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What Does Zionism Really Mean?

Jewish refugees aboard the illegal immigrant ship
Jewish refugees aboard the illegal immigrant ship, the Theodor Herzl, attempt to enter what was then Palestine in 1947. The ship was named after the father of Zionism. Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Zionism is a nationalist movement that successfully established an independent state for the Jewish people in 1948 and continues to support Judaism's claim to Israel, its ancient homeland. It is also one of the most complex and controversial political ideas of the past 150 years.

Although Zionism draws its name from the biblical Mount Zion, it is not primarily a religious movement. True, the Jewish people have yearned for a return to Abraham's "Promised Land" for 2,000 years, but the leaders of the modern Zionist movement weren't driven by messianic zeal. In fact, most were secular and even agnostic Jews who identified the Jewish people as a nation rather than a religion. Zionism for them meant the creation of an independent political state for the Jewish nation.

Zionism itself wouldn't be problematic if the Jewish people were the only nation with claims on the Holy Land. Palestinian Arabs, who comprised the majority of people living in the land known as Palestine for centuries under the yoke of both the Ottoman and British empires, feel that the land should be rightfully theirs.

The result is one of the thorniest and most hotly debated political issues in the modern world. Zionists and other supporters of Israel argue that the safety and continued existence of the brutally persecuted Jewish people depends on the existence of a Jewish state, and the rightful place for that state is Judaism's ancestral homeland.

Meanwhile, Palestinians and their supporters cast Zionism as an imperialist (or worse, racist) movement that forcefully colonized Arab lands and subjugated the native Palestinian people as second-class citizens. Beyond those already striking divisions, decades of war and sectarian violence have inflicted deep emotional wounds that turn any discussion of Zionism into a potential minefield.

To understand how we got here, let's start with the birth of the modern Zionist movement, which took place in Europe at the tail end of the 19th century.

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The 'Jewish Question'

Nationalists movements swept across Europe in the early and mid-19th century. For centuries, different ethnic and cultural groups had been forced to live together under sprawling empires and kingdoms. But now, in places like Italy and Germany, new European states were forged around people with a shared language and cultural history.

This left some European Jews wondering, are we not also a nation? Jews were living in a scattered diaspora in nation-states that mostly treated them as suspect foreigners and occasionally welcomed them as full citizens, as France did in 1790.

Even before the eruption of violent anti-Jewish raids (pogroms) in Eastern Europe, Jewish intellectuals struggled with what was known as the "Jewish question" or the "Jewish problem." The issue was whether it was even possible for Jews to be truly free and equal in someone else's nation. And as anti-Semitic rhetoric and violence increased in the 19th century, this question became far more urgent.

"In many ways, modern Zionism was a response to the 'Jewish question,'" says Daniel Kotzin, a history professor at Medaille College in upstate New York, who has conducted extensive research on the Zionist movement and teaches a course on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "What is the place of Jews in Europe in a post-Enlightenment age?"

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The Dreyfus Affair and Theodore Herzl, the Father of Zionism

If Europe's Jews needed a catalyst to pursue independent nationhood, they found it in the Dreyfus Affair.

In 1894, a French army captain named Henry Dreyfus was falsely accused and convicted of treason in a highly publicized trial. Dreyfus, a secular Jew, became the target of openly anti-Semitic attacks in the press.

"Here is this army officer, the epitome of an emancipated and assimilated Jew," says Kotzin, but even he wasn't seen as a true Frenchman. "The people behind the treasonous accusations spread this false idea that Jews could never be part of the European nation state and should always be viewed with suspicion."

Among the journalists covering the Dreyfus Affair was an Austrian playwright named Theodore Herzl, who was living in Paris as a foreign correspondent for a Viennese newspaper. Herzl, himself a fully assimilated and nonreligious European Jew, wrote later that he identified deeply with Dreyfus. If a man of Dreyfus' stature wasn't immune from anti-Semitism, who was?

In 1896, Herzl published "Der Judenstaat" ("The Jewish State"), a call to Jewish nationhood that launched the modern Zionist movement. In it, Herzl argued that the establishment of an independent Jewish nation would not only be good for Jews, but good for Europe.

"Herzl said that anti-Semitism causes divisions within nations," says Kotzin. "If you can find a place for Jews to go, then that would solve a problem that was more than a 'Jewish problem.' It was a problem that plagued Europe."

Coming on the heels of the Dreyfus Affair, Herzl's writings found a ready audience among many Jewish intellectuals. In 1897, the First Zionist Congress met in Basel, Switzerland, and Herzl dedicated the rest of his short life — he died from a heart attack in 1904 — to securing political and financial support for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.

Kotzin points out that while Herzl is considered the father of the "Political Zionist" movement, there are several different streams of Zionism present in the 19th and 20th century. "Cultural Zionism," for example, was a movement led by the Ukrainian-born intellectual Ahad Ha-Am, which called for a spiritual rebirth of Judaism in Israel, not necessarily an independent state.

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The Balfour Declaration

To Zionists, there are few documents more important than a short letter written in 1917 by the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour, to Baron Lionel Walter Rothschild, heir to the Rothschild banking fortune and president of the British Zionist Federation.

The letter, known as the "Balfour Declaration," expresses a "declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations" and states that "His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object."

