The First Aliyah

In the 1700s, more than a century preceding the Zionist movement, relatively large numbers of Jews from Eastern Europe moved to the Land of Israel. They were basically either disciples of the Gaon of Vilna or the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chassidism. Their motives were purely religious. They felt that the time of redemption was at hand and by populating the Holy Land they would somehow quicken the Messiah’s arrival.

Zionism was originally based on the religious impulses of the Jewish people. The masses saw it not as a secular movement but as a religious one – even though the movement became increasingly secular and even anti-religious. Nevertheless, the movement was popular because it touched a religious consciousness and the memory of the collective Jewish people.

Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the time referred to as the First Aliyah. Most historians identify five waves of immigration of Jews to the Land of Israel. The First Aliyah – the first of these waves — covers the period from 1881 to 1901. This 20 year timeframe preceded official Zionism, which Theodore Herzl inaugurated in 1897.

Those who immigrated called themselves after a verse that translates, “House of Jacob, let us get up and go” (Isaiah 2:5). In Hebrew, the first letters of the four-word phrase spelled B-I-L-U. Thus, those who were part of this movement were called Bilu’im (plural for BILU).

It is significant that its participants did not give their movement a non-descript, generic name such as The Jewish Society for Re-colonization of the Holy Land. They gave it a name based on a biblical verse. Even though theirs was in effect a secular movement, it was built upon a religious impetus and feeling. The verse summarized their entire philosophy: It was time to get up and leave the Diaspora, the Exile.

That is not to say that many Jews went to the Land of Israel. On the contrary, perhaps only 15,000-25,000 Jews went from 1881 to 1901. Nevertheless, the entire population at the time was probably less than 150,000 permanent residents. The arrival of 15,000 or more Jews represented a good 10% increase in population. It made an impression in a land that had been desolate for so long.

Arab Demographics

When people of the First Aliyah arrived in Palestine vast portions of the country were uninhabited. Palestine was a sparsely settled, poor, underdeveloped, barren, rocky, malaria-ridden, hot, dusty and inhospitable country – and that doesn’t say it all.

Today’s Israel has forests and trees. Each of those trees was planted by hand, one at a time. Under the Ottoman Turks, the country had only one forest left, near what is today the city of Netanya. That forest had even been mentioned in Josephus; it had survived 2,000 years. But the Turks cut down that forest during the First World War to build defenses against the invading British army.

The indigenous population consisted of Bedouin Arabs mainly in the southern part of the country and Christian Arabs centered around the cities of Nazareth, Bethlehem and Jerusalem.[1] Finally, there was a large portion of Muslim Arabs – of which there were two kinds. One was the peasant agricultural workers, called Fellaheen (or Fallahin). They tilled the soil mostly for absentee landlords who lived Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Arabia and Egypt.

They were serfs who lived under the worst of all possible conditions. They worked from dawn to dusk on harsh land without fertilizer and modern tools. They plowed with the same plow used in biblical times. One field could be held by four or five Fellaheen; none of them ever had more than four or five rows of a field. Whatever they could till for themselves they used to pay rent to the landlord.

This feudalistic system guaranteed that they would always remain poverty-stricken, uneducated and illiterate. It was a classic example of mistreatment of Arab by Arab, which has a long and unfortunate history, even to this day.

Then there were the town-Arabs. They lived mainly in Jerusalem, Hebron, Jaffa, Bethlehem and Nablus. They were storekeepers and merchants. Whereas the Fellaheen represented the lower class the town-Arabs were the middle class. They saw themselves and much more advanced than the Fellaheen and deserving of rights and privileges due to their station and class.

The town-Arabs are the ones that would feel most threatened by the coming of the Jews, even though the Fellaheen would mainly be the ones to take matters into their own hands in the upcoming battle against the Jewish colonizers. This was because their fellow Arabs, who exploited them, would paint the Jews as the scapegoat for their problems. Like today, the Jewish scapegoat drew attention away from the age-old terrible injustices Arabs committed against Arabs.

From Time Immemorial

When the people of the First Aliyah arrived they hired Arab laborers for all the agricultural processes that they were embarking upon. For instance, most of those who picked the vineyards were Arabs. They were paid a wage far higher than they could ever earn on their own.

That guaranteed that more Arabs would come to the country. Indeed, with every successive wave of Jewish immigration the Arab immigration doubled and tripled, because there was now opportunity that was not available anywhere else in the Arab world. Why should they stay in the squalor of Egypt, Syria, Jordan or under the absentee Arab landlords of Palestine?

