Although the State of Israel was officially established in 1948, the beginning of the mass return of Jews to the Promised Land began in the 1880s. Each distinct wave of immigration is now referred to as an “Aliyah.”
The First Aliyah (1882–1903, approx. 35,000*) was composed mostly of Russian Jews belonging to Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion) and the Bilu movement, who fled the anti-Jewish violence that followed the 1881 assassination of Czar Alexander II. The Russian Jews of the First Aliyah created moshavot (plural of moshav, settlements of independent farmers) and the current towns of Rishon Letzion, Rosh Pina and Zichron Yaakov.
In addition to the Russian Jews, a number of Yemenites also arrived in Palestine, and settled in Jerusalem.
The Second Aliyah (1904–1914, approximately 40,000*) was dominated by Socialist Russian Jews. Jews of the Second Aliyah were responsible for establishing the Kibbutz movement, self-defence organizations such as Ha’shomer Hatza’eer, the revival of the Hebrew language and the settlement that would eventually become Tel Aviv.
The Third Aliyah (1919–1923, approximately 40,000) is often perceived as a continuation of the Second Aliyah, which came to a halt due to World War I. Several important political events, however, had transpired, including the October Revolution in Russia, the defeat of the Ottomons by the British and the Balfour Declaration. Many of the Russian and Eastern European Jews who came in this time period were halutzim, meaning that they were agriculturally trained and better prepared to settle the land. It was members of the Third Aliyah who famously drained the marshes of the Jezreel Valley. They also laid the political foundations for the future Jewish homeland.
The Fourth Aliyah (1924–1929, approximately 82,000) immigrants were mostly middle class families fleeing anti-Semitism in Poland and Hungry. Many of them might have preferred to go the United States, but they were prohibited by the recently imposed immigration quotas. The Fourth Aliyah immigrants helped develop the towns and economic infrastructure.
The Fifth Aliyah (1929–1939, approximately 250,000) may be seen as a direct reaction to the rise of the Nazis. It was not an easy process to reach Palestine, as the British severely restricted immigration.
*Of the numbers cited, close to half the Jews of both the First and the Second Aliyah left the Promised Land due to hardship.