In this essay I have used the word Labor Party for all the political groups that came out of what was the socialist Zionist military organization Haganah up until Israeli independence in 1948.
Actually in the fifties there was an often confusing series of splits and reunifications among socialist Zionist parties. But all of these groups came out of the Haganah. They usually worked together and finally unified as the Labor Party.
Also, I have used the name Likud for a group of right-wing Zionist organizations that all had their origin in the "revisionist" Zionist military force called the Irgun, which existed before Israeli independence. These organizations did not formally unite into the Likud Party until the early 1970's.
In the same way I used the term Hamas before it was actually used. Hamas even now is an umbrella for a group of fundamentalist Muslim organizations which were opposed to the secular Palestinian movement almost as much as they were to Zionism. However it is true that Israeli intelligence gave financial support to some groups which would later become Hamas. This caused considerable embarrassment to some Hamas leaders when the Israeli government publicly admitted that it had given this support to split the Palestinian movement.
Let us set the stage.
In the 1890's, the Turkish Empire - also known as the Ottoman Empire - was slowly dying. But it still included not only what is now Turkey, but also Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel/Palestine, along with a strip along the west coast of what is now Saudi Arabia - a strip which included the Muslim holy city of Mecca - and also the northern part of what is now Yemen.
Outside of Turkey itself, millions of Arabic speaking people under Turkish rule were becoming increasingly restless. Leaders from the intellectual classes were calling for an independent "Arab Nation".
At this time, less than five percent of the inhabitants of what is now Israel/Palestine considered themselves Jews, although most of the Arabic speaking Christians and Muslims of the area had some ancestors who were part of the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Though most Palestinians had ancestry that would be considered "Jewish", that was lost to their historical memory. Younger, better educated Palestinians were joining the new Arab nationalism to shake off Turkish control.
The old walled city of Jerusalem, which had less than 20,000 people at this time, had been over half Jewish since the 1840's, when railroads and steamships made it easier for people to travel from Europe to the Middle East. Most of these were deeply religious Jews from eastern Europe who set up religious schools in Jerusalem and lived largely on charity from synagogues in Europe.
At the eastern end of Europe was the Russian Empire where half the Jews in the world lived. In 1881 the Russian Czar, Alexander II, was assassinated by revolutionaries. Since many revolutionary leaders in Russia were Jews, the new Czar, Alexander III, decided to encourage the old feelings of hostility the Russian common people felt toward Jews, hoping that this hostility would turn Russian workers and peasants against the revolutionary movement.
The Russian government deliberately stirred up riots, called pogroms, where mobs of ordinary Russians were permitted - even encouraged to raid Jewish neighborhoods, kill Jews and loot their homes and stores.
The hope was that one third of the Jews would be killed, one third would convert to Eastern Orthodox Christianity (the official religion of the empire), and one third would leave Russia. Between 1890 and 1910 over a million Jews migrated from the Russian Empire to the United States, but very few went to Israel/Palestine besides the few thousand religious Jews already mentioned.
While most Jews in the Russian Empire were poor, at the western end of Europe was France, the most democratic country in Europe, where most of the relatively small Jewish community were well todo and well educated and had full citizenship rights.
In 1894, Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish colonel in the French army, was tried and imprisoned on charges of being a spy for Germany. (If this seems strange, remember that Adolf Hitler was only five years old at the time.)
Many of the most prominent intellectuals in France protested that Dreyfus was innocent and called for his release. In return, the Catholic Church drummed up a campaign of hostility against Dreyfus. The Catholic Church hoped to use the Dreyfus issue to get back the privileges it had lost under the democratic French government. The Church also hoped to turn French workers back to Catholicism and away from the Socialist Party whose leader, Jean Jaures, had called for the release of Dreyfus.
At this time an Austrian Jew named Theodor Herzl was living in France. He saw the officially sponsored riots against the Jews in Russia, and the Dreyfus case in France, as part of an international campaign that could destroy all Jews. In 1896 Herzl wrote The Jewish State in which he said that Jews had to have a land and a government of their own, a space which they controlled, where Jews could flee to escape persecution.
Herzl was willing to accept the possibility that many of the stereotypes that anti Jewish propagandists claimed about Jews might be true. But he said that these stereotyped characteristics could never be corrected without the pride of national independence and an educational system designed by Jews who knew their own people well and that they could eradicate these characteristics.
Herzl was not a religious Jew. To him it was not necessary that his Jewish State should be in the ancient land of Israel. At one point he seriously considered setting up his Jewish State in the British colony of Uganda in Africa. He was not very clear about what should happen to the native people of Uganda. For that matter, he thought that if the Jewish State was set up in what is now Israel/Palestine, the Palestinians would be given railroad tickets out of the area except for a minority who might be kept around to rid the area of poisonous snakes for the convenience of the Jewish settlers.
