Zionism Research Paper

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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.


  1. Avineri S 1981 The Making Modern  Zionism:  The Intellectual Origins of the Jewish State.  Basic Books, New York
  2. Berkowitz M  1998 Zionist    The  University  of  North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC and London
  3. Halpern B, Reinharz  J 1998 Zionism and the Creation of a New Society. Oxford University  Press, New York
  4. Hertzberg A 1959 The Zionist Idea. Atheneum, New York
  5. Katz J 1986 Jewish Emancipation and Self-Emancipation. Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, PA
  6. Shimoni G 1995 The Zionist Ideology. University Press of New England, Hanover,  NH.
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