Israel is a land of many faces, with more than 100 nationalities coexisting and arguing with one another on a patch of land slightly larger than Vermont.
As this multicultural Jewish miracle celebrates its birthday next week, it’s worth noting that Israel also is a land of many birthdays.
The best known, of course, is Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel Independence Day, which commemorates that famous day — May 14, 1948 — when David Ben-Gurion declared the State of Israel. This came on the heels of the United Nations resolution of November 1947 to partition the land for a Jewish sovereign state.
This is drama of the highest order: Here is an international body helping an ancient and persecuted people realize a 2,000-year-old dream to return home.
We have a natural tendency to look at the climactic year of 1948 as Israel’s real beginning, and in many ways, it is. But let’s remember that Jews began building modern Israel as far back as 1882, when they started returning home as part of the First Aliyah. Here was an early birth of Startup Nation that also is worth commemorating.
In fact, there were four more such waves of Jewish immigration — in 1904, 1919, 1924 and 1929. By the eve of World War II, according to the Jewish Agency (JA) website, the Jewish population of the area was 475,000, or about 40 percent of the total population. The JA site is full of interesting facts on these early pioneers, who came to be known as the Yishuv.
They plowed the land, built farming communities and infrastructure, revived the Hebrew language, started universities, and initiated democratic and civil institutions that would come to define the Jewish state.
Their journey was messy and full of setbacks. They were in conflict with Arabs, with British authorities and with other Jews. But each wave managed to contribute in its own way.
The Jews of the First Aliyah came in the wake of pogroms in Russia and Romania, and they built farming villages and urban settlements, most notably in Jaffa.
The Jews of the Second Aliyah built the foundation for the first all-Jewish city — Tel Aviv. They also introduced Hebrew into different spheres of life and began a new Hebrew press and literature.
These challenges didn’t start in 1948. They go back to the earliest days of the First Aliyah in 1882, when Jewish pioneers blazed the trail for an epic homecoming.
Many of these early newcomers were imbued with socialist ideals. The Jews of the Third Aliyah, for example, founded the Histradut, the labor organization that has had a lasting impact on Israeli society.
The road to America still was open during the Third Aliyah, but many Jews chose the land of Israel out of Zionist convictions. It’s no coincidence that this wave came not long after the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which first established the Jewish right to a homeland.
The Fourth Aliyah saw a new social composition of immigrants, with the arrival, mostly from Poland, of middle-class Jews who were shopkeepers and artisans. Some invested their small capital in workshops and factories, small hotels, restaurants and shops, but much of their investment was in construction. New villages, based on citrus orchards, were founded.
The Fifth Aliyah, which began in 1929, accelerated after Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933. More than 164,000 Jews arrived between 1933 and 1936. This wave represented the first large influx from Western and Central Europe. Among other things, these Jews built the first modern port in Haifa and expanded the Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem.
In addition to these waves of immigration, an active underground movement between 1934 and 1948 brought some 115,000 Jews in defiance of British restrictions. During the second world war, however, immigration from Europe became extremely difficult, so the Mossad ran clandestine immigration from overland routes, primarily from the Middle East.
Two of my uncles were smuggled out of Casablanca in 1948 to fight in Israel’s War of Independence. They were part of the first batch of Jews from Arab and Muslim lands who came in huge numbers during the first decades of Israel’s independence and now account for about half of the country’s Jewish population.
In sum, the story of the modern Jewish state is endlessly complex and fascinating. It has been marked by violent convulsions and vexing challenges. But these challenges didn’t start in 1948. They go back to the earliest days of the First Aliyah in 1882, when Jewish pioneers blazed the trail for an epic homecoming.
So, as we commemorate the great 1948 milestone, let’s not forget those earlier decades when Israel was still just a dream, when our modern-day ancestors returned to their ancient homeland and planted the seeds for the complicated miracle we celebrate today.
David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at [email protected].