Evolution, Not Revolution: Zionist Political Behavior
Updated: Aug 3, 2021
After a wave of violence that swept over Mandatory Palestine in 1929, Tzvi Nadav, founder of a Jewish fighting force, wrote that the British soldiers who failed to intervene were like Eastern European authorities who did not stop pogroms: “Different insignia but the same method.” Even when faced with novel situations through Zionism, Jews s alike interpreted their present political reality through their historical experience. Although Jewish political behavior had never before incorporated a strong Jewish nationalism movement, Zionists relied on historical practices of Jewish politics to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Zionism did not represent a political revolution, but rather an evolution of traditional forms of Jewish politics to account for the ever-growing Jewish autonomy and power in the Yishuv. In this paper, I will draw links between the historical and Zionist uses of three Jewish political tools: intercession, vertical alliances, and financial codependence. In doing so, I will address what constitutes a political revolution and argue that Zionism’s connection to historical behaviors makes it an evolution rather than a radical shift.
The Rothschilds, a notable European Jewish political family whose influence traces back to the eighteenth century, advocated for Zionism through intercession directly to high government officials in the same fashion that they had advised governments during tense times for centuries before. In 1840, the French and Egyptian authorities arrested 13 notable Jews in Damascus for the disappearance and presumed murder of a local friar. From there, a “blood libel” spread, a myth that Jews sought Christian blood to fulfill their Passover rites. Sir Moses Montefiore, British moneylender, economist, and Rothschild family member, sought justice for the arrested Jews. He traveled to the Ottoman Empire with the support of the British government and secured, “a solemn declaration from the Ottoman sultan in favor of the Jews and against the ritual-murder charge.” Montefiore leveraged his wealth for political power and an international network which he then used to advocate for the Jewish people.
Although the end goal of Jewish nationalism had not been articulated in a mainstream movement for millennia, British Zionist Federation president Chaim Weizmann relied on the same time-tested method of Jewish political behavior, intercession, to encourage the Balfour Declaration’s publication. 80 years after the Damascus Affair, guided by Baron Edward James de Rothschild, Chaim Weizmann forwarded the Zionist cause by helping to secure British support through the Balfour Declaration, a letter on behalf of the British government proposing the establishment of “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. Like Montefiore before him, Weizmann also leveraged his privileged background for political gain; Weizmann’s achievements in biochemistry helped give him the ear of the government.
As World War I raged, Allied powers grew to believe that victory would bring about the end of the Ottoman Empire. The British government made the “eastern question” a policy priority. Weizmann saw an opportunity in this shuffle to strengthen the Jewish claim for a nation in Palestine. Although historians debate how directly Weizmann caused the Balfour declaration, his intercession is undeniable. Leveraging his connections with the media, government, and powerful private citizens, in June 1917 Weizmann engaged with senior Foreign Office officials about the British government, “express[ing]... its sympathy and support to the Zionist aims and… recogniz[ing] the justice of Jewish claims on Palestine.” The Balfour Declaration would be published after four months of continued lobbying by Weizmann and other Zionists. Weizmann used his personal contacts within the British administration on behalf of the Jewish people to aid the Zionist cause.
To advocate for specific groups within the Yishuv and Jewry at large, Jews in Mandatory Palestine established a surfeit of political organizations to speak for the collective rather than for individuals. Although their mission represented a new era of Jewish politics, their method was hardly revolutionary. At the turn of the twentieth century, Jews around the globe formed political organizations to better represent the Jewish people or their specific interest group within Jewry.
In America, the American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League, and American Jewish Congress were all founded between 1908 and 1918. While the American Jewish Congress dealt more closely with Zionism, as observed by Professor Riv-Ellen Prell, all three organizations represented the broader trend of, “minority and religious groups… creat[ing] a variety of organizations… to speak against attacks on them and to defend their legal rights.” Zionists in Israel followed the same pattern. Soon after the British took control of Palestine in 1918, Zionist organizations quickly formed, merged, split, and jockeyed for position as the true voice of the Israeli Zionist cause. Organizations such as the Association of the Pioneers of the East, World Confederation of Sephardi Jews, and the United Bureau worked to represent the Jews of the Yishuv or specific subsets of them.
As cohabitants of Palestine with Arab neighbors, Zionists prioritized their relationship with Western powers over their Arab neighbors, continuing the practice of the vertical alliance. The process of establishing a Jewish state was facilitated by Euro-centric powers: the victorious Allied Powers partitioned the Ottoman Empire, the British secured and managed a Jewish presence in Mandatory Palestine, and the United Nations affirmed Israel’s independence on an international stage. Mandatory Palestine featured a triangular alliance, with both Jews and Arabs appealing to the British Mandatory authority. At key turning points, the Jews of the Yishuv looked upwards to the British for support rather than horizontally to their Arab neighbors.
