Zionism as a Political Movement

Zionism as a Political Movement

Modern Zionist writings emerged in Europe in the mid-1880s. A number of Jewish writers were impressed by the nationalist fervor developing in Europe that led to the creation of new nation-states and also by the resurgence of messianic expectations among Jews that, some believed, might include the return of the Jews to the Holy land.

In Rome and Jerusalem (1862), Moses Hess, a German Jew, called for the establishment of a Jewish social commonwealth in Palestine as a solution to the Jewish problem.Leo Pinsker, a Russian physician living in Odessa, wrote in Auto-Emancipation (1881) that anti-Semitism was a modern phenomenon and that Jews must organize themselves to find their own national home wherever possible.

Pinsker’s work attracted the attention of Hibbat Zion (Lovers of Zion), an organization devoted to Hebrew education and national revival.It took up his call for a territorial solution to the Jewish problem and helped establish Jewish agricultural settlements in Palestine at Rishon le Zion, south of Tel Aviv, and Zikhron yaaqov, south of Haifa. Although the numbers were small—only 10,000 settlers by 1891—the First Aliyah (1882–1903) was important because it established a Jewish position in Palestine espousing political objectives.

Theodor Herzl is widely recognized in Israel and elsewhere as the founder of political Zionism and the prime mover in the effort to found a Jewish state. Modern political Zionism as conceived by Herzl sought the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine as a solution to the “Jewish Question” (essential anti-Semitism).

In Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), published in Vienna, Austria, on February 14, 1896, Herzl assessed the situation of the Jews and proposed a practical plan for a resolution by creating a state in which Jews would reconstitute their national life from biblical days in a territory of their own. His assessment of the problem saw anti-Semitism as a broad-scale and widespread phenomenon that appeared wherever Jews were located.

He wrote: “let sovereignty be granted us over a portion of the globe large enough to satisfy the rightful requirements of a nation” (Reich, ed., 1995, p. 18). He suggested that the preferred location was Palestine: “Palestine is our ever-memorable historic home. The very name of Palestine would attract our people with a force of marvelous potency” (ibid.). But initially, Palestine was not the only location considered by the Zionist movement.

On August 23, 1897, in Basel, Switzerland, Herzl convened the first World Zionist Congress, representing Jewish communities and organizations throughout the world. Congress established the World Zionist Organization (WZO), whose primary goal was enunciated in the Basel Program: “to create for the Jewish people a home in Palestine.” Herzl believed the meeting to have been a success and wrote in his diary on September 3, 1897:

Were I to sum up the Basel Congress in a word . . . it would be this: At Basel, I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. Perhaps in five years and certainly in 50, everyone will know it.

Thus, by the beginning of the 20th century, there was a movement whose goal was a Jewish state in Palestine, and there was Jewish immigration to Palestine, primarily from eastern Europe and Russia. Herzl negotiated for land with several world leaders, including the pope, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm, the Ottoman sultan Abdul Hamid II, various princes, and other European political figures.

Herzl’s political Zionism and the WZO that he established to secure a Jewish state in Palestine were not universally welcomed in the world’s Jewish communities. Only a small number of individuals joined his cause at the outset, and the growth of the movement was slow, especially outside western Europe.

The primary opposition to political Zionism came from Orthodox Jews who saw it as a rewriting of Jewish tradition. They rejected the idea that the Jews would return to the Holy land before the coming of the Messiah. Zionism was seen as a secular (and socialist) movement that contradicted Jewish belief and tradition. Many Jews were also of the view that Zionism had altered Judaism by its focus on a political objective, a Jewish state, rather than sustaining a central sense of devotion and Jewish ritual observance.