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What Is Zionism?


Theodor Herzl Memorial

The tombstone of Zionism foundder Theodor Herzl at Theodor Herzl Memorial Park in Jerusalem.

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Question: What Is Zionism?
Zionism is often misunderstood, mis-characterized, and distorted by political expedience rather than interpreted in its historical and ideological context.

Zionism is a Jewish nationalist ideology created in late 19th-century Europe. Its aim was the “restoration of the Jewish state,” in the words of Zionist founder Theodor Hertzl. Anti-Semitism in France and Eastern Europe, particularly the Dreyfus Affair in France and murderous pogroms in Russia and Poland, propelled the movement toward seeking a homeland for the Jews, ultimately in Palestine.

So where did Zionism come from, and why is it controversial today?

Answer: Zionism takes its name from two biblical references to Zion, or “the Citadel of David, which is Zion,” believed to be part of Jerusalem (2 Samuel, 5:5 and 1 Kings, 8:1). Zion came to symbolize the promised land for Jews (and heaven for Christians).

Origins of Zionism

The term Zionism was coined by Austrian writer and Jewish nationalist Nathan Birnbaum in the 1890s. But the idea of Zionism as a redemptive restoration of a Jewish nation after two millennia — Rome had destroyed the Jewish state in Palestine in A.D. 70 — predates its coinage as such. Its ideological founders included Rabbi Yehuda Alkalai (1798-1878) in Serbia, Zvi Hirsch Kalischer (1795-1874) in Poland and Moses Hess (1812-1875) in Germany, all of whose works remained obscure until a surge of anti-Semitism in Europe impressed them on a younger generation. At the same time, the idea of Zionism was taking shape even in non-Jewish intellectual circles in Western Europe.

“It would be difficult to find a form of bad reasoning about them which has not been heard in conversation or been admitted to the dignity of print,” the British novelist George Eliot wrote in a 1878 essay, “The Modern Hep! Hep! Hep!” Two years earlier, the Jewish return to the promised land was a central theme of her novel, Daniel Deronda, which predates Hertzl’s similarly themed novel, The Old New Land (Altneuland), by a quarter century.

What was implicit in Eliot’s novel became explicit in her 1878 essay, anticipating the founding of Israel: “The hinge of possibility is simply the existence of an adequate community of feeling as well as widespread need in the Jewish race, and the hope that among its finer specimens there may arise some men of instruction and ardent public spirit, some new Ezras, some modern Maccabees, who will know how to use all favoring outward conditions, how to triumph by heroic example, over the indifference of their fellows and the scorn of their foes, and will steadfastly set their faces towards making their people once more one among the nations.”

Theodor Herzl and Zionism

The very first Jewish settlement founded on the notion of “self-redemption” in Palestine dates to 1884, when a few dozen Jewish colonists built the settlement of Gedera, near the Arab village of Qatra. Still, Zionism had to evolve from fictional fantasy or haphazard idealism to resolute reality. Herzl was a Viennese journalist working in Paris at the time of the Dreyfus Affair in 1894, when a Jewish officer in the French army was wrongfully accused of spying for Germany.

The case turned into a bacchanal of anti-Semitism. When Dreyfus was condemned and crowds gathered to witness his degradation, Herzl heard the chant all around him: “Death to the Jews!” (“A mort! A mort les Juifs!”). “Where?” Herzl wrote. “In France. In republican, modern, civilized France, a hundred years after the Declaration of the Rights of Man.” Within 18 months, Herzl had written The Jewish State (Der Judenstaat, as much manifesto for a new nation as plea, to the German-Jewish banker, Baron Edmond James de Rothschild, to fund the enterprise) and launched the first Zionist Congress, which gathered 200 delegates from 15 countries (the first congress convened in Basel, Switzerland, on Aug. 29, 1897).

By 1903, almost two dozen settlements were set up in Palestine and up top 30,000 Jews had made the journey there, though many in that first generation of colonists went back to Europe or traveled to the United States. The Zionist ideal, however, was becoming reality. So were the conflicts it provoked with Arabs through land expropriation and scorn or dismissiveness toward local Arabs believed to be, in accordance with European-Orientalist attitudes of the times, inherently inferior or irrelevant.

Reaction Against Zionism

Zionists were men of their time: Colonialism and imperialism framed the Jewish enterprise in Palestine, giving early rise to the hundred-year conflict with the region’s indigenous Arabs.

Hertzl vocalized the attitude when he described a new Jewish homeland in Palestine as “an outpost of civilization against barbarism.” He and his ideological descendants knew the conflicts be inevitable. “We must expropriate gently,” he wrote in 1895. “We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it any employment in our country…. Both the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly.” The words would be repeated and reflected, with varying degrees of extremism, throughout the emerging history of what was to become the State of Israel in 1948. “Zionism,” the Revisionist-Zionist Za’ev Jabotinstky, wrote in 1926, “is a colonizing venture and, therefore, it stands or falls on the question of armed force.” Anti-Zionism, which took form as Arab, then Palestinian, nationalism, was inevitable.

Zionism, Anti-Semitism, "Racism"

Anti-Zionism has frequently been confused, often intentionally, with anti-Semitism: Jews in Israel, or their supporters abroad, are quick to equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. It isn’t. Nor is Zionism either a race-based movement or a religious movement, as Arabs usually perceive it. Both distinctions in the modern Middle East, however, have virtually vanished in the mutual seethe of hatred and belligerence.

“Much Arab political commentary pictures Judaism as a religion, not a nationality, and Zionism is thereby portrayed as an artificial nationalism without logical basis,” David Shipler wrote. “For the Arabs, the word ‘Zionism’ has an ugly connotation that stirs a deep revulsion and dread, with overtones as heavy as those that ‘communism’ carries for many Americans. “’Zionist,’ in Arabic is like ‘Nazi,’” one Arab explained. “Since I was a child I have heard that the word Zionist is the worst. I didn’t understand the meaning of it. I just thought Zionist was like criminal, thief, killer.”

[A note on sources: Writing on Zionism or the Palestinian-Israeli conflict can be a notoriously hazardous business, almost automatically lending itself to accusations of bias no matter the perspective. It's always helpful to reveal one's sources. You can see them here]

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