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The political structures of Zionism were largely formed through the institutions which emerged in the wake of the ﬁrst Zionist Congress, convened by Theodor Herzl in Basel in 1897; they were inspired by Herzl’s own Der Judenstraat (1896) and by earlier tracts like Moses Hess’ Rom und Jerusalem (1862) and Leon Pinsker’s Autoemancipation (1882). Yet Zionism’s origins are more complex and reﬂect the impact of modernization and secularization on a traditional Jewish identity which was basically religious. On the one hand, Zionism draws on the traditional Jewish messianic beliefs in a redemptive salvation which would return Jews from their exile to Zion ( Jerusalem) and the Land of Israel. Yet this belief, which greatly enhanced the ability of Jewish individuals and communities to survive two millenia of exile and persecutions, was at its base religious and looked for divine intercession in the historical process, and not for human, practical action; it was thus, basically, passive. It also never led, with some few yet notable exceptions, to concrete steps in the here and now aimed at bringing Jews to the Holy Land or to the establishment of a political commonwealth. Modern, racist antisemitism, which grew towards the end of the nineteenth century in many European societies, did indeed put in question the hopes for the disappearance of anti-Jewish prejudices with the advent of the Enlightenment and secularization, yet did not by itself lead to the emergence of a political movement among the Jewish populations in Europe: those ﬂeeing antisemitism, especially in the Czarist Empire in the 1880s, looked for emigration to the West—mainly to North and South America, but also to England and South Africa.
In other words, neither traditional Jewish religiosity nor modern antisemitism can adequately explain the emergence of Zionism. It can be understood only in the context of modernity—political, social, and economic—which totally transformed Jewish–Christian relations in Europe, which were based on a delicate, and not always stable but culturally deeply anchored, balance which enabled Jews to ﬁnd a niche for themselves in Christian Europe. For despite theological condemnation, persecution, discrimination, and occasional expulsions, Christian Europe was able to tolerate the existence of a small Jewish minority in its midst. Provided they accepted their marginality and subjugation, as well as their exclusion from public spheres of social life, Jews were allowed a relative free exercise of their religion and could ﬁnd an economic sphere for highly circumscribed yet permitted activities.
The emergence of the modern nation-state in the wake of the French Revolution totally changed the parameters of this relationship. On one hand, the modern nation-state was based on the ideas of popular sovereignty and equality among all citizens; on the other, it drew on notions of common descent and put at its symbolic core a commonalty of language, history, myths, and institutions: this confronted both Jews and non-Jews with new challenges. It was not anymore a question of religious tolerance or even equality before the law, but the question of identity and belonging: thus liberalism and nationalism posed a new set of questions. While the ideas of the French Revolution emancipated the Jews as individuals and made them, for the ﬁrst time, into equal citizens and thus broke down the physical and spiritual barriers of the ghetto, new questions of identity arose for which there were no normative answers in traditional, orthodox Judaism. How should Jews behave with regard to Jewish holidays, customs and laws of marriage, preservation of cultural traditions within a society which, for the ﬁrst time, is now open to them? At the same time, the emergence of modern nationalism in central and eastern Europe posed equally new questions to Jewish individuals and communities: should they view their identity in purely religious or confessional terms, give up their ethnic and cultural identity, and strive to become ‘Germans (or Magyars) of the Jewish confession’? And if they choose this option—as many of them did—would their surrounding society, deeply imbued with ideas of national continuity, history, and cultural identity, really accept them as equals and cease to view them as aliens on their national territory? These issues became especially acute in the areas of the Czarist and Habsburg Empires, where most European Jews lived in the nineteenth century: these empires were also challenged by nationalist movements, and Jews living on the fault lines of these various movements were further torn apart by competing claims: should Jews living in Prague identify with German or Czech nationalism, those living in Budapest identify with German or Magyar culture, or those living in Warsaw support Polish nationalism or Russian rule?
Precisely because secularized, emancipated Jews were looking for an anchoring in their surrounding society, when most of those societies in Central and Eastern Europe were riven with competing claims for allegiance and identity, it became clear that modernity and even equality do not supply answers to questions of this sort: should one send one’s child to German or Polish or Hungarian or Czech schools? Whatever the choice it sometimes raised more questions than it answered. The emergence of the Hebrew Haskala (Enlightenment) in Central and Eastern Europe raised a new challange. Under the impact of Herderian ideas, Hebrew became once again a vehicle for literary and cultural creativity beyond its traditional use as a language of prayer and rabbinical discourse. The study of the history of the Jewish people appeared for the ﬁrst time among Jewish secularized intellectuals, with scholars like the German-Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz following a historiography inspired by Ranke and Michelet making Jewish people much more aware of their own history than the mostly atemporal religious discourse tended to do. This development led to a modern, literary-historical and national new interpretation of the Bible which was now seen by nonpracticing Jews not as a religious text but as a repository of poetic, ethical, literary, and historical sources.
