Exiled in the Home­land: Zion­ism and the Return to Man­date Palestine

Don­na Robin­son Divine
  • Review
By – September 8, 2011

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. 

Jane Waller­stein worked in pub­lic rela­tions for many years. She is the author of Voic­es from the Pater­son Silk Mills and co-author of a nation­al crim­i­nal jus­tice study of parole for Rut­gers University.

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