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The birth of a Jewish nation occurred in 1948 when the United Nations established the state of Israel and the international community recognized it as a legitimate entity. However, this great accomplishment by the Jews took many years to realize. The single entity which is credited with the successful establishment of the state of Israel is the Yishuv. The term Yishuv refers to the “Jewish community in Palestine” and also the national liberation movement by Jews who sought to establish a Jewish State in Palestine territory.
This movement encouraged Jews from all over the world to immigrate to the land of Palestine and establish a Jewish State there. In their quest to achieve this goal, the Jews faced stringent opposition from the Palestinian Arabs who had been the occupants of the territory for centuries. This paper will set out to highlight the reasons for the success of the Jewish Yishuv as proposed by a number of key authors.
The Necessity for a Jewish State
Bill and Springborg (1994) propose that any serious attempt to explain the reasons for the success of the Jewish Yishuv in 1947 should look at the events before the date which lay the foundations for this historic success for the Jews. Yishuv was advocated for by the Zionists who sought to establish a sovereign Jewish nation in the Land of Israel. Zionism was a product of the tumult of nineteenth-century Europe which resulted in Jews being met with increasing persecution and enforced isolation from the general non-Jewish society.
Bill and Springborg (1994, p.314) document that prominent Jewish persons in Western Europe came to the conclusion that the only means through which Jews could achieve true equality would be if they created their own state. As such, the hostile environment that the Jewish community faced made the prospects of establishing a Jewish state appealing because it was the only means through which Jews could become liberated and self-sufficient.
Migdal (1998, p.146) agrees that the Yishuv was a singular experience for both the original Jewish settlers in Palestine and the new immigrants since they were both highly motivated to achieve a unified political entity.
The ideological organization and financial resources provided by Western Europe led to the success of the Zionist movement which culminated in the establishment of the Jewish State of Israel. The prevailing ideology of the day was nationalism and colonialist as well as racial supremacy. The Jews therefore borrowed this ideology and applied it to Palestine which they viewed as a neglected corner of the Turkish Empire. Bill and Springborg (1994, p.316) states that the Zionists therefore set out to redeem Palestine through Jewish labor and capital.
Reasons for the Yishuv Success
The defeat of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War and the subsequent succession to power by Britain on some of the former Ottoman provinces in the Middle East played a monumental role in the success of the Yishuv.
After this defeat, Palestine emerged as a new country separated from the rest of the Arab and Muslim world and more troubling, ruled over by a Christian power (Migdal 1988, 146). Bill, J, and Springborg, R, (1994) assert that the Zionist aspirations in Palestine could never have amounted to anything without British support in the cause of and after World War I. The prominent Jew professional Theodor Herzl appealed to Britain to support the establishment of a Jewish home in Palestine so as to protect her interests.
Herzl reasoned with Britain that the establishment of a Jewish state at the strategic point where Egyptian and Into-Persian interests converged would strengthen British influence by helping to counter other colonial interests in the region (Bill & Springborg 1994, p.318).
The Yishuv was legitimized by the “Balfour Declaration” of November 2, 1917 in which the British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Balfour made a statement affirming the resolve of Britain to establish in Palestine a national home for the Jewish. Migdal (1988, p.147) notes that this declaration became the cornerstone on which the State of Israel was established in Palestine.
Early Zionists knew that their ambitions could only succeed with the financial help of powerful forces in the West. With this in mind, the Jewish National Fund was founded in 1901 and this fund was modeled like the great companies of the seventeenth century such as the British East India Company.
The Fund was meant to attract potential investors and wealthy families were courted to support this fund (Bill & Springborg p.317). These efforts paid of and the Zionists were able to obtain funds with which they bought land from Palestinians and also developed Jewish settlements in Palestine.
Migdal (1988) argues that the decision by British to encourage the creation of a Jewish Agency which could share ruling power with the British was critical to the success of the Yishuv. The Yishuv’s representative to the British authorities in Palestine had an impact on the self-perception of the Palestine Jewish population. The Jewish Agency played an active role in the economic and social affairs of the Jewish society and propelled the Jewish towards achieving the promised national home in Palestine.
The Mandate of Palestine which reprised the thoughts expressed in the Balfour Declaration empowered the Zionists since it recognized them as a people in emergence, with the eventual right to independence and statehood (Khalidi 2007, p.18). This was in contrast to the Palestinian Arabs who were denied of any attributes of “stateness” and they were not afforded access to state power. The terms of the Mandate for Palestine failed to recognize the Palestinian Arabs as a people.
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Khalidi (2007, p.19) states that while the document did not mention the existence of the Palestinians as a people despite the fact that they constituted over 90 percent of the population of the country as of the time of British occupation.
With the official recognition of the Zionist movement by the British and the formation of the Jewish Agency which was to be a public body that would work in collaboration with the Administration, the Jewish had an upper hand over the Palestinians. By denying the Palestinians the same national recognition and institutional framework that the Jews were afforded in Palestine, the chances of a Yishuv success were increased.
The Palestine Mandate was imbalanced in that it favored the Zionists at the expense of the Palestinian Arabs who made up a majority in the land. Khalidi (2007, p.20) suggests that if the terms of the Mandate had been equal, the Arabs would have (as a result of their majority status) been accorded the right of national self-determination and achieved international recognition.
Instead, the Jews were given official recognition while the Palestinian Arabs were sidelined. The quasi-official status accorded to the Jewish Agency by the Britain gave the much needed international legitimacy to the Jewish cause.
Zionism sought to build an organized military entity that could be used to achieve the Jewish Yishuv. While the Jews had for many centuries abstained from military operations, the intensifying Jewish-Arab struggle in Palestine as well as the Holocaust in Europe accentuated the need to use force. Jewish “self-defense” organizations in Palestine were first created by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who sought to contribute to Jewish security in settlements as well as in the country.
