The years covering 1920 to 1926 are characterized in the history the Land of Israel as the period of the Third Aliyah. It is probably the most influential of all the immigrations to the Land of Israel. Much of what we see today is a product of the ideas and society of the people who comprised the Third Aliyah.
There was one thing missing from the Jewish state that it needed to have a chance to come into being was Jews. The population of the Land of Israel was relatively small, almost insignificant in comparison to the Arab majority. In order for there to be a possibility for the country to take on a Jewish character the minimum requirement was the presence of a substantial Jewish population, if not a majority.
The Zionist movement always believed – somewhat naively – that the Jewish people would come to the Land of Israel if the passage of immigration was free and open. Unfortunately, this was never the case. Even after the establishment of an independent Jewish state David Ben-Gurion expected a wave of immigration from the Western, developed countries. Instead he got it from the Eastern, Arab countries which drove their Jewish population out. A voluntary wave of immigration never took place.
The decade of the 1920s, however, saw increased Jewish immigration. It never equaled what the Zionists wanted, but in raw numbers it was impressive. During the decade about 160,000 Jews came to Israel. Approximately 85% of them came from Eastern Europe. The numbers were impressive even though about 25% went back.
The reasons varied. Many religious people left because they found an atmosphere antithetical to their beliefs. There were socialists and communists that left because it was not socialist and communist enough. A group of ultra-leftists calling themselves the Labor Battalion (Gedud Ha-Avodah) stayed about six years and then moved their kibbutz en masse to Crimea in order to be under the protection of the great and glorious Joseph Stalin. They called their new kibbutz New Life (Via Nova), because there they were going to achieve utopia. Of course, neither the place nor the people survived….
That illustrates the problem. Not many Jews came and of those who came very few found satisfaction. There were many reasons for that, as well, but perhaps chief among them is that the Land of Israel somehow elicits the dream of perfection; of a perfect state or of a spiritually and morally elevated state of being. All of these things are extremely difficult to achieve and thus the holders of such a dream are bound to be disappointed.
The New Jew
The people who came in the Third Aliyah were the people who later founded the State of Israel, including David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir. They came with a firm commitment to build a Jewish state. But there were different ideas as to how the state should look.
Most of those who came were socialist-oriented. They came not just to build the Jewish state, but a socialist state — the perfect socialist state. They were imbued with the ideas and ideals of Marxism, including communal living without oppression or exploitation and the sanctity of human labor, especially of Jewish labor. They wanted to establish the “New Jew” and create a new society in its image.
Therefore, the vast majority of the people of the Third Aliyah were secular, even anti-religious. In the casting off of traditional Judaism they cast off the traditional image of the Jew. The secular nature of the state that they created, and the struggle for the soul of the people – which still is waged today – is a reflection of the attitudes they harbored and nurtured almost a century ago.
The Kibbutz Movement
There were a number of groups that came and imposed these ideas. One was called HaShomer HaTzair (“The Youth Guard”), which was a socialist, left wing group devoted to the idea of communal settlements, later called kibbutzim (singular: kibbutz). Their slogans included ideals such as everyone being equal, the ownership of property was the root of all evil, and that everyone should contribute according to his abilities and take according to his needs.
In sounded good and ultimately it was the enormous idealism of the kibbutz movement that made it work for many decades. However, it quickly became frayed around the edges simply because the idealism wore thin. A person who can contribute so much and yet needs so little finds it hard to stand idly by and watch his friend, who contributes so little, need so much. Practically speaking, the idea of building a society based on such idealism and altruism has never worked for a long period of time for a great number of people.
HaShomer HaTzair was the most idealistic of these groups. Their devotion led them to the idealism that the only type of valuable labor was working the land. They objected, for instance, to any kibbutz that was geared to pursue even small industry. To them, the ideal was pure agricultural settlement. The New Jew was a farmer. He was going to be close to the land. Working by the sweat of one’s brow was not a curse, as characterized in the Bible, but a blessing.
Therefore, from 1920 to 1929, the kibbutz movement brought in about 37,000 new Jewish farmers who worked approximately 700,000 dunam of land (approximately 180,000 acres). The number of agricultural settlements rose from 50 in 1920 to over 110 three years later. The main thrust of the people in the Third Aliyah was this type of single-minded sacrifice and idealism.
In 1923, the largest real estate deal of its kind in the history of Palestine was the purchase of Valley of Jezreel by the Jewish National Fund. That valley, which is the most fertile in the Land of Israel, became the symbol of Jewish agriculture and what could be accomplished by Jewish labor. It was developed in the 1920s and made into the “Garden of the Galilee.”