As racist as these ideas seem now, there was nothing specifically Jewish about them. Herzl was a contemporary of other promoters of colonialist schemes such as the British Cecil Rhodes, who set up white settlements in his Rhodesia (now Zambia and Zimbabwe) and took away the tribal lands of tens of thousands of African natives for his white settlers. The American, Daniel Payne, campaigned to overthrow the tribal governments of Indian Territory and take away their tribal lands to create his state of Oklahoma. Herzl was typical of many Europeans and Americans of his time who could not conceive of people outside their cultural sphere as having rights.
In 1897, Herzl called the World Jewish Congress with delegates from all over Europe and America. This congress took place in Basel, Switzerland, and out of it the Zionist movement was set up. The name Zionist comes from Zion, the name of the ridge on which the old city of Jerusalem was built.
At first most Jews ignored or opposed Zionism. Religious Jews opposed the idea of any Jewish state that was not set up by a divinely appointed king called the Messiah. Many non religious Jews supported the socialist movement in which they hoped, together with non-Jewish workers, to create a more just society in the countries where they already lived. In practice many Jews tried to better their lives immediately by moving to the United States, where Jews had full legal rights and living conditions might be hard for the poor, but they were better than the lives of most Jews in the Russian Empire.
After the World Jewish Congress in Basel, Switzerland, Theodor Herzl, who had inspired it, wrote in his diary, "In Basel I established a Jewish State. If I were to say that aloud today, universal laughter would be the response. Maybe in five years, certainly in 50, everybody will recognize it."
Herzl wrote those words in 1897. In 1948, 51 years later, the state of Israel was established.
But between 1897 and the future was a long, difficult road. Herzl had too few followers to even dream of conquering the ancient land of Israel/Palestine from the Turkish Empire. Instead, he negotiated with the central Turkish government to make sure that its notoriously corrupt and capricious local officials would not harm the early Zionist communities that were being set up.
What sort of people were the settlers who formed the first Zionist Communities? Their characteristics would set the tone of the future Israeli society for many years. They were young, brave and almost all of them were indifferent or hostile to the Jewish religion. They were deeply inspired by the ideals of the early socialist movement - democracy, egalitarianism and collectivism.
However, there was one important difference. The early socialist movement - including most of its Jewish supporters - believed that solidarity of all workers was more important than national distinctions. Yet Jewish workers were scattered in many countries and were a majority in none. If they gave up the Jewish religion as most Jewish socialists and most Zionists did, how were Jews to remain a distinct people? The Jewish religion traditionally forbade intermarriage with non Jews and prescribed distinctive dress and dietary rules that set Jews apart. If Jews gave up these things in countries where they were a minority, how long would it be before Jews lost their identity as a separate people?
This question received a powerful symbol during the unsuccessful Russian Revolution of 1905, the year Theodore Herzl died. One of the most important leaders of this failed revolution was the Jewish socialist Leon Trotsky who was married to Natalia Sedova, a non-Jewish Russian woman.
To most of the young adventurers who set up Zionist settlements, the preservation of Jewish identity was at least as important as their socialist values. They did not want to incorporate Palestinian Christians and Muslims into the new society they were trying to build. The Zionist groups bought land in Palestine from big Arab landowners who lived in the city of Beirut in what is now Lebanon. Then the Zionists evicted the Palestinian tenant farmers who had lived on the land. The Zionist pioneers set up kibbutzim - communal farms - on the land from which the Palestinians had been evicted. These communal farms were models of socialist democracy, but Palestinians were not allowed to become members. Palestinians were not allowed to join Histadrut, the confederation of Zionists labor unions.
Zionists who went to international socialist conferences felt uncomfortable when they joined their fellow socialists in protesting discrimination against Jews in Europe while Zionists were discriminating against Palestinians.
Some Zionists, such as the youth group Hashomer Hatza'ir proposed "binationalism" - that is, Jews and Palestinians would create, not a Jewish state or an Arab state, but a state of two nationalities, both of them with equal rights.
But the binationalists were not the Zionists who received the funding. The money for Zionism came from Jewish capitalist banking firms, such as the Rothschilds - which were despised by Jewish socialists as much as by any non Jew. Financial support went to Zionist groups who held the position of ultimate displacement of Arabic speaking Christians and Muslims from Israel/Palestine.
Then World War I began in 1914. The Turkish Empire was an ally of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire against Britain, France and Russia, who were called the Allies. The Allies promised the Arabic speaking subject peoples of the Turkish Empire that if they would rise up against their Turkish rulers, they would be allowed to set up a united, independent "Arab Nation".
In 1916 the British government issued the Balfour Declaration, which said that Britain supported a "national home" for the Jewish people in Palestine, but this was a "national home", not a "Jewish State" as Theodor Herzl had proposed. The Balfour Declaration said that the Jewish "national home" would not be set up to prejudice in any way the rights of the people already living in Palestine. In other words, the Palestinian Christians and Muslims, who were still 93% of the people living in the area, would not have to give up their land or leave their homes for the sake of the Jewish "national home".
