1. Religion & Spirituality
Send to a Friend via Email
Zionism
<Back to Last Page >     <Glossary Index>

 Related Terms
Judaism

 

Definition:
Zion, or Mount Zion, is an ancient Hebrew term referring to Jerusalem, but even in biblical times it had begun to symbolize the Jewish homeland as a whole (Psalm 137:1-6). Because of this, the term came to be used for Jewish yearning for a new homeland after they had been scattered around the world. Zionism as a particular doctrine developed in Europe in the 19th century, in large part due to the efforts of Theodor Herzl, and was a driving force behind the creation of Israel in 1948.

Politically, Zionism can be seen as a secularization of Jewish messianic hopes. Throughout Jewish history, Orthodox believers have awaited the appearance of a messiah, an event which would result in a renewed gathering of the Jewish people in their ancestral homeland. Over time, however, people began to grow impatient and many started to take an active hand in matters by arguing that this gathering needed to occur before the messiah came.

This development is very similar to that which happened with Christian millennialism in the 19th century as postmillennialism gave way to premillennialism. Eventually this acquired a secular character as well when Zionists no longer argued that the colonization of the ancestral home was a necessary precondition to traditional Jewish messianic hopes and instead made the political argument that such colonization was necessary for the Jews to find a place where they could be safe.

Of course, there is a lot of similarity between the two positions because both represent a longing for freedom, security and happiness - but whereas the earlier position sought this in a divinely created and supernaturally maintained context, the more recent position was one which Jews were encouraged to create for themselves, through their own efforts. As a result, Zionism can often be regarded as a Jewish form of civil religion.

Secular Zionism
The modern, secular form of Zionism got its start in 1896 when Theodor Herzl wrote a small pamphlet with the title "The Jewish State." In it Herzl described a plan for bringing the Jews of the world, scattered by the diaspora, back to their original home in Palestine where they could create a modern Jewish state. He expected it to be gradual - not a sudden wave of immigration but rather a slow reclamation of territory through immigration and growing families. As Herzl himself wrote:

We must not imagine the departure of the Jews to be a sudden one. It will be gradual, continuous, and will cover many decades. The poorest will go first and cultivate the soil. They will construct roads, bridges, railways, and telegraph installations, regulate rivers, and provide themselves with homesteads, all according to predetermined plans. Their labor will create trade, trade will create markets, and markets will attract new settlers - for every man will go voluntarily, at his own expense and his own risk. The labor invested in the soil will enhance its value, and the Jews will soon perceive that a new and permanent sphere of operation is opening here for that spirit of enterprise which has heretofore met only with hatred and obloquy.

Of course, there were some earlier writers who advocated Zionism in one form or another. For example, in 1862 Moses Hess, a socialist who collaborated with Karl Marx in the founding of the First International, wrote a Zionist manifesto entitled Rome and Jerusalem. In it he rejected the efforts of some Jews to separate themselves from their Jewish heritage in the hopes of working as part of a common effort for the universal emancipation of all people. Instead, Hess argued that people have rights not as part of some universal moral order but, rather, as part of organic national communities. Thus, for Jews to be emancipated, they must form just such a community - a Jewish community founded upon traditional Jewish ideas and morals.

Although such anti-universalist ideas may seem striking to readers today, they actually form an important component of Zionism. Without the premise that Jews cannot find true liberty in their adopted nations, there would be little reason to make the arduous and risky journey to a far-away land in order to form a new, Jewish state. Thus, it was quite normal to read similar ideas throughout early Zionist literature.

Unfortunately, this opposition to universalism also entailed an opposition to Jews assimilating into European culture, and because of this Zionists found themselves making common cause with anti-Semites who wanted to get rid of Jews as fast as possible. This would prove to be a terrible turn in Zionism because it meant that Zionists would do little to try and alleviate antisemitism in Europe - their answer was not to try and improve conditions for Jews, but to move them out of Europe. Victims of antisemitism were potential immigrants for the Jewish state; thus, antisemitism wasn't really all that bad.

Why did Herzl and others focus on Palestine? There were movements to encourage migration of Jews to other areas of the world, including the United States and Africa. If the point was simply to create a Jewish state where Jews would be safe and secure, wouldn't any location be sufficient? In some ways, that would be true - but Herzl had a large vision of migration and, to achieve that, he believed that he required something "extra" to encourage people to take the risk. That something extra was the imagined attraction which Jews would have for the ancestral and religious homeland in Palestine.

It should be noted that this secular form of Zionism is often also referred to as Socialist Zionism or Labor Zionism because so many of the earliest Zionists intended to create a Jewish state which was socialist in nature. The Jewish community was supposed to be comprised of a collective of workers and farmers, all laboring for the benefit of Jews in society. Moreover, it was believed that the very act of communal labor would strip away the various ways in which Jews had become alienated from themselves in traditional, capitalist European society. The result would be the "natural" Jew, completely in touch with his land and his community.

