In the middle of June, we’re bringing the children of our congregation through a week of C.S. Y. (Children’s Summer Yeshiva). Our theme this year revolves around the Chalutzim, the pioneers who moved to Palestine and bought land, made farms, drained swamps, and lived a sacrificial life based on a dream of peace for Jewish people, a place where Jews would be able to live and work without persecution.
As part of my preparation (though my part in C.S.Y. is not so much to teach or plan the material) for our upcoming event, I’m doing a bit of reading about the early days of Zionist thought and the people and events that led up to the birth of the nation of Israel. The following are some notes drawn mostly from Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews, about a few of the surprising and influential people who laid the foundation for Zionist pioneers like Theodore Herzl.
Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) was a Jewish Christian and twice was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He had some peculiar ideas, which were not so peculiar for the time since 19th century thinkers put a lot of emphasis on things like race and social status, about Jews and Arabs (he thought of Jews as a sub-category of Arabs, it seems, in the way he spoke) being a superior people. Those who would completely discredit all his ideas on this basis haven’t read much 19th century history (you’d have to discount most of the famous people for various racist views). His novel Tancred contains some Zionist ideas and Paul Johnson cites some interesting ideas Disraeli proposed. He thought the Rothschild family should finance the purchase of large tracts of land from the Turks to be run by British corporations (you know, as in other parts of the commonwealth such as India) as a place for Jews to live in Palestine. His goal was for Jews to be able to farm and be safe from ill-treatment. See Johnson 375-376. In 1877, Disraeli wrote of a plan, under British control, for a million Jews to settle in Palestine (“The Jewish Question is the Oriental Quest”).
George Eliot (a pseudonym for Mary Anne Evans) (1819-1880), author of The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner, and other famous novels, had been a philo-Semite since reading Josephus as a child. She wrote a novel, Daniel Deronda, which Johnson calls an “artistic failure” and yet “the most influential novel of the 19th century” in terms of its effects on world history (I’d think maybe a tie with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin). Many would find the details of her story, how she became a proponent of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, fascinating (see Johnson 378-379 for a start). Her ideas come through the words of a character named Mordecai: “The world will gain as Israel gains . . . there will be a land set for a halting place of enmities.” It’s ironic that these early thinkers imagine anyone would allow Jews to settle in peace in Palestine. Obviously, we know that five nations made war against the Israelis in late 1947, refusing to accept the United Nations partition of post-British Palestine (but I digress).
Charles Warren (1840-1927), an officer in the British Royal Engineers and an early explorer of Jerusalem famous to tourists who see Warren’s Shaft in the City of David (amid the ancient water works of the city) and who benefit from his excavation work at Robinson’s Arch. Warren is also famous as the police commissioner in London at the onset of the Jack the Ripper case. Warren wrote about Palestine and agreed with Disraeli that the British should establish a company to colonize Palestine and introduce Jewish farmers back to the land (see Johnson 378-379).
Emma Lazarus(1849-1887), the American Jewish poet most famous for her poem that is quoted on the Statue of Liberty (“give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”). She did charity work for Ashkenazi Jewish refugees from the pogroms. She wrote a Zionist poem (“The Banner of a Jew”) thirteen years before Theodore Herzl more fully developed the idea: “Let but an Ezra rise anew to lift the banner of the Jew!”
Rabbi Zevi Hirsch Kalischer (1795-1874) of Germany, who asked the Rothschilds of Frankfurt to buy Jerusalem and the surrounding lands from the Turks and usher in Messiah (Johnson 374).
Rabbi Judah Alkalai (1798-1878) of Belgrade who wanted to duplicate what Moses Montefiore and Adolphe Cremieux had done to save the Jewish community of Damascus and who distributed pamphlets calling for a Jewish home in Palestine.
Moses Hess (1812-1875) whose book Rome and Jerusalem proposed a similar renaissance of Jewish life in Palestine to what Italy had recently been through. He wanted a mostly secular Jewish community, avoiding the idea of assimilation popular with European Jewish intellectuals and the religious extremism of Orthodoxy. He thought Jews could form an ideal and peaceful state (see Johnson 375).
Theodore Herzl (1860-1904) who was a reporter covering the story of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a French military officer, who was maliciously accused of handing over secrets to Germany. The crowd watching Dreyfus’ ceremony of degradation shouted, “Death to Dreyfus! Death to the Jews!” Herzl realized Jews would never have freedom or safety in Europe. He wrote Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State) and published it in 1896: “We shall live at last as free men on our own soil, and in our own homes peacefully die.” He is widely regarded as the founder of the Zionist movement and heralded in Israel as a hero.
From early thinkers like these and many others, a dream arose. A sparsely populated land, as 19th Century Palestine was by all accounts, saw a slow (at first), but steady stream of Jewish pioneers (chalutzim) who came in with a dream of freedom from persecution and freedom to work hard for a living.