What is Zionism and who are the Zionists?
The origin of the term “Zionism” is the biblical word “Zion”, often used as a synonym for Jerusalem and the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael). Zionism is an ideology which expresses the yearning of Jews the world over for their historical homeland – Zion, the Land of Israel. Zionism is the term used to define the international movement for the return of the Jewish people to their original homeland and the resumption of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel.
Theodor Herzl, a Viennese journalist who wrote The Jewish State (Der Judenstaat) (1896), called for the formation of a Jewish nation state as a solution to the Diaspora and to anti-Semitism. Herzl had been the Paris correspondent of a Viennese newspaper, sent to cover the Dreyfus trial, and was energized by the virulent anti-Semitismhe witnessed. In his room in the hotel close to the Place de la Concorde, he wrote feverishly, and as he described in his diary, he felt as if where was a murmur of angels? wings in the room.
In 1897 Herzl called the first World Zionist Congress at Basel, which brought together diverse proto-Zionist groups into one movement. The meeting helped found Zionist organizations in most countries with large Jewish populations. The term Zionism was coined in 1893 by Nathan Birnbaum who played a prominent part at the First Zionist Congress. At the Congress, the Zionist platform was formulated with this mission statement: “Zionism aspires to establish a homeland for the Jewish people, guaranteed by international law, in the land of Israel.”
The close identification of the Jewish people with the Jewish land is manifest in every page of the Jewish Liturgy. The Jewish people preserve to this day the calendar of the land from which they had been exiled for two thousand years. The seasons which they mark with observance, the times of sowing and of planting, of harvest and of vintage, are the seasons and the times, not of the lands in which they dwell, but of the land in which their forefathers lived and from which they had been exiled.
The aspiration of returning to their homeland was first held by Jews exiled to Babylon some 2,500 years ago – a hope which subsequently became a reality. In Psalms 137:1 we read, “By the water of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.” The Jewish sages celebrated the bitterness of exile in many a poignant phrase:
- “The exile atones for all the sins of the Jews.”
- “With him who dwells outside Palestine it is as though God were not with him.”
- “Those Jews who dwell outside Palestine do not enjoy eternal life.”
In prayer, the Jewish worshipper is instructed to face east, towards the Land of Israel. In the morning service, Jews say “Bring us in peace from the four corners of the earth and lead us upright to our land.” Worshippers repeatedly recite, “Blessed are You, O Lord, Who builds Jerusalem,” and “Blessed are You O Lord, Who returns His presence to Zion.” The grace after meals includes a blessing which ends with a prayer for the rebuilding of “Jerusalem, the Holy City, speedily and in our days.” In the marriage ceremony, the bridegroom seeks to “elevate Jerusalem to the forefront of our joy.” At a circumcision the following is recited from the Psalms “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand wither.” And in the concluding verse of the Passover sedar, spoken by every Jew throughout the world: “Next year in Jerusalem”.
With this emotional attachment to Eretz Yisrael in Palestine as part of every Jew’s heritage and life, it is little wonder that, when conditions were right, a movement arose in Europe to bring about the return. Political Zionism, which coalesced in the 19th century, invented neither the concept nor the practice of return. Rather, it appropriated an ancient idea and an ongoing active movement, and adapted them to meet the needs and spirit of the times. Zionism was further fueled by continuing episodes of anti-Semitism, which included the slaughter of Jews and confiscation of their property, and which rose in frequency and intensity in the 19th century.
The Zionist movement aimed to solve the “Jewish problem,” the problem of a perennial minority, a people subjected to repeated pogroms and persecution, a homeless community whose alienism was underscored by discrimination wherever Jews settled. Zionism aspired to deal with this situation by effecting a return to the historical homeland of the Jews – Land of Israel. The secularization of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, led many assimilated Jewish intellectuals to seek a new basis for a Jewish national life.
Political Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, emerged in the 19th century within the context of the liberal nationalism then sweeping through Europe. This era, which began with a movement in Greece to free itself from the yoke of Ottoman occupation and included national liberation movements in Ireland, Norway, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Italy and later on in the century, Turkey and India, also inspired Zionist leaders, as evidenced by many references to the national struggles of other peoples in the writings of the founders of Zionism. Liberal nationalism usually aspired to two basic goals: liberation from foreign rule, (as in the case of Poland, Greece and Ireland) and national unity in countries which had been partitioned into many political entities (Italy and Germany).
In the United States, relatively free of the anti-Semitism that infected Europe, Jewish support of Zionism was primarily financial and spiritual. Leaders, most prominently Louis Brandeis, urged support for the Zionists but few American Jews thought about emigration to Palestine.
Opposed to Political Zionism were those, like Chaim Weizmann, who were critical of Herzl’s emphasis on external forms of diplomacy as a means to bring about the realization of Zionism. Weizman called such efforts “naive and bound to failure.” Zionism could not rest on personal statesmanship of several figures in the courts of Europe alone, he felt, but must be founded on development of cultural, educational and social institutions in the Jewish homeland – the concrete work of state-building. Weizman also attempted to achieve cooperation and peaceful relations with Arabs living in Palestine who, he felt, would benefit economically from the Zionist enterprise. Weizmann met with the Emir Feisal, then the undisputed leader of awakening Arab nationalism. Feisal promised to recognize Zionist aims in Palestine, as long as the aims of Arab nationalism were achieved in Iraq and Syria. Unfortunately, this agreement was short-lived.
Zionism synthesized the two goals, liberation and unity, by aiming to free the Jews from hostile and oppressive alien rule and to reestablish Jewish unity by gathering Jewish exiles from the four corners of the world to the Jewish homeland. However, Zionism itself was never a unitary endeavor — there were constant squabbles and internal political upheavals. And not all Jews were Zionists; for many reasons, large numbers of Jews did not support all or part of the Zionist agenda in any of its forms. But because the Zionists were always in desperate need of money, non-Zionists became irreplaceable as generous givers.
After World War II and the revelation of the true scope of the Holocaust, the militant Zionists who had the goal of an immediate refuge homeland for Jews gained ascendancy. The end of the British Mandate and declaration of the State of Israel in 1948 was the culmination of almost a century of Zionist efforts. Effort then shifted to support of Israel with its many problems and struggles.