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The History of the Jewish Agency for Israel

Decades of Service to the Jewish People
De Facto Government of the State-on-the Way
The Arab Revolt
Efforts to Rescue Jews
The Holocaust and restrictions on immigration
The Struggle for Statehood
Ingathering of the Exiles
Operation Moses In 1984, brought 9,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel
The Jewish Agency today 

 

Decades of Service to the Jewish People

For 80 years, the Jewish Agency for Israel has been synonymous with the efforts to rescue Jews at risk and the resettlement of the Jewish people in its homeland. The history of the Jewish Agency in the pre-state era is inseparable from that of the Yishuv . In the early years of the state, the Jewish Agency's role was paramount in setting up an economic and cultural infrastructure for the country, still struggling for survival. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, the Jewish Agency has facilitated the aliyah and absorption in Israel over one million new immigrants - the equivalent of the United States absorbing the entire population of France!! Today, too, the Jewish Agency's role remains central to countless Jews the world over as it continues to provide vital services in Israel and to the global Jewish community.

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De Facto Government of the State-on-the Way


16th Zionist Congress

The Jewish Agency was established by the World Zionist Organization at the 16th Zionist Congress, in August 11, 1929 as a partnership between the WZO and non-Zionist Jewish leaders, among them such luminaries as Louis Marshall , Leon Blum, and Felix Warburg. The Agency was set up in accordance with the stipulation in the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine (1922) -- the goal of the mandate system was to eventually transfer authority over territories taken from countries defeated in World War to the local population -- that a "Jewish agency " comprised of representatives of world Jewry assist in the "establishment of the Jewish National Home . . . in Palestine." The story of the Jewish Agency is virtually identical to the history of the Yishuv (the Jewish community of Palestine).

As the de facto government of the state-on-the-way, it was recognized as the official representative of the Jewish community and world Jewry vis a vis the League of Nations, the British Mandate government, and foreign governments. its major political thrust was to influence the British Mandate administration to interpret liberally the clause in the Churchill White Paper of 1922, which linked Jewish immigration to the "economic absorptive capacity" of the country. The Jewish Agency was also responsible for the Yishuv's internal affairs: immigration - allocating certificates supplied by the Mandate Authority - and resettlement of new immigrants, the building of new settlements, economic development, education and culture, hospitals and health services.

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The Arab Revolt 

Fearing economic domination by the Zionists, on August 23,1929 Arabs began rioting and looting throughout Palestine. The violence, which started in Jerusalem, spread as far as Hebron and Safed. 133 Jews were killed, with more than 300 wounded.

The Passfield White Paper, issued in the aftermath of the riots, stated that the development of a Jewish National Home in Palestine was not central to the Mandate. Together with other institutions, the Jewish Agency was severely criticized for promoting Jewish labor exclusively. The White Paper further stated that there was not enough cultivable land to support new immigrants, and called for the restriction of Jewish immigration. However, in response to a major campaign by the Zionist movement, the White Paper was effectively abrogated.

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Efforts to Rescue Jews

With the growing persecution of Jews in Germany after Hitler's rise to power in 1933, the number of immigrants to Palestine began to increase - going from 4,075 in 1931 to 37,337 in 1933 to a record 66,472 in 1935. Approximately 50,000 Jews emigrated to Palestine under the Ha'avara, or Transfer, Agreement (August 1933), between the Jewish Agency and the Nazi regime which allowed them retain some of their assets by transferring them to Palestine as German export goods. In 1934, Youth Aliyah was created under the aegis of the Jewish Agency to rescue young Jews from Nazi Germany and train them in the building of the yishuv. Some 5,000 youth were brought to Palestine from Nazi-dominated Europe before the War and educated at Youth Aliya boarding schools.


British Rule

In face of renewed Arab rioting in 1936, the Peel Commission (1936-7) called for the partition of Palestine, recommending transfer of populations. However, while this recommendation was subsequently dropped as being not practicable, terrorist attacks against Jewish settlements and clashes with the British forces intensified. The British administration surrendered to Arab demands by drastically cutting the Jewish immigration quota for 1936 by more than two-thirds. Furthermore, the MacDonald White Paper (May 1939 ), which proposed the creation within ten years of a single state in Palestine, rang the death knell for hopes of a Jewish state. Jewish immigration was restricted to 75,000 within the next five years - and no immigration thereafter without Arab consent. Restrictions were placed on land sales to Jews, with 95 percent of the territory of Palestine allotted to the Arabs. The White Paper remained the basis of British policy throughout the Mandatory period. And while the Nazi noose was tightening around the beleaguered Jews of Europe, the gates of Palestine remained shut. Arab immigration, however, was unrestricted, with British officials overlooking illegal Arab immigration from Egypt, Transjordan and Syria.

In 1931, the Hagana became subordinate to the Jewish Agency, in cooperation with the Va'ad Le'umi (the supreme institution of the organized Jewish community in Palestine (founded in 1920). During the years of the Arab Revolt, the Hagana protected the establishment of scores of new Stockade and Watchtower settlements in the Jordan Valley and Galilee, built as strongholds to withstand Arab attacks and strategically defending the Jewish settlers. The Arab violence came to an end in large measure due to Special Night Squads of Jewish volunteers that resisted the attackers, and a period of relative peace returned to the Yishuv.

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The Holocaust and restrictions on immigration

As the plight of European Jewry worsened, the restrictions on immigration generated an "illegal" immigration movement. During the 1930s various efforts were made to transport "illegal" immigrants by sea, primarily by the Revisionists and Betar. In 1938, the Hagana set up the "Organization for Illegal immigration" - the Mossad l'Aliyah Bet.


