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Jewish Social Studies 9.2 (2003) 28-64

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Journey to Early- Twentieth-Century Palestine as a Jewish Immigrant Experience

Gur Alroey

In the years 1904-14, about 35,000 immigrants reached Palestine and, according to the historians, initiated a new period in the history of Jewish settlement in the land of Israel known as the Second Aliyah. In fact, the immigrants who landed on the shores of Jaffa in those years were part of a general wave of immigration that engulfed the Jews of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires from 1904 onward. This upsurge, the third great wave of immigration since the 1880s, was the product of rapid demographic growth, economic difficulties, the struggle for a livelihood and means of subsistence, and pogroms and persecutions by the authorities. The main billow of this wave reached the shores of the United States, but ripples also reached England, Argentina, South Africa, Australia, and Palestine. This historical context of the migration of more than two and a half million Jews from Eastern Europe to various countries overseas was the immediate backdrop to the Second Aliyah.

The historiography of the new Jewish Yishuv, or settlement in Palestine, and of the history of immigration to the country usually places emphasis on the difference and special character of the Jewish immigration to Palestine, and it stresses the importance of the Zionist ideology as the main motivation for the immigration. This view is based on the idea of "quality versus quantity"; the small number of immigrants who preferred Palestine to America is understood to mean that it represented a [End Page 28] special and exceptional immigration, a return to the ancestral land after an exile of 2,000 years.

This article takes a fresh look at the process of immigration to Palestine at the beginning of the twentieth century. My intention is to follow the process from the moment immigrants left the Russian Pale of Settlement, through their sea voyage from the ports of Odessa and Trieste, to their arrival at their final destination, Palestine. An examination of the complexity of this process through a study of the bureaucratic difficulties and the travails of the journey—in addition to the crooks and white slave traders the immigrants met on their way—casts a different light, of a less ideological nature, on aliyah to Palestine from the beginning of the twentieth century to the outbreak of World War I.

Information Bureaus for Travelers to Palestine

Inthe time of the great immigration, more than two and a half million Jews left their countries of residence on their way to lands overseas. The great distances they traveled were fraught with danger. The emigrants had to travel thousands of miles to reach their port of departure and, on the way, were exposed to dangers, to difficult climatic conditions, and to hunger. Crooks and criminals lay in wait for them on every side and often took advantage of their naïveté and their difficult—sometimes intolerable—situation in order to exploit them and enrich themselves at the emigrants' expense. The situation of the Jewish emigrants was, arguably, more difficult than that of non-Jewish emigrants, who were not in danger apart from the risk of losing their property and possessions. By contrast, the Jews often had to contend with a hostile government and environment that did not want to receive aliens, least of all Jewish aliens, for even a short time. "The Jewish migrants place their lives in danger. They are alarmed and frightened by an environment full of animosity and prison and the fear of death," wrote one of the newspapers of the period. 1

For a considerable number of the emigrants, it was the first time they had left their town and country of birth. As soon as they started out on their migration, they lost control of their fate. Their lack of knowledge of the language, the difficulty of finding their way on the long journey, and insufficient knowledge of the emigration process as a whole made things very hard for them:

The Jewish migrants, who...