Alma Gluck, full-length portrait, standing by piano, facing slightly left. Photo by Bain News Service. 1924. George Grantham Bain Collection. Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number LC-USZ62-112010. Singer Alma Gluck made an early recording of "Hatikvah" in 1918.
By the late nineteenth century, European Jews had long wanted a homeland where they would not be persecuted for their religion. Many settled their aspirations on the region called Palestine, a historical homeland of the Israelites that was also sacred to Christians and Muslims. In 1897, an internationally organized effort to create such a homeland was begun with the founding of the World Zionist Organization. Today the term "Zionism" has come to have other meanings, but at this time it simply referred to the desire for a Jewish homeland.
Jews had often immigrated to the United States to escape persecution or as a consequence of expulsion from other countries. While their situation in America was much better than they or their ancestors had faced in Europe, the desire for a homeland was still strong. Having Zionist impulses did not necessarily mean that the supporters of this cause intended to emigrate; many simply felt that, as a haven for the Jewish peoples of Europe, and a potential refuge in case the situation of Jews in the United States were to change for the worse, a Jewish state was a necessity.
The First World War was the point where this dream began to take shape as a reality. The British government desperately needed acetone in order to make explosive weapons. They approached the chemical manufacturer Chaim Weizmann and asked him to increase supply for the military. At the time, Wiezmann was also president of the British Zionist Federation. He had already been working to purchase and develop land for settlement, and had founded the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa in 1912. He agreed to supply the British military with acetone, provided that they would help him to establish a home for Jews in Palestine. The British agreed.
At this point there were still many Jews who favored the Germans in the war, rather than the alliance of other nations, since the allies included Russia, whose government had persecuted and deported Jews. The British government needed the support of Jews in England, including Russian Jewish immigrants who had fled the purges. There were also anti-Semitic ideas in Britain, which included a false suspicion that Jews had supported the rise of the Turkish government that was among the nations allied on the German side. Jewish Americans also tended to support Germany in reaction to Russian treatment of Jews. In order to help turn this around, the British established the Jewish Legion, military units entirely made up of Jews, to fight on the fronts in the Middle East, including Turkey. This began with native British Jews and Russian immigrants, who were later joined by Jewish soldiers from the United States and Canada who chiefly fought in North Africa. A Yiddish song about the Jewish Legion, "Der Judische ligionerie," sung by Shloimele Rothstein is available in this presentation. While the creation of the Jewish Legion was, in part, an effort to sway opinions to favor the allied war effort and to help bring the United States into the war, it was based on the desire of the fighters and their supporters to create a Jewish state in Palestine. Some of these American soldiers did not return home after the war, but brought their families to settle in Palestine.
After the war, the British took control of Palestine, allowing Jewish settlements to develop and thrive. Jewish immigrants purchased land on which to settle. Among the needs for these settlers was a common language, as settlers came from various parts of Europe and North America. Hebrew, which at the time was a language used only in religious practice that many Jews did not speak fluently, suddenly became useful as a secular language, which grew with added vocabulary. These early beginnings of what was to become the State of Israel were marked by a song in Hebrew, "Hatikvah," here sung by Romanian American opera star Alma Gluck. The lyrics come from a poem, "Tikvatenu," written in 1878 by Polish poet Naphtali Herz Imber, as an expression of his desire to return to the land of his ancestors. In 1919, the year after this recording was made, the British government in Palestine banned the public performance and radio broadcast of this song, in response to Arab reaction to the growing population of immigrant Jews. When Israel became a state in 1948, "Hatikvah" was the principal patriotic song, used as the national anthem. As for the chemist Chaim Weizmann, he was elected the first president of Israel in 1949. In 2004 "Hatikvah" was officially made the national anthem of Israel.