The Labor Legion


World War I wrought havoc on Jewish efforts to settle in Palestine. Disease, famine, conscription, and deportation were the order of the day. During the four years of the war, the Jewish population shrunk from 85,000 to 56,000. The Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917, and the British military campaign to conquer Palestine from the Ottoman Empire rallied spirits, yet in the first months after the British victory, when the gates of the land were opened to Jewish immigration, very few actually arrived.

The first sign of renewed immigration was the ship Ruslan, which set sail from Odessa on November 14, 1919, with 671 immigrants on board. Many considered its arrival in Palestine as the beginning of a new wave of aliyah even though very few followed in the footsteps of the Ruslan. During 1920, only 1,600 immigrants arrived.

Towards the end of World War I, the first council of the Hehalutz movement convened in Khrakov. The movement had been established by Hovevei Zion to prepare Jews for farm work in Palestine. The central figure on the council was Joseph Trumpeldor. A dentist by profession, he had joined the Russian army in 1902. Two years later, the Russo-Japanese War broke out and Trumpeldor participated in the siege of Port Arthur, where he lost his left arm to shrapnel. When Port Arthur surrendered, Trumpeldor went into Japanese captivity. Trumpeldor subsequently received four decorations for bravery including the Cross of St. George, which made him the most decorated Jewish soldier in Russia. In 1906, he became the first Jew in the army to receive an officer’s commission. In 1911, he immigrated to Palestine and worked for some time at Kibbutz Deganyah. When World War I broke out, he went to Egypt, where together with Vladimir Jabotinsky, he developed the idea of the Jewish Legion to fight with the British against common enemies. When the Zion Mule Corps was formed in 1915, he went with the corps to fight at Gallipoli. After the war, he returned to Russia to organize Jewish self-defense groups and drafted a plan to renew Hehalutz’s activities and include Hebrew studies, and self-defense training. From that point on, Hehalutz would rely on settlement groups from Russia and the young people who studied at training farms would be called halutzim (Hebrew for pioneers). On his return to Palestine, in 1920, Trumpeldor joined the defenders of Tel Hai in the Upper Galilee and died in the fighting.

On July 1, 1920, British military rule over the Land of Israel came to an end. Herbert Samuel, a British Jew with an affinity for Zionism who was one of the fathers of the Balfour Declaration, was declared British high commissioner of the Mandate of Palestine. In accordance with article 4 of the mandate, which stipulates that, “An appropriate Jewish agency shall be recognised as a public body for the purpose of advising and co-operating with the Administration of Palestine in such economic, social and other matters as may affect the establishment of the Jewish national home and the interests of the Jewish population in Palestine, and, subject always to the control of the Administration, to assist and take part in the development of the country,” the British authorities recognized the Zionist organization as the “Jewish agency” of the Jewish residents. As a result, the British allotted the Zionist leadership 16,500 immigration certificates in order to bring Jews to Palestine.

This massive open window was not put to use. The Zionist organization, led by Chaim Weizmann, decided that the first order of the day was to raise funds from the Jewish people to develop the infrastructure that would make large-scale absorption of immigrants possible. Only after achieving that goal could efforts to bring over immigrants start. Max Nordau, who had co-founded the Zionist organization with Theodor Herzl, was appalled. However, his call to facilitate the immediate immigration to Palestine of 600,000 Jews was ignored. The Zionist organization did not even discuss his proposal. In the end, world Jewry did not arise to contribute to the national project and less than half of the 16,500 certificates were used.

In a few short months, the opportunity to bring a large number of Jews to Palestine had been squandered. In early 1921, the communist regime of the Soviet Union closed its gates to emigration, while the Jews of Poland and Lithuania began pursuing their separate dream of integrating into their new countries, which had just attained independence. In Germany, the Jews played a key role in shaping the Weimar republic and saw themselves as German in all ways.

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