Reception to Zionism
It was originally assumed that Jewish settlers would be welcomed by the Jewish immigrants. The earliest immigrants believed that their purposes were compatible with those of the local Arab population because they would be united against the corrupt government of the Ottoman Empire. Herzl himself wrote that the Jews could be of great benefit:

We could offer the present authorities enormous advantages, assume part of the public debt, build new thoroughfares, which we ourselves would also require, and do many other things. The very creation of the Jewish State would be beneficial to neighboring lands, since the cultivation of a strip of land increases the values of its surrounding districts.

Unfortunately, reality did not match these high hopes - many Arabs opposed the influx of Jewish immigrants and, over time, even began to oppose them through force and violence. This was further exacerbated by the fact that some supporters of Zionism, like Baron Edumnd de Rothschild, saw the Jewish communities not as social experiments but rather as commercial ventures. He wanted to make money, and some of the ways he hoped to do that conflicted with the socialist goals of others.

For example, he sought to have the Jews run vineyards - an action which required Jews to work as managers of Arab labor rather than laboring themselves and which resulted in the generation of class distinctions between local Arab workers and immigrating Jewish managers. Jews would enter a community, buy up property from Arab landlords (creating economic prosperity for a few), and then kicked out the Arab workers and residents. If Arabs were allowed to return as laborers, they treated as second-class; very often, however, the land was reserved for Jewish settlers. It was all legal, but it is impossible to imagine the Arab residents as regarding it as very moral - especially when it happened over and over on a mass scale.

Over time this caused many Zionists to see their cause not simply in terms of creating a Jewish state, but also in terms of driving off Arab opposition. As a consequence, anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments came to be a part of the Zionist perspective. This only intensified after the Holocaust when more and more Jews - and not a few gentiles - came to believe that the survival of the Jewish people required the existence of a Jewish state.

This is not to say, however, that there weren't plenty of Zionists who actively warned against such developments. Many saw that the Jewish project required Jews to be able to live in peace and harmony with their Arab neighbors and that Jews needed to work hard to eliminate conflict, however real or perceived.

Revisionist Zionism
The sense that a Jewish state was necessary and needed quickly gave rise in the 1930s to a new form of Zionism, known as Revisionist Zionism. It was still largely secular in nature, but it abandoned Herzl's earlier idea that the creation of a Jewish state would require a great deal of time as Jews gradually immigrated to Palestine and became a majority in the population.

According to Revisionist Zionists, a Jewish state needed to be created right away - and through force, if that was the only way to eliminate local Arab resistance. This movement was led most publicly by Vladimir Jabotinsky who argued that a massive population transfer of Jews to Palestine and Arabs out of Palestine was the only solution. According to Jabotinsky:

It is quite understandable that the Arabs of Palestine also prefer to be the Arab state No. 4, or No. 6 - that I understand. But when the Arab claim is confronted with our Jewish demand to be saved, it is like the claims of appetite versus the claims of starvation. ...What I do not deny is that in that process the Arabs of Palestine will necessarily become a minority in the country. I do deny that that is a hardship. It is not a hardship on any race, any nation, possessing so many national states now and so many more national states in the future. One fraction, one branch of that race, and not a big one, will have to live in someone else's state: Well, that is the case with all the mightiest nations in the world.

Jabotinsky was a staunch advocate of the idea that Jews constituted an organic community which required an independent nation ruled by members of that community and for the benefit of members of that race. In this, he adopted much from the perspective of European fascists who were also enthralled by the ideals of romantic vision of an organic community. For example in his description of fascist Italy he wrote:

...the land of industry and cars and electricity, it is not just the promenade for international do-nothings who look for aesthetic recreation. The New Italian is organized and orderly, meticulous in his accounts - a builder and a conqueror, obstinate and cruel. This is the first origin of fascism.

Jabotinsky openly admired those who used political power and military force in defense of and support of their racial communities. It should be noted that two of Jabotinsky's followers were Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, both of whom became Prime Ministers of Israel in later years.

Religious Zionism
Although orthodox believers had always longed for the establishment of a new Jewish state in Palestine, they believed that it would occur through divine intervention, not through political maneuvering and the efforts of secular Jews. Orthodox leaders frequently referred to the Babylonian Talmud which records Jews swearing three oaths to God at the beginning of their exile: to refrain from hastening the promised restoration of the land on their own, to refrain from attempting to regain possession of their land, and to refrain from rebellion against the political leaders in any nation they lived in.

