- An Unpromising Land: Jewish Migration to Palestine in the Early Twentieth Century by Gur Alroey
In the scholarship on the Zionist movement, as well as in Israeli collective memory, the Second Aliyah—a wave of Jewish immigration to Palestine which began in the wake of the Kishinev pogrom in Russia in 1903 and lasted until the outbreak of World War I—is regarded as a formative chapter in the history of Jewish settlement in Palestine. Accounts of the period relate the story of idealistic young pioneers who left their homes in Eastern Europe determined to rid themselves of their exilic past and create a new Jewish society based on Zionist and socialist values. Advocating the principles of manual labor, self-reliance, self-defense, and the revitalization of Hebrew culture, these Jews changed the face of the new Yishuv by introducing highly influential institutions such as Palestine’s first collective agricultural settlements (e.g. Sejera and Degania) and paramilitary organizations (Bar-Giora, Hashomer), as well as cultural and academic establishments like the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts. It was from among this cadre that many future leaders of the Yishuv and the State of Israel—including David Ben-Gurion, Berl Katznelson and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi—emerged.
Although this elite group was but a small minority of the 35,000 Jews who reached Palestine between 1904 and 1914, they attracted so much scholarly and popular attention that the period came to be identified solely with their aspirations, struggles, and achievements. Gur Alroey’s An Unpromising Land is an important and convincing corrective to this perception. Rather than dealing with the socialist Zionist pioneers, the study focuses on “the average Eastern European immigrant who was light-years away from Zionist ideology and who came to Palestine for various prosaic reasons.” (19) As Alroey explains, Zionist historiography ignored the experience of the “ordinary immigrants” as it interpreted Jewish immigration to Palestine as an exceptional phenomenon in the history of Jewish migration, or in the words of one historian, as “a pure, clean current rooted in elevated, distant national and social goals… current that is all idea and vision.” (9) [End Page 209]
An Unpromising Land brings the discussion down to an earthly level. Instead of viewing the movement to Palestine through the prism of Zionist ideology, it provides a detailed analysis of the relationship between “push” factors in Eastern Europe and “pull” factors in Palestine, the demographic composition of the immigrants, the obstacles they faced on their migration routes, and the degree to which they were absorbed into their new environment. Alroey uses a variety of secondary and primary sources, including memoirs, newspaper articles, lists of passengers compiled at the ports of departure and arrival, and, most interestingly, letters from prospective immigrants to information bureaus established by Zionist institutions at several points along the migration pathways.
Alroey’s main conclusion from the letters (and from his other sources) is that most of the migrants were artisans, peddlers, and small tradesmen who sought to escape the intolerable economic conditions in tsarist Russia, and who moved to Palestine not in order to join the Zionist enterprise but in search of better economic opportunities. They did not wish to shed their diaspora identities and become tillers of the soil, but rather to settle in cities and pursue their old occupations. They saw themselves “as immigrants, wanderers, or simply incomers—not as olim.” (7)
In this respect, Jewish immigration to Palestine was no different from Jewish immigration to any other country, and indeed, a central theme of this book is a comparison between the Eastern European Jews who went to Palestine and those who departed to the United States. Alroey insists on the similarities between the groups, but his fascinating findings in fact suggest that the differences are no less, and perhaps even more telling. Although in both cases migrants were driven by economic distress, the movement to Palestine was to a large extent caused by the “fright and panic” of the pogroms. (236) Whereas both migrations...