of agriculture… Every traveler in Palestine… is impressed by… the beautiful stretches of prosperous cultivation about them.”

Post-World War I

Britain and the League of Nations created the Palestine Mandate as the Jewish National Home in part because of the growing number of Jews and their achievements in the pre-World War I period. Between 1890 and 1915, the Jewish population rose from 42,900 to 83,000.10 They had built thriving farms, created villages and towns and social institutions, introduced innovations like socialist communes, revived Hebrew and created a rich culture.

During the Mandate (1920-1948), Zionists continued their prewar policies of purchasing and restoring the land, often using innovative agricultural techniques.

Zionists also developed industry, power plants, urban life and social institutions, such as labor unions, political parties, hospitals, universities and a national orchestra. Three universities were founded before 1948. The Hebrew Opera first performed in 1922. The Palestine Orchestra, later the Israeli Philharmonic, was founded in 1936.

Zionists hoped to live in friendship and cooperation with the Arab population and believed that restoring the land would benefit everyone. Many Arabs welcomed this development, which also attracted Arab immigrants from the neighboring countries. An estimated 25 percent to 37 percent of immigrants to pre-state Israel were Arabs, not Jews. Between 1922 and 1946 alone, approximately 100,000 Arabs entered the country from neighboring lands. Approximately 363,000 Jews immigrated in the same period.

Footnote: The material on this page appeared in “Israel 101,” a publication of Stand With Us