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Zionism was a nationalist political movement by East European Jews dedicated to reestablishing the Jewish state in the land of Israel, starting in the late 19th century. The goal was achieved with the independence of Israel in 1948, and the term now connotes political support for the continued existence of this Jewish nation.

in front: David Ben Gurian, Golda Maier, Theodor Herzl


Although Jews have been returning to their homeland throughout the last two thousand years, the movement in its modern form began in the 1890s.

For many centuries there was talk but no action; Jews did not have their own country, and most were restricted to ghettos. By 1810 the French Revolution and Napoleon liberated most of the Jews of Europe from the ghettos, allowing a new level of mobility. The Romanticism of the 19th century inspired a modern Jewish identity that led to much talk of their own nation. The movement was inspired by the writings of Moses Hess, David Luzatto, Leo Pinsker, Zvi Kalischer, and Yehudah Alkalai; funding came from philanthropists Moses Montefiore, Edmond de Rothschild, and Maurice de Hirsch.

The first wave of settlement began operations in Palestine in the 1880s; Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire until it collapsed in 1918.[1]


The first Zionist Congress met in Basel, Switzerland in August 1897, attracting 204 Jews from 15 countries. Under the leadership of Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), it resolved that "Zionism aims at the creation of a home for the Jewish people in Palestine to be secured by public law," and encouraged organized emigration and colonization. Herzl formed the World Zionist Congress, making it an effective worldwide political movement. Despite opposition from assimilationist Jews and internal divisions the Zionist organization gathered strength. After Herzl died in 1904, the leadership of the movement passed to the "practicals" notably Dr. Chaim Weizmann, who argued that Zionism should concern itself with the Jewish cultural renaissance and gradual settlement efforts in Palestine as well as with diplomatic efforts to create a legal foundation for the settlements. In 1905 one faction withdrew when the majority rejected a British proposal for establishing a Jewish homeland in Uganda, Africa.

Settlement in Palestine

A second, much larger wave of settlement began after the revolutionary upheavals in Russia in 1905. Most settlers supported socialist versions of Zionism, both Marxist and non-Marxist. They pioneered a new type of settlement, the kibbutz (or "kvutzah"), a cooperative in which land was owned and worked communally by the Jewish settlers. These idealistic immigrants had an influence on the development of Zionism and the state of Israel far out of proportion to their numbers. The immigrants were aided by the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemeth), established by the Zionist Organization to buy land in Palestine as the inalienable property of the Jewish people. By 1914, 12,000 Jews were cultivating 100,000 acres in 43 agricultural settlements. The total Jewish population was 100,000. Zionists idealized the muscular young Jews tilling the soil of the Holy Land; the heroic self-image of the brave pioneer stood in stark contrast to Gentile stereotypes of the feminized Jewish weakling or the avaricious Jew-as-money changer.

During World War I, the British government sought Jewish support. In 1917 Weizmann secured from the British government the Balfour Declaration, which promised support for "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people," though nothing was to be done that might "prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities." It did not promise an independent state—in Palestine. The League of Nations created a British mandate, with full control over Palestine in 1922.


In a third wave of settlement, tens of thousands of Jews arrived, mostly from Europe. They lived separately from the Arabs, though in close proximity.

The British cooperated with the Jewish Agency, which was responsible for Jewish immigration and development. Financing came from the Zionist Organization, which by the 1920s was largely funded by the large Jewish community in the United States. Institutions of national life developed rapidly. The Jews in Palestine were represented by an elected council (Vaad Leumi); it became the parliament (Knesset) of Israel in 1948. Although most settlers were farm workers, there was a very active trade union movement, the Histadrut, which also provided social welfare services. A military force, the Haganah, became an unofficial army. A new fund, the Keren Hayesod, provided capital for the development of Jewish cooperative and communal villages, which were grouped in federations of all persuasions, from religious orthodoxy to Marxism. New schools were founded, topped off by the Hebrew University, opened in 1926, a scientific center at Rehovoth, headed by Dr. Weizmann, and a Technical College at Haifa.


Hard times in the Great Depression led many to return to Europe or America; the Jewish population fell to 200,000 in 1933. The rise of Hitler, however, set off a wave of immigration, and by 1939 the Jewish population had reached 446,000. The rapid growth intensified the opposition of the Arabs. There were Arab riots against British support of a Jewish national home in 1921 and 1929, and from 1936 to 1939 there was rebellion throughout the Arab areas of Palestine. The British responded with a White Paper in 1939 that attempted to impose final limits on Jewish immigration and land purchases, but the situation of Jews in Europe was so desperate that immigration increased illegally. The British refusal to make further concessions to Jewish demands provoked attacks by Jewish terrorists of the Irgun, an underground organization Zvai Leumi, commanded by Menachem Begin, and its offshoot (from 1940) the Stern Gang.