David Ben Gurion

When World War II broke out, the Jewish Agency set up a committee to help European Jewry by obtaining immigration certificates to Palestine for them, sending them food parcels, and maintaining contact with them. Simultaneously, the Jewish Agency fought the White Paper restrictions by organizing "illegal" immigration from Europe. David Ben-Gurion, who had served as Chairman of the Executive since 1935, rallied the Yishuv to help in the Allied war effort, calling on the residents "to fight the White Paper as though there were no war and to fight the war as though there were no White Paper." The post-war period

 After the war, a Jewish Agency delegation visited the DP camps to provide relief. The Mossad resumed large-scale sea operations to rescue the 250,000 survivors who had escaped from Eastern Europe to various Mediterranean shores through the Berihah rescue operation organized by the Jewish Agency. From 1945 to 1948, 65 "illegal" immigrant boats embarked for Palestine. Most of the boats were intercepted by the British, and the passengers deported to detention camps, first in Palestine and later in Cyprus. Between 1934 and 1948 some 115,000 ma'apilim were brought into the country, in defiance of British restrictions, while another 51,000 were interned by the British authorities in Cyprus and admitted only after independence.

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The Struggle for Statehood


New Immigrants

The end of the war brought the Agency to the forefront of the struggle for statehood. Under the leadership of the Jewish Agency an agreement was signed in October, 1945, between the Hagana, Irgun, and Lehi to establish the United Resistance Movement, which included joint operations against the British. Defiance of British authorities led to the arrest of members of the Jewish Agency Executive, along with thousands of other leading figures in the Yishuv, on Saturday, June 29, 1946 (what became known as Black Sabbath. The British also entered the Jewish Agency buildings and confiscated a large number of records, including documents that demonstrated the Agency's role in the leadership of the United Resistance Movement. Starting in 1946 the Jewish Agency recruited the Hagana to defend all Jewish settlements and neighborhoods; it also set up the Palmach commando units and took on the task of procuring weapons, ammunition, etc. Independence

Following the UN vote to partition Palestine on November 29, 1947, the Jewish Agency and the Va'ad Leumi set up a National Council and a National Administration, which, with the declaration of independence, became the State of Israel's provisional legislature and government. David Ben-Gurion, Chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive, became Prime Minister. With the establishment of the state in May 1948, the Jewish Agency relinquished many of its functions to the new government, but retained responsibility for immigration, land settlement, youth work, and relations with world Jewry. This was confirmed by the World Zionist Organization-Jewish Agency (Status) Law adopted by the Knesset on November 24, 1952. On July 26, 1954 a formal covenant was signed between the Israeli government and the World Zionist Organization-Jewish Agency, recognizing the latter as the representative of world Jewry with regard to the above functions.

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Ingathering of the Exiles


New Immigrants from Port Sayid, Egypt, 1956

In 1949 the Jewish Agency brought 239,000 Holocaust survivors from DP camps in Europe and from detention camps on Cyprus to the Jewish homeland. They were provided with housing, instruction in Hebrew, vocational training, etc. to help them build new lives. That same year, the Jewish Agency airlifted 3,800 Yemenite Jews to Israel in Operation Magic Carpet. In 1950-1 some 343,000 newcomers arrived from Eastern Europe and North Africa. In 1951, 110,000 Iraqi Jews were evacuated in Operation Ezra and Nehemiah. Nearly the whole of Bulgarian Jewry, more than half the Jews of Yugoslavia, 40,000 Jews from Turkey,and 18,000 Jews from Iran, came to Israel during those first three years. During the first four years of its existence, while struggling for survival, the country absorbed over 700,000 immigrants! The need for temporary housing resulted in the establishment of ma'abarot or transit camps. The number of people living in these facilities reached a peak at the end of 1951: 220,517.

Aliyah from Eastern Europe and North Africa resumed in 1955-57 and 1961-64. Immigrants were sent directly to permanent homes in villages or development towns.

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Operation Moses In 1984, brought 9,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel


 Ethiopian immigrant celebrates his Bar Mitzva

In 1991, over 14,300 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel in 36 hours in Operation Solomon. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, close to one million Jews have come to Israel from the former Soviet Union. Other activities

In the first two decades of the state's existence the Jewish Agency established a wide variety of companies to develop the country's cultural and economic infrastructure. These include the national airline, El Al, Mekorot, the water supply company, land development companies, agricultural companies, real estate management companies, Binyanei HaOoma, the national theatre and convention center, museums, and others.

The Department for Education and Culture in the Diaspora and the parallel Department of Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora were established to help replace the loss of centers of Jewish learning destroyed in the Holocaust: they trained Hebrew teachers, sent Israelis abroad to supplement local personnel in schools, camps, and youth organizations, and trained shohatim, mohalim, and hazzanim from Diaspora communities.

The Department of Agricultural Settlement established 480 new villages after 1948, providing them with equipment, livestock, and irrigation installations, as well as expert instruction. Their aggregate production in the late 1960s constituted 70% of the country's total agricultural output.

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The Jewish Agency today


Masa Event 2012

The Jewish Agency has been pivotal to Israel's remarkable growth. As the only global Jewish partnership organization, linking Jews around the world with Israel as the focal point, it continues to play a central role in the lives of countless Jews. Major activities include the rescue of Jews in distress, facilitating aliyah and absorption, Jewish Zionist education, and building a global Jewish community. In addition to extensive programs in Israel, it operates in close to 80 countries on five continents through a network of over 450 emissaries, including hundreds of formal and informal educators.

The world Jewish community participates in the Jewish Agency's decision-making process through the Assembly, its supreme governing body, and its Board of Governors, which is responsible for policy making and oversight.

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