The Birth of Modern Israel
W. Cleon Skousen, “The Birth of Modern Israel,” Ensign, May 1972, 51
And the Land of Israel Dedicated by Orson Hyde
The way it happened seems incredible, but it did happen.
Nearly 2500 years ago the prophet Isaiah described in vivid detail how the Jews
would return to their ancient homeland in the latter days. He said, “… they shall build
the old wastes, they shall raise up the former desolations, and they shall repair the
waste cities, the desolations of many generations.” (Isa. 61:4).
From the Lord’s point of view the reconstruction began in America, rather than
Palestine. On June 15, 1841, Orson Hyde, an apostle of the restored church, wrote a
letter to the Reverend Dr. Solomon Hirschell, the leading rabbi in England, describing
how the first intimation from heaven had already been received that the rise of modern
Israel was imminent. Here is what he wrote:
“About nine years ago [actually 1831], a young man … in whose bosom the Almighty
had deposited many secrets, laid his hand upon my head and pronounced these
remarkable words—‘in due time thou shalt go to Jerusalem, the land of thy fathers, and
be a watchman unto the house of Israel; and by thy hands shall the Most High do a
great work, which shall prepare the way and greatly facilitate the gathering together of
This part of the letter should not have surprised the rabbi, since at every Passover, and
often in their daily prayers, the Jews solemnly expressed their supreme hope of
redemption by saying: “Next year, in Jerusalem!”
They had been saying this ever since A.D. 70, when Jerusalem was demolished by the
Romans and the Jews were scattered to the four corners of the earth.
However, the next part of Orson Hyde’s letter no doubt startled the rabbi:
“… in the early part of March, 1840, I retired to my bed one night as usual; and while
meditating and contemplating the field of my future labors, the vision of the Lord, like
clouds of light, burst into my view. … The cities of London, Amsterdam,
Constantinople and Jerusalem, all appeared in succession before me, and the Spirit said
unto me, ‘Here are many of the children of Abraham whom I will gather to the land that
I gave to their fathers; and here also is the field of your labors. … The vision continued
open about six hours, that I did not close my eyes in sleep. In this time many things
were shown unto me which I have never written; neither shall I write them until they are
fulfilled in Jerusalem.”
We have no record of any reply from Rabbi Hirschell, but we do know what happened
to Orson Hyde. A month after this great revelation, he and John E. Page were called
during the April conference of the Church to fulfill a mission “to the Jews.” They were
instructed to go to Palestine and dedicate that land for the gathering of the house of
Israel. As it turned out, John E. Page went only as far as the east coast of the United
States, but Elder Hyde continued alone and fulfilled this mission as the Prophet had
After a long and tedious excursion, Elder Hyde finally reached Jerusalem. There he
prepared to dedicate that land in the exact way he had seen himself doing it during the
vision. Here is the way he describes it:
“On Sunday morning, October 24 , a good while before day, I arose from
sleep, and went out of the city as soon as the gates were opened, crossed the brook
Kedron, and went upon the Mount of Olives, and there, in solemn silence, with pen,
ink, and paper, just as I saw in the vision, offered up the following prayer to Him who
lives forever and ever.”
This same citation then sets forth the entire prayer, written under inspiration on this
The land itself was barren, unproductive, and desolate. It had been under the heel of
the Ottoman Turks since 1517, and only a true believer could have seen in its coastline
swamps and naked, rockstrewn mountains the possibility of a promised land.
In fact, during 1807 a body of Jewish leaders had convened in Paris under the urging of
Napoleon and assured the emperor that “the Jews had turned their backs forever on
their separate nationhood [and] on their traditional hope for a return to Palestine.” 4
Nevertheless, a completely different spirit began to gestate in the souls of other Jews.
In 1839 the wealthy Italian-English Jewish leader, Moses Montefiore, who had married
into the Rothschild family, visited Palestine and felt a tremendous urge to start “the
gathering.” He felt some practical steps should be taken to set up Jewish settlements in
But while he was thinking about it, the Lord inspired the Council of the Twelve to issue
a notable proclamation just a year after the assassination of the Prophet. In it they said:
“… the Jews among all nations are hereby commanded, in the name of the Messiah, to
prepare, to return to Jerusalem in Palestine; and to rebuild that city and temple unto the
“And also to organize and establish their own political government, under their own
rulers, judges, and governors in that country.