In 1917 British troops captured Jerusalem and soon the Allies were in control of the Arabic speaking regions of the Turkish Empire. Instead of the united "Arab Nation", Syria and Lebanon became French colonies. Iraq and Kuwait became British colonies. Palestine and Transjordan (now Jordan) became British "mandates" where British control was supposed to last until 1948. Both Arab nationalists and Zionists felt betrayed.
The British, in the policy of divide and rule, which they had used in so many of their colonies, played Jews and Palestinians against one another. Especially the British tried to discourage "binationalism", the unity of Jews and Palestinians.
In 1917, the year the British took Jerusalem, the Russian Revolution set up a new power, the Soviet Union, which was seen as a tremendous threat by the capitalist classes of western Europe. A new group of movements called Fascist arose, taking advantage of the discontent caused by the hardships after World War I. Fascist movements used patriotism and ethnic hostility to organize masses of people against revolution. Although Fascists often talked against capitalism, actually they organized their followers to fight against labor unions, socialist parties and the new pro Soviet Communist parties. Capitalists often secretly funded fascist movements.
The Jewish Fascist writer Vladimir Jabotinsky set up what he called "Zionist-revisionism". This was Zionism without the socialist values, which were so much a part of early Zionism. While the earlier Zionists - who were still the majority of Zionists - set up the ultra collectivist kibbutzim (communal farms) the Zionist-revisionists preferred the moshavim, co-ops composed of individually operated farms.
Although Jabotinsky, the Zionist-revisionist founder, did not practice the Jewish religion, he made an appeal to religious Jews who felt excluded by the mainstream Zionist movement. The earlier Zionists had sometimes had pains of conscience about their discrimination against the Palestinians. But the Zionist-revisionists stood for "transference" - expulsion of the Palestinians without a qualm.
In the same way, while earlier Arab nationalist movements had admired western democracy and occasionally had socialist sympathies, after World War I there were new nationalist movements, anti-British and anti-French because these democracies had betrayed the Arabs. Thus these new Arab nationalists admired the new Fascist dictatorships in Germany and Italy.
Among the Palestinians a Fascist leader became influential after Adolf Hitler set up a Fascist dictatorship in Germany and German Jews began to flee to Palestine to escape persecution (The strict American immigration quotas kept these Jews out of the United States.)
The Palestinian Fascist leader was Haj Hussein Al Ameini, the Grand Mufti (Muslim religious authority) of Jerusalem. The Grand Mufti openly admired Hitler's Nazi Germany. In what must have been very ironic to Jews, the Grand Mufti turned the annual Muslim pilgrimages to the supposed tomb of Moses into rallies against Zionists and Jews in general.
So among both Zionists and Palestinians there was a rise of movements of uncompromising hatred against each other.
The Grand Mufti actually visited Germany and had a friendly visit with Hitler. The Grand Mufti's bitter enemies, the Zionist-revisionists could not go nearly that far.
However a group of prominent Zionist-revisionists, including Yitzhak Shamir, who later became prime minister of Israel, wrote a letter to Hitler. In this letter they said there was no need for any quarrel between the Zionists-revisionists and the nazis because the Zionists-revisionists merely wished to set up a "nationalist and totalitarian state" for the Jewish people, just as Hitler was setting up a nationalist and totalitarian state for the Germans. Hitler refused to acknowledge the letter.
The two major varieties of Zionists set up military forces to defend themselves against the Palestinians and also against the British, who still ruled Palestine and played the role of defending "law and order" against "extremists on both sides."
The socialist oriented mainstream Zionists, who were still the great majority, set up a force called the Haganah. Their rivals, the Fascist Zionist-revisionists had a military force called the Irgun. During World War II, the Haganah and some of the Irgun fought on the side of the Allies in Europe against Germany. However, much of the Irgun acted as if the British authorities in Palestine were as bad an enemy as Germany. (In the same way, the Arab Nationalists in Palestine treated the British authorities as their enemy more than Germany - if they even thought of Germany as an enemy).
After World War II, tensions were greatly increased when over 100,000 Jewish survivors of the Nazi Holocaust entered or attempted to enter Palestine. Once more the strict American immigration laws kept many Holocaust survivors out of the USA. Zionists of all sorts would not join the lobbying for these Holocaust survivors to enter the USA, where many of them had relatives. The Zionists wanted these people to go to Palestine to build up the Zionist settlements there.
The socialist oriented Haganah and the Zionist-revisionist Irgun fought against the Palestinians, the British and one another. Menachem Begin of the Irgun planted a bomb in British administration headquarters in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, which killed not only British officials but also several Jewish hotel guests.