While far from a mandate or official compact, the Balfour letter was a huge step forward for the Zionist movement, which to that date had only sent small delegations of Jewish emigres to settle in Palestine, much to the dismay of Arab Palestinians.

"Here you have the most powerful empire in the world at the time saying to the Jewish people, we're going to help you find a home in your native land of Palestine," says Kotzin. "This was enormously important."

To critics of Zionism, the Balfour Declaration was a betrayal. Kotzin says that the British "were making promises left, right and center" between 1915 and 1917, including a promise to help create a pan-Arab state in the Middle East in return for Arab support fighting the Ottomans in World War I. Arab Palestinians kept their end of the bargain, and the Balfour Declaration essentially reneged on the deal.

Arab demonstration against Jewish immigration, 1938
Arabs demonstrate in the Old City of Jerusalem against the Jewish immigration to Palestine in 1937. The arrow points to Jamal al-Husayni, chairman of the Palestinian Arab Party.
AFP via Getty Images

When the British took control of Palestine after World War I, the stage was set for conflict. Jewish immigration to Palestine increased, and Arab resentment of Balfour's betrayal boiled over into violent clashes. The next two decades saw Arab riots and rebellions, and when the British tried to clamp down on Jewish immigration, Zionists also fought back.

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The Holocaust Changes Everything

In his book, "Zionism: A Very Short Introduction," Columbia University historian Michael Stanislawski says that until 1945, Zionism remained a "small minority movement" within the global Jewish community with loud critics from both the religious and secular camps. But the situation changed dramatically after the murder of 6 million Jews at the hands of the Nazis.

"[T]he need for an independent Jewish state to serve as a safe haven for Jews became not only widespread but central to Jewish consciousness throughout the world," writes Stanislawski.

Large numbers of Holocaust survivors were living at makeshift refugee camps in Europe while Allied governments argued over what to do with them. The British had all but cut off Jewish immigration to Palestine in 1939 in an effort to secure favor with Arab oil-producing nations, but U.S. President Harry Truman now called on Great Britain to allow 100,000 Jewish refugees to enter Palestine immediately, according to Stanislawski.

The British, already the target of Arab and Zionist attacks, saw no viable solution, so in 1947 they handed over the seething Jewish-Palestinian problem to the newly created United Nations.

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Founding of the State of Israel

In November 1947, the U.N. passed a resolution to partition or divide Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab, of roughly equal sizes (at the time the 1.85 million-strong population of Palestine was one-third Jewish and two-thirds Arab.) The Palestinians flatly rejected the U.N. plan and took up arms against the Zionists in what was essentially a civil war for control of the Holy Land.

As internal fighting raged on, the British set a date of May 15, 1948, for their official departure. The day before British armed forces left Palestine, the Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion declared the independence of the State of Israel, knowing full well that such a provocation would invite all-out war with neighboring Arab nations.

Stanislawski notes that Ben-Gurion's declaration makes no mention of God or the biblical promise of a Jewish homeland. That wasn't the Zionist message. Instead, Ben-Gurion declared the right of the Jews to establish Israel was "the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State."

As Ben-Gurion and the Zionists expected, five different Arab nations immediately declared war on the new state of Israel. To demonstrate the opposing perspectives of this war and its outcome, Israelis call it the "war of independence" and Arabs call it nakba or "the catastrophe."

It's not just the names that are different. As historian Benny Morris has demonstrated, there are also two starkly opposing narratives about how and why hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs left Palestine during the war and became refugees in Jordan and Syria.

In the Zionist account, Palestinians willingly fled the war zone because their Arab allies warned of an imminent invasion that would "drive the Jews into the sea." In the Palestinian account, the Israeli army raided their villages and brutally drove them out at gunpoint.

According to historical documents, there is clear evidence that some Palestinians fled the homes out of fear of violence by Israeli Defense Forces, both real and imagined. Morris, a defender of Israel, conceded in his book "1948: The First Arab-Israeli War," that "the Jews committed far more atrocities than the Arabs and killed far more civilians and PoWs in deliberate acts of brutality in the course of 1948."

Ultimately, Israel won the war and walked away with 50 percent more territory than it would have been granted by the U.N. partition plan. That territory did not yet include the so-called Occupied Territories in Gaza and the West Bank, which were added after Israel's victory in the Six-Day War of 1967.

Jews, flags, celebration Israeli occupation
Jews carry flags during celebrations marking the 53rd anniversary of the occupation of East Jerusalem by Israel (after the Six-Day War), in Jerusalem's Old City on May 21, 2020.
Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

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Zionism and Its Critics Today

The troubling "Jewish Question" that led to the creation of the Zionist movement has now become the "Palestinian Question." After decades of conflict, can Israelis and Palestinians find a way to live in peace?

Many left-leaning Israelis and other Zionists recognize the plight of the Palestinians and support a two-state solution similar to the U.N. partition, while more conservative backers of Israel oppose such concessions, claiming that Palestinian leaders and their Arab allies continue to seek the destruction of the Jewish homeland.

Not only is the history of Zionism complex and messy, but so are the emotions and opinions surrounding it. Criticism of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians has stoked protests on college campuses and calls for economic boycotts of Israel similar to those levied against South Africa during Apartheid. Such criticisms of Israel strike a nerve in Jewish supporters of Israel because the line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is dangerously thin.

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