January 1st, 1013

What is Zionism?

Zionism is the national movement that advocates for a homeland for the Jewish people in their historical birthplace, the Land of Israel. It has tangible, as well as spiritual, aims and encompasses a variety of ideologies. Jews from all persuasions – Left and Right, secular and religious –formed the Zionist movement and ultimately worked together toward the common goal of a Jewish State.

The origin of the word “Zionism” is the biblical word, “Zion,” which is used to refer to Jerusalem and the Land of Israel. Modern Zionism emerged as a political movement in the late nineteenth century in response to anti-Semitism and the persecution of Jews in Western and Eastern Europe. Zionist ideology unified the ancient Jewish biblical and historical ties to the Land of Israel with the modern concept of nationalism.

There are a number of Zionist ideologies that are expressed and represented by several early Zionist thinkers, which comprise the broader Zionist movement: political Zionism, cultural Zionism, religious Zionism, spiritual Zionism, revisionist Zionism, synthetic Zionism, and socialist Zionism. Theodor Herzl, the “father” of modern Zionism, consolidated these schools of thought into an organized political movement, that advocated for international recognition of a “Jewish state” and encouraged Jewish immigration to cultivate and build the land.

Theodor Herzl

Theodor Herzl was born in Budapest in 1860, and after being raised in the spirit of German-Jewish enlightenment, worked as a playwright and a journalist in Vienna and Paris. Herzl lived as a secular Jew, with little connection to Judaism or the early Zionists who were already advocating for a Jewish homeland. This attitude changed, however, when he witnessed what has come to be called the Dreyfus Affair.

In 1894, a Jewish officer in the French army, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, was wrongly convicted of treason. Sent to Paris to cover the trial and conviction, Herzl witnessed the virulent anti-Semitism that had erupted in France. The events of the trial shocked Herzl, and he realized that Jews were not safe from persecution anywhere if such hatred could be expressed in Paris, the home of the French Revolution and such an established and assimilated Jewish community. Herzl concluded that the only solution to this problem was the creation of a Jewish nation-state that would serve as a homeland for the Jewish people, and would provide an internationally recognized political voice for the nation.

Thus, in 1896, Theodor Herzl published his declaration in The Jewish State.  He stated that anti-Semitism was an immutable element in society that would never be resolved through Jewish assimilation. He asserted that only when the Jews received international political recognition, would they gain acceptance in the world. In order to achieve this goal, he declared that the Jews would have to act like a single people – one nation.

Herzl envisioned a future state as a model social state, based on the contemporary European model of the Enlightened Society: it would be neutral and peace-seeking, and secular in nature. He proposed a program for collecting funds through an organization that would work towards the practical realization of the state, which would support the political development from Jews around the world.

In 1897, Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress in Basle, Switzerland, to outline a program for the Zionist movement. The delegates to the Congress here adopted what would become known as the Basle Program, and declared that “Zionism seeks to establish a home for the Jewish people in Palestine, secured under public law.” The Zionist Organization was officially named the political arm of the Jewish people, and Theodor Herzl was named its first president. Almost immediately thereafter, Herzl began to advocate with world leaders for the formation of a State of Israel.

In 1902, Herzl wrote Altneuland (Old New Land), in which he depicted the future Jewish state as a social utopia. He described a new society that was to rise on the basis of cooperation and utilization of science and technology in the development of the Land of Israel. He provided detailed ideas about how the political structure, immigration, fund-raising, diplomatic relations, social laws, and relations between religion and State of the future country. In Altneuland, the Jewish State was foreseen as a pluralistic, advanced society, a “light unto the nations,” which evolved to become a catch-phrase of the Zionist vision for the Land of Israel. Herzl also coined the slogan “If you will, it is no dream,” the motto of the Zionist movement.

In 1904, at the age of forty-four, Herzl died of pneumonia. He did not see the realization of his vision for a State of Israel. By that time, however, Zionism had found its place on the world map as a political movement. In 1948, Herzl’s conception was fulfilled with the establishment of the State of Israel.

The Jewish State, by Theodore Herzl

Political Zionism

Political Zionism refers to Theodor Herzl’s platform. It stresses the importance of political action and the attainment of political rights as a pre-requisite for a solution to the Jewish problem and the fulfillment of the Zionist dream. Along these tenets, the Basle Program, adopted at the First Zionist Congress in 1897, stated that Zionism aims to establish “a secure haven, under public law, for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel.”  Thus, its goal was to gain international political recognition as a Jewish nation with a secure nation-state to call its own.

Cultural Zionism

Cultural Zionism is associated with Achad Ha’am, the pen-name of Asher Zvi Ginsberg, a leader of the organization Hibbat Zion, a predecessor of political Zionism. He believed in the importance of creating a homeland for the Jewish people, but had little confidence that a viable, successful nation could be built by political means alone. He encouraged a cultural and spiritual revival, and suggested the development of a national spiritual center – a hub of high quality life – that would link the Jewish people to one another and to the land by means of common values and culture. Toward this aim, Achad Ha’am supported Hebrew and Jewish educational activity among Jews above all else, and settlement activity in Palestine as enthusiasm for the culture grew.

