A Modern Rendition of An Ancient Motif: Zionism: A Background
World Zionist Organization | WZO
Resources » Zionism
Author: Benyamin Neuberger
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.

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. ("By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion." Psalms 137:1). Thus 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.

The core of the Zionist idea appears in Israel's Declaration of Independence (14 May 1948), which states, inter alia, that:

"The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.

“After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept faith with it throughout their dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom."


The idea of Zionism is based on the long connection between the Jewish people and its land, a link which began almost 4,000 years ago when Abraham settled in Canaan, later known as the Land of Israel. About 1000 BCE, King David made Jerusalem the country's capital and some 40 years later, his son, King Solomon, built there the Temple to the One God, making Jerusalem the spiritual as well as the political center of the nation. Over 400 years of independence under the Davidic dynasty ended in 586 BCE when the country was conquered by the Babylonians, who destroyed the Temple and exiled most of the people. However, before the century was over the Jews returned, rebuilt the Temple and restored Jewish life in the Land. For the next centuries, they knew varying degrees of self-rule under Persian (538-333 BCE) and Hellenistic (322-142 BCE) overlordship, independence under the Hasmonean dynasty (142-63 BCE) and then increasingly oppressive domination by the Romans beginning in 63 BCE. When the Jews were prevented from carrying out their traditional religious way of life, they launched a series of uprisings, which climaxed in the revolt of 66 CE.

After four years of fighting, Rome put down the Jewish Revolt and burned the Temple to the ground. Many thousands of Jews were killed, sold into slavery and dispersed to countries near and far. The only remnant of the entire Temple compound was the Western Wall, which became a place of pilgrimage and worship for Jews, and remains so to the present time.

In 132 CE, another Jewish revolt, which restored Jewish sovereignty for three years, was cruelly suppressed, claiming thousands of lives. To stamp out the Jewish connection to the Land of Israel, the Romans renamed the country Palaestina.

The small Jewish community which remained in the Land gradually recovered. Institutional and communal life was reconstructed to meet the new situation without the unifying framework of the state and the Temple. Priests were replaced by rabbis, and in the absence of a central place of worship, the synagogue became the nucleus of each of the scattered communities.
Between 636 and 1096, the Jewish community in the Land diminished considerable and lost some of its organizational and religious cohesiveness, mainly due to increased social and economic discrimination under Arab centuries, reinforced from time to time by Jews returning from the Diaspora, the countries of their dispersion.

Aliya (Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel) from North Africa took place in 1191-1198 and a trickle of Jewish refugees from the Spanish Inquisition came in the late 15th century. Others, fleeing pogroms in the Ukraine, came in the mid-17th century. In the same century, a messianic movement arose under Shabbatai Zevi of Izmir with some it its adherents settling in the Land. They were followed in 1700 by hundreds of Hasidic Jews who arrived from Eastern Europe. The flow of aliya in the 18th and the first part of the 19th centuries was significant enough to make the Jews of Jerusalem the largest religious community in the city by 1844. Thus the great waves of Zionist immigration, which began in 1882 and continued throughout the 20th century, were preceded over the years by many small, sporadic influxes of Jews into the country.


Central to Zionist thought is the concept of the Land of Israel as the historical birthplace of the Jewish people and the belief that Jewish life elsewhere is a life of exile. Moses Hess, in his book "Roma and Jerusalem" (1844), expresses this idea:

"Two periods of time shaped the development of Jewish civilization: the first, after the liberation from Egypt, and the second, the return from Babylon. The third shall come with the redemption from the third exile."

Over centuries in the Diaspora, the Jews maintained a strong and unique relationship with their historical homeland, and manifested their yearning for Zion through rituals and literature. 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." On Passover, every Jew declares, "Next year in Jerusalem." At times of mourning, the bereaved are comforted with mention of the Land of Israel: "Blessed are You, O Lord, Consoler of Zion and Builder of Jerusalem." The longing of the Jewish people to return to its Land was also expressed in prose and poetry in Hebrew and in other Jewish languages, which evolved over the centuries, Yiddish in Eastern Europe and Ladino in Spain.


While Zionism expresses the historical link binding the Jewish people to the Land of Israel, modern Zionism might not have arisen as an active national movement in the 19th century without contemporary antisemitism considered in a continuum of centuries of persecution.

