75 years after its founding, the establishment of the State of Israel remains one of the most remarkable achievements of the modern era. Never before had a people dispersed throughout the world, deprived of sovereignty for millennia, at times targeted and slaughtered, returned to its ancient homeland to build a thriving country. Who were the great leaders and thinkers that helped craft a modern Jewish nationalism? What moved them to build a new Jewish state for a people so long deprived of self-determination? How did the political situation of the Jewish people—in Russia, Europe, and the Middle East—change and evolve, and how did the Zionist founders and the new Israeli patriots interact with world leaders and confront their enemies, both on the battlefield and in the political arena?
In this limited-series podcast, released in time for Israel's 75th birthday, historian Dr. Daniel Polisar weaves together the political, cultural, and religious history of the Zionist movement, illuminating the spirit of modern Jewish nationalism and the unfolding (and miraculous) meaning of modern Israel.
#1: The Impossible Dream of Founding a Jewish State in Modern Times
In 1807, Napoleon Bonaparte brought about the convening of a Sanhedrin—the supreme decision-making body of the Jewish people—which declared that the Jews possessed a shared religion but were no longer a nation with political aspirations. Coming after nearly two millennia of Exile, this proclamation seemed to signal the end of the age-old dream of re-establishing a Jewish state. Yet a century and a half later Israel was established as the national state of the Jewish people and today it is a robust democracy, an economic success story, a regional powerhouse, and a leading actor on the world stage. In the first episode, Dr. Polisar lays out the main puzzle this podcast will address: How did the Jews overcome seemingly impossible odds to establish a state whose accomplishments are routinely described as miraculous by even the most secular of people?
"What 'Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken in Jaffa' Teaches About Our Own Plague-Stricken Time" by Martin Kramer.
#2: The Beginnings of Modern Jewish Nationalism, 1807-1895
Not long after the Napoleon-inspired Sanhedrin had declared the end of Jewish nationalism, small but growing numbers of Jews around the world embarked on three separate efforts that laid the foundation for creating a modern state in the ancient homeland: reviving Hebrew as a language for addressing contemporary issues and for daily living; developing the case for the idea of re-establishing a Jewish state in the land of Israel; and bringing about the settling of the land by Jewish pioneers. This episode describes these activities and the figures who led them from the early 19th century until the middle of its final decade.
"How America's Idealism Drained Its Jews of Their Resilience" by Daniel Gordis.
"How a Founding Socialist Inspired Karl Marx, and Then Went on to Herald the State of Israel" by Asael Abelman.
#3: Theodor Herzl and Launching the Zionist Movement, 1895-1904
Though crucial elements of a nationalist revival were in place before Theodor Herzl decided in 1895 to devote his life to creating a Jewish state, there is little doubt that without this singular figure such a state would not have been established. In this episode, Dr. Polisar focuses on how Herzl founded the Zionist movement; he served simultaneously as the man of ideas who developed the vision and plans for a Jewish state, as the institution-builder who created an international movement capable of acting effectively during and after his lifetime, and as the chief diplomat who paved the way for the decision of the world’s leading powers, a decade and a half after his death, to establish a Jewish home in Palestine.
"The Mystery of Theodor Herzl" by Rick Richman.
"Theodor Herzl: The Birth of Political Zionism"—an online course taught by Daniel Polisar.
#4: The Jewish Homeland in the Making, 1904-1918
Following Herzl’s untimely death in 1904, efforts to settle the Land of Israel were accelerated, led by young idealists who played key roles in laying the foundations for a state that could serve as a light unto the nations. In parallel, Herzl’s disciples and opponents alike, led by Chaim Weizmann, continued his path of diplomacy, culminating in the Balfour Declaration of 1917, in which Great Britain pledged that after conquering Palestine it would endeavor to facilitate in it the creation of a Jewish national home. This episode analyzes how these parallel tracks led in a decade and a half to the creation of a Jewish community in Israel that could serve as the nucleus for a future state.
"The Self-Actualizing Zionism of A.D. Gordon" by Hillel Halkin.
"The Forgotten Truth about the Balfour Declaration" by Martin Kramer.
#5: The Arabs Attack, the British Retreat, and the Jews Keep Building, 1918-1939
In response to growing Jewish immigration, land purchases, and economic expansion, the Arabs of Palestine engaged in mounting violence in 1920-21, 1929, and 1936-1939. In each case, Great Britain responded by retreating from its promise to facilitate a Jewish national home. In the first two cases, Zionist counter-pressure, led by Chaim Weizmann, succeeded in getting Britain to return to its commitments, but in 1939 Britain, seeking to appease the Arabs on the eve of World War Two, issued a White Paper effectively reneging on the Balfour Declaration. The Yishuv, the Jewish community of Palestine, buttressed by waves of immigration driven by escalating anti-Semitism in Europe, used these two decades of British rule to establish the foundations of a Jewish state. This episode describes the escalating Arab violence, the evolution of British appeasement, and the efforts of the Jews to reverse the British retreat and to build economic, social, and political institutions that could serve as the nucleus for their state.
"The Mufti of Jerusalem's Legacy" by Sean Durns.
"From Africa to China, How Israel Helps Quench the Developing World's Thirst" by Seth Siegel.
#6: The Securing of International Support for a Jewish State, 1939-1947
World War Two, fought from 1939 to 1945, brought about a changed geopolitical reality in the world as a whole and in Palestine, which radically changed the interests of the British, the Zionist movement and the Yishuv, and the Arabs of Palestine. As a result of these factors, coupled with decisions made by the leadership of each of these three actors, the British decided to hand over the Palestine Mandate to the newly formed United Nations.
Despite the forces working within the UN to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state, three sets of decision-makers—Stalin in the Soviet Union, the members of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, and President Harry Truman of the United States—came out in favor of partitioning Palestine and creating a Jewish state in just over half its territory, and they paved the way for the UN Partition Resolution of November 1947. In this episode, Dr. Polisar analyzes the changes brought about by World War Two and the decisions made by the key actors within Palestine and outside of it that, collectively, made it possible for the UN to carry out a policy that revived the prospects for establishing a Jewish state only eight years after the British had seemed to dash those hopes permanently.
"Who Saved Israel in 1947?" by Martin Kramer.