It is nothing short of miraculous that Jews who had not been farmers, who knew nothing about it, turned a rocky, parched, barren desert into a Garden of Eden. A country that had lain fallow for more than 1800s years, without any cultivation, sudden blossomed before everyone’s eyes. Today we take it for granted. But it is an extremely remarkable occurrence.
The Revisionist Movement
In the Third Aliyah there arose a great split over Zionist policy.
The control of the Zionist movement lay in the hands of Chaim Weitzman and the Labor Party, two groups that were often at odds with each other. Nevertheless, their program to achieve the Jewish state was moderate and based upon the simple understanding that whatever would happen would only happen with the cooperation of Britain; that the only way the Jewish state would come into being was through the Balfour Declaration. Therefore, all of their policy was British-oriented. They did not want to rock the boat. They were eager to forgive them for any mishaps and work with them.
This attitude was opposed by many. The main leader of the opposition was Vladimir Jabotinsky. In Russia he had been one of the leaders of the Zionist movement. He had come with the Third Aliyah.
A great orator with great charisma, he created a new Zionist party and called it the Revisionist Party. He wanted to revise Zionism; to get away from Weitzman’s type of Zionism. He was viewed by the left as a right-wing agitator. They looked down at him for wanting a Jewish state, not a Jewish socialist state.
The dispute over how to deal with England would rage until the State of Israel was founded. Was it a friend or foe? There was no clear decision on it; the Jewish yishuv was split sharply on the matter… almost to the point of civil war.
Haj Amin al-Husseini
Until 1920, the Arabs had not mounted any strong objections to the Balfour Declaration. Now, led by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, they organized a system of terror and pogroms, including kidnappings, murders and bombings.
That sent a tremendous shockwave through the Jewish population. It was one thing to have to bring in money and immigrants who would pour asphalt and plant orange trees. It was a categorically more difficult task to realize that even if you did that it would only be the prelude to armed conflict. And there was no Jewish defense infrastructure. Therefore, this came as a terrible awakening to them.
The basis for what would later become the Haganah and other Jewish militia was laid in response to these first modern day Arab terrorist attacks.
In 1925, all of a sudden the economy in Israel died and there was a great deal of unemployment. Various factors contributed to it, including a loss of investor confidence and land scandals (e.g. people selling plots of land that they had no authority to sell).
A feeling of depression overcame the Zionist movement in the middle of the 1920s. Jews weren’t coming; the country wasn’t developing the way they wanted it; England was not cooperating; they were frightened by the Arabs, etc.
Nevertheless, by the beginning in 1929, as the rest of the world stood unaware on the precipice of the Great Depression, the Jews in Palestine all of a sudden found that immigration started to pick up, new jobs were created and new projects were on the drawing board. Things would have ostensibly worked out if not for the fact that 1929 also marked the beginning of a new relationship between England and Jews who lived in Palestine. England would no longer appear as the “Great White Father” that was supporting the Jews.
The Hebron Pogrom of 1929
A combination of many things caused England to turn. One of the main things was renewed Arab violence. In August 1929, a major Arab pogrom, again staged by Haj Amin al-Husseini, broke out in several places including the Old City of Jerusalem. But the brunt of the attack took place in Hebron.
There had been a Jewish population in Hebron for centuries. It was one of the Jewish peoples’ traditional four holy cities — along with Jerusalem, Safed and Tiberius — and had a recorded Jewish presence since at least the time of Nachmanides, 700 years earlier. Now, the Arabs wiped it out in one day. There had been a renowned Torah academy (yeshiva) in Hebron, which the Arab mob obliterated. More than 40 of its young, unarmed students were brutally murdered and the rest of the population was driven out of Hebron.
Rather than crack down on the Arabs the British caved in. Their attitude became that the Jews had to listen to the Arabs, because they could not guarantee their safety. Hebron in fact remained without Jews from 1929 to 1967, until a group of Jews established a Jewish quarter in the city in what had been the old Jewish neighborhood before 1929.
This major pogrom frightened not only the Jews but the British. The government issued a white paper (Passfield White Paper, issued October 20, 1930), which in effect said that it was impossible for the British to help make a Jewish national home in Palestine. It did not officially rescind the Balfour Declaration, but it pointed in that direction. Therefore, it struck terror into the hearts of Weitzman and the Zionist movement. They had banked all their hopes upon England, who was going to give them a state. Now, the British were backing out of it completely.