What Is Zionism?
This question is not as simple as it appears, and it quickly becomes apparent to the serious scholar that conducting a thorough study on the history of Zionism is difficult and complicated. Anyone who dips beneath the surface finds himself inundated by a startling amount of obstacles, including threats, botched information, and even terrorism. Even something as seemingly innocent as announcements on university campuses of panels on the subject can give rise to aggressive counteraction, including:
- Campaigns being formed to close off the discussion.
- Posters being torn down as fast as they are erected.
- Literature tables being vandalized.
- Articles appearing that accuse the speaker of anti-Semitism or (in the case of those who are ethnically Jewish) self-hatred.
What further exacerbates the difficulty is the fact that “Zionism” is hard to clearly define. It implies different things for a variety of people, and the reactions that it invokes largely depend on whether or not it is viewed as a harmful influence or as a beneficial humanitarian movement.
What Is A Zionist?
So then what is the definition of Zionism? In short, a Zionist is an individual who supports the Zionist political movement, which promotes the idea of the establishment and support of a national homeland for the Jewish people. It is now mostly concerned with the development of the modern state of Israel.
Historical and contemporary Zionism contains dozens of factions. However, they all unite around a common core—namely, the return of the Jewish people to their ancient territory in Palestine, where they believe they will have sovereignty, continued development of cultural identity, and protection from alien threats.
The term “Zionism” is derived from the Hebrew word Zion, which refers to the land of Jerusalem. One of the earliest uses of the term is attributed to Nathan Birnbaum, founder of a nationalist Jewish student’s movement called Kadimah; he uses the word in 1890 in his journal Selbstemanzipation (Self Emancipation).
A Zionist can be supported and opposed by associations that are not necessarily Jewish in nature. For example, throughout the years the Zionism definition has been extended to include Christianity.
What Is Christian Zionism?
Advocacy of Zionism among Christians arose after the Reformation, with the term “Christian Zionism” being commonly circulated around the mid-20th century. Since Christianity was born from Judaism, many Christians started to take a personal interest in the Jewish people, enflamed by a desire to repay their deep gratitude to the Jews for providing Christ, as well as other essential components of the Christian faith.
Christian Zionism is far more than an interest in a neighboring faith, however. It is a belief among an elect number of Christians that the return of the Jews to the Holy Land (as well as the erection of the State of Israel in the late 40’s) is the fulfilment of a Biblical prophecy. Some sects take this a step further by professing that not only is the return of the Jews to Israel in line with a biblical prophecy; they also believe that it is necessary for Jesus to return to Earth as its king.
Christian Zionists interpret the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) and the New Testament as prophetic texts that describe the events that will occur at the end of the world, and how Jesus will return from Heaven to rule the Earth. They interpret the books of Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Revelation as foreshadowing to this impending era.
This belief may have reached solidification during the time of the Reformation, but it can actually be traced back to the early Christian era. For example, Hippolytus and Irenaeus (despite contemporary unbelief) foresaw a Jewish return from exile. The majority of traditional Catholic thought, however, did not consider Zionism in any form.
The Founder of Zionism
Theodor Herzel is credited as the founder of the Zionist political movement. According to many accepted accounts, his Zionism resulted from witnessing the persecution of Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the army who was (allegedly) falsely accused and convicted of treason. Herzel also could have been significantly influenced by the election of the anti-Semitic Karl Luger, who became the mayor of Vienna. Regardless of what sparked his initial interest, Herzel became the figure that ignited the fire of political freedom, and he continues to be a symbol for the Jewish people today.
Herzel was born in Budapest in the year 1860 and educated as a secular Jew, although his grandfather had been a friend of a proto-Zionist (this fact may or may not have influenced Herzel’s interest in Zionism). Around 1878 his family moved to Vienna, where Herzel was able to study law. He graduated in 1884, but rather than pursuing law, decided to become a playwright and journalist.
He addressed the cultural alienation of the Jewish people in his play The Ghetto (1894), which narrated the troubles of Vienna Jewry, where both assimilation and conversion were rejected as solutions in the end. He hoped that this play would lead to a debate between Christians and Jews, and that they would be able to come to a solution based on tolerance and respect.
Igniting a Movement
As the years passed, Herzel became more convinced than ever that the Jewish people needed a home of their own. He concluded that anti-Jew sensibilities were always going to exist, that assimilation could not solve this problem, and that the Jews could gain acceptance in the world only if they stopped being an anomaly. He suggested that Jews come together so that their plight could be turned into a great force by establishing a Jewish state.
Herzel’s ideas did not find much support at the time, and he did not live to see his dream realized. Yet his political activity for Zionism set a foundation. He created a movement that unified the Jewish people, as well as many of the splintered Zionist factions. He prompted Zionists of every viewpoint and background to sit down and bind themselves to a single purpose.