In 1947, the UN recommended the ending of the British mandate and the partition of the country into Arab and Jewish states; Jerusalem was to be internationalized. Zionists reluctantly supported this proposal, while Arabs rejected it. Fighting broke out and on May 14, 1948, the British high commissioner departed, and the same day the Vaad Leumi declared the independence of the State of Israel, which was quickly recognized by both the United States and the Soviet Union. The next day five Arab countries launched a military attack against Israel. But they were quickly defeated, allowing Israel to annex half of Jerusalem and half of the territory allotted to the Palestinian Arabs, while Jordan annexed the remainder of Palestine except for the Gaza Strip, which was occupied by Egypt.

The next three years 1948-51 saw a mass immigration in which approximately 700,000 Jews emigrated to the new state, mostly Holocaust survivors from Europe, thereby doubling the Jewish population.

United States

see American Jews

Zionism grew rapidly in the U.S. after 1900, based largely among Yiddish-speaking recent immigrants from Russia. The Reform Jews, of German background, largely opposed the movement with the main exception of Louis Brandeis, the Supreme Court justice who became a key leader. There were three main groups in 1918: the Zionist Organization of America had 149,000 members, the Mizrachi religious Zionists had 18,000 and the Labor Zionists ( Poalei Zion) had 7,000. The pro-Zionist Yiddish language daily newspapers of the period—the Yidishes Tageblat, Morgen Zhurnal, the Maccabaean, and Der Tog—together had a combined circulation in 1917 of over 200,000.

The Labor Zionists, although originally founded in Europe on the basis of socialism, had Americanized and largely abandoned socialism in the 1920s. Membership of all three plummeted during the early 1920s, but soared the after Arab massacres of Jews in Palestine in 1929 and the coming to power of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany in 1933.[2]

World War II marked a decisive watershed. The 1942 Biltmore Conference was a major step toward the activist program of David Ben Gurian and helped turn American Jews away from the pro-British approach of Weizmann. The American Jewish Conference, in August 1943, gave voice to the collective anguish of American Jewry over the full-scale annihilation of the Jews of Europe by the Nazis. The horror of the Holocaust shaped and galvanized American Zionism. It convinced many previously hostile or neutral American Jews that statehood was the best answer to the plight of the Jews of Europe. It catapulted Abba Hillel Silver and his fellow-activists to power and enabled them to transform the Zionist movement into a powerful force not only in the Jewish community but in the wider arena of American politics. For example, the new sensibility was embraced by President Harry S. Truman, who overrode his vehemently anti-Zionist State Department.[3]

Conflict as total war

The fighting between the Yishuv and the Palestinians, November 1947-14 May 1948, and the war between Israel and invading Arab armies, 15 May 1948-July 1949, represented a total war, as did the Six Day War pf 1967. The life and death of Israel were at stake and required the mobilization of not only the military but also the civilian population, the economy, and the social and political institutions of the Jewish community—as well as mobilizing support from the diaspora in the United States. These crises are a central part of Zionist memories and identity, in combination with memory of the Holocaust, and permanently shaped the Israeli-Arab situation as well as the evolution of the Israeli and Palestinian societies.[4]


Zionism, and Israel, are based on the connection between the Jewish religion and 'Jewishness,' which gives Israel and Zionism 'extraterritorial' power and rights ranging outside the country. This is similar to the ideologies dominant in Ireland, Tibet, and Armenia, where nationalist movements and nation-states are closely linked to religious heritage, a culture of forced diaspora, and the 'extraterritorial' power of their cultural or ethnic identities.

Opposition to Zionism

With few exceptions, Muslims around the world are hostile to Zionism and Israel, often to the point of promising the destruction of the state. The Palestinian Arabs, many of whom fled during the unrest that followed the reestablishment of the Israeli state are among those opposed to its existence, as are many other Arabs who are allied with them.

Since the 1960s anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism formed part of a larger ideological package consisting of anticolonialism, anticapitalism, and a deep suspicion of US policies. In the eyes of members of the developing countries, Jews became a symbol of the West and legitimate targets for hatred.

