Since the times of Joshua, when the newly formed Nation of Israel conquered the kingdoms of Canaan (c. 1250 B.C.E.), not a decade has gone by when there was not a Jewish presence in the land that was to become the Land of Israel.
As the crossroads between three continents (Africa, Asia, and Europe), the Middle East has always been a “hot spot” of activity. Throughout history, conquering armies have swept over the land of Israel, attacked its residents, and still the Jewish people have clung to their land. The Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Greeks and the Romans each marched through as they struggled to amass their vast empires. Each trying to eliminate the Jewish nation, either through forced assimilation, death or exile. The Jews, however, always remained committed to their faith, their people and their land.

Since the Romans destroyed the Second Temple and exiled the Jews in 70 C.E. (renaming the land Palestina), the vast majority of the Jews have lived in a diaspora (dispersion) in virtually every corner of the world. No matter the country in which they sojourned, their longing for their own land has continued to burn in their hearts and dreams as they turned their prayers towards Jerusalem. The saga of the modern State of Israel comes from this more than 2000 year old longing for Jerusalem.

By the mid-1800’s, as anti-Semitic violence increased in Europe, more and more Jews began making their way to Ottoman-ruled Palestine. When these new immigrants arrived, they found it impossible to blend in with the existing Jewish population, a community of scholars living in squalid Ottoman cities that were locked each night to keep out marauders. After all, the new Jewish immigrants had come to work the land.

When studying the pattern of settlement leading to the State of Israel, the history between 1882 and the creation of the State of Israel is divided into five Aliyah* periods.

*Aliyah means going up. The term Aliyah is used for those moving to Israel implying that one is rising spiritually.


In order to understand the history of the establishment of Israel, it is important to know the political condition of the land of Israel prior to the waves of Jewish immigration. The Ottoman Empire, ruled over large expanses of land, its reach broken into smaller ruling districts. The Ottomans governed the land of Israel for 400 years, from 1517-1917. The area of Israel, along with the current area of the Kingdom of Jordan, was known as Palestine and was under the jurisdiction of Damascus (Syria). With time, the Ottoman Empire became known for its stagnation. The intricacies of the vast bureaucracy were manipulated through bakshish, bribes. The majority of the territory of Palestine was broken into landholdings, and absentee landholders came once or twice a year to collect the rent from the shareholders who lived in squalor. Modern technology, such as plumbing, was unheard of in the backwaters of the Empire. The cities of the Ottoman Empire were no better. The people of Jerusalem lived only within the walls of the city (today known as the Old City) and the doors were locked each night for fear of the bands of robbers that terrorized the lands. Poverty and disease flourished in the cities that had none of the amenities of sanitation.

The situation of the land can best be understood by an excerpt from Mark Twain’s letters from his travels there in 67:

We traversed some miles of desolate country whose soil is rich enough but is given wholly to weeds–a silent, mournful expanse…We pressed on toward the goal of our crusade, renowned Jerusalem. The further we went the hotter the sun got and the more rocky and bare, repulsive and dreary the landscape became… There was hardly a tree or a shrub anywhere. Even the olive and the cactus, those
fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country. No landscape exists that is more tiresome to the eye than that which bounds the approaches to Jerusalem… Jerusalem is mournful, dreary, and lifeless. I would not desire to live here. It is a hopeless, dreary, heartbroken Land (“The Innocents Abroad or the New Pilgrim’s Progress” Volume II, p.216-359 (Harper and Brothers 1922).


Between 1882 and 1903, the period known as the First Aliyah, approximately 30,000 Jews made there way to the land of Israel. Impoverished refugees, they worked land purchased by European Jewish philanthropists and the newly created Zionist organizations. Life was a constant struggle against harsh conditions and many died of disease, exposure and malnutrition. Draining swamps, clearing land, and learning new farming techniques were major challenges for the immigrants, but they fought hard, and by the end of the First Aliyah period, several settlement towns, such as Rishon L’tzion, had been established and the Hebrew language had begun its revival as a modern, spoken tongue.

During the period of the First Aliyah, “Zionism” became an official movement, spearheaded by Theodore Herzl. The First Zionist Congress convened in Switzerland in 1897, giving focus to the movement and adding political weight to the cause.


As the First Aliyah petered out, the spirit of Zionism was revitalized by a new surge of pogroms in Russia, particularly after the failed revolution of 1905. The Second Aliyah was characterized by the Socialist Zionists who saw the rebuilding of the land of Israel as an opportunity to bring to life their socialist ideology. Unlike the First Aliyah, which relied, in part, on Arab labor, the Second Aliyah promoted a society in which Jews viewed craftsmanship and laboring the land as virtual mitzvot.

During the Second Aliyah period, the first kibbutz*, Kibbutz Deganiah, was created, and the first all-Jewish city, Tel Aviv, was founded. The Jewish National Fund (JNF), founded in 1901, facilitated the purchase and development of land, and numerous organizations were organized to help new immigrants find housing and adjust to their new environment. By the end of the Second Aliyah, there were approximately 85,000 immigrants working to establish a Jewish homeland.

*A Kibbutz is a collective, Socialist settlement.


World War I marked the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. With the defeat of the Turks, Palestine became a British colony. In 1917, the World Zionist Organization successfully negotiated with the British government, and the British Foreign Minister, Lord Balfour, pledged British support for the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine.
Thus began the era of the Third Aliyah (1919-1923), with the world at peace and support for a Jewish homeland seemingly guaranteed by the Balfour Declaration. Again large numbers of Jews came from Eastern Europe following new pogroms instigated by the successful Bolshevik Revolution. The new immigrants came far better prepared by European Zionist organizations with Hebrew education and labor training, and proved critical in helping develop new settlements, build roads and strengthen Jewish communities.

