The Roots of Zionism

The Prehistory of the State of Israel (c. 1880–1948) The Roots of Zionism

Israel’s modern history begins before statehood, with the migration of Jews to Palestine (as the area was then called) in the 19th century from eastern Europe, primarily Russia and Poland, and with the establishment of the modern political Zionist movement.

In 1880, the total number of Jews in Palestine was estimated at under 25,000. Some two-thirds lived in Jerusalem with most of the remainder in other cities considered holy by the Jews, such as Safed, Tiberias, and Hebron. There were also small Jewish communities in Jaffa and Haifa. Most of the Jews were Orthodox and generally subsisted on charitable donations from Jews abroad.

In the early 1880s, a wave of aliyah (immigration to Palestine or Israel), known as the First Aliyah, brought Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe who wanted to settle the land. The Second Aliyah, which began in 1904 and lasted until World War I, brought additional immigrant settlers from eastern Europe. This increased the Jewish population in Palestine to approximately 85,000 (about 12 percent of the total population) by 1914, with about half of the Jews residing in Jerusalem.

During these waves of migration, Jews came to Palestine for a variety of reasons. Some came primarily for religious reasons and joined existing Jewish communities, primarily in Jerusalem, but also in other holy cities, where they could study and practice their religion.

Others sought to escape the pogroms (organized massacres) prevalent in Russia or the generally poor economic and social conditions in eastern Europe and often we’re motivated by socialist ideas and concepts. Some were drawn by the Zionist ideology that sought the creation of a Jewish state as a response to anti-Semitism (discrimination against or hostility toward Jews) in their native lands.

Nineteenth-century Western Europe provided some opportunities for Jews to move from the ghettos and be assimilated, or incorporated, into general society. Some Jews prospered and were seen as an economic threat to the local populace, fueling anti-Semitism. Political Zionism was the nationalist response of the Jewry of western and central Europe to the pervasiveness of anti-Semitism.

Its objective was the establishment of a Jewish homeland in any available territory—not necessarily in Palestine— through cooperation with Western powers (the Great Powers). These Zionists believed that the new state, which they envisioned as a secular nation modeled after the postemancipation European states, would attract large numbers of Jews and resolve the problem of anti-Semitism.

In the Russian Empire, the situation of the Jews was different. Under Czar Alexander II (1855–81), Jews gained access to educational institutions and professions previously closed to them, and a class of Jewish intellectuals began to emerge in some cities, as they had in western Europe. However, all hopes for emancipation were dashed when Alexander II was assassinated in 1881.

His reign was followed by renewed anti-Semitism and pogroms throughout the Russian Empire as Alexander III instituted oppressive policies. This led to the substantial emigration of Jews from the empire. Between 1881 and 1914, some 2.5 million Jews left Russia. Most went to the United States, but some chose Palestine, where they sought refuge in the idea of reconstituting a Jewish state—but a secular and socialist one.