Time and again, the Jews of Europe were persecuted and massacred, sometimes on religious grounds, sometimes for economic reasons, sometimes on social pretexts, and sometimes for national and "racial" rationales. Jews were slaughtered by the Crusaders when the latter made their way across Europe to the Holy Land (11th-12th centuries), massacred during the Black Death for allegedly poisoning wells (14th century), burned at the stake in the Spanish Inquisition (15th century) and murdered by Chmelnicki's Cossacks in the Ukraine (17th century). Hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed by the armies of Danikin and Petlura in the Russian civil war which followed World War I. The most infamous atrocity of all, the Nazi Holocaust in which some six million Jews were systematically annihilated mainly on "racial" grounds, was perpetrated by Germans, in whose country the Jews had made their most serious attempt to achieve acceptance and social assimilation.

Over the centuries, Jews were expelled from almost every European country - Germany and France, Portugal and Spain, England and Wales - a cumulative experience which had a profound impact, especially in the 19th century when Jews had abandoned hope of fundamental change in their lives. Out of this milieu came Jewish leaders who turned to Zionism as a result of the virulent antisemitism in the societies surrounding them. Thus Moses Hess, shaken by the blood libel of Damascus (1844), became the father of Zionist socialism; Leon Pinsker, shocked by the progroms (1881-1882) which followed the assassination of Czar Alexander II, assumed leadership in the Hibbat Zion movement; and Theodor Herzl, who as a journalist in Paris experienced the venomous antisemitic campaign of the Dreyfus case (1896), organized Zionism into a political movement.

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.
In fact, most of the waves of Aliya in the modern age were in direct response to acts of murder and discrimination against Jews. The First Aliya followed pogroms in Russia in the 1880s. The Second Aliya was spurred by the Kishinev pogrom and a string of massacres in the Ukraine and Belorussia at the turn of the century. The Third Aliya occurred after the slaughter of Jews in the Russian civil war. The Fourth Aliya originated in Poland in the 1920s after the Grawski legislation infringed on Jewish economic activity. The Fifth Aliya was composed of German and Austrian Jews fleeing Nazism.

After the State of Israel was established (1948), mass immigrations were still linked to discrimination and oppression - Holocaust survivors from Europe, refugees from Arab countries escaping the persecution which followed the establishment of the state, the remnants of Polish Jewry who fled the country when antisemitism reignited at the time of Gomulka and Muzcar, and the Jews of Russia and other former Soviet republic who feared a new spasm of antisemitism with the breakup of the Soviet Union. The history of the waves of Aliya provides strong proof for the Zionist argument that a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, with a Jewish majority, is the only solution to the "Jewish problem."


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). Its motto was "A state for every nation, and the entire nation in one state."

Zionism synthesized the two goals, liberation and unity, by aiming to free the Jews from hostile and oppressive alien rule and to re-establish Jewish unity by gathering Jewish exiles from the four corners of the world to the Jewish homeland.

The rise of Zionism as a political movement was also a response to the failure of the Haskala, the Jewish Enlightenment, to solve the "Jewish problem." According to Zionist doctrine, the reason for this failure was that personal emancipation and equality were impossible without national emancipation and equality, since national problems require national solutions. The Zionist national solution was the establishment of a Jewish national state with a Jewish majority in the historical homeland, thus realizing the Jewish people's right to self-determination. Zionism did not consider the "normalization" of the Jewish condition contrary to universal aims and values. It advocated the right of every people on earth to its own home, and argued that only a sovereign and autonomous people could become an equal member of the family of nations.


Although Zionism was basically a political movement aspiring to a return to the Jewish homeland with freedom, independence, statehood and security for the Jewish people, it also promoted a reassertion of Jewish culture. An important element in this reawakening was the revival of Hebrew, long restricted to liturgy and literature, as a living national language, for use in government and the military, education and science, the market and the street.

Like any other nationalism, Zionism interrelated with other ideologies, resulting in the formation of Zionist currents and subcurrents. The combination of nationalism and liberalism gave birth to liberal Zionism; the integration of socialism gave rise to socialist Zionism; the blending of Zionism with deep religious faith resulted in religious Zionism; and the influence of European nationalism inspired a rightist-nationalism which also espouse various liberal, traditional, socialist (leftist) and conservative (rightist) leanings.


