At the turn of the 20th century, the first Zionists moved to the part of the Ottoman Turkish empire called Palestine. What these early Zionists found was not the biblical land of milk and honey, but a land that was desolate.
The Ottoman Turks had conquered Palestine in 1517, and for 400 years did little for the area but collect taxes. The land the Zionists encountered was a forlorn collection of run-down Arab ports, parched deserts and mosquito-infested marshes.
The young Jews, mostly from Eastern Europe, were faced with the Herculean task of reclaiming arid, rocky lands that had not been farmed for centuries. In defiance of these obstacles, Zionists were determined to create a Jewish homeland.
Besides the inhospitable land, the Turkish government presented its own roadblocks to Jewish immigration. By the end of the 19th century, the 600-year-old Ottoman empire was dysfunctional and corrupt. They had little interest in selling land to Jews. Theodor Herzl experienced this refusal when he tried to negotiate his vision of a Jewish homeland with the Ottoman ruler, Sultan Abdul Hamid II.
This was Sultan Abdul Hamid’s rejection to Herzl, “Advise Dr. Herzl not to take any further steps in his project. I cannot give away a handful of the soil of this land, for it is not my own, it is for all the Islamic nations that fought for the sake of this land and watered it with their blood.”
While the Sultan’s words would seem to be definitive, Jews were able to buy land in Palestine through unofficial channels and baksheesh, the accepted form of bribery prevalent in the Middle East.
How the young Zionists overcame the formidable obstacles is an epic story of dedication to an ideal. The young Jewish men and women who accepted the challenge of reclaiming a worn-out land were a different kind of Jew: resolute and confrontational. They substituted the socialist ideal of equality and manual labor for the uneasy passivity of shetl existence. For these young Jews, digging in the earth was a new form of religious experience.
The harsh manual labor was backbreaking. The mosquito-infested marshes they had to drain for irrigation sickened them with malaria. Their inexperience in agriculture, especially in the hot climate of the Middle East, led to many crop failures. But this form of muscular Zionism gave them self-confidence and self-reliance; they were a new kind of Jew, much more independent than their shetl relatives. Their goal was to fulfill the dream of a Jewish homeland — and they succeeded.