Enlistment of Jews (particularly the Zionists) into the British army during World War I had an impact on the success of the Yishuv. While British dismantled the Jewish battalions after the war, these Jewish Legions provided a military training framework. This enabled the Jews to form an effective paramilitary body, the Haganah.
The Haganah was a national militia whose membership was open to all Jews in Palestine. This armed wing of the Zionist movement played a crucial role at the outbreak of Israel’s War of Independence in late 1947. Shlaim (1995, p.294) asserts that the superior mobilization and organization of the Yishuv army in the form of the Haganah gave the Jews an upper hand in the struggle against its Palestinian opponents.
Rapid Jewish immigration from 1933 to 1936 also contributed to the Yishuv’s success. This immigration was prompted by the rise of the Nazis which drove thousands of Jews to escape from Europe and seek refute in Palestine since most of the other countries were not offering save harbor for the Jews. Khalidi (2007, p.24) notes that while the population of the Jews had remained at 18 percent of the total population in Palestine from 1926 to 1932, the figure rose dramatically to almost 30 percent between 1933 and 1936.
This immigration was critical to the success of the Yishuv since the Zionist project could not have been expected to work if the Jewish population remained significantly below that of the Palestinian Arabs. This mass immigration of Jews into Israel made the goals of demographic parity and subsequent control by the Zionists over Palestine realizable.
The reaction of the Palestinians to the perceived growth in size and strength of the Yishuv also led to the success of the Yishuv in 1947. By the mid 1930s, a number of sectors of Palestinian society were dissatisfied with the progress made by their leadership and they decided to take on more forceful measures to counter the Yishuv.
The Arab revolt of 1936-39 stands out as one of the more significant uprisings of the time. As a result of this revolt, the Palestinians incurred a large proportion of casualties of who were experienced military cadres and enterprising fights (Khalidi 2007, p.26. More significantly, large quantities of arms and ammunitions were confiscated during the revolt. These heavy military losses played to the advantage of the Yishuv in the Israeli battle for independence in 1947.
To begin with, the Jews were given significant military assistance by Britain to help them fight of the common Arab enemy. Khalidi (2007, p.26) states that the Arab revolt led to the armament of a Jewish auxiliary police who helped the British to suppress the revolts. By the end of the revolt, the Yishuv had control of much of the weaponry in Palestine as well as the military organization that would be needed to take over the country in 1947.
The ongoing Arab strikes and boycotts throughout Palestine justified the principle of Hebrew labor which discriminated against Arab workers and led to a fortification of the Jewish national economy. As of 1936, the section of the economy of Palestine under Jewish control was larger than that of the Arabs.
The Arab revolt further increased the gap in favor of the Yishuv. The revolt further played into the hands of the Yishuv by providing them with an opportunity to buy more land. This is because the worsening economic conditions often forced many land owners to sell land to the Jews.
Bill and Springborg (1994) reiterate that international support was an important ingredient to the success of the Jewish Yishuv in 1947. In particular, the invaluable support offered to the Jews by the United States and the Soviet Union was critical to the 1947 success.
Jewish leaders therefore established diplomatic relations with leaders all over the world and appealed for support to their cause. The international community was sympathetic to the Jewish community who had suffered under the hands of the Nazi. There was therefore support for the creation of an independent Jewish state in part of Palestine by the end of the Second World War.
The success of the Jewish Yishuv in 1947 was further cemented by the Jews acceptance of the United Nations partition resolution which called for the establishment of two states; one Jewish and one Arab (Shlaim 1995, p.287). By accepting this resolution, the Yishuv demonstrated that they were willing to coexist with the Palestinian Arabs.
The fact that the Palestinians rejected the UN partition resolution and proceeded to go to war against the Jews demonstrated to the world that the Yishuv was genuinely interested in achieving a political solution while the Palestinians were sabotaging it.
All the authors concede that the success of the Yishuv in 1947 and the subsequent Arab-Israeli conflicts were a byproduct of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. Britain had hoped to establish a strategic presence in Palestine by establishing a Jewish national home. Bill and Springborg (1994, p.299) reveals that Palestinians argue that the Western power Britain implanted Israel in the region without the permission of its residents.
This initial British support for the Zionists laid a base from which the dream of creating a Jewish state could be realized. Khalidi (2007, p.15) asserts that while the Palestinians outnumbered the Jewish population of Palestine, the Jews presented a superior forces on many levels. As such, the Jews were able to establish a permanent home on Palestinian soil while the Palestinian Arabs failed to achieve the objectives of statehood and even today continue to live under Israeli occupation.
This paper set out to discuss the reasons behind the success of the Jewish Yishuv which took place between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The fall of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent take over of the region by Britain were the most important facts for the success of the Yishuv.
The Jews also used a number of tactics to ensure their success. These tactics included but were not limited to; diplomacy, appealing to the international community, and use of military force to achieve goals of the collective which were the establishment of a Jewish national community. The success of the Yishuv led to the realization of the Zionist dream of an autonomous Jewish society which has continued to thrive to the present time.
Bill, J, & Springborg, R 1994, “The Arab-Israeli connection”, in J Bill & R Springborg, Politics in the Middle East, Boston: HarperCollins.
Khalidi, R 2007, “The Palestinians and 1948: the underlying causes of failure”, in E Rogan & A Shlaim, The war for Palestine: rewriting the history of 1948, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 12-36,
Migdal, J 1988, “Laying the basis for a strong state: the British and Zionists in Palestine”, in J Migdal, Strong societies and weak states: state-society relations and state capabilities in the Third World, Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp.142-173.
Shlaim, A 1995, The Debate about 1948, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 27(3): 287-304.