Birth Pangs
By Charles E. McCracken



It shall no more be said, “The Lord lives who brought up the children of Israel from the land of Egypt”, but, “The Lord lives who brought up the children of Israel from the land of the north and from all the lands where He had driven them.” For I will bring them back into their land which I gave to their fathers. Jeremiah 16:14-15


Since the time the Romans drove them from their native soil in A.D. 70, the Jewish people have lived as an identifiable people group estranged from their homeland. Aliens in the countries they were forced to wander; persecution dogged them wherever they went.

In the mid-1800s, a dream began to coalesce that changed the course of history. It emerged in Russia and spread to Eastern Europe where the most beleaguered Jewish populations of the world lived. In the face of escalating harassment and as the intensity and scope of anti-Semitic persecution proliferated, voices within the Jewish community began to articulate the dream as the only viable solution to virulent anti-Semitism.

While it is not within the scope of this article to examine the innuendos of history, even a brief look at the historical context provides insight about the world climate that nurtured the first seeds of modern Zionism.


The Pale of Settlement

The Russian loathing of the Jewish people is well documented. In 1562, Russian Grand Duke, Basil III declared, “The Moscovite people dread no one more than the Jews, and do not admit them into their borders.”(1) From the end of the 15th century onward, Jewish people were forbidden to live in Russia.

That reality changed in 1772 when Russia “annexed” an area that included present-day Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and Poland, thereby gaining a sizeable Jewish community. In 1791, Catherine the Great (under the guise of pressure from her cabinet to rid Moscow of Jewish business competition) established the Pale of Settlement (Russian: chertá osédlosti, “borders of settlement.”) Using land appropriated 20 years earlier, the tsars effectively consigned the Russian Jewish population to the Pale of Settlement until 1917.

The 1897 census records almost 5 million Jewish people living in the Pale of Settlement—approximately 40 percent of the world’s Jewish population. Reprehensibly, more than 94 percent of the Jewish population of Russia was forced to live in backward and primitive conditions on the rural Pale where they were forbidden to lease or own farmland, had stringent regulation governing their livelihood and strict quotas impeding their ability to access advanced education.

Jewish residents restricted to the Pale were also taxed at twice the rate of the rest of the Russian population. As many as 22 percent of Jewish people on the Pale lived in abject poverty; they would have never survived without the kehillott (organized Jewish community) providing food, clothing and medical care for one another. (2)

As pressure intensified against the Jewish community, particularly in Russia and Eastern Europe, influential Jewish leaders began to recognize that the only hope for the Jewish people was a Jewish state.

Until the early 19th century, there were two dominant attitudes held within the Jewish community. On one hand, Orthodox adherents believed they must patiently wait for Messiah to usher them back to their homeland. On the other, assimilationists believed that melding into the prevailing Progressive culture would ultimately cause anti-Semitism to fade away. (3)


The Damascus Affair

Both attitudes were challenged by the infamous incident commonly referred to as the Damascus Affair. Many historians suggest this was a turning point for the Jewish community prompting the first steps toward a national homeland.

In 1840, a prominent Franciscan monk in Damascus disappeared with his servant. Ratti Menton, the French consul in Damascus, who was known for his hatred of the Jewish people, ordered investigations in the Jewish quarter. (4)

At least nine notable Jewish men were imprisoned and tortured. Waiting for permission to execute the beleaguered souls who had not died from torture or converted to Islam under duress in prison, residents from a community in the Jobar suburb broke into the synagogue, extensively vandalized the building and destroyed the Torah scrolls.

The shameful incident prompted public meetings in major Jewish communities of London, Paris, New York and Philadelphia. Although mediators from the Jewish community obtained release for the imprisoned Jewish men, it was a wake-up call for the Jewish community worldwide. (5)

In the aftermath, voices from both ends of the spectrum began challenging the attitude of the Diaspora.

Zvi Hirsch Kalischer, (circa. 1874).

Zvi Hirsch Kalischer, (circa. 1874).

In 1860, Rabbi Hirsch Kalischer wrote, The Quest of Zion, articulating a philosophy that the only hope for the Jewish people was resettlement in their ancient homeland. Although not immediately popular, other Orthodox rabbis joined Kalischer’s work. The Zionist dream began to penetrate the dark world of the Pale; and eventually, it began to blossom.

At the same time and from the opposite end of the spectrum, Moses Hess espoused similar ideas. Coming from an assimilationist background, Hess believed that if the Jewish people would be model citizens of the world, there would be no grounds for anti-Semitism.

The Damascus affair brought Hess to the rude awakening that the ugly root of anti-Semitism would never go away. (6) He wrote and published Rome and Jerusalem: The latest National Question proposing that the only remedy for anti-Semitism was national independence. Hess devoted the remainder of his life to developing plans for the Jewish resettlement of “Palestine,” the Roman name for the land of Israel.

Detail: Synagogue door at the Mikveh Israel School of Agriculture, Holon, Israel.

Synagogue Door at the Mikveh Israel School of Agriculture, Holon, Israel.