In 1948 the British mandate to rule Palestine would run out. The United Nations proposed a partition of Palestine into Zionist dominated and Arab dominated areas with Jerusalem as a neutral zone. Negotiations broke down because the Palestinians refused to accept the partition map, which left many Palestinians, and some of the best agricultural land, in the Zionist controlled areas.
War broke out early 1948. The armies of Jordan, Egypt and Iraq (all three of which had been British puppet governments) poured into Palestine along with the armies of Syria, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. The gross misconduct of the war by the Arab states was a disaster - especially for the Palestinian people. When Palestinian peasants begged for weapons to protect their villages from the Zionist forces, the Arab states armies refused to give them any. The Arab states were afraid that after the war the Palestinian peasants would use these weapons to seize land from the big landowners.
The Irgun (Zionist-revisionist) forces massacred over 200 people in the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin. Thousands of Palestinians fled from their villages. The socialist oriented Haganah disclaimed any responsibility for the Irgun atrocity at Deir Yassin, but the Haganah took advantage of it to occupy the deserted Palestinian villages and make them all Jewish. But some Palestinians remained in the Zionist controlled areas.
During the war a communist coup took over Czechoslovakia. The Czech communists made large amounts of weapons from the big Czech Skoda arms factory available to the Soviet Union, which turned these weapons over to the Haganah. The Irgun was hostile to the Soviet union. Many Irgun members had gone through the experience, not of the Nazi Holocaust, but of Soviet labor camps.
At one point when the Irgun tried to import its own shipload of weapons, a Haganah artillery unit commanded by David Ben-Gurron (later, prime minister of Israel) fired upon the Irgun ship and blasted it out of the water with great loss of life before it could reach land.
When a ceasefire was finally proclaimed, the Palestinians retained control only of the rugged, difficult range of hills that ran from north to south through central Palestine and included the old walled city of Jerusalem with all its sacred shrines. The new modern city of Jerusalem was in Zionist hands. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians spent the rest of their lives in crowded, shabby refugee camps in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon living on charity from the United Nations - over half of them were unemployed. And their children often grew up and had children of their own in these camps. The hilly areas that the Palestinians had been able to keep were put under the authority of Jordan.
Meanwhile the Zionists constituted themselves as the State of Israel. While the United States was the first country to recognize Israel, the Soviet Union was the country which put forward the resolution for Israel to be given a seat in the United Nations. This began a temporary period of friendship between the Soviet Union and Israel. During this period, the government of Israel was formed by the socialist oriented Haganah while Menachem Begin, the leader of the Zionist-revisionist Irgun was called a "terrorist" by the Haganah leaders.
The People around the Haganah became the Labor Party and those around the Irgun became the Likud Party. There were some small religious parties and one small group, Neturei Karta (Guardians of the City) which refused to accept the State of Israel because it had not been set up by the Messiah. Many Neturei Karta members were from families who had lived in Jerusalem under Turkish rule since before the Zionist movement was founded. Neturei Karta members paid their taxes to Jordan, not Israel.
The descendants of the early Zionist settlers and the refugees from the Holocaust made up too small a population to defend Israel from the hostile Arab states. The Soviet Union would not allow its Jews to move to Israel. The life of Jews in the United States was (after World War II) too comfortable for any of them to want to move to Israel. Not enough Hews were left in most of Europe after the Holocaust to provide much population for Israel.
So, Israel had to make its major recruitment appeal to Middle Eastern Jews who had been mostly indifferent to Zionism before World War II. After the Israeli-Arab war of 1948, there was so much hostility to Jews in the Arab States that many Jews from those countries were gland to move to Israel. Where there was not so much hostility, Israeli intelligence helped things along by dynamiting a synagogue in Iraq and blaming it on Arab nationalists so that the Iraqi Jews would be panicked into moving to Israel. Soon over half the population of Israel were Middle Eastern Jews.
Between these Jews and the European Jews who had set up Israel existed what is called the "communal gap". MIddle Eastern Jews tended (an still tend) to be poorer and less educated than European Jews. When the Middle Eastern Jews arrived in Israel, most of them spoke Arabic as their native language. They saw that the Palestinians who remained in Israel were on the bottom of society.
The Middle Eastern Jews did not want to be identified with Palestinians. They were like poor whites in the Southern USA who did not want to be identified with blacks, but clung to what small privileges that they had as whites. In the same way the Middle Eastern Jews clung to whatever special privileges that Israel granted them as Jews. Many of them began to vote for the Zionist-revisionist Likud Party because they saw it as tougher on Palestinians, and Arabs in general, than the Labor Party. Voting for Likud was a way that Middle Eastern Jews could show that they were not Arabs. In spite of Likud's Middle Eastern Jewish voting base, Likud had continued, like the Labor Party, to be run by European Jews.