Zionism’s Birth Pangs
Today’s Text: Deuteronomy 30:1 – 10
Miraculously, 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, albeit estranged from their homeland. Aliens in the countries they were forced to wander, persecution dogged God’s Chosen People wherever they were driven.
In spite of two millennia of estrangement from the land, however, God’s ancient promise to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob guaranteed a glorious return.
Speaking through the prophet Jeremiah, God predicted:
“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” (Jer. 16:14 – 15).
While it is not within the scope of this article to examine the innuendos of history, even a brief look at the historical setting provides insight about the world climate that nurtured the first seeds of modern Zionism.
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 incessant harassment and as the intensity and scope of anti-Semitic persecution escalated, voices within the Jewish community began to articulate the concept of Zionism as the only viable solution to virulent anti-Semitism.
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 population.
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 had 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 at that time.
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 and his servant mysteriously disappeared in Damascus. Ratti Menton, the French consul in Damascus, known for his hatred of the Jewish people, ordered investigations in the Jewish quarter. (4)
At least nine notable Jewish men were imprisoned and brutally tortured. Waiting for permission to execute the beleaguered souls who had not died at the hands of their torturers or had not converted to Islam under duress in prison, the residents from a community in the Jobar suburb of Damascus 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 finally obtained release for the surviving imprisoned Jewish men, it was a wake-up call for the Jewish population worldwide. (5)
In the aftermath, voices from both ends of the spectrum began challenging the attitude of the Diaspora.
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 concept of the Zionist dream began to penetrate the dark world of the Pale; and eventually, it began to grow.
Moses Hess espoused similar ideas at the same time, but from the opposite end of the spectrum.
Hailing from an assimilationist background, Hess believed that if the Jewish people would aspire to become model citizens of the world, there would be no grounds for anti-Semitism.
The shock and injustice of 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 the hope of national independence. Hess devoted the remainder of his life to developing plans for the Jewish resettlement of “Palestine,” the derisive Roman name for the land of Israel.
Concurrent with the call for a Jewish homeland issuing from both the secular and religious communities, the Paris based Alliance Universelle Israelite relief organization was a founded in 1860.
Harnessing the sense of community responsibility ingrained at 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 (Mikveh Israel, near modern day Tel Aviv) in 1870 to orient and train new arrivals. (7)
The Mayhem of 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 Russian 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 that his father had 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) Completed shortly thereafter by a special committee chaired by Count K.I. Pahlen, who was sympathetic to the Jewish plight, the revision 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) Pobedonostsev’s statement reflects the vituperation that emboldened the atrocities 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, ultimately climaxing in the horrors of 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 had the power to counteract the menace of smoldering anti-Semitism that without warning could ignite to a flash-point devastating entire Jewish communities.
At this crucial juncture with so much of the world’s Jewish population suffering the terror 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 embedded in God’s message to Israel via 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 painful birth pangs of early Zionism intensified in the intervening years as key leaders emerged renewing the hope of God’s promised return to the land given to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Empower yourself with the truth about the progression of Zionism. When confronted by those who wantonly revise and distort the historical facts about Israel, you will be armed to effectively advocate for God’s Chosen People.
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 2018, devotional comments only. Repost/Reprint with permission from the author. 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) The Gutenberg Bible, (Yale copy). By Aaron Gustafson, Chattanooga, TN [CC By-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons – Enhancement: MKM Portfolios
2) Zvi Hirsch Kalischer, (circa.1874), [PD-US], via Wikimedia Commons – Enhancement courtesy, MKM Portfolios
3) Moses Hess, circa. 1846. By Gustav A. Köttgen (Vera de Kok) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons – Enhancement: MKM Portfolios
4) Detail Synagogue Door: Mikveh Israel School of Agriculture, Holon, Israel. By Tamar Hayardeni (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons – Enhancement: MKM Portfolios
5) Campus of the Mikveh Israel Botanical Gardens. By Dr. Avishai Teicher, Pikiwiki Israel [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons – Enhancement: MKM Portfolios