“For be it known unto them that we now hold the keys of the priesthood and kingdom
which is soon to be restored unto them.
“Therefore let them also repent and prepare to obey the ordinances of God.”
By 1856 a small trickle of Jewish immigration was sufficient to encourage Sir Moses
Montefiore to set up a Jewish-owned orange grove near Jaffa, which initiated what he
hoped would be a return of the Jews to agriculture. Then he established, just west of
the old city of Jerusalem, a Jewish settlement called Yemin Moshe, in his honor.
By 1868 Karl Netter, an Alsatian Jew, had joined with Adolfe Cremieux of France to
create the Alliance Israelite Universelle. Its purpose was to build global unity among the
Jewish people and give aid to those in need.
But all of this was too slow for Brigham Young. In 1873 he sent a special mission to
Palestine that included George A. Smith of the First Presidency and Elders Lorenzo
Snow and Albert Carrington of the Council of the Twelve. They were instructed to
dedicate the land a second time. They were also told to bless the land “with fruitfulness,
preparatory to the return of the Jews.”
Before another decade the first aliyah (ascent or return) was well on its way. Bitter
pogroms of the Jews were launched in Russia, uprooting thousands of Jews, many of
whom looked toward Palestine. They called themselves the “Lovers of Zion.” One of
the first pioneer groups of any size to reach Palestine was called the BILU, taken from
the first Hebrew letters of the slogan, “House of Jacob, come ye and let us go.” Before
the first wave of migration subsided, over 25,000 Jews had reached Palestine.
In many ways, however, this first aliyah was a tragic period. Most of the immigrants
knew nothing about farming, and they had no idea what the swamps they had bought
from the Arabs would do to them. Malaria and yellow fever struck them down
unmercifully. No doubt the initial movement would have failed had it not been for a new
energizing force from Europe called Zionism.
Zionism, or the idea of building a Jewish homeland in Palestine, received official
impetus in 1884 when Dr. Leo Pinsker held an all-Jewish congress in Katowice
(Kattowitz), Poland, to memorialize the work of Sir Moses Montefiore and to rally the
Jews of the world to support the establishment of numerous agricultural settlements in
Palestine. The results were mostly rhetoric, but it fertilized the idea of Zionism.
Then, in 1897, came the first major Zionist Congress at Basel, Switzerland, where a
Jewish lawyer and journalist from Vienna, Dr. Theodor Herzl, hammered out the basic
framework for a Jewish homeland. His idea was to purchase large tracts of land from
the Arabs and get permission from the Turkish government to establish an autonomous
or chartered territory in Palestine for Jewish settlement.
At this Zionist Congress the delegates under Herzl’s direction laid plans for a Hebrew
university in Jerusalem, the creation of a Jewish national fund to purchase land, and the
setting up of a Jewish world bank in London to finance colonization; they also designed
a blue and white flag and adopted a national anthem. All of this for a country that did
The Turks, however, rejected Herzl’s plan. Well-meaning friends suggested the Jews
settle elsewhere, perhaps in Uganda or El Arish. A British statesman even suggested
Egypt. “Not Egypt,” replied Herzl; “we have been there once before!”
In 1903 a brutal pogrom broke out in western Russia, and in some cities the Jewish
dead were piled in the streets like cordwood. Herzl literally worked himself to death
going from one world capital to another seeking support for a new Jewish state where
the refugees could flee. He died suddenly on July 3, 1904, at the age of 44. Today he
lies buried on a peak overlooking Jerusalem.
It is interesting that Herzl’s primary opposition came from many western rabbis and
some of the most wealthy and influential Jewish leaders who were absolutely opposed
to the whole idea of Zionism. They called it treasonable. They said Judaism was a
religious order, not a political movement. They even agreed that it was fine to have
agricultural settlements in Palestine, but it was subversive to the Jewish image to identify
the people with a political loyalty to Zion that would be considered a higher allegiance
than that which they owed to the nation in which they held citizenship. This hostility
toward Zionism persists in many Jewish circles even today.
