The painful birth of Israel during the first decade of the British Mandate (1919- 1929) is beautifully described by Donna Robinson Divine in her aptly titled Exiled In the Homeland.
Empathetic but unsparing, she offers a broadly researched view of the harsh formative years of the Jewish State. The author, a Mideast specialist and Smith College professor, sees the nationalist movement of the mid-19th century as the impetus to Israel’s creation. Alienated from their ghetto-linked religion, many young Jews were drawn to a nationalist creed of their own, Zionism.
Divine tells how the first of these young people entered the new country, with no money and no agricultural or construction skills. They came dedicated to bringing a utopian society into the world through hard labor. Sadly, they found exhaustion, hunger, and a grim communal existence. The Zionist code required everyone to be gloriously happy in the homeland. Penetrating that pretense by reading diaries, Divine found many immigrants deeply depressed by the impersonal treatment of the Zionist community and their longing for family life and the Jewish holidays.
With refugees pouring in from Europe’s turmoil, the ironic twist took place that turned an agrarian, egalitarian society into today’s capitalist success. Divine describes early efforts to employ the city dwellers. Factories recreated scenes that recalled the worst work conditions and housing squalor of the Industrial Revolution in the West.
Was it really that bad? A former kibbutz volunteer told this reviewer that he put that question to a German woman who had entered during the early Mandate.
“It was,” she agreed, “but suppose they hadn’t let us in.”
The last chapter should be of special interest to students of labor history and government theory. In it the author presents material about apparent mistakes the Zionists made in populating Palestine during the early Mandate. Errors included poorly chosen land purchases, an overbearing bureaucratic style, clumsy intrusions into the economy, rigidity, and applying a one-size-fits-all technique to people. The worst blunder — they picked the wrong settlers, waving aside eager farmers in favor of intellectual dreamers.
Finally, when the Zionists needed financial support, they turned to the Diaspora, which responded. At first, the author found, the recipients felt wounded pride in implied dependence. But, she says, since “consensus and compromise were necessary,” they solved the problem, as follows (quote somewhat shortened): “Zionism’s ambition was to proclaim homeland and exile into bipolar opposites. This proving impossible, devaluation of the Diaspora experience and unquestioned presumption of exile are typically invoked.”
Readers seriously interested in Israel would do well to dip into this valuable work. Photographs would have been a welcome addition. Acknowledgement, bibliography, glossary, index.