A Symbol of Hope
Due to his vision and dedication, Herzel has since become the symbol of the Zionist movement for opponents and supporters alike. To anti-Zionists, he represents Zionist Colonialism. For extremely orthodox Jews, he is a symbol of evil. For Zionist supporters, he is the manifestation of cultural hope.
His memory has become deeply ingrained within Jewish culture; his name dominates offices of Israeli officials and Zionist organizations, and every fair sized town in Israel has a street dedicated to him. He is even something of a national holiday; the Israeli government declared that his birthday should be marked on the twelfth day of the Hebrew month, one week following the country’s independence day.
Supporters and Critics of Zionism
Supporters of Zionism say that Zionism is a worthwhile national liberation movement that is meant to return a socio-religious group to their abandoned homeland. From the beginning, Zionism found support among particular groups in Europe, especially in Germany. Although it is unlikely that all German Jews were Zionists, Germany was the center of the Zionist movement for quite a while.
Zionism has also been advocated within the United Kingdom, who has established The Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland. This organization is dedicated to educating the public on the good of Zionism, dispelling unfair criticisms, and “highlighting Israel’s positives.” The United States has also demonstrated support, though many American Jews seem to have supported Zionism as a solution for other Jews, rather than having any kind of personal connection to or interest in the movement itself.
For as many supporters as there are of Zionism, there are just as many opponents. These individuals label Zionism as a racist ideology that led to horrendous periods of violence, such as the expulsion of the population of Palestine. Kwame Ture states that Zionism and Israel suppresses and exploits Africans, defining it as philosophy that attempts “to convert a religion into a nationality.”
Misconceptions About Zionists
There are many misconceptions about Zionists, but listed below are some of the most common.
Religion and Zionism
Zionism is not a religious movement. It may be called political, cultural, or even social, but never religious. Coupled with this common misconception is the belief that Israel, as the central point of Zionism, is also the state of the Jewish religion. This is not the case. In fact, the Jewish religious leaders were initially against Zionism, and made multiple attempts to take over and direct it.
Zionists and Land
There are several exaggerations concerning Zionists and land. One is that the Zionists always had the intention of conquest, and that they planned to extend their borders throughout the Middle East. Those who advocate this view “prove” their accusations by stating that the Israel does not provide borders for their land within their constitution. These protestors fail to consider the fact that Israel does not have a constitution, and that most constitutions do not define state lines. It is true that Israel’s Declaration of Independence does not draw concrete borders, but neither does the United States in its Declaration of Independence.
Zionists and Arabs
Another accusation is that the Zionists plotted to violently expel the Arabs from Palestine in order to place their claim on that land themselves. This assertion is documented by statements of Zionists leaders made at different times in favor of transporting Arabs. Some Zionists leaders have supported expulsion of Arabs in order to claim Palestine, but there was never an official Zionist policy calling for the massive removal of Arabs. However, an official order called Plan Dalet (Plan D) was issued in the late 1940’s. This “called for temporary expulsion of inhabitants of areas where it was necessary to secure roads that communicated between Jewish towns. This was necessitated by the road ambushes set up by Arab inhabitants in those villages.”
Zionism and the Jewish People
Although “Zionist” and “Jews” are often used interchangeably, Zionists are not necessarily Jewish, and Zionism was never a representative view for all Jews. Zionists can be religious Jews, non-observant Jews, and non-Jewish individuals. In fact, some Jews take offense at being lumped together with Zionists, with studies showing that “Zionism” and “Jew’’ have negative connotations amongst Jewish individuals.
Zionism: Noble Movement or Harmful Social Influence?
When all is said and done, what was Zionism? Once it is stripped of the distortions forced upon it by hostile environments, Zionists reveals itself to be quite simple: it is nothing other than the inner expression of a people’s longing for their own land.
Like most political movements, Zionism is subject to abuse, prejudice, and historical misinterpretation. It is additionally subject to fanaticism, and supporters will often go too far in attempting to accomplish their movement’s goals and aspirations (it ought to be noted that this is not exclusive to Zionism). Yet the essence of Zionism should not be judged based on the actions of a handful of radicals. Every large organization is victim to members who take their mission too far; it does not make the entire movement invalid. It simply makes it human.
It is also important to remember that the roots of Zionism were peaceful, and that in the end, the Jewish longing for a homeland is not only natural, but understandable. Other nations have specific territories, and there is little reason for the Jewish people be excluded from this privilege. Like every other culture, the Jewish people desire a dwelling place that will allow them to grow as a nation and enable their future generations to prosper.