The 70th anniversary of this miracle is the perfect opportunity to pay tribute to those early pioneers who helped turn the Prophet Isaiah’s words into a living, breathing reality.
In 1880, there were about 40,000 Jews living in the Land of Israel among some 400,000 Muslims. Philanthropist Moses Montefiore, the first Jew to be knighted in Britain, was among those working to bolster the Jewish community in the Promised Land. At that time, most of the Jews lived in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. The main entrance to the city for the Jews was through the crowded Arab markets of the Damascus Gate. The unsanitary conditions and rampant lawlessness made it practically impossible to live outside the city walls. Montefiore sought to change this by building the first Jewish neighborhood outside the walls of the Old City. In 1860, the neighborhood of “Mishkenot Sha’ananim” was established. Following its success, more neighborhoods were built in the New City of Jerusalem.
Another extremely prominent figure during this time was Baron Edmond de Rothschild (1845 to 1934). The heir to a successful banking family, Rothschild spent over 70 million francs of his own money building agricultural settlements (Rosh Pina, Zichron Yaacov and Pardes Hannah, to name but a few), as well as business enterprises such as the Carmel Winery. So generous was Rothschild that he was known simply as HaNadiv HaYaduah, “The Well-Known Philanthropist.”
The year 1881 saw terrible pogroms perpetrated against Jews in Russia, followed by a series of anti-Semitic laws, which prompted the beginning of the first major wave of Jewish immigration to the Holy Land. These early immigrants called themselves BILU, an acronym based on a verse from Isaiah (2:5): “House of Jacob, let us go up.” Influenced by communism and the Bible, BILU’s founders established cooperative farms throughout the land of Israel, later know as kibbutzim. For the fourteen ex-university students who comprised the first group of BILU, farming was a complete change of lifestyle; Jews had been forbidden to own land in Russia, so there were almost no Jewish farmers. Arriving in Israel with plenty of goodwill and youthful energy, but little money and no experience, these pioneers are regarded as important forerunners of the Zionist movement that Theodor Herzl organized fifteen years later.
A year later, in 1882, the First Aliyah began in earnest when some 30,000 Jews came in two waves split over the following decade and founded 28 new settlements. Hundreds of thousands of acres were purchased by these early Zionists from absentee Arab landowners. Most of these lands were uninhabitable wastelands, such as the sandy coastal plain where Tel Aviv now stands, or the malaria-ridden swamps of the Hula Valley in the north. With a shovel in one hand, a gun in the other, and providence at their back, these early pioneers drained the swamps and made the barren land bloom.
This year, as Israelis proudly wave the blue and white flag so valiantly defended by a generation of brave men and women, may we remember our God-given purpose to contribute acts of kindness, increase brotherhood and bring blessing.