During an uptick in violence in 1936, the British called the Peel Commission to reassess the political situation in Mandatory Palestine. The Jews organized groups to represent their interests. Two Sephardic notables submitted private additions to the Political Council of the Sephardi Community and Oriental Jews’ statement. Yosef Meyuchas, a scholar and expert in Arab culture, blamed the Arabs for inciting the 1936 violence and recommended cultural exchange through education. Eliahu Eliachar, Jerusalem Sephardic communal leader, challenged the notion of Arab tolerance towards Jews and listed places where Jews suffered: “tolerance has never existed in any place[s] where the Arabs have ruled.” Instead of revolutionizing political behavior and seeking to share power with Arab cohabitants, when peace repeatedly broke down, Jews appealed to British authorities.
As Jews sought peace with their Arab neighbors, many cited the economic benefits that Zionism brought for Jews and Arabs alike – just as Jews had done for centuries before, the Jews of the Yishuv hoped that proving themselves as economically indispensable would yield political stability. David Avissar, a labor Zionist, attributed the 1929 violence to Zionists choosing to ally with the British rather than the Arabs, a breakdown of cultural relations caused by the influx of Ashkenazi immigrants. Avissar, like many Sephardim, believed that Zionism benefitted both Jews and Arabs economically and, combined with cross-cultural education, could lead to peace.
With the first two waves of modern Jewish immigration to Palestine came a great number of farmers, capitalists during the First Aliyah in the late nineteenth century and socialists during the Second Aliyah between 1905-1919. The economic value came from the land itself and the subsequent ability to work better. In 1930, the General Federation of Laborers in the Land of Israel responded to the 1929 violence with a statement advocating for economic diplomacy through Labor Zionism. It asserted that Zionism economically benefited native Arabs as well as Jews: “Arabs living on land bought by Jews from the owners… were enabled to improve their position and adopt better working methods.” But the Jews did not charade a true partnership––their economic leadership was shrouded in paternalism. The Federation described the former Arab owners as “eking out an existence on the land.” Zionists hoped that “making the desert bloom” would prove that the Jews would be the best guardians of the land.
Past iterations of Jewish economic diplomacy came from the other end of the power spectrum; rather than paternalistic land ownership, the Jews leveraged “undesirable jobs” into political stability. In Prague, Jews worked as financiers and artisans, serving in roles seen as taboo for Catholic Bohemians. When Queen Maria Theresia tried to expel Jews from Prague in 1744, their departure was delayed by a Viennese representative who wrote that “the Jewish and non-Jewish economic spheres were too closely intertwined.”
Even with this knowledge, Queen Theresia insisted on the Jews’ removal. But in 1748, Bohemian royals demanded their readmittance as “a counter-balance for the losses the nobility would suffer through the new tax system.” By proving themselves valuable to the local citizens, especially those with power, the Jews of Prague were able to stave off destruction; royals were even willing to sacrifice their wealth in the form of higher taxes to preserve a Jewish presence in the city. Handling the money of powerful locals saved the Jews from total expulsion.
The promise of economic development helped Zionists gain a foothold in Palestine t and build relationships with the Arabs and the British. In Hebron, where the Jewish community in 1929 was small and relatively helpless, “Jews lent money to Muslims and charged interest,” as reported by Yehuda Leib Schneurson, community member and author. Understanding the importance of loans towards long-term economic activity, Jewish and Muslim leaders reinterpreted their liturgy to allow for interest-collecting. But Jews made themselves the lenders of preference to Arabs and Jews alike by charging less interest and accepting material interest in the form of crops or goods.
The Arabs of Hebron grew to prefer these personal loans from Jews. After the violence of 1929 drove the Jews out of Hebron, some returned to the city in the following years. Even with the memory of chaos still fresh, some Arabs expressed excitement for the Jews’ return, “assuming that this would restart commercial activity in the city, which had ground almost entirely to a halt,” as explained by historian Hillel Cohen. Economic integration did not save the Jews of Hebron, but it did aid their integration into the Arab community while the city was mixed. When Jews tried to lay down roots as a minority in a foreign community, they used economic tactics that benefited the local citizens, but the natives did not desire to practice themselves.
For nearly 2,000 years, Jews had lacked an independent Jewish homeland. During the previous two millennia, Jews had been subject to outside rule, experiencing various levels of autonomy. European Jews had advocated for their protection during specifically tense moments and increasing rights and privileges from governments, but they had never lobbied for a Jewish state. While the goal of Zionism represented a revolution in Jewish politics, the methods used to accomplish it were evolutions of traditional Jewish political practices. Jews built relationships with the highest possible authority, formed political organizations to speak for the collective desires, and worked themselves into favorable economic conditions. To build a Jewish state, Zionists modified their traditional political practices rather than just inventing new behaviors. Grounded in a methodology spanning back millennia, Zionism can be seen as a natural progression rather than a radical shift.
Max Krupnick is a rising senior in Berkeley College studying history. When not in class, he enjoys spending time at Slifka, playing intramurals, and hiking.
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