The Haskala created a new Jewish intelligentisia— relatively free from religious observance, yet deeply aware of its history, cultural heritage, and speciﬁc contribution to world history: thus the Exodus from Egypt was turned from a story of divine redemption to the ﬁrst revolt of slaves in history and the Maccabeans became the ﬁrst ﬁghters for religious freedom. All this was a speciﬁc Jewish response both to ideas of political liberalism and national romanticism emerging from the complex heritage of the French Revolution.
This was the context within which the Zionist Organization, founded by Herzl, ﬂourished, developed, and found its adherents. Initially Herzl believed that the acquisition of a Jewish homeland in Palestine could be achieved through diplomatic means and the instrumentality of the European Great Powers bearing upon the Ottoman Empire to grant his organization a Charter for Jewish settlement. It became clear, however, that this was not to be, and that without a demographic change in the population structure of Palestine, no real results could be achieved. The few and sporadic Jewish settlements established in Palestine prior to the emergence of political Zionism became the nucleus of a much wider and organized attempt to create a social, economic, and political Jewish infrastructure in Palestine. After World War I, Palestine became a British Mandate under the League of Nations, with a vague and ambiguous British commitment to support ‘a Jewish national home’ in the country (the 1917 Balfour Declaration). Between 1918 and 1939 the Jewish population in Palestine grew, through immigration, from 60,000 to almost 600,000, accompanied by a sustained effort at creating an agricultural Jewish class, representative institutions, and relatively autonomous economic sector. Zionism always viewed it as an ‘anomaly’ of Jewish life that Jews lived not only in exile and under conditions of political powerlessness, but also that their social and economic structure differed widely from that of the populations in whose midst they were living: because Jews were not allowed to own land, they became a mainly urban population; because certain economic activities were barred to them, they were limited to a narrow range of ﬁnancial or petty trading activities. One of the ﬁrst aims of Zionism was to change this so-called ‘inverted pyramid’: hence the emphasis on settling on the land, supported by strong social solidarity and national institutions: it was this which gave the Zionist Left, greatly inspired by Russian socialist revolutionary and populist (Narodnik) ideas, its great impetus towards creating new forms of communal living (kibbutzim, moshavim) and the emergence of the Labour Federation (Histadruth) as an overarching ‘Community of Labor’ combing trade union functions with aims of social transformation and economic development.
As a national movement anchored in its relationship to what it considered the historical homeland of the Jewish people in Palestine, the Zionist movement found itself confronted by the emergence of Arab nationalism, both in Palestine and in the surrounding countries: this at a time when with the demise of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, Arab Nationalism became a major force among Arabic-speakers in the Middle East. Arabs in Palestine saw in Zionism and the inﬂux of new immigrants a danger to their status in Palestine, which in Arab national thought was seen as integral a part of the Arab homeland as the surrounding countries of Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, etc.
The fear of becoming a minority in their own land drove Palestinian Arabs in 1921 and 1929 to anti-Jewish riots and then, during 1936–9, to the Arab Revolt against the British which was aimed at stopping Jewish immigration at a time when the tides of anti-Semitism in Europe made Palestine sometimes into the only option available to Jews ﬂeeing Nazi persecution. After 1945, Jewish resistance to the British— which still did not allow free Jewish immigration to Palestine, even after the Holocaust—caused the issue to be brought to the United Nations which in 1947 proposed the partition of British Mandatory Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. While the Jewish community in Palestine and the Zionist organization accepted the idea of partition, it was totally rejected by the Arabs of Palestine and by all member countries of the Arab League. This led to the War of 1948, when the Arabs of Palestine and Arabs armies that came to their help were defeated in their attempt to prevent the establishment of a Jewish State in a partitioned Palestine and the Palestinian refugee problem was created.
Arab countries continued to reject the acceptance and legitimacy of Israel, and this led to the wars of 1956, 1967, and 1973; Israeli occupation in the war of 1967 of the West Bank and Gaza caused the Palestinian intifada against Israeli military rule. President Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in 1977 led to the ﬁrst Arab–Israeli peace treaty, in which Egypt accepted the legitimacy of Israel in return for the return of Egyptian territories occupied by Israel. Further agreements with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1993 and with Jordan in 1994 paved the way for a wider reconciliation and for the possibility of an eventual emergence of a Palestinian state living side by side with Israel—basically the 1947 UN formula.
On the ideological level, Zionism encompasses a variety of tendencies—from rightwing nationalistic Zionism (mainly represented by the Likud Party) through religious Zionism to a variety of socialist and social-democratic parties (now mainly represented in the Labour Party). The mass immigration of almost a million Jews from the lands of the former Soviet Union since the late 1980s, as well as the immigration of almost 60,000 Jews from Ethiopia during the same decade, suggest the basic dilemmas out of which Zionism grew are still a reality in some regions of the world. In the democratic West, on the other hand, an identiﬁcation with Israel is the only hallmark of a Zionist Jewish identity. In Israel itself, relative security and the feeling that the main tasks of Zionism have been fulﬁlled, albeit under conditions of warfare and siege, now give rise to a less nationally-centered public discourse, sometimes called post-Zionist, which suggests an attempt to substitute the national ideology by one focused more on ideas of civil society. The more the peace process succeeds, the more these new and not always coherent ideas will become much more central to the public discourse of the country.
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