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Historians often point to 1881 as a turning point in modern Jewish history. That year saw the passage of the May Laws by Russia’s Tsar Alexander III. These “legislative pogroms” coupled with actual pogroms made life unbearable. The Jewish response to these events was one of unique and definitive action. World Jewry rallied resources to help assuage the situation in Russia, while Russian Jews zealously pursued one of three main escape strategies: socialism, Zionism, and emigration. The decision to leave Russia for Palestine combined all of these strategies. The following article by Eli Barnavi traces the waves of immigration (aliyot) and their effects on Palestine. It is reprinted with permission from
A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People
, published Schocken Books.
In the history of Jewish Palestine, the year 1881 inaugurated a new era. For many centuries, Jews from all over the diaspora had been “going up” to the Land of Israel, to live and die there, but the immigration of 1881 did not resemble any other. Inspired for the first time by an essentially modern national movement, this aliyah laid the foundations for the national rebirth of a Jewish society.
Everywhere else society preceded the nation; in this case, the national sentiment came first, and then, in order to be transformed into reality, it needed to go through a stage of immigration to an ancestral homeland where the nation‑building process could begin. This was a unique case of a society of potential immigrants who felt they belonged in a specific land long before they had set foot on its soil, and in less than two generations succeeded in forming a nation endowed with all the attributes of national “normality.” Thus, although a minority in the demographic sense, the Jews of Palestine were not a minority in the national sense. The mandate of the League of Nations represented them as a national community aspiring to independence, and the relations between the mandatory authorities and the yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine) did not resemble the usual interaction between a ruling power and ethnic minorities.
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