Concurrent with the call for a Jewish homeland issuing from both the secular and religious community, the Paris based Alliance Universelle Israelite was a relief organization founded in 1860. Harnessing the sense of community responsibility ingrained in the very heart of Jewish life, the organization focused on providing refuge in Palestine for Jewish people suffering misfortune, persecution and exile.

In response to the writings of Kalischer and Hess, Jewish societies sprung-up in Russia sponsoring immigrants seeking to inhabit the barren wastes of Palestine (more discussion to follow in the next post). To meet the need, the Alliance Universelle Israelite established an agricultural training school near modern day Tel Aviv in 1870 to orient and train new arrivals. (7)


Mikveh Israel' Botanical Gardens.

Mikveh Israel’ Botanical Gardens.

 The May Laws

What seemed at first little more than a lofty ideal, Zionism soon became a practical necessity as aggressive anti-Semitism radically intensified.

The eve of Easter in 1881 marked a new era of anti-Semitism fostered by the state. Coinciding with the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, Russian Jewry was scapegoated.

Within days, Jewish people were attacked in 167 towns and villages leaving hundreds dead and thousands homeless. Influenced by Pan-Slavic ideology, Tsar Alexander III repealed many of the reforms his father instigated including those that had canceled or alleviated restrictions on the Jewish community in the Pale as evidenced in the subsequent May Laws of 1882.

Whole villages were uprooted and made homeless as the Russian government confiscated homes, destroyed livelihoods and victimized the Jewish people. Adding to the mayhem caused by the edict was a free interpretation of the laws by local officials who used them to provoke the Jewish community and extort bribes. Coupled with recurring state sanctioned pogroms, the life of Jewish people on the pale was unbearable.

The “temporary orders” of the May Laws issued in 1882 were provisional, “until the final revision of the laws concerning the Jews.” (8) The revision completed shortly thereafter by a special committee chaired by Count Pahlen, who was sympathetic to the Jewish plight, was never enacted. The May Laws in their temporary form remained in effect until the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 forcing more than two million Jewish people to flee Russia with many escaping to the United States or Palestine.

In 1884, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, the government official overseeing the Eastern Orthodox Church in Russia, stated that the goal of the May Laws was, “to see one-third of the Jews convert, one-third die and one-third flee the country.” (9)

The statement reflects the vituperation behind the atrocities that the Russian Jewish community endured. The precedent of state sanctioned anti-Semitism set in motion in Russia quickly spread to Prussia and Germany in the following decades and climaxed in the Nazi Holocaust.

With anti-Semitism promoted and/or sanctioned by the state, the Russian Jewish community and ultimately world Jewry pragmatically understood that no level of emancipation or advancement of civil liberties could counteract the menace of smoldering anti-Semitism that could without warning reach a flash-point and devastate entire Jewish communities. At this crucial juncture with so much of the world’s Jewish population suffering the horrors of anti-Semitic hostility, a sovereign Jewish state was recognized by many as the only practical solution. The hope of returning to their ancient homeland was consistent with God’s message to Israel through the prophet Ezekiel:

“Thus says the Lord GOD: ‘I will gather you from the peoples, assemble you from the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel.’” (Ezek. 11:17).

The stage was set and in the intervening years key leaders emerged renewing the hope of the promised return to the land given to them by God.

Charles E. McCracken is an international Bible teacher, long-time friend of Israel and advocate for the Jewish people. Rev. McCracken authentically communicates biblical truth making his presentations relevant for those seeking to understand the significance of Israel and the church in Bible prophecy. . He staunchly supports the nation of Israel and the Jewish people’s right to exist and live in peace. 

© Charles E. McCracken 2016, devotional comments only. Repost/Reprint with permission from the author via Contact Form under ABOUT. Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved. (Emphasis added.)

1) Benzion Netanyahu, The Founding Fathers of Zionism, (New York: Balfour Books, Kindle Edition, 2012-04-29), loc. 188.
2) Martin Gilbert, Routledge Atlas of Jewish History, (New York: Taylor and Francis, Kindle Edition), 73.
3) Barbara Tuchman, Bible and Sword, (New York: Balantine Books, 1984), 227.
4) David Larson, Jews, Gentiles and the Church, (Grand Rapids: Discovery House, 1995), 139.
5) The Jewish mediators sent to affect the release of Jewish prisoners were Isaac Cremieux, and Solomon Munk from France and Sir Moses Montefiore from England.
6) Larson, 139.
7) The Mikveh continues as an educational institute to the present day.
8) Hermon Rosenthal, May Laws, Jewish Encyclopedia Articles.
9) David B. Green, “This Day in Jewish History May Laws Punish Russia’s Jews”, Haaretz May 15, 2014.

1) Zvi Hirsch Kalischer, (circa. 1874). [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons – Enhancement: MKM Portfolios
2) Detail of Synagogue Door: Mikveh Israel’ School of Agriculture, Holon, Israel. By Tamarah Hayardeni (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons – Enhancement: MKM Portfolios
3) Mikveh Israel’ Botanical Gardens. Photo courtesy, Dr. Avishai Teicher, Pikiwiki Israel [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons – Enhancement: MKM Portfolios