Charting Israels path: It was almost Africa

One hundred years ago, it would have seemed an impossible dream to picture Israel as it looks today: prosperous, home to 4.5 million Jews and nearly a million Arabs. Had the tides of Jewish history taken a slightly different turn, we might now be chanting "Next year in Uganda" at our seder tables instead of "Next year in Jerusalem."

So much has happened in the last hundred years — entire volumes have been devoted to the briefest swatches of modern Mideast history — that the prospect of encapsulating the last century is daunting.

Asked to tackle this task, U.C. Berkeley Near Eastern studies Professor emeritus William Ze'ev Brinner — who spends part of each year in Israel — begins by recounting that in 1896, the land now named Israel was just a small part of the Ottoman Empire. At that time, pogroms so terrorized Russian Jews that they sought a sanctuary abroad and thought of Palestine.

Waves of immigrants set sail. The pioneering spirit of Russian Jews in the idealistic Hovevi Zion movement spawned ambitious agricultural settlements in the Middle Eastern desert.

In that same year, Austrian journalist Theodor Herzl published his Zionist pamphlet "Der Judenstaat" (The Jewish State). Herzl's secular, political approach — he favored assimilation and lacked religious and emotional attachment to Palestine itself — ran counter to the Hovevi Zion philosophy.

"Herzl was out of sync" with most Zionists, Brinner maintains.

In 1903, British lawmakers offered the Jews part of Uganda, which Britain then governed, to use as a sanctuary.

Herzl's eagerness to accept this offer caused a rift within the Zionist movement. The majority insisted that Palestine must remain the focus of Jewish hopes.

A second wave of Jewish immigration to Palestine surged immediately before World War I, bringing such future leaders as David Ben-Gurion. Tel Aviv was founded in 1909 as a Jewish suburb of crowded, noisy, dirty Jaffa.

Early concepts of the kibbutzim were beginning to be articulated, although collective farms themselves were yet to exist outside of the planners' imaginations.

Arab opposition toward the Jewish settlement of Palestine was slow to develop. Even when some early Jewish settlers called for the replacement of Arab laborers by Jewish workers on Jewish-owned agricultural lands, the impact of this "conquest of labor" was minimal, since most land in Palestine was then still owned by Arabs.

The rise of kibbutzim and other collective experiments was fed by the idea that the land belonged to the Jewish people as a whole rather than to individuals. The Jewish National Fund, following this philosophy, bought a portion of its holdings from absentee Arab landowners, then issued 99-year leases to settlers rather than sell acreage outright.

At the time there was little sense of Arab unity, and many of the absentee landowners were relieved to shed what seemed like worthless land.

The Ottoman Empire fell in 1918, and was broken into separate territories by the League of Nations in 1920. The British gained control of Palestine; three years earlier, then-foreign secretary Arthur Balfour had made some provisions for the territory.

Brinner notes that Balfour's provisions actually furthered British political interests and were hardly a purely altruistic gesture.

Ardent Zionists disliked the British arrangement's ambiguity. Nonetheless, a new wave of Jews began arriving, mainly from Poland.

This finally disquieted Palestinian Arabs.

Many protested what they saw as threats to their interests. By 1929, this opposition turned violent: 67 Jews were massacred in the Arab city of Hebron.

As Hitler gained power in the 1930s, the fourth aliyah saw a stream of German Jews coursing into Palestine. In those prewar years, Jews were allowed to take their money and property out of Germany; thus, many new arrivals in Palestine had the wherewithal to establish themselves.

The Arabs felt even more threatened — especially as the Jews set up governmental and military institutions and continued to develop Jewish settlements. To appease the Arabs, Britain started tightening Jewish immigration, refusing to admit boatloads of European refugees.

In desperation, many Jews entered Palestine illegally.

Tensions rose. When World War II erupted, Britain struggled to keep the Arabs from openly siding with the Germans.

The Jews, too, had to remain loyal to Britain.

The war years brought relative calm and prosperity to Palestine, but by war's end refugees poured into the territory, reigniting old conflicts. Britain renounced its mandate over Palestine in 1947, making way for the historic U.N. vote that partitioned Palestine into an Arab state and a Jewish state.

Upon its creation in 1948, the state of Israel was home to about 600,000 Jews and 100,000 Arabs. Within the next two years another 1.5 million Jewish refugees arrived, most extremely needy.

This immigrant flood depleted the country's meager resources, launching widespread hunger and poverty. Nonetheless, Israelis were fiercely determined to make the country prosper. Immigrants were given temporary housing and jobs; little by little the newcomers were absorbed.

Brinner contends that despite an inhospitable climate and clashes with neighboring countries, "Israel moved from a bare-bones agricultural economy into an industrial economy [and then] into a post-industrial economy," which is now very high-tech.

"You have the equivalent of Silicon Valley outside every major city in Israel now," he notes.

What does he foresee in the next hundred years? Much depends, he says, on whether the area can develop a spirit of regional cooperation. This would make economic sense for nations such as Israel and Jordan, which are short on natural resources such as oil and minerals.

He concedes, however, that many on both sides are "deeply opposed to the peace process, and could pose problems ahead."