Before the Holocaust, European Jews had endured many centuries of antisemitism. Governments and churches across Europe imposed waves of restrictions on Jews. For example, they barred Jews from owning land and restricted where they could live and what jobs they could hold. At times, Jews were even forced to wear distinctive markings to make them social pariahs. 

This longstanding history of exclusion and persecution led many Jews to conclude that the only future for Jewish communal life was the creation of a homeland in the Land of Israel. In the late 19th century, a new Jewish political movement called Zionism was founded to advocate for this goal. The Zionist movement became increasingly popular in Europe after World War I as the rise of new anti-Jewish political movements and policies intensified persecution. 

During the Holocaust, the Nazis and their allies and collaborators murdered six million Jewish men, women, and children. They destroyed centuries of Jewish life in Europe and thousands of Jewish communities. 

In the aftermath of this genocide, it became clear to many Holocaust survivors and other Jews that Jews needed their own country where they could live in safety and independence. Support for Zionism grew among Holocaust survivors, international leaders, and others. When the State of Israel was established in May 1948, many Holocaust survivors welcomed it as a homeland where they would no longer be a vulnerable minority.

Jewish Responses to Antisemitism in the Decades Before the Holocaust 

Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, new types of antisemitism developed across Europe. In this period, longstanding prejudices about Jews among Christians combined with newer racial, national, and ethnic forms of hatred. In many countries, antisemites used the mass press to spread antisemitic conspiracy theories and other lies about Jews. They fanned the flames of hatred and exploited people’s fears and prejudices. New political movements campaigned on explicitly anti-Jewish platforms. Most European nationalist movements portrayed Jews as outsiders who did not belong. In the Russian Empire, several waves of violent and deadly riots (pogroms) targeted Jewish communities. 

Across Europe, Jewish people wrestled with how best to deal with antisemitism while also maintaining a vibrant Jewish communal life. They engaged in spirited debates about how to balance Jewish religious traditions with modern life. They debated whether and how Jews should assimilate or modernize. And they discussed what language Jews should speak as a marker of identity. In light of widespread poverty and violent threats in Europe, some argued that immigration to the United States or other places was the best option.  

It was in this context that modern Zionism was founded. This political movement advocated for an autonomous Jewish state in Israel. The name “Zion” derives from the Hebrew Bible as a name for Israel. Modern Zionism built on centuries of Jewish history in the Land of Israel, where Jews have lived continuously for more than 4,000 years. The Land of Israel has always been a central focus of Judaism and the Hebrew Bible. 

Thus, Zionism was both old and new. It was born of ancient religious and historical ties between Jews and the Land of Israel. But Zionism was also a modern political movement. It was a response to rising antisemitism. And it was inspired in part by ideas and concepts prevalent in late 19th century Europe, including nationalism based on ethnicity.

Theodor Herzl and the First Zionist Congress

The modern Zionist movement was founded in the late 19th century by Theodor Herzl. 

Herzl was a Jewish lawyer and journalist from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He experienced pervasive antisemitism in Europe. This inspired him to found the Zionist movement. As a foreign correspondent for a leading Viennese newspaper, Herzl covered the antisemitic Dreyfus Affair in Paris in 1894. Alfred Dreyfus was a French Jewish military officer. He was the target of anti-Jewish prejudice and unjustly convicted of treason. This trial played into lies that portrayed Jews as scheming outsiders. In 1897, Herzl also saw the outspoken antisemitic politician Karl Lueger become mayor of Vienna. 

Herzl argued that Jews must form their own autonomous, self-governed state. He believed that Jews should return to their ancestral homeland, Israel, rather than remain a vulnerable minority in Europe.

In 1897, Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress. During this meeting, participants pledged “to secure for the Jewish people a publicly recognized, legally assured homeland” in the Land of Israel. At the time, this territory was part of the Ottoman Empire. It was commonly referred to in English as “Palestine,” an anglicized version of the name for the region dating back to ancient and Byzantine times.1  Herzl and others hoped to win support for Zionism from international leaders, including Ottoman authorities.

Hundreds of thousands of Jews across Europe and beyond became active Zionists who wanted to prepare for a life in Israel. The Zionist movement advocated that Jews speak Hebrew in their daily lives. Zionist groups established Hebrew language schools and newspapers. Zionist youth groups and sports organizations became popular throughout Europe. The Zionist movement encouraged Jews to train as agricultural workers and to learn skills that would be useful in their future home. 

Creation of Mandatory Palestine after World War I

World War I (1914–1918) radically changed the map of Europe, the Middle East, and beyond. The Ottoman Empire joined the war as part of the Central Powers. It fought alongside Germany, Bulgaria, and Austria-Hungary. The Central Powers fought against Great Britain, France, the Russian Empire, and other countries. 

