The state of Israel is now in its seventies and as it grows and prospers it becomes easier to forget that the country owes its existence to a few people who believed passionately in Zionism at a time when not many others did and who were gifted enough to bring their vision to fruition. So who were these men?
The name most closely associated with Zionism is Theodore Herzl. His book The Jewish State sent waves through the Jewish world when published in February 1896. Herzl’s vision was for a state where Jews would be free from the persecution they endured throughout the European continent. In pursuance of this goal he travelled the world meeting Kings, Tsars and Emperors. Herzl was pushed towards his belief in the need for a Jewish majority state by seeing the antisemitism surrounding the trial of French Captain Alfred Dreyfus on trumped up espionage charges. Born in what is now Budapest, Hungary in 1860 to an assimilated Jewish family Herzl became a journalist and playwright. It was while working as a journalist that he was shocked by the antisemitism he witnessed in Paris at the Dreyfus trial and wrote the Jewish State. The book marked the beginnings of his advocacy for the Jews to have a state of their own. Remarkably he crammed the foundation of a movement into nine short years, he passed away in 1904. The political movement he founded would achieve statehood for a dispossessed people, revive a language and serve as an inspiration to Jews around the world.
Whereas Herzl is known as the father of Zionism Weitzman must go down as the father of Israel. A scientist born in what is modern day Belarus he became a scientist whose intelligence was equalled by his eloquence. He moved to the UK and spent years at Manchester university. Inventing a method for the industrial production of the compound Acetone ensured Weitzman had access to the elite of British society. For a generation Weizmann was the undisputed head of the Zionist movement. His skills in diplomacy ensured diplomatic support for the Zionist movement, most notably in the form of the Balfour Declaration. Weizmann served as Israel’s first President and founder of the Weizmann Institute, Israel’s premier science establishment that bears his name.
While Herzl brought to life the ideas of Zionism it was Ben Gurion who brought the Jewish state into being. An indomitable figure able to variously inspire and bully those around him bending them to his will. It is Ben Gurion who shepherded the Jewish community in Palestine through the later period of the British mandate and into statehood. He served as Israel’s Prime Minister through the War of Independence in 1948/9 and during the Sinai Campaign in 1956. This indomitable figure was born in Plonsk and whose quest to make the Jewish state into a reality ensured that the Jewish state was born in 1948. He was able to crystalise the issues faced by the Jews around the world and whose crisp “We shall fight the White Paper (British immigration policy to Palestine in World War II) as if there was no war and the war as if there was no white paper” serves as an example as to how he was able to pursue apparently conflicting strategies at the same time and succeed in both goals.
The man who could have been one of the great Russian writers turned his talents instead to the goal of building a Jewish state. But Jabotinsky didn’t wish to fall into line behind Weitzman and then Ben Gurion, he was the original bad boy of Zionism insisting on his own, right wing, vision for the Jewish state. Jabotinsky founded self defence groups for Jews facing pogroms in Russia with the slogan “better to have a gun and not need it than to need it and not have it”. He found his way into the ranks of the British army during World War I and was instrumental in the formation of the Jewish Zion Mule Corps. For his wartime service he was awarded and MBE but was eventually exiled from Palestine by the British. During his lifetime Jabotinsky was an outcast from mainstream Zionist society but in the long term his political ideas and the movement he founded has been vindicated in the form of the Likud Party. Current Prime Minister Netanyahu’s father served as Jabotinsky’s personal secretary. In the long run it appears as though Jabotinky’s ideas had more staying power than those of Ben Gurion and the Israeli left.
When World War II broke out Begin was saved by the fact that he had already been arrested by the Russian secret police, effectively for the crime of being a Zionist. This likely saved his life as during the German invasion he was moved, with other prisoners, further East. Upon his release he was sent to Palestine as part of the Polish Home Army where he promptly deserted and took over the militant organisation founded by Jabotinsky called the Irgun. It was Begin’s strategy of taking up arms against the British and simultaneously launching a wave of anti-British propaganda which made the British realise their position as mandatory power was untenable in Palestine. Begin sat in opposition in the Knesset until a democratic revolution sent the left out of power and saw the right obtain it in 1977. Begin was the Prime Minister who made peace with Israel’s most powerful enemy Egypt and who sent the IDF into Lebanon.
The fathers of the state of Israel are owed a debt by all who came after them. Without any one of the above it is unlikely that the state of Israel would exist at all and certainly not in its current form.