Meanwhile, the second aliyah was well on its way, as Jewish refugees fled from Russia
and Eastern Europe, with a good representation ending up in Palestine. And they were
sorely needed. The plague of malaria and yellow fever had proven so devastating that
Baron Edmond de Rothschild (who had replaced Moses Montefiore as the major
financier of the Jewish settlements) urged his agents in Palestine to get the Jews to
abandon whole projects, such as Huleh Valley (above the Galilee), and to settle
elsewhere or go to Argentina. In reply Fischel Solomon said: “We came here before
the great Philanthropist, and did so in response to God’s command. … We will not be
moved—not by JCA [Jewish Colonization Association], nor by the Baron, but only by
God himself, who brought us here.”
It was from this stubborn spirit of total commitment that the seeds for the rise of
modern Israel took their needed strength. By the time World War I broke out in 1914,
there were approximately 85,000 Jews in Palestine, representing about 6 percent of
the Jews in the world.
Toward the close of World War I the British ordered General Edmund Allenby to
move out from the main British base in Egypt and overthrow the Turkish forces in
Palestine. The prospect of the liberation of Jerusalem in the fall of 1917 therefore
prompted the leaders of the Zionist movement to seek an assurance from the British
government that provision would be made for a Jewish refuge in that region.
On November 2, 1917, Lord Balfour wrote to Lord Rothschild: “His Majesty’s
Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the
Jewish people.” It was stipulated that in providing such a facility, nothing would be
done to prejudice the civil and religious rights of non-Jewish residents nor disturb the
rights and political status of Jews who were citizens of other countries.
Unfortunately, Britain had also made a number of commitments to the Arabs that, in
time, were interpreted to be in conflict with the Balfour Declaration. The Jewish leaders
had contemplated a bi-national population of both Arabs and Jews in Palestine but
insisted that the migration of Jews from any part of the world must never be restricted.
At the same time, Dr. Chaim Weizmann (who became the first president of Israel) went
to great lengths to see that the Arabs were granted the autonomy they had been
promised. Emir Feisal, the principal Arab leader working with the British,
acknowledged that Dr. Weizmann had been “a great helper in our cause.” He said he
hoped “the Arabs may soon be in a position to make the Jews some return for their
If this warm working relationship between Jewish and Arab leaders could have been
perpetuated, the history of modern Israel might have been far different. As it turned out,
the Arabs felt they had been betrayed when Palestine was placed under British
mandate and Syria was made a mandate of France. The Jews began to be looked
upon as wards of Britain and a threat to Arab aspirations. Before long, hostilities had
reached a point of explosion.
The first anti-Jewish riots broke out on April 4, 1920. They erupted again and again on
the slightest provocation during the next twenty years.
There are several basic reasons why a confrontation developed between these two
great peoples, both of whom are descendants of Abraham—the Arabs through Ishmael
and Esau, the Jews through Jacob.
First, the Palestinian Arabs preferred the status quo of their older, simpler culture,
whereas the Jewish refugees came primarily from Europe and wanted to introduce the
fruits of modern industry, farming, sanitation, education, and cultural ideas.
Second, the Jews were purchasing large tracts of land from the Arabs (much of it
malarial swamps or undeveloped wilderness) and were gradually turning them into
prosperous farms for citrus crops, bananas, vegetables, and grain.
Third, the Arab Moslems accepted the Bible as a sacred book but did not agree that
the Jews had any divine calling to return to Palestine. They believed the “return” of the
Jews occurred in 538 B.C., when the Jews came back from their captivity in Babylon.
Fourth, the beautiful Dome of the Rock is one of the most sacred shrines in the entire
Islamic or Moslem world, and since it is built on the site where it is believed Solomon’s
temple once stood, the intent of the Jews to eventually build their temple again is
interpreted as a direct threat to this famous Moslem shrine.
After World War II the tides began to run more swiftly toward an ultimate crisis in
Palestine. During the war, 4,600,000 Jews had been destroyed under Hitler’s drive to
exterminate the Jewish people. After the war the Jews were expecting to transport
thousands of the survivors from the displaced persons camps to Palestine. However,
the new Labor Party government in Britain would not allow it.
It was becoming apparent that Russia was seeking a foothold in the Mediterranean
through an alliance with the Arab states, and the British authorities felt that the Arabs
must be placated in every way possible so that they would not be tempted to move
over into the Russian camp and thereafter cut off the rich oil resources on which
Europe so completely depended. Stopping the further migration of Jews to Palestine
became a top priority.
When the Jews found out that the Balfour Declaration had been virtually repealed, their
protest became both vocal and activist. In fact, their resentment reached such a point
that the British authorities finally announced that they were leaving Palestine, and the
United Nations could take over any future responsibility for governing the region.