The 15,000 or so Jews who arrived with the First Aliyah brought in with them almost 80,000 Arabs. In effect, the more Jews the more Arabs – except that the Arabs were geometrically increasing while the Jews were only arithmetically increasing. By the time the State of Israel was formed the Arab population was about two million compared to about 600,000 for the Jewish population.

In any event, the Arab population of Palestine grew with the Jews. The vast majority had not been there for 1,700 years. And those who came in the modern era came in great part because of the Jews, not just coincidentally with the Jews.

The Problem no one wanted to Address

When the Bilu’im arrived they were faced with two problems: what to do with the Jews who were there already and what to do with the Arabs that were there already. They chose to ignore both problems. To a certain extent, the Zionist movement itself also ignored both problems. The matter was never really addressed.

However, the matter was addressed by Arabs, including this letter written on March 1, 1899, by a prominent 70-year-old Muslim Arab leader in Jerusalem, Yusuf al-Khalidi, to the Chief Rabbi of France (a non-Zionist):

In theory, the Zionist idea is completely natural, fine and just. Who can challenge the rights of the Jews in Palestine? Good Lord, historically it is really your country.

But in practice you cannot take over Palestine without the use of force. You will need canons and battleships. Christian fanatics will not overlook any opportunity to incite the hatred of the Muslims against the Jews.

It is necessary, therefore, in order for peace to reign for the Jews in Turkey [i.e. throughout the Ottoman Empire, which included Palestine] that the Zionist movement stop. Good Lord, the world is vast enough and there are still uninhabited countries where one can settle millions of poor Jews who may perhaps be happy there and one day constitute a nation. That would perhaps be the best and most rational solution to the Jewish question. But, in the name of God, let Palestine alone. Let it remain in peace.

This letter written in 1899 summed up the common Arab position: In theory, the land may be the Jews’, but in practice it cannot happen unless the Jews throw the Arabs out, and the Arabs were not about to let that happen.


The Jews of the First Aliyah period were still naïve about what Arab reaction would be. Perhaps the only way they could have accomplished what they did was because they were naïve.

A letter Theodore Herzl wrote captures the spirit of this naiveté. It was his response to the letter that Yusuf al-Khalidi had sent to the Chief Rabbi of France, who in turn had given it to Herzl. Here is what Herzl wrote:

The Jews are supported by none of the powers and have no military pretensions of their own. There need be no difficulty with the local population. Nobody is trying to remove non-Jews. The local population can only benefit from the prosperity that the Jews will bring.

Do you believe that an Arab who has a house or land in Palestine whose value today is three- or four thousand francs will regret seeing the price of his land rise five- or ten-fold? For that is necessarily what will happen as we Jews come. And that must be explained to the inhabitants of this country. They will become rich because of us. They will acquire excellent brothers just as the Sultan will acquire loyal and good subjects who will cause this region, their historic motherland, to flourish.

He meant everything he said, and was even correct, but it was extremely naïve. Today, the standard of living, life expectancy and literacy of the average Arab in Israel in the West Bank, for instance, is higher than almost every other Arab country in the Middle East. Yet, they are still very unhappy with the Jewish state. No amount of good fortune, medical care or educational opportunity has changed the demeanor of the Arab population toward the Jews. Herzl and the Jews of his time believed it would. In that sense, they were very naïve.

European anti-Semitism and an Inferiority Complex

The coming of the European powers to the Muslim world had a negative effect on the Arab-Muslim attitude toward the Jews – even before the Jews came there in significant numbers. It introduced the virus of European anti-Semitism into the Arab world.

The Jews never lived well under the Muslims, but persecution under the Muslims was relatively mild in comparison to the Christian countries. However, the virus of European anti-Semitism now spread to the Arabs when the European powers came to the area in the mid-1800s. It reached a pitch with the Dreyfus affair in 1894. More than anyone else, it was the French Church that introduced the idea of Western anti-Semitism to the Arabs via the French Church in what is today Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. The Arabs long had anti-Jewish feelings, but this now legitimized those feelings.

The First Aliyah also awakened in the Arabs the feeling of inferiority, which drove them to excesses to prove that they were not inferior. The success of the Jews pointed out the defects and the deficiencies of the Arabs. All of a sudden, the Arabs watched as the Jews drained swamps, built farms, created towns and hired the Arabs as laborers.

Feeling of inferiority combined with imported European anti-Semitism created a lethal combination that still exists today. The First Aliyah is what touched it off. The Jews dreamed naively that the problems of colonization would go away, but that Arabs always saw clearly that they would not.

The First Aliyah marks the first time that the problem was seen so clearly, expressed in such vitriolic terms and set the stage for all later development.

[1] Christian Arabs, who had become Christian during the Crusades, were persecuted very strongly by the Muslim Arabs.

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Berel Wein adapted by Yaakov Astor
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