Jewish Immigration to Palestine

The story of who went to Palestine, and how these successive waves of Jewish immigration shaped Jewish life there from 1881-1939.

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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.

early aliyah to palestineEverywhere 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.

The nature of this new society, its structures, and the pace of its growth were determined by several factors.

·        First, the magnitude of each wave of immigration and its social composition, both largely determined by the immigration policy of the Mandate and the division of the immigrants into categories--workers, capital holders, and professionals.

·        Second, the financial resources available to the colonizing institutions and the volume of private investment (between 1918 and 1945, the investment foreign capital amounted to 153 million pounds, 109 million of which were private funds). This enabled the leaders of the yishuv to establish a network of agricultural settlements embodying the predominant collectivist ideology, and marking the borders of the future state.

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Eli Barnavi is the Director of the Morris Curiel Center for International Studies and a Professor of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University