Since the beginning of the Zionist movement, the Jews had been purchasing the land from the wealthy absentee-landlords of the Ottoman Empire. At first, these landholders were happy to sell their lands at the high prices the Jews were willing to pay. As their Arab tenants’ began to grumble about the growing Jewish presence and the better living conditions of the Jews, the Turks began to sell the Jews tracts of land that they saw as unusable, such as the Jezreel Valley. By the sweat of their brow, the immigrants of the Third Aliyah drained the marshes of the Jezreel Valley, creating an entire region of agriculturally desirable land which flourished in their hands

While the Third Aliyah was bolstered by the hopes inspired by the Balfour Declaration, the period ended in disappointment. At the beginning of the 1920s, the League of Nations (forerunner of the UN) granted Britain the Mandate for Palestine, charging it to administer the land and “facilitate Jewish immigration under suitable conditions…”
With the removal of the Ottoman Empire, and having witnessed the progress made by the Jews in the land, a new movement of Arab nationalism surged. The Arabs began to apply pressure to the British to prohibit Jewish immigration. Arab pressure and riots in Palestine brought about the Churchill White Paper of 1922, which, while it again reiterated the right of the Jews to a homeland in Palestine, detached all of the area east of the Jordan river from Palestine and gave it to the Hashemi family to establish an independent Arab state called (Trans)Jordan – Thus creating a Palestinian state out of 2/3 of the region.

In response to the growing dissonance created by the conflicting promises of the British to the Jews and the Arabs, the immigrants of the Second and Third Aliyah laid the foundations for self-rule. They created the Histadrut (National Labor Organization), which helped create an industrial base while continuing to support agricultural advances. Another important creation was the establishment of the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary defense organization.


Marked as the period from 1924 until the start of World War II, the immigrants of the Fourth Aliyah were composed of primarily middle-class Polish refugees fleeing new persecutions, as well as Jews from Middle Eastern countries. The influx of the middle-class Europeans brought new capital to the region as the newest immigrants invested in small businesses.

Dominating the era of the Fourth Aliyah was the growing unrest between Jews and Arabs. While the Jews had purchased all the land upon which they settled, and were recognized internationally by the League of Nations’ Mandate as having a right to settle the land, there was an increasing opposition from the Arabs. In 1929, the Jews of the city of Hebron, whose Jewish population long predated the Zionist settlement movement and had lived in peace with their Arab neighbors, were ravaged by a violent Arab pogrom. When the rioting stopped, 67 Jews were dead and 70 wounded. The reports spoke of neighbors attacking neighbors and life-long friends suddenly turning into bitter enemies. The violence spread to other cities.

As had all-too-frequently become the case under British Rule, the British authorities did nothing to try and stop the attacks. With the British unable and unwilling to insure their safety, the surviving Jews fled Hebron, unable to return until 1967.


The Fifth Aliyah began with the rise of Hitler in Germany and ended in 1939, due to a combination of German emigration restrictions and British quotas. This Aliyah, just prior to World War II, was composed mostly of German Jews and other war refugees. Unlike many of the immigrants of the previous Aliyahs, they came out of necessity, not out of ideology. The new immigrants were often from upper and middle class backgrounds, often professionals who filled the need of the settlements for doctors and lawyers, as well as enhancing the cultural tone of the country. As the immigration increased, neighboring Arab countries accelerated their oppression of the native Jewish populations, causing another influx of Middle Eastern Jews, particularly from Yemen.


As the situation for the Jews in Europe grew more deadly, the doors of the world closed. Responding to anti-Jewish riots by Arabs throughout 1936, ‘37, ‘38 and, ‘39, Britain issued another White Paper in 1939 severely restricting Jewish immigration. At the same time, England and the United States imposed immigration quotas and the Jews were left with nowhere to go. The Jews pleaded with the British government to be allowed to enter Palestine, but to no avail.

The Jews in Palestine, seeing the desperate situation of the Allied forces, put aside their disputes with the British government and formed a special Jewish Brigade to fight the Nazis in Europe. At the same time, the Arab leaders met with Hitler and decided to support the Axis powers. Some members of the Jewish Brigade and other Jews from Palestine, managed to smuggle themselves into the war zone and establish underground forces to help Jews escape.

By land or sea, bribery and fake visas, Jews tried desperately to escape Nazi Europe and enter Palestine.
Tens of thousands did managed to smuggle through the BriTisha blockades. Those that were caught were put into British prison camps, reliving the barbed-wire nightmares from which they had fled.


As European Jews faced the horrors of the Nazis, the Jews in Palestine were engaged in their own struggle. Frequent attacks against settlements and individuals by the Arab population were countered by Jewish self-defense and retaliation. After the conclusion of World War II, these attacks continued, and even increased The ruling British often took the side of the Arabs, including confiscating the few weapons the Jews had for self-defense.

By the late 1940s, the British, frequently sabotaged by both sides, gave up trying to keep the peace altogether. They brought the matter before the UN and a proposal was passed to divide the remaining land of Palestine (bear in mind that 3/4 of the original land of Palestine, now called Jordan, was already in Arab hands) into two states, one Arab and one Jewish. The Jews supported the proposal, recognizing that even after the great tragedy in Europe it was the best they could hope for. The Arabs, however, rejected the plan.
In May of 1948, the British completed their withdrawal from the region.

While the withdrawal was supposed to be neutral, many of the British jails, fortresses and munitions were handed over to local Arabs.

On May 14, the day the British pulled out, the State of Israel formally declared its independence. On May 15, the new State of Israel, with no army, navy, or air force, was attacked by the surrounding Arab States.