MODERN POLITICAL ZIONISM emerged in the late 19th century in response to the violent persecution of Jews in Eastern Europe, anti-Semitism in Western Europe, and the rise of both radical socialist and liberal nationalist movements throughout Europe. Rooted in the Jewish people's biblical and historical ties to their ancestral homeland, and their centuries-long yearning to return to the land of Israel, modern Zionism successfully fused the ancient and the modern into a vision of creating a Jewish state in the land of Israel.
As a journalist in Vienna, Theodor Herzl (b. 1860) was deeply shaken by the anti-Semitism surrounding the Dreyfus Affair the trial of a French Jewish army officer unjustly accused of treason. Herzl argued that anti-Semitism would persist until and unless Jews became a sovereign nation. The modern Zionist movement aimed to solve the "Jewish problem" the predicament of a minority people who had been subjected to discrimination, persecution, exile and death over the centuries.
As the father of modern Zionism, Herzl consolidated the various strands of Zionism already in existence into a modern, organized, political movement. Convening the First Zionist Congress in Basle, Switzerland, in August 1897, Herzl brought the Zionist project to the forefront of Jewish and world attention. In his diary, Herzl wrote: "In Basle, I created the Jewish State."
At the Basle conference, the Zionist movement articulated its goals a national home for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. The Zionist movement included diverse groups from Socialist Zionists to Religious Zionists. Although the different factions had often radically differing conceptions of the nature of the future Jewish homeland, they cooperated towards reaching the goal of creating a Jewish state in their ancestral home.
At the time, not all Jews supported the primary goal of Zionism. Many religious Jews believed that the return to Zion could not be initiated by man and had to wait until God sent the Messiah. Many liberal, secular Jews believed that the Jewish people should assimilate into the nations in which they lived rather than foster an independent Jewish nationalism. Others maintained that the social and economic ideologies sweeping Europe at the time would inevitably solve the Jewish problem.
Zionist positions also differed widely on how to achieve statehood. Some advocated concentrating resources on creating facts on the ground immigration, agricultural settlement of the land, a Jewish-based economy, etc. Others supported focusing more resources on obtaining international recognition for statehood. As the reality of statehood neared, Zionist leaders were also divided whether they should accept whatever is allotted to them or should they hold out for more territory.
Herzl traveled tirelessly around the world seeking international recognition and diplomatic support for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. Before his death in 1904, he had convened six Zionist Congresses at which many Zionist institutions were founded including the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish National Fund.
Modern Zionism also embodied a revitalization of Jewish culture and the Jewish spirit. Cultural Zionist Ahad Ha'am (1856-1927) believed that the spiritual and cultural revival of the Jewish people had to precede the national revival. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1857-1922) stressed the renaissance of the Hebrew language as a prerequisite to Jewish national and cultural restoration. He is the founder of modern Hebrew, a language which previously had been used only in liturgy and literature.
For others, Zionism represented Jewish empowerment. Vladimir Jabotinsky (1880- 1940) helped organize a Jewish self-defense corps in Odessa in 1903 and later convinced the British to form three Jewish battalions to fight in Palestine during the First World War. Jabotinsky later formed a self-defense corps in Jerusalem and promoted rapid mass immigration to Palestine and Jewish military self-sufficiency. He came into conflict with the official Zionist leadership, many of whom were wary of taking actions which would antagonize the British. Jabotinsky founded the Revisionist Party in 1925, of which the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin was a leading member.
Other Zionist leaders focused on developing Jewish social service institutions. Henrietta Szold (1860-1945) founded Hadassah, the premier women's Zionist organization which helped establish a chain of medical institutions in Palestine. Socialist Zionist leader Berl Katznelson (1887-1944) was a leading figure in the establishment of the Histadrut labor federation and its medical unit, Kupat Holim Klalit.
Other Zionists saw a Jewish state in religious terms. Rabbi Samuel Mohilever (1824- 1898) was an early religious Zionist who blended Orthodox Judaism with modern Jewish nationalism. He was active in the Hibbat Zion movement and founded what later developed into the religious Zionist movement, Mizrachi. Chief Rabbi of Palestine Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook (1864-1935) based his understanding of Jewish nationalism on traditional Jewish sources and taught that only in Israel can the Jew achieve perfection and true piety. He taught respect and tolerance for all Jews and viewed the return of the Jews to Zion as the beginning of the Redemption.
Today, Zionism stands for a safe and secure Israel a nation open to all Jews seeking both refuge and a Jewish homeland, the preservation of Judaism and the Jewish people and the centrality of Israel in Jewish life all over the world.
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