Zionism – An Introduction

The land of Israel, nestled between Lebanon and Egypt, is the ancient homeland of the Jews. From 1200 to 586 BC, it served as their country. At the center of Israel lay Jerusalem, the capital city, also known as Zion. It was here in Israel that much of the Bible, the Jewish holy scripture and one of the most influential books in the world, was written. It was here that the famous prophets of the age – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Elijah – spoke to the Jewish people and beseeched them to mend their ways. It was here that the temple to the Jewish God was built. In 586 BC, the Babylonian empire destroyed all of Jerusalem including the temple and expelled most of the Jews there. Fortunately, the expulsion was of a short duration. Seventy years later, the Persian empire conquered the Babylonian one. In 538 AD, the ruler of the empire, Cyrus, granted the Jews permission to return to their homeland and rebuild their temple.

Thus began the “Second Temple” period. During this time, the country was occupied by a number of empires – the Persian (538-333 BC), the Greek (333-142 BC) and finally the Roman (63 BC – 70 AD). Most of the time, these empires let the Jews practice their religion freely without harassment. An exception to this rule happened when the Greek ruler Antiochus IV, tried to force the Jews to abandon their religion by legally banning critical Jewish religious commandments in 167 BC. This led to a revolt, known as the Maccabean revolt, in which the Jews gained political independence from the Greeks. This period known as the Hasmonean period (164 – 63 BC), which ended with the Roman conquest in 63 BC.

The Jews flourished in the second Temple era. At first, they were a small group, restricted to the area around Jerusalem near the center of the country. However, slowly but surely the Jewish population expanded and covered most of the country. It was at this time that Hebrew was converted from ancient Hebrew script to Aramaic script; this script is still used today, especially in Modern Israel. It was in this time that the “Oral Torah”, the interpretation and expansion of the Bible, was developed. Jewish literature flourished in this age, and the temple of this era was grander than ever before. Jews from all over the world, who had not settled in Israel, came to make pilgrimage to it and contributed to its upkeep. It was truly a magnet for Jewish life.

All this came to an end with the destruction of the second Temple at the hands of the Romans. Roman rule was very oppressive, including the repeated desecration of the Temple and general misrule, including outright theft and murder of Jews by the Romans. In 67 AD, things became unbearable, and the Jews revolted against the Romans (67 – 70 AD). Although initially successful, the Jews were crushed by the Roman armies, and Jerusalem itself was entirely destroyed. About 70 years later, the Jews made another attempt to revolt against the Romans, known as the Bar Kokhva revolt (132-135 AD). Once again, the Jews were crushed, and the devastation the Romans caused eclipsed that of the first revolt.

Shocked by this, Jewish leaders decided to abstain from any more revolts or active attempts to regain independence and rebuild the temple. Clearly, it was up to God to decide when they could return. Any attempt to do this prematurely would lead to a repeat of the Bar Kokhva debacle. Redemption would come from above, and the Jews’ task was to keep the memory alive and continue to pray to God to bring them back to Israel and rebuild the temple.

Ever since then, Jews have longed for a return to the land of Israel and the restoration of their ancient country. Although most of the Jews were dispersed throughout the world, they always wished to regain political and religious