The future of the Ottoman Empire and its territory was a point of discussion during the war. It was clear to many international observers that the Ottoman Empire was in decline. It was also clear that various countries and groups hoped to gain control of Ottoman territory in the Middle East. The British government and other powers made a number of agreements and declarations related to the future status of Ottoman territory. Among them was the Balfour Declaration. This was a statement issued by the British in 1917. The Balfour Declaration supported a "national home for the Jewish people" in the territory referred to in the document as “Palestine.”

World War I resulted in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. As a result, two League of Nations mandates were created to govern former Ottoman territory in the Middle East. These mandates were the “Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon” and the “Mandate for Palestine.” Great Britain received administrative control over what was now called Mandatory Palestine.2  The mandate agreement stated that the British authorities were responsible for carrying out the promises of the Balfour Declaration. The territory had three official languages: English, Arabic, and Hebrew. 

In the years following World War I, many political parties across Europe found that hateful anti-Jewish messages had broad appeal with voters. New political movements (including German Nazism) openly proclaimed antisemitic goals and adopted antisemitic party platforms. At the same time, the Zionist movement continued to grow and work towards its goal of an autonomous Jewish state in the Land of Israel. However, British authorities strictly limited Jewish immigration to Mandatory Palestine. They did so in part to mitigate violence and unrest from local Arabs and Jews. Many Zionists were frustrated by these immigration restrictions.

Seeking Safe Haven during the Holocaust, 1933–1945

The Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933. Many Jews tried to flee the new regime’s pervasive, state-sponsored, antisemitic policies and laws. They hoped to immigrate to other European countries, or to such destinations as the United States, Canada, and Mandatory Palestine. Leaving Germany, however, was not easy. To emigrate, a Jewish person needed to apply for daunting numbers of documents that were costly and difficult to organize. Even when a person managed to secure documents, very few countries were willing to let Jews in.

Throughout the 1930s, the British increasingly limited Jewish immigration to Mandatory Palestine. Still, about 60,000 Jewish people from Germany and its annexed territories arrived in Mandatory Palestine between 1933 and 1939. 

In May 1939, the British issued a policy document known as the “White Paper of 1939.” It outlined British plans to further restrict Jewish immigration to Mandatory Palestine. The shift in policy away from the Balfour Declaration disappointed and angered Zionists. The timing was particularly egregious. In 1938​​–1939, Nazi Germany had expanded its borders and reach through acts of territorial aggression against neighboring countries. This brought more Jews under Nazi Germany’s control. The outbreak of World War II in September 1939 further threatened Europe’s Jewish population. The Nazis initiated brutal acts of mass violence against Jews in every territory they occupied, often helped by allies and local collaborators. For those who hoped to escape the Nazis by fleeing abroad, the war made travel more unlikely and even dangerous. Almost no countries were willing to accept them.  

Throughout the course of the war, Nazi anti-Jewish policy escalated to systematic mass murder. The Nazis and their allies and collaborators murdered six million Jewish men, women, and children, in a genocide now known as the Holocaust

Mandatory Palestine During World War II, 1939–1945

Jewish parachutist Hannah Szenes with her brotherDuring World War II, the conflict between the Germans and the British and their allies expanded to North Africa. In 1942, the British ultimately halted the German advance through Egypt at the Battle of El Alamein. Thus, Mandatory Palestine remained in British hands and the Jews who lived there remained safe from Nazi genocide.

Many Jewish people in Mandatory Palestine wanted to join in the fight against Nazi Germany. Thousands volunteered to serve in the British army and some fought in newly formed Jewish units. For example, Hannah Szenes was a Hungarian-born young Jewish woman. She served as a volunteer parachutist sent behind German lines for resistance and rescue efforts. Authorities captured Szenes trying to cross the border into German-occupied Hungary. They tortured her for several months, but she never betrayed her colleagues. Szenes was eventually convicted of treason and executed. The Jewish Brigade Group of the British army, which fought under the Star of David flag, was formally established in September 1944. It included more than 5,000 Jewish volunteers from Mandatory Palestine. The Jewish Brigade fought valiantly against the Germans in Italy from March 1945 until the end of the war in Europe in May 1945. 

Many Jewish people in Mandatory Palestine had families and friends trapped in Europe. They anxiously waited for news from them. And they were horrified as information about the mass murder of Europe’s Jews became public knowledge.

The Postwar Refugee Crisis (1945–1948)

As the Allies defeated Germany in spring 1945, they encountered millions of European civilians living far from their prewar homes, including hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors. In addition to the murder of 6 million European Jews and millions of others, Nazi Germany had also carried out forced population transfers on an unprecedented scale. German wartime policies resulted in the largest refugee crisis the world had ever seen. 

Germany surrendered in May 1945. Within months, the Allies repatriated millions of people to their home countries. Many Holocaust survivors, however, refused or felt unable to return to their prewar towns. Not only had they lost their families and communities, they had also been robbed of their possessions and livelihoods. Furthermore, going home meant facing persistent antisemitism and the severe trauma suffered during the Holocaust. Those Jews who did return to their countries of origin often faced hostility and violence. For example, 42 Holocaust survivors were murdered in July 1946 during an antisemitic riot in the Polish town of Kielce.

