Ancient Dreams and the Renewal of Hope
By Larry Domnitch
On Chanukah, in addition to pondering the Maccabee victories and the
rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem, one can also reflect upon the events
that transpired on Chanukah in 1917. At that time, a wave of enthusiasm swept
over Jewish communtities worldwide.
During the First World war, two powers fought over control of
Palestine--the ruling Ottoman Turks of the Axis and the British along with
their allies. The outcome of the contest brought the ancient Jewish dream of
the re-establishment of Jewish statehood in the Jewish Homeland a little
For almost four hundred years, the Ottoman Turks ruled Palestine and
its Jewish community. In the late nineteenth century, the Zionist movement
began to take shape as Zionists began to settle the land. But their efforts
were opposed by the Turks. Land purchases by Zionists were generally
prohibited and well known Zionists were often expelled or imprisoned. During
the First World War, however, a glimmer of hope appeared.
The British along with their allies waged a campaign to wrest
Palestine from the Turks. British General Edmund Allenby cunnungly led his
outnumbered troops to victory at the strategic southern city in the Negev of
Beer Sheba. As the success of the campaign seemed likely, the British
government issued the Balfour declaration on November 2, 1917. The
Declaration sent by British foreign minister Lord Arthur Balfour to Jewish
philanthropist Edmund De Rothchild called for the "establishment in Palestine
of a national home for the Jewish people." Great Britian issued the statement
partly out of the desire to elicit the support of Russian Jewry behind the
allied war effort and also out of the belief by some of its leaders that
Zionism was Biblically-ordained destiny. All that seemed to stand in the way
of the goal's realization was Britian's successful completion of the
campaign. On November 6, Gaza fell to the British who then drove towards
Jerusalem. With each British victory, more excitement and anticipation swept
over Jewry. Aided by allied armies, the British fought their way through each
town flushing out the enemy until they reached Jerusalem.
On December 9, as Chanukah was approaching, Turkish forces surrendered.
In the battles for Jerusalem twenty thousand Turkish soldiers, and three
thousand six hundred British and allied troops lost their lives. Two days
later British troops marched into Jerusalem. Allenby humbly entered its walls
by foot through the Jaffa gate as the city's thirty-fourth conqueror.
Excited crowds of Jews lined Jerusalem's streets to welcome the city's
liberators. One women told a newspaper correspondent that the Jews "have been
starving but now we are free." (Jewish Chronicle December 21, 1917)
A Jewish periodical, The Jewish Chronicle, described the allied conquest
as an "Epochal event" and stated with mystic overtone, "It is as if
Providence had placed its blessing upon an enterprise distinguished as had
been the Palestine campaign by the historic [Balfour] declaration to the
Jewish people." (Jewish Chronicle December 14 1917) Rabbi J.H. Hertz, Chief
Rabbi of the British Empire forwarded a telegram to General Allenby that
read, "British Jewry thrilled by glorious news from Palestine, sends
heartfelt congratulations on historic entry into Holy City." (Ibid.)
With Jerusalem under British control, the campaign continued and soon
Turkish forces were ousted from all of Palestine. Three Jewish units
participated in the completion of the conquest.
Soon, the initial euphoria faded and the excitement calmed. The climate
changed. Arab leaders in Palestine petitioned the British foreign office
strongly opposing increased Jewish immigration into the land. British miltary
authorities also began to express disagreement with the aims of Zionism.
Suddenly, under pressure, British committments to the establishment of a
Jewish homeland seemed in jepordy.
Barely a few months after the Balfour Declaration was issued, British
miltary authorities banned its publication in Palestine. By 1919, the British
miltary administration of Palestine pushed for a revocation of the Balfour
Declaration and also enforced stringent measures upon the Zionists. They
restricted Jewish immigration and land transfers to Jews. In addition, Hebrew
was not recognized as an official language. the British even banned the
public performance of the national anthem, HaTikvah.
Yet the hopes of the Zionists were again raised in 1920 when a British
civil mandate replaced a military administration. This change signified a
return by the British government to its committment to the principles of the
Balfour Declaration. A Jew sympathetic to Zionism, Herbert Samuel, was
appointed High Commisioner and the gates were opened to Jewish immigration.
In the spring of 1921, ten thousand Jewish immigrants reached the shores of
Palestine. The development of the land and its institutions also accelerated.
These developments triggered a violent reaction among the opponents of
Zionsim. Arab riots soon broke out throughout the land. Samuel responded by
granting concessions to the rioters succombing to the pressures of violence
and terror and restrictions against the Zionists were again imposed. But
despite the hardships, the task of building the Jewish State continued as did
the efforts of the opponents of Zionism. Following the Arab riots of 1936,
the British set up the Peel Commission which recommended the partition of the
land as a solution to the conflict. The Arabs in vehement opposition to any
partition continued the revolt and the pressure on the British. In an act of
appeasement to the Arabs, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin issued
the MacDonald White Paper of 1939. This White Paper -(policy statement)
severly restricted Jewish immigration and called for the eventual
establishment of one state with an Arab majority--a devastating blow to the
Zionists, one which meant disaster for the Jews of Europe who would be denied
sanctuary in their greatest hour of need.
The Jewish struggle for a homeland was far from over. Just as the
Maccabees fought many wars and battles after liberating the Temple to achieve
and maintain independence, the British conquest of Jerusalem was significant
as well. With the climatic events of 1917, the Jews did not yet achieve their
freedom, the British denied them the neccesary rights that come with
independence, but those events did signal progress in that long journey.
Under British rule, the Jews were able to build an infrastructure which was
important but that alone would not suffice. There would be many struggles and
sacrifices made to oust the British and then defend the newborn state against
its enemy's attacks. What the shift of powers during Chanukah 1917 did
accomplish was to bring the Jews one step closer to the eventual
establishment of the State of Israel. Who know what history will be made this
Chanukah or in the Chanukahs of the future?
Larry Domnitch is the author of, "The Jewish Holidays: A Journey Through
History", published by Jason Aronson.
from the December 2001 Edition of the Jewish Magazine