Iran espouses the most radical anti-Israeli or anti-Zionist position in the Muslim Middle East, calling for the elimination of Israel. Drawing on anti-Jewish traditions in Shi`i Islam, Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, maintained that Zionism is the culmination of the Jewish-Christian conspiracy against Islam and undermines its historical mission. Fusing together Islamic and European anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist ideologies, Iran became a disseminator of Holocaust denial in the Middle East and a sponsor of Western Holocaust deniers. Iran's Holocaust denial, which aims at demolishing the legitimacy of the Jewish state, denies Jewish history and deprives the Jews of their human dignity by presenting their worst tragedy as a scam[5]

Zionism is sharply criticized in the U.S. and Europe by non-Jews who believe that Palestinians are poorly treated by Israel. In the U.S. other critics complain that pro-Israeli interest groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee have an excessive amount of influence over US policy. In general, most of the left-wing parties in Europe today oppose Zionism and are hostile to Israel.

Jewish anti-Zionism

In the United States and Europe, until World War II the Reform Jews generally opposed Zionism—often denouncing it because it was the opposite of assimilation and American identity. In the U.S. opposition was centered in the American Council for Judaism.[6] With the establishment of Israel in 1948 the opposition softened, and when the Six Day War in 1967 showed Israel was vulnerable to attack, most previously negative Jews became supportive.[7]

In the U.S., many leftist Jews such as Noam Chomsky are hostile to Israel, and are often very friendly to Hamas and the Palestinian cause.

In Israel a small minority of religious Jews, most prominently the Neturei Karta sect, are anti-Zionist for theological reasons. After the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, three important secular Jewish groups opposed an all-Jewish nation state because it was too religious. The Jewish Labor Bund retained its long-standing critical view of Zionism. Together with the Communist Party of Israel and the socialist Matzpen organization, it fought against Zionism both outside and inside Israel. The Bund challenged Israel's domination over the Jewish diaspora, its discrimination against Arabs in Israel, and its refusal to grant the Palestinians the right to self-determination. However, because of an understanding with the Communists, the Bund was not able to proclaim its ideas in the Israeli Knesset. The Bund remained a minor organization in Israel that had only limited success in the promotion of the Yiddish language and culture. The most important ideological change in the period 1948-72 was the strengthening of the right-wing and social democratic currents in the party. As regards the Bund's approach to the question of Israel/Palestine, the Bund's most significant shift was from advocating a binational federated state to advocating a federation of two nation-states.

Christian Zionists

See: Christian Zionism

The movement was theoretical and theological until recent decades, when it became the basis for widespread support for Israel among American Fundamentalists.

Further reading

  • Brenner, Michael, and Shelley Frisch. Zionism: A Brief History (2003) excerpt and text search
  • Cohen, Naomi. The Americanization of Zionism, 1897-1948 (2003). 304 pp. essays on specialized topics
  • Laqueuer, Walter. A History of Zionism: From the French Revolution to the Establishment of the State of Israel (2003) good history by a leading scholar excerpt and text search
  • Medoff, Rafael. "Recent Trends in the Historiography of American Zionism," American Jewish History 86 (March 1998), 117-134.
  • Sachar, Howard M. A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time (2007) excerpt and text search
  • Urofsky, Melvin I. American Zionism from Herzl to the Holocaust (1995), the standard history
  • Wigoder, Geoffrey, ed. New Encyclopedia of Zionism and Israel (2nd ed. 2 vol. 1994); 1521pp

Primary sources

  • Hertzberg, Arthur. The Zionist Idea: A Historical Analysis and Reader (1997), 648pp, major primary sources plus very good introduction

See also

Next Year in Jerusalem by Yitzchak Ben Yehuda.

External links


  1. Britain was in control of Palestine from 1917 to 1948, and from 1922 Britain had a mandate to rule from the League of Nations.
  2. Urofsky (1995)
  3. The State Department wanted good relations with the Arabs of the Middle East; the plight of the Jews was not a priority in Foggy Bottom.
  4. Moshe Naor, "Israel's 1948 War of Independence as a Total War," Journal of Contemporary History 2008 43(2): 241-257
  5. Meir Litvak, “The Islamic Republic of Iran and the Holocaust: Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism,” ‘’Journal of Israeli History’‘ 2006 25(1): 267-284.
  6. Thomas A. Kolsky, Jews Against Zionism: The American Council for Judaism, 1942-1948 (1990).
  7. Ilan Kaisar, "Mobilizing American Jewish Liberals to Support American Zionism," The Journal of Israeli History (1994) 15:231-256;