Many Holocaust survivors made their way to parts of Europe liberated by the western Allies. They hoped to find new places to call home and begin life anew. But fulfilling this aspiration was still difficult. Immigration restrictions remained in place for the United States, British-controlled Mandatory Palestine, and other destinations. 

In the Allied-occupation zones in western Europe, many Holocaust survivors were housed in refugee camps, called Displaced Persons (DP) camps. At its peak in 1947, the Jewish DP population reached approximately 250,000. These camps were never intended as permanent homes and most of the DPs were desperate to leave. 

Major camps for Jewish displaced persons, 1945-1946

American and British Debates about Jewish Refugees

The fate of Jewish displaced persons (DPs) was a point of contention between the US and British governments. In the summer of 1945, the US representative to the Intergovernmental Committee for Refugees, Earl G. Harrison, undertook a mission to determine the needs of Jewish and other non-repatriable DPs. In the resulting report, Harrison offered scathing criticism of the DPs' treatment. He described crowded and unsanitary conditions in the DP camps. He also offered recommendations for improving conditions for Jewish DPs. Lastly, Harrison urged quick action to resettle the Jewish refugee population. Most Jewish DPs, he noted, wished to go to Mandatory Palestine. He referenced the petition of the Jewish Agency of Palestine. This petition requested that the British issue 100,000 additional immigration certificates to Jews.

US President Harry S Truman forwarded the Harrison Report to British Prime Minister Clement Attlee. Truman urged the British to allow 100,000 Jewish DPs to immigrate to Mandatory Palestine. Attlee firmly rejected both Truman's proposal and the recommendations of the Harrison Report. He also warned Truman of “grievous harm” to US-British relations should the US government publicly advocate Jewish immigration to Mandatory Palestine.

To try to relieve tensions with the United States, the British established the “Anglo-American Committee of Enquiry on Palestine.” The committee investigated the Harrison Report's claims. Its April 1946 report confirmed Harrison's findings. It recommended allowing 100,000 Jews to immigrate to Palestine. The British rejected these recommendations.

Holocaust Survivors and Zionism in the DP Camps

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, many survivors wanted to leave Europe. They found hope and a path forward in Zionism. From 1945 to 1948, Jewish survivors more and more often chose British-controlled Mandatory Palestine as their most desired destination. 

David Ben-Gurion, leader of the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine, visited DP camps in Europe several times in 1945 and 1946. His visits raised the DPs’ morale and rallied them in support of a Jewish state. The DPs became an influential force in the Zionist cause. Mass protests in DP camps against British policy restricting immigration to Mandatory Palestine became common occurrences. 

But Britain continued their restrictive immigration policies. This strengthened the resolve of many Jews to reach Palestine by any means possible. From 1945 to 1948, the organization Briḥah (Hebrew for “escape” or “flight”) moved more than 100,000 Jews from eastern Europe into Allied occupation zones and DP camps. From there, the Jewish Brigade Group led a network of groups organizing ships to bring DPs to Mandatory Palestine without British permission. 

The British intercepted most of these ships and refused them entry. Between 1945 and 1948, the British captured more than 50,000 Jewish refugees at sea. They sent them to detention camps on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. In one extraordinary case in 1947, the British stopped a ship, the Exodus 1947, en route. There were 4,500 Holocaust survivors on board the ship. The British refused these survivors entry to Mandatory Palestine and forcibly transported them to the British-occupied zone of Germany. This incident attracted worldwide publicity and embarrassed the British government. It raised sympathy for the postwar plight of Europe’s Jews. And it helped sway international public opinion in favor of the eventual recognition of a Jewish state in 1948.  

Jewish refugees arrive in Haifa and are interned

Holocaust Survivors and the Establishment of the State of Israel

As the refugee crisis escalated, the British government submitted the matter to the United Nations (UN). In a special session, the UN General Assembly voted on November 29, 1947, to partition the territory of Mandatory Palestine into two new states, one Jewish and one Arab. This was a recommendation that Jewish leaders accepted and Arabs rejected.

The British began to withdraw their forces in April 1948. Zionist leaders then prepared to formally establish a modern Jewish state. On May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion announced the formation of the State of Israel. He declared:

The Nazi [H]olocaust, which engulfed millions of Jews in Europe proved anew the urgency of the reestablishment of the Jewish State, which would solve the problem of Jewish homelessness by opening the gates to all Jews and lifting the Jewish people to equality in the family of nations.
—Declaration of Independence of the Jewish state as published in English in the New York Times on May 15, 1948 

President Truman recognized the new State of Israel the same day. All limitations on Jewish immigration to Israel were lifted. Holocaust survivors began arriving in the new State of Israel immediately. Many survivors fought and died as soldiers in Israel's War of Independence (1948–1949). Although a minority of Israel’s population, Holocaust survivors would go on to make significant contributions to the nation. For survivors and their families worldwide, the State of Israel remains an important source of security and pride.