09 Aug The Jewish Agency: Rebuilding the Land of Israel
In 1908, a new office in the World Zionist Organization was established. The new office was named “HaMisrad HaEretz Yisraeli” which literally translates to “The Land of Israel Office”. The office operated out of Ottoman-controlled Jaffa and served as the operational branch of the Zionist Organization in the region. At the time, the responsibilities of the office were to represent the Jews living in the Land of Israel in dealings with the Turkish sultan and other foreign dignitaries, to aid and promote Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel, and to buy land for those Jews to settle.
In Theodore Herzl’s book “The Jewish State”, Herzl envisioned the Jewish people as an independent nation, settled on their own land. The Land of Israel Office, which eventually became the Jewish Agency, was based upon Herzl’s organizational ideas for how to make the dream of a Jewish state a reality.
Between 1904 and 1914, a wave of around thirty-five thousand Jews, predominantly Russian, moved to Ottoman-controlled Palestine. Now referred to as the Second Aliyah (literally; the Second Immigration in Hebrew), the influx of Jewish immigration made the purchase of land particularity urgent. With the aid of the Jewish National Fund, the Land of Israel Office bought land for the immigrants to settle in modern-day northern Israel and in the Negev desert. In a joint operation with the Jewish National fund, the Land of Israel Office purchased land for Jewish immigration over the following decades.
Following the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, and the League of Nations’ approval of the British mandate of Palestine, Chaim Weizmann, president of the British Zionist Federation at the time, formed the Zionist Commission in order to advise the British Government in the region. Later, the Land of Israel Office was merged into the Zionist Commission, which then became the Zionist Executive and finally designated as the “Jewish Agency for Palestine”. In addition to its previous responsibilities of purchasing land for immigration, the agency was now planning the general policies of the Zionist leadership, running schools and hospitals, and formed the “Haganah” organization, an armed defense force of the Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel. The agency, which changed its name with the establishment of the State of Israel to the “Jewish Agency for Israel”, continues to be an instrumental part of immigration to Israel and immigration absorption in addition to running many other programs.
Among the agency’s modern operations, are programs such as Taglit-Birthright Israel, Masa Israel Journey, and more, connecting diaspora Jews to their Jewish identity. The agency also operates within Israel beyond just immigration absorption. The Jewish Agency helps vulnerable populations in Israel, for example, during the Second Lebanon War, the agency moved fifty-thousand people who were in the range of missiles to southern Israel, where it was safe. In addition, the agency runs programs directly for the Druze and Arab minorities in Israel.
The Jewish Agency is a crucial part of what made Israel the vibrant and colorful Jewish democracy it is today.