Mikveh Israel: A Cornerstone of the Jewish State
The Establishment of Mikveh Israel

The first half of the 19th century was a time of unrest, social revolutions, and regime changes across Europe.  Nationalist movements were everywhere. Even the Jews dreamed of the revival of the Jewish people in their ancient homeland, the Return to Zion, and agricultural settlements.

Many countries, such as Britain and France, competed for power over the Middle East.  The English were opposed to the idea that Muhammad Ali (ruler of Egypt who also ruled Eretz Yisrael from 1831 to 1840) take control of Syria and Egypt with the help of France. Consequently, Muhammad Ali’s reign came to an end in 1840 when Acre was captured by the British Navy.

In 1838, the British government was the first to open a consulate in Jerusalem. The consulate sought to foster friendly relations with the Jewish inhabitants. According to William T. Young, the first British Consul, there were about 5550 Jews in Jerusalem alone, and 9690 Jews across the country; 400 of these lived in villages in the Galilee.  Young expressed the hope that Jews would engage in agriculture.

In a memorandum to Lord Palmerston,  (Henry John Temple, the 3rd Viscount Palmerston) Lord Shaftesbury proposed to help the Jews return to their homeland,  He emphasized that many Jews believe that redemption was imminent.

Palmerston encouraged the immigration of Jews as they were property owners and educated and felt that they would promote development in the region.  

Damascus blood libel – Geula

1840 was a turning point as a result of the Damascus blood libel. The arrest of prominent Jews of the Damascus community (who were accused of murdering a Christian monk and his Muslim servant for the purpose of using their blood for baking Matza for Passover).

These events led many Jews to understand that immigration to Eretz Yisrael was a critical issue.

Rabbi Yehuda Alkalai declared that 1840 marked the beginning of the redemption (geula) leading up to the coming of the Messiah.

Moshe Hess wrote in his book Rome and Jerusalem:

 “Twenty years ago, when an absurd and false accusation against the Jews was imported into Europe from Damascus, it evoked in the heart of the Jews a bitter feeling of agony. The it dawned upon me for the first time in the midst of my socialist activities, that I belonged to my unfortunate, slandered, despised and dispersed people.  And already then, though I was greatly estranged from Judaism, I wanted to express my Jewish patriotic sentiment in a cry of anguish…” (translation of Meyer Waxman)

Return to Zion

In those days the idea of the Return to Zion began to take shape.  In 1846, the Jewish student association Achdut was founded by Moritz Steinschneider and Abraham Benisch in Vienna. Its two hundred and sixty members worked to advance the immigration of Austria’s Jews to Eretz Yisrael. Benish traveled to England and spoke of the importance of returning to Zion. He also met with the British consul in Jerusalem, at Moshe Montefiore’s house.

The British wanted to increase their influence in the region and could further their goal by helping the Jews.

Montefiore was mainly concerned with helping existing Jewish settlements in the Land of Israel through philanthropic means. Benish supported the idea of establishing a colony based on agriculture and trade. He thought that land in Eretz Yisrael should be purchased for Jews who were willing to farm it. These colonies would be built from loans that would be repaid by the farmers and not from halukka (charitable) funds.

As the consent of the Turkish rulers was required, Benish wrote a memorandum to the British ambassador in Turkey; there is no record of whether or not it was forwarded to Turkish officials. He used his influence as one of the editors at Kol Yaakov and the Jewish Chronicle. At the same time, voices in Germany and the USA were raised in support of the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael. Christian leaders from Europe and the US also publicly supported the idea.  

Life in Zion – Eretz Yisrael

Life for the Jews in Eretz Yisrael was difficult. The Hassidim had immigrated a century before followed by the students of the Vilna Gaon two decades later. These two communities strengthened Jewish settlement on the one hand yet increased the financial burden on Jews in the Diaspora, who had to support them.  

However, there were also Jews in Eretz Yisrael who did not want to live off halukka funds. They turned to Moshe Montefiore in the hope that he would be able to help them finance agricultural settlements or other projects in the Land of Israel.

Jewish Agricultural Settlement in Eretz Yisrael


When Montefiore visited Eretz Yisrle for a second time in 1839, there were only a few farmers in the Galilee, in Peki’in, Kfar Yasif, and in Shfar’am. There was one Jewish family in the Druze village of Jermak, the Israel Ben Kedushim family who had immigrated to Eretz Yisrael from Berdichev, Ukraine, in 1832. They settled in Safed and opened a printing house.

In the peasant revolt against Muhammad Ali’s regime in 1834, the houses of Jews were looted and the printing house was destroyed.

Following the earthquake in Safed in 1837, the Ben Kedushim family moved to Jermak, and supported themselves by raising sheep and cattle. In another Druze village, Beit Jan, other Jews lived and worked the land.

Montefiore met with the leaders of the Safed Jewish community, who asked him to help them buy land for vineyards. Montefiore also met with Rabbi Mordechai Tzoref, who was one of the pioneers of agricultural settlement and industry in Eretz Yisrael.  Tzoref asked for Montefiore’s help to establish an agricultural project near Akron. However, his plan was never implemented. On the other hand, Christian groups did establish agricultural colonies. James Finn, the British consul at the time, set up Abraham’s Vineyard in Jerusalem to teach Jews agriculture so they could be self-sufficient.  

Montefiore and Agricultural Settlements

On Montefiore’s fourth visit to Eretz Yisrael in 1855, he attempted again to advance the idea of an agricultural settlement.  With the help of a team of advisers, he identified a suitable tract of land in Jerusalem,  and Jews were hired as gardeners and builders. Thus Mishkenot Sha’ananim was established in 1860.

Attempts were also made to grow all kinds of crops. In Safed, Montefiore provided 35 families with the means to start farming. In addition, he bought plots of land near Safed and Tiberias and settled families there. He also purchased a fifty-dunam, 1400-tree orchard near Jaffa (known as the Montefiore Orchard), with the purpose of employing Jews who wanted to learn agriculture. The project was not an economic success. The orchard was finally uprooted in 1925 to make room for the Montefiore neighborhood.

Funding Agricultural Settlements


There were other efforts to promote farming projects and agricultural settlements. With the renewal of Jewish settlement in Jaffa in the 1820s, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi from Ragusa purchased an orchard on the lands that later became part of the Montefiore neighborhood in Tel Aviv.


Warder Cresson, born in Philadelphia in 1798 to a rich Quaker family, was a farmer. He immigrated to Eretz Yisrael and converted to Judaism in 1849, changing his name to Michael Boaz Yisrael Ben Avraham. He sought to establish a school in which Jews could learn agriculture in Emek Refaim in Jerusalem but failed to raise sufficient funds for the project. In addition, David Klassen, a gentile from Germany who later converted bought land near Jaffa and also planted an orchard there. 

Rabbi Chaim Zvi Schneerson of the Chabad movement was sent abroad in 1869 to raise funds for agricultural settlements. His attempts to establish a Jewish settlement in the Galilee were unsuccessful.  Wolf Kalisher, the son of Rabbi Kalisher (a Zionist rabbi who later immigrated to Eretz Yisrael and settled in Hebron), explored the idea of agricultural settlement in 1868. He prepared a detailed plan for a project of this kind.


photo credits:

JHistory, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
 Tomer hu – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36344869
jonathan jacobi, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons
By Ovedc – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52480084

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