Links to Achad Ha’am’s writings:

Religious Zionism

Based on a fusion of Jewish religion and nationhood, religious Zionism aimed to restore not only Jewish political freedom, but also, Jewish religion in light of the Torah and its commandments. Its supporters advocated for a homeland in the Land of Israel as a fulfillment of religious prophecy. So too, for Religious Zionism, Judaism based on the commandments was an irreplaceable element of Jewish national life in the homeland. As such, religious Zionists directed much of their efforts towards developing a national-religious education system, focusing on the fusion of Torah and labor. The two political movements that formed from the original religious Zionists, Mizrahi and Hapoel Hamizrachi are still active in Israeli politics today.

Although he was not its first supporter, Rabbi Avraham Kook, commonly referred to as Ha’Rav Kook is often associated with religious Zionism. Rav Kook became a Rabbi at the early age of 23, and wrote his first essay on Zionism a few years later, while living in Boisk, Lithuania.  In this essay, he presented the oft secularist notion of Jewish nationalism as an expression of a divine endowment. He believed that his time was that which would precede the coming of the messiah, and therefore, saw the yearning for a Jewish homeland in the Land of Israel as particularly appropriate to his day. In 1904, Rav Kook moved to Jaffa (in the Land of Israel, or Ottoman Palestine) and shortly thereafter founded his own school of higher Talmudic learning. Among other characteristics, this school was uniquely distinguished both by the use of Hebrew as the language of study, and by the inclusion of the classics of Jewish philosophy and devotion, in addition to Jewish law. Kook continued to teach and publish on the Zionist cause throughout the rest of his life.

Revisionist Zionism

Revisionist Zionism was an outgrowth of Herzl’s Political Zionism, that was influenced by the ideas of Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky. In 1925, Jabotinsky established the Revisionist Zionist Alliance, which advocated a reexamination of the principles of Political Zionism. The declared goals of Revisionist ideology included “relentless pressure on Great Britain, including petitions and mass demonstrations, for Jewish statehood on both banks of the Jordan River; a Jewish majority in Palestine; a vigorous policy toward Britain; re-establishment of the Jewish regiments; and military training for youth.”

Vladamir Jabotinsky was and remains one of the most controversial figures in Zionism; he was adored by his disciples, yet distinctly abhorred by others. He was born in Odessa in 1880, at a time when the shores of the Black Sea were home to a great center of Jewish life, yet he was raised in a predominantly Russian – as opposed to Jewish – tradition. Jabotinsky became an active Zionist only in 1903, upon his return to Odessa after some years working as a journalist abroad. In the face of threats of pogroms, he helped to organize a Jewish Defense Corps in Odessa. Over time, Jabotinsky became increasingly steadfast in his agreement with Herzl’s belief that the only solution to the Jewish problem was in the realization of a Jewish state. Whereas Herzl believed in advocating for this end through political means, however, Jabotinsky more actively developed the Jewish defense corps to fight for it militarily. In 1925, after being jailed by the British and discredited by some of his Zionist contemporaries, Jabotinsky officially developed a new Zionist party, the Revisionists. In 1935, he and his supporters split from the Zionist Organization entirely, to found the New Zionist Organization, under which they facilitated illegal immigration of Jews to Palestine (at the time governed by the British Mandate) and advocated violent resistance to the British rule. Jabotinsky passed away in 1940, while on a trip in the United States; though he was influential in its success, he did not live to see the Zionist dream realized.

Synthetic Zionism

Synthetic Zionism is a doctrine that coalesced at the eighth Zionist Congress (1907); Chaim Weizmann (who later became the first President of Israel) was its principal champion. A combination of Political and Practical Zionism,

“Synthetic Zionism” advocated political activity coupled with practical endeavors in Palestine. It also stressed Zionist activity in the Diaspora, such as modernized education, the collection of money for the Jewish National Fund, and active participation, on separate Jewish tickets, in national and local elections.

“Synthetic Zionism,” with its guidelines - political realism, flexibility and the quest for a common denominator among the partners in the Zionist idea - dominated the Zionist movement from the Tenth Congress (1911) onward.

Socialist Zionism

Socialist Zionism was founded and represented by Nachman Syrkin, shortly before the end of the nineteenth century. It combined Zionism with Socialism in an aim to achieve Jewish national and social redemption. Social Zionism was based on the assumption that the problem of Diaspora Jewry would remain unresolved even after the Socialist revolution, and that the solution to the anomaly of the Jewish existence was the emigration of Jews to, and their concentration in, a single territorial base.

Dov Ber Borochov, a prominent advocate of Socialist Zionism, argued that the nationalistic identification in Europe, and the Jews’ unique position in society would inevitably prompt Jews to emigrate to Palestine. Only there, could the economic structure of the Jewish people be reconstituted as a foundation for the class struggle of the Jewish proletariat. Zionism, he asserted, was a historic-economic necessity for the Jewish people. He held that the historic role of spearheading the Jewish national liberation process was reserved for the Jewish proletariat. Many Socialist Zionist parties were formed as a result of disagreements over the most appropriate conceptual and philosophical foundations of the ideology, the methods for its development, and its implementation.

The leaders of Socialist Zionist parties were among the most prominent in the pre-independence Palestine community and the State of Israel, and included David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi and Berl Katznelson, among others. Socialist Zionism is the progenitor of most of Israel’s settlement movements and the Israel Labor Party, one of Israel’s two main political parties. The Socialist Zionist idea also gave rise to many pioneering youth movements, such as Hashomer Hatz’air and Hehalutz.

For Additional Information about Zionism, Zionist movements, and Zionist philosophy: