Don't Panic! September 18 2003

Your war questions answered

How did Israel come to be?

Israel was founded in 1948. To understand how it got there though, we need to go back in time a bit. It's now the spring of 1881 and you're in Russia. A group of revolutionaries has just recently assassinated Czar Alexander II. The false belief that the assassins were all Jewish led to a series of riotous attacks against Jews. By riotous, I don't mean, "Dude, that was a total riot." I mean terrible, violent, riotous attacks. The Russian word used to describe the attacks, pogrom, means riot.

The pogroms sparked the wave of Russian Jewish emigration that gave the United States the Gershwins, Henny Youngman, Bob Dylan and, um, Joan Rivers. The pogroms were also a shot in the arm for the movement known as Zionism.

Zionism was, and I suppose still is, the political movement that wanted to put a Jewish state where Israel is today. Zionism was around for a while but did not become a serious political movement until 1896, when a Hungarian journalist/lawyer/playwright living in Paris named Theodor Herzl wrote Der Judenstaat. In English, that means The Jewish State.

Herzl went all Zionist on our asses after the Dreyfus Affair. Not a romance gone wrong, but the wrongful 1894 conviction for espionage of French Jewish military officer Alfred Dreyfus. The case sparked a wave of violent anti-Semitism in France. Herzl figured that if Jews weren't safe in the land of liberté, egalité, fraternité and freedom fries, then they needed their own state.

The First Zionist Congress met in Switzerland in 1897. Riding a Swiss chocolate sugar buzz from which the world is still recovering, the Zionist Congressfolk declared their intention to put a Jewish nation in Palestine. By 1914, there were about 60,000 Zionists in Palestine. Another wave of pogroms in Russia ensured that there were plenty of Jews wishing to high-tail it out of Europe.

At the time, Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire. Like a poorly made, overstuffed upholstered backless couch, the Ottoman Empire was falling apart. The empire was in such bad shape that it was frequently referred to as the "Sick man of Europe," world history's saddest nickname for an empire. In 1916, while World War I was raging, the limeys and the frogs, (aka the British and the French) reached a secret agreement on dividing up the soon-to-be-defunct empire. "We want defunct. Gotta get defunct," they said. The agreement didn't really take effect, but it established the principle that Europeans were going to do their best to screw up the Middle East for generations.

The British, who would eventually take over Palestine in the wake of the Ottoman collapse, gave a boost to the Zionist cause in 1917 with the Balfour Declaration. Named after then (foreign) minister Arthur Balfour, the declaration promised that Britain would work for a Jewish home in Palestine.

It was during the period of British rule of Palestine between the world wars that the Zionist settlement of Palestine really took off. About 300,000 Jews came to Palestine from Europe between 1922 and 1937. Some people like to say that the violence between Jews and Arabs in Palestine is an age-old conflict, but it really isn't. It wasn't all tea socials and mixed kickball leagues before, but the Jewish-Arab fighting in the form we witness today really began during this period of Zionist settlement. The Zionists wanted more Jews to come to Israel. The Arabs wanted their numbers limited.

In 1947, with the British public annoyed sick of losing its soldiers there, the British government handed the conflict off to the United Nations. The U.N. decided to make two states from Palestine — one Jewish, one Arab. The Arabs rejected the agreement. The Jews didn't. On May 14, 1948, Israel came to be. Israel's first prime minister was a fella named David Ben-Gurion. Talk about a nutty coincidence, that's the same name as Israel's biggest airport.


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