Indeed, because the diaspora was believed to be God's punishment for their sins, it was thought by Orthodox Jews that any attempt to evade that punishment and create a Jewish state was itself sinful. However, once they saw that the Zionist efforts were meeting with success, they began to regard the creation of Israel as the Will of God and adopted it as their own cause, although they read it in religious rather than secular terms.

This perspective really came to power after the Six Day War in 1967 when Jewish forces managed to achieve a stunning victory over Arab armies and managed to recapture significant portions of ancient "Biblical territory." Throughout the 1970s new messianic Jewish groups were organized which advocated extending the reach of Israel into more and more of those Biblical territories. They believed that the victories of Israel were due to the active intervention of God and were a sign that the Jewish messiah is coming soon.

Religious Zionists rely heavily upon the Old Testament to establish both political and theological justification for establishing Jewish political and religious domination over the ancient Biblical lands. Of particular interest to them are the stories of how the Jews conquered Canaan after fleeing Egypt - the parallels between then and now for religious Jews should be obvious. A commonly cited passage comes from Numbers 33:

And the Lord spake unto Moses in the plains of Moab by Jordan near Jericho, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When ye are passed over Jordan into the land of Canaan; Then ye shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, and destroy all their pictures, and destroy all their molten images, and quite pluck down all their high places: And ye shall dispossess the inhabitants of the land, and dwell therein: for I have given you the land to possess it. And ye shall divide the land by lot for an inheritance among your families: and to the more ye shall give the more inheritance, and to the fewer ye shall give the less inheritance: every man's inheritance shall be in the place where his lot falleth; according to the tribes of your fathers ye shall inherit. But if ye will not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you; then it shall come to pass, that those which ye let remain of them shall be pricks in your eyes, and thorns in your sides, and shall vex you in the land wherein ye dwell. (Numbers 33: 50-55)

America, Christianity and Zionism
There has always been a great deal of support both for Zionism generally and Israel in particular among Christians in America. This fact has been somewhat puzzling to Arabs in the Middle East who fail to see why any such convergence of interests and views would ever occur - because of this, there has been a tendency to believe that there is a conspiracy of Jews who control American media and American politics, thus confusing and misleading the American people (who tend to be well liked by Arabs). How else to explain American and Christian support for Israel?

In fact, no conspiracies are necessary to explain what is going on - much mundane facts about America and American Christianity do the job just fine. The first thing which needs to be understood is the long-standing self-identification of American Christians as God's chosen people - in fact, as being literally a New Israel.

The Puritans and some other early Engligh colonists regularly referred to themselves as a "new Israel," repeating the biblical story of Exodus by establishing a "City on the Hill" which would serve as a moral and religious beacon for the rest of the world. This righteous society was destined by God to accomplish great things and defeat evil - an idea which found considerable political expression in the political doctrine of Manifest Destiny.

The American continent was treated as the Promised Land. The Native Americans were treated as the Canaanites, idolators who at were destined to be removed from the land so that God's chosen people could settle it and establish a godly society, or at worst were destined to be extermined - a fate which befell more than one group in the Old Testament.

What is important to understand here is that the Old Testament and the stories about what the Jews did were not read simply as mundane historical accounts. Instead, they were treated as templates for the ongoing struggle of good against evil, of Christianity against Satan. It wasn't history, it was current reality - what happened then was happening again and would continue to happen until Jesus returned again and God established his final sovereignty over the Earth. This is conception of history a set of patterns and events which continually recurr may seem alien to some, but it is a fundamental premise which lies behind much of the writing and thinking of fundamentalist and evangelical Christians throughout American history.

Although the religious aspects of this vision of American destiny have lessened over time in the words of various politicians, they have not disappeared altogether and its basic ideas remain prominent in American social and political life. Thus, it is not surprising that the "New Israel" of America should experience some sense of identification with the reestablishment of the "Old Israel" of Jews. Nevertheless, that isn't the only ingredient to America's support of Israel. There is also the issue of Armageddon.

Fundamentalist and evangelical Christians place a great deal of emphasis on the prophecies which can be found throughout the Bible, both in the Old and New Testaments. According to some, it is prophecized that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and Armageddon - the final battle between good and evil, between God and Satan - will only occur after the restoration of Israel as a homeland for the Jews.

According to such beliefs, the basic scenario will occur as follows: first, Israel is to be reestablished as a Jewish (i.e., non-Christian) state; second, Jews will rebuild Solomon's Temple at it's original site and restore the ancient practice of animal sacrifices; third there will be a period of tribulation during which the Antichrist will arrive to mislead both the Jews and the rest of the world; next Jesus will return to convert the Jews to the Truth Faith of Christianity and defeat the Antichrist.

That these events are destined to occur is a very popular and widespread belief among Christians in America, even those who would not necessarily identify themselves as fundamentalist or evengelical. Naturally, no one who believes this will consciously act in a way which might weaken Israel or cause it to disappear.