Most of the founders of Zionism knew that Palestine (the Land of Israel) had an Arab population (though some spoke naively of "a land without a people for a people without a land") Still, only few regarded the Arab presence as a real obstacle to the fulfillment of Zionism. At that time in the late 19th century, Arab nationalism did not yet exist in any form, and the Arab population of Palestine was sparse and apolitical. Many Zionist leaders believed that since the local community was relatively small, friction between it and the returning Jews could be avoided; they were also convinced that the subsequent development of the country would benefit both peoples, thus earning Arab endorsement and cooperation. However, these hopes were not fulfilled.

Contrary to the declared positions and expectations of the Zionist ideologists who had aspired to achieve their aims by peaceful means and cooperation, the renewed Jewish presence in the Land met with militant Arab opposition. For some time many Zionists found it hard to understand and accept the depth and intensity of the dispute, which became in fact a clash between two peoples both regarding the country as their own - the Jews by virtue of their historical and spiritual connection, and the Arabs because of their centuries-long presence in the country.

The need to grapple with Arab violence towards the Jewish community and to find the appropriate response to the mounting dispute gave rise to three main approaches to the "Arab problem" within the Zionist movement: minimalism, maximalism and realism.

The minimalists held that the land belongs to both peoples; thus Zionism cannot be realized without the prior consent of the other nation. They sought a dialogue with local Arabs and rejected the Zionism establishment's approach based on negotiations with outside powers and the leaders of the Arab states. To secure a Jewish-Arab agreement, the minimalists were willing to renounce the establishment of a Jewish state and accept in its stead a binational state based on social and political parity of Jews and Arabs.

At the opposite extreme were the maximalists, who believed that the national struggle between the two peoples would have to be resolved by force. They rejected the presumption of Arab national rights in the Land of Israel, noting that the Arabs had never had a state in Palestine. They saw no need to negotiate with local Arabs, and their hope was to acquire the entire country either through diplomatic contacts with outside powers or by armed force.

The realists, who comprised the largest Zionist grouping, were dividing into liberal and socialist subgroups. The realists did not believe it possible to avert altogether a conflict with the Arabs, but thought it possible to attenuate the conflict by taking moderate positions. Like the minimalists, they favored negotiations with local Arabs and supported the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants. However, they were unwilling to compromise on Zionist goals - a Jewish majority in the Land of Israel through unrestricted Aliya, and the establishment of a Jewish state. In contrast to the maximalists, they sought a dialogue with Arabs in Palestine and abroad, and were willing to consider compromises.

The socialist realist (represented most prominently by David Ben-Gurion Israel's first prime minister) based their agenda on the belief that a Jewish economy could not develop without Jewish agriculture and industry, and that without an autonomous economy there would be neither a society nor a state. Adherents of this group also advocated respect of Arab rights, and, for many years they believed that the Jewish and Arab proletariat shared a common class interest against the Jewish bourgeoisie and Arab feudalism. However, most of them eventually reached the conclusion that the struggle was one of nationalities, not of classes.

During the year 1936-47, the struggle over the Land of Israel grew more intense. Arab opposition became more extreme with the increased growth and development of the Jewish community. At the same time, the Zionist movement felt it necessary to increase immigration and develop the country's economic infrastructure, in order to save as many Jews as possible from the Nazi inferno in Europe.

The unavoidable clash between the Jews and the Arabs brought the UN to recommend, on 29 November 1947 - the establishment of two states in the area west of the Jordan River - one Jewish and one Arab. The Jews accepted the resolution; the Arabs rejected it.

On May 14, 1948, in accordance with the UN resolution of November 1947, the State of Israel was established.


The establishment of the State of Israel marked the realization of the Zionist goal of attaining an internationally recognized, legally secured home for the Jewish people in its historic homeland, where Jews would be free from persecution and able to develop their own lives and identity.

Since 1948, Zionism has seen its task as continuing to encourage the "ingathering of the exiles" which at times has called for extraordinary efforts to rescue endangered (physically and spiritually) Jewish communities. It also strives to preserve the unity and continuity of the Jewish people as well as to focus on the centrality of Israel in Jewish life everywhere.

Down through the centuries, the wish for the restoration of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel has been a thread binding the Jewish people together. Jews everywhere accept Zionism as a fundamental tenet of Judaism, support the State of Israel as the basic realization of Zionism and are enriched culturally, socially and spiritually by the fact of Israel - a member of the family of nations and a vibrant, creative accomplishment of the Jewish spirit.
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