A U.N. commission thereupon made a careful study and recommended that Palestine
be partitioned. They suggested that the Jews be given the area where their principal
holdings were located and that the rest of Palestine be turned over to the Arabs.
The Jews agreed to the partition plan, even though the Arab population in their
territory far exceeded the population of the Jews, and even though it greatly restricted
the area for the settling of the thousands of refugees from Europe.
The Arabs, however, rejected the whole idea, and shortly after the U.N. announced its
approval of the partition plan on November 29, 1947, guerrilla warfare broke out
against the Jews. This warfare accelerated right up to the time the British left on May
14, 1948. Then the Arab nations of Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq invaded
Palestine with the announced objective of driving the Jews into the Mediterranean.
In spite of this, the Jews formally declared the new state of Israel to be a sovereign
nation and immediately set about to defend every inch of the territory its people had
occupied. At first the Jews fought with nothing but rifles, handguns, a few light machine
guns, and several mortars. After a month, however, they were beginning to get heavy
military equipment and welcomed a temporary truce to deploy this equipment to some
of their weaker positions. When fighting broke out again, they not only succeeded in
holding all of their own territory, but they also pressed forward to overrun strong
enemy bases. By the early part of 1949, all of the Arab nations had agreed to an
During this war, one of the tragic developments was the refugee problem involving
hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs. This came about through the miscalculation
of their leaders.
“As the end of the Palestine mandate drew near, the Arab states bordering the Yishuv
[Palestine], began to issue warnings to the Arabs of Palestine; they were told to clear
out, to leave a clear field for Arab military operations, to seek temporary refuge in
neighboring Arab lands. According to Arab League propaganda, there would be
sufficient opportunity for all émigrés to return, once the Jews had been driven into the
This propaganda, plus the natural fear precipitated by the excesses of war by both
sides, caused most of the Palestinian Arabs to flee by the hundreds of thousands, in
spite of assurances by the Jewish leaders that they had nothing to fear if they would
When the war was over and the Jews were not driven into the sea, these Palestinian
Arabs found themselves unwanted guests among their own brethren. Placed in refugee
camps by the various Arab nations, they became wards of the United Nations.
However, about 100,000 Arabs in and around Nazareth who did not flee had a chance
to see whether the Jewish leaders would keep their word. These Arabs became
citizens of Israel, were invited to elect their own representatives, received government
help in setting up their own schools, and, during the ensuing years, prospered. Jewish
leaders had maintained from the beginning that Arabs and Jews could live and work
together with minimal friction if both really tried.
In addition to the Arab refugee problem, there could have been a Jewish refugee
problem. The Arab nations evicted over a million Jews from their various countries.
These fled to Israel, many of them penniless. However, the Jewish leaders looked upon
this tremendous increase in population as a great asset. The refugees were given special
training and put to work helping to build Israel. Therefore, there were no Jewish
refugee camps for the United Nations to feed. Within a very short time these people
had all been assimilated.
The war of 1948-49 galvanized into reality the declaration of independence that David
Ben-Gurion presented to the representatives of his people in Tel Aviv on the afternoon
of March 14, 1948, just as the last remnants of the British military forces were pulling
out. It stated:
“The State of Israel will be open to the immigration of Jews from all countries of their
dispersion; will promote the development of the country for the benefit of all
inhabitants; will be based on the principles of liberty, justice and peace as conceived by
the Prophets of Israel; will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens
without distinction of religion, race, or sex; will guarantee freedom of religion,
conscience, education and culture; will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and
will loyally uphold the principles of the United Nations Charter.”
Specific portions of the declaration were addressed to the Arabs:
“In the midst of wanton aggression, we yet call upon the Arab inhabitants of the State
of Israel to preserve the ways of peace and play their part in the development of the
State, on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its bodies
and institutions—provisional and permanent.
“We extend our hand in peace and neighborliness to all the neighbouring states and
their peoples, and invite them to cooperate with the independent Jewish nation for the
common good of all. The State of Israel is prepared to make its contribution to the
progress of the Middle East as a whole. …”
So that was it. There would be other wars, other crises, but the rise of modern Israel
had become a reality.
David O McKay, a Prophet,
prayed for return of the Jews to Homeland.
David Ben Gurion
Private David Ben Gurion