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Born in Europe in the mid-19th century, Zionism was intended to be a movement of social and cultural regeneration of the Jews, before becoming a political movement aimed at creating a Jewish state in Palestine.

Jewish nationalism appeared in the mid-1840s in the communities of central and eastern Europe under the combined influence of the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, and the Spring of Nations, inciting all the minorities of these regions to define themselves in terms of belonging to a territory, a culture or a nation. While advocating, at the same time a break with the life of the ghetto, a regeneration thanks to agricultural work and cultural renewal thanks to the renaissance of Hebrew, only very few at the time envisaged Palestine as the sole place in the world where the Jews could fulfil their national ambitions.

At the same time, some rabbis and intellectuals, cloaked in Jewish mysticism, as well many people professing the Christian faith, began considering the return of the Jews to the Promised Land. This idea did not leave indifferent such western magnates as Moses Montefiore (1784-1885) and Baron Edmond de Rothschild (1845-1934) who acquired agricultural land in Palestine to receive Jewish refugees from eastern Europe. This form of colonisation was not unanimously approved of by one and all, and the least that can be said is that it was not welcomed with enthusiasm by the Arab population. It even lies at the origin of the first anti-Semitic publications in Arabic, drafted by Christian journalists and essayists.  For example, the pamphlet by Najib Azoury, written first in French and entitled “Le réveil de la nation arabe ou le péril juif universel” (1905) or else the work of Georges Corneilhan, “Juifs et Opportunistes – le Judaïsme en Egypte et en Syrie” published in Paris in 1889, before being translated, four years later, by Najib al-Hajj, a Christian journalist in Beirut who specialised in the translation into Arabic of anti-Jewish texts published in Europe. 

However, the first wave of Jewish immigrants to Palestine, or the “first Aliya”, did not have a clearly political hue. It is quite clear that it was only with the arrival on the scene, at the end of the 19th century, of Theodore Herzl (1860-1904) who was the first to speak openly of the creation of a Jewish state, that Zionism took on the air of a political movement. 

Initially, Herzl thought that two territories might be suitable for the creation of the Jewish state in question: Argentina and, only secondarily, Palestine which was “our unforgettable historic motherland” and which also stood, in terms of Europe, “as part of the wall against Asia as well as an outpost of civilisation against barbary”. Subsequently, and under pressure from East-European Zionists, his preference was to change towards Palestine, while not excluding other fall-back solutions such as Cyprus, El-Arish, in the north of the Sinai peninsula, or else Uganda, three sites that were timidly suggested to him by British diplomats.

Criticised by his own Viennese milieu and misunderstood by western Jews, it was mainly among the Jewish masses in the ghettos of Galicia, Poland, Russia and Rumania that Theodore Herzl’s ideas found a fertile ground. No one in these communities soaked in Jewish culture and folklore had the slightest doubt about the desirable site for the future Jewish state: Eretz-Israel, the historic Jewish Palestine, which only had to be mentioned for it to act on the spirit more deeply than the inflamed speeches of Herzl and his friends.

Herzl died in 1904. He was just 44. Divided between “territorialists” and “Palestinophiles”, many thought that the Zionist movement created by Herzl would not survive its founder for long. But this was before the unexpected acceleration of history and the upheavals of World War I, which led Britain to publish, on 9th November 1917, the Balfour Declaration, recognising the right of the Jews to have a national home in Palestine

Still under Ottoman domination, the former Land of Israel’s population was a little less than 20% Jewish, divided between the “old Yishuv”, or autochthonous Jews, or who had lived there for centuries, and the “new Yishuv”, or radical pioneers, scattered across dozens of cooperative villages and determined to build a new type of Jewish society in Palestine. This situation could hardly leave the local population indifferent, who waited for the end of the war and the establishment of the British Mandate in 1920, to express their discontent and demand the total abrogation of the Balfour Declaration.

Aware that they had not sufficiently taken into consideration the rights of the Palestinians, the British attempted to rectify the situation, after each outbreak of violence, as in 1921, 1929 and 1939, by limiting the quotas of Jewish immigration and multiplying the restrictions on purchases of land by Zionist institutions. But these measures turned out to be insufficient to calm Arab apprehensions, and incapable of reducing the dynamism of the Yishuv who, as of the late 1920s, had all the characteristics of a mini-State in gestation, with its own political, economic, cultural and security institutions. In July 1937, in resignation, the Mandate’s authorities approved the split of Palestine into two states. Accepted without any real enthusiasm by the Zionist leaders, the plan was rejected by the Palestinians who immediately rebelled. The British reacted with a repression of exceptional violence that lastingly weakened the Palestinians. With the increasingly clear imminence of another world war, and wanting to obtain the good graces of the Arab states, in May 1939 the British published a White Paper that drastically limited Jewish immigration. This measure was all the more tragic given that, since the accession to power of Hitler, in 1933, Palestine was the only place in the world where Jewish refugees from Germany and central Europe could still hope to find shelter. The white paper remained in force throughout the war, until 29th November 1947, when the United Nations General Assembly approved the division of Palestine, with the creation of a Jewish state and of an Arab state. The former came into being on 15th May 1948; the latter is still struggling for its existence.


Légende de l'image: L'Écho sioniste: weekly review. 3rd February 1922

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