To see just how far this can go we need look no fruther than the writings of Hal Lindsey. During the 1970s, his book The Late Great Planet Earth was widely popular among Christians of all denominations in America. In it he describes the relationship between Biblical prophecy and contemporary political events and concludes that Israel is the center of everything - the key to the Second Coming of Christ and the battle between good and evil. He recommends unreserved support for Israel in everything it does in order to fight Satan's efforts to undermine Israel and prevent Jesus from returning.

Lindsey also urges Christians to support Jews in the rebuilding of Solomon's Temple, even though that would require the destruction of the al-Aqsa mosque, one of the most revered holy sites in Islam. Today, Lindsey's ideas continue to resonate among American Christians through the popular series of fictional books, Left Behind, written by Tim Lahaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. These best-selling novels purport to describe how events might proceed after the Rapture and during the final struggle between Christ and the Antichrist.

There are, of course, other reasons why America supports Israel - it is the only real democracy in the Middle East, for example, and there is certainly still some guilty over what happened to the Jews during World War II. These reasons cannot be underestimate, much less dismissed. Nevertheless, the above religious factors go a long way in explaining just how extreme the support of Israel can be and why, very often, American Christians ignore the things which the Israeli govenment has done wrong. There is no Jewish conspiracy to deceive Americas; rather, there is a blindness among American Christians which causes them to deceive themselves.

Zionism and Israel Today
The history of Zionism leads us to the question of just what is Israel? The answer to this will reveal quite a lot about the current problems in the Middle East - the conflict between Israel and Palestinians, the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and the conflict between Jews over Israel itself.

Within Zionism, there has been a tension between two different versions over the very nature of what a state is. On the one hand, we have the universlistic vision of the state in which the state exists to create a legal framework within which people from many different religious, ethnic, and political communities can work out common problems and develop common ideals about rights and laws.

This, of course, raises difficult questions about just what justifies things like national boundaries. What unites one "nation" as differentiated by another - language? History? Religion? Just how many cultural commonalities are necessary for a nation to exist, and how many fundamental differences can there be before a nation is split apart?

On the other hand, there is the particularlistic vision of statehood, according to which a nation exists as a consequence of an organic national community, united by bonds of blood, language, culture, religion, etc. This vision of statehood is a direct development of European racial thinking and racial ideology. At that time, nations like France and Germany existed as part of historical contingencies, but people of the rationalistic age of Enlightenment needed some rationalized reason why some national configurations existed rather than some other configurations - something to use in place of the traditional ideas which were falling away but which would allow them to preserve the status quo.

Racial ideology fit the bill perfectly - France and Germany existed as separate legal entities in order to preserve the organic communities of the French and German races. This lead to a variety of nationalist and independence movements around Europe - people who felt they had some ethnic identity began to feel that their community also deserved to have some measure of political independence. One of these movements was Zionism itself, and much of Zionism is informed by this perspective on the nature and role of a state.

Despite this, many Jews around the world and in Israel also hold to fundamental ideals of the more pluralistic vision of statehood - ideals like equal rights for everyone and that no one religious or ethnic group should be able to maintain a privileged status over everyone. The result of this is a tension among Jews over the nature of Israel. On the one hand, there is the feeling that Israel is violating basic moral standards when it gives Jews a privileged status - thus many Jews are critical when the Israeli government fails to protect the civil rights of Arab citizens.

On the other hand, there is the feeling that unless Israel remains a uniquely Jewish state, it won't survive at all - and if it doesn't survive, then the long-term survival of Jews as a whole is also threatened. This has led to vociferous opposition to structuring Israel as a single state governing both Jewish and Palestinian populations equally. A single nation with two peoples contradicts the idea of a nation as being the political expression of a single race.

Curiously, the idea of Israeli citizenship being based upon "race" or "blood" has been melded with orthodox definitions of Jewishness. The "Law of Return," passed in 1950, guaranteed that every Jew in the world would be permitted to come to Israel and claim citizenship. This principle, a consequence of racial ideas of community and nationhood, has been based upon the definition of "Jew" in Orthodox Rabbinical Law. Only those who have been born to a Jewish mother or who have converted to Judaism under the auspices of an Orthodox rabbi qualify as "Jews" under the Law of Return. Thus, for example, many Reform and Conservative Jews in America would not be able to claim Israeli citizenship.

Also Known As: none

Alternate Spellings: none

Common Misspellings: none

Related Resources:

What is Theism?
What is the difference between monotheism and monolatry? Between pantheism and panentheism? How about between animism and shamanism? Or theism and deism? What the heck is henotheism? For that matter, what is and is not a religion?

What is Religion?
A system of human beliefs, ideals and practices which is harder to define than it may at first appear.

<Back to Last Page >     <Glossary Index>

Discuss in my forum

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.