Zionism is a noble aim. It is the ultimate expression of Jewish identity and sovereignty. But because of Islamic supremacists, Palestinian nationalists and left-wing Jew-haters, the words “Zionism” and “Zionist” are dirty words. People use the word “Zionist” as an insult, in the same way the words “fascist” and “Nazi” are hurled at anyone who dares to disagree with them. In the media and in political discourse, the word “Zionism” has acquired (unfairly) implications of “oppression” and “racism.”
Zionism – both as word and as concept – needs to be reclaimed by those who support Israel. “Zionism” and “Zionist” must be relegitimised so that they can be once again used in public discourse without negative connotations. But first of all, we must understand what Zionism is and grapple with the complexity of the term. After all, it means slightly different things to different people.
So what is Zionism? Zionism derives from the word Zion, which is the Hebrew name for the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and was the seat of the first and second Holy Temple. It is the most holy place in the world for Jews, seen as the connection between God and humanity. At its simplest, Zionism is a nationalist movement of Jews that supports the creation of a Jewish homeland in the territory defined as the Eretz Israel.
Theodor Herzl, the father of modern political Zionism, formed the World Zionist Organization and promoted Jewish migration to “Palestine” in an effort to form a Jewish state. His vision was to secure international legitimacy for the right of the Jewish people to a state of their own and actually building the national home.
Anti-Semites, however, fail to see the positive connection between Jewish nationalism and Zion. Instead, they derive their definition of Zionism from the notorious anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which purports to describe a Jewish plan for global domination. It is still widely available today, especially in the Middle East. Indeed, many Arab and Muslim regimes and leaders have endorsed the book as authentic. The 1988 charter of Hamas infamously states that The Protocols of the Elders of Zion embodies the global plan of the Zionists.
In order to circumvent the erroneous definition of Zionism found in the The Protocols, we must understand the many different and positive types of Zionism that have inspired and galvanised Jews throughout history.
Ancient Zionism is the name given to the biblical origins of the Jewish people’s connection to the Eretz Israel. The first “Zionist” was God who ordered Abraham to leave his father’s home and to travel to Canaan, where God said, “To your offspring I will give this land” (Genesis 12:3-7) and “I will give to you and to your offspring […] the land of Canaan as an everlasting possession (17:8). The key text of Ancient Zionism is the Tanakh. The yearning for the land of Israel can be found in the Jewish songbook, the Psalms: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem” or “when the Lord brings about our return to Zion, we will be like dreamers.” Jewish benedictions (blessings) also hope for the rebuilding of Jerusalem.
The bond between people and land is expressed through the literature of the Bible (and subsequent Jewish writings) and was strong enough to maintain a sense of national identity following the destruction of Judea and Jerusalem by the Romans in the first century. As a people, the Jews left Israel neither spiritually nor physically. Even after the Roman invasion, a remnant of Jews remained, particularly in Galilee.
Over the centuries individual Jews or Jews in their hundreds returned to the land of Israel. A Jewish community in Hebron was founded in the seventh century. In 1210, several hundred rabbis, known as the Ba’alei Tosefot, re-settled in Israel. In 1263, Rabbi Nachmanides established a Sephardic community in Jerusalem. Spanish Jews came to Eretz Israel in the 15th and 16th centuries. In the 16th century, large numbers of Jews migrated to the northern city of Safed, which became a major centre of Jewish mysticism known as Kabbalah. and Polish Hassidic Jews arrived in the 18th century. Between 1808 and 1812 disciples of Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer settled in the Galilee before settling in Jerusalem. In the 1830s, Zvi Hirsch Kalischer, an Orthodox German rabbi, was in favour of the Jewish re-settlement of the Land of Israel in order to provide a home for the homeless eastern European Jews that would support itself by agriculture. He also favoured a Jewish military guard for the security of the Jewish colonies. Kalischer spearheaded a movement called the Lovers of Zion, the inspiration for what became known as practical Zionism (see below).
Religious Zionism maintains that Jewish nationality and the establishment of the State of Israel is a religious duty derived from the Torah. As opposed to some ultra-Orthodox Jews who claim the redemption of the Land of Israel will occur after the coming of the messiah, religious Zionists maintain that human acts of redeeming Eretz Israel will bring about the messiah. Religious Zionists form the backbone of the settler movement in Judea and Samaria.
Political Zionism stressed the importance of political action and deemed the attainment of political rights in “Palestine” a prerequisite for the fulfilment of the Zionist enterprise. Political Zionism is linked to the name of Theodor Herzl, who considered the Jewish problem a political one that should be solved by overt action in the international arena. His aim was to obtain a charter, recognised by the world leadership, granting the Jews sovereignty in a territory owned by Jews. The Basle Program, drawn up in accordance with these principles, states that Zionism aims to establish “a secure haven, under public law, for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel.” Organisational and economic mechanisms such as the Zionist Organization and the Jewish National Fund were established to carry out this program. Interestingly, Herzl wasn’t particularly interested in reviving Hebrew as a national language. Indeed, some Zionists professed a preference for German.
Practical Zionism emphasised the practical (rather than the political) means of attaining Zionist goals, such as immigration to Eretz Israel, rural and agricultural settlement and educational institutions. This approach originated in the Hibbat Zion or Lovers of Zion movement in the 1880s. This movement, which preceded Herzl’s political Zionism, was established in Eastern European countries in the early 1880s. After Herzl’s death in 1904, practical Zionism gained strength. The champions of this doctrine were the members of the Second Aliyah, who settled in Palestine at this time. They founded rural settlements, some along cooperative principles. They built modern towns and established the first industrial enterprises.
Later on a combination of these two main approaches was produced and is known as Synthetic Zionism. This 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. This merger advocated political activity coupled with practical endeavour in Eretz Israel. It also stressed Zionist activity in the Diaspora, such as modernised education, collecting money for the Jewish National Fund and active participation in national and local elections.
Cultural Zionism was an ideology espoused by Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg in the late 19th and early 20th century. He believed that the Zionist movement should place its emphasis on the development of a Jewish national culture. Although national independence was important, the majority (or a significant bloc) of Jews would remain outside of the land of Israel. Therefore, Israel should become a cultural and spiritual centre that is beacon to the world. He promulgated the view that Hebrew should be revived as a spoken language for “Palestinian” and diaspora Jews in order to create a genuine Hebrew literary culture. In this regard, Ginsberg was highly influential, especially since Herzl didn’t have much use for Hebrew.
Labor Zionism was the belief that a Jewish state would not be created simply by appealing to the international community or to Britain, but rather that a Jewish state could only be created through the efforts of the Jewish working class settling in Eretz Israel and constructing a state through the creation of a progressive Jewish society with rural kibbutzim, cooperative agricultural communities and an urban Jewish proletariat. Originally proponents of socialism and a Greater Israel, modern Labor Zionists, such as the Labor Party, tend to be favourable towards capitalism and the two-state solution.
Revisionist Zionism was initially led by Ze’ev Jabotinsky. His foremost political objective was to maintain the territorial integrity of the historical land of Israel and to establish a Jewish state with a Jewish majority on both sides of the River Jordan. The idea of partitioning the land was anathema and so Jabotinsky and his followers rejected proposals to divide “Palestine” into an Arab state and a Jewish state. Revisionist Zionism supported firm military action against the Arab gangs that attacked the Yishuv in Palestine. This hardline position led to split in the movement and some members established the Irgun, a paramilitary group. Predominantly secular in outlook, revisionist Zionists supported economic liberalism and opposed Labor Zionism. Revisionism is the precursor of the Likud Party.
Revolutionary Zionism views Zionism as a revolutionary struggle to ingather the Jewish exiles from the Diaspora, revive the Hebrew language as a spoken language and re-establish a Jewish kingdom in the Land of Israel. As members of Lehi (a militant Zionist group) during the 1940s, many adherents of Revolutionary Zionism engaged in guerrilla warfare against the British administration in an effort to end the British Mandate of Palestine and pave the way for Jewish political independence. Many revolutionary Zionists envisaged a kingdom of Israel rather than a state, with a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem. Revolutionary Zionists generally espouse anti-imperialist political views, thereby defying left/right categorization.
Christian Zionism (formerly known as Restorationism) is a belief among some (especially conservative evangelical) Christians that the return of the Jews to the land of Israel is in accordance with Biblical prophecy. Some Christian Zionists believe that the “ingathering” of Jews in Israel is a prerequisite for the Second Coming of Jesus.
Muslim Zionism is very rare but growing. Pro-Israel advocacy groups such as Arabs for Israel and British Muslims for Israel have been formed within the past ten years. Individual Muslims who dare to publicly support Zionism are former radical Islamist Ed Husain and the Bangladeshi journalist Salah Choudhury. And there are a number of Muslim clerics (such as Britain’s Imam Dr Muhammad Al-Hussaini) who believe that the return of the Jews to the Holy Land is in accordance with the teachings of Islam (see Qur’an 5:21). Kurds, Berbers and Circassians (all of whom are non-Arab Muslims) have voiced support for Israel. The Arab Druze population in Israel is highly supportive of Zionism. Many Druze have attained top positions in Israeli politics and serve in the Israel Defense Forces. There is also a growing number of Arab Christians in Israel who recognize the Jewish character of Israel and want to enlist in the IDF.
What does Zionism mean today? Is it still relevant? In my mind, the importance of Zionism is demonstrated by the growing number of Jews leaving France for Israel.
Indeed, the persistent stain of anti-Semitism in the fabric of European society demonstrates the importance of the Zionist project. Following the attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris in which four Jews were killed, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said, “Israel is not just the place in whose direction you pray, the state of Israel is your home.” He has a point.
Is Israel any safer than France? Perhaps not. After all, terror attacks in Jerusalem and rockets from Gaza are occasional hazards. But at least Israel is home. And it’s a home where Jews have the right to govern themselves, to practice their religion and maintain their identity. Isn’t this what Zionism is about?
Of course, America is always an option for those who wish to leave Europe. But America has its own problems with anti-Semitism, anti-Israel boycotters and Islamic terrorism. Put simply, Israel is the only place in the world where the Jewish people are free to live as Jews. The importance of this cannot be underestimated, especially at a time when Islamic terrorism is plaguing the West.
Some may argue that leaving Europe is an admission of defeat. I would argue that it is an opportunity to live in a society where Jewishness is the norm, not the exception. I would also add that returning to Israel would greatly help the Jewish state gain the upper hand in the demographic stakes.
Zionism has nothing do with global domination or oppression of the Palestinians. It is about one thing and one thing only: the survival of a Jewish homeland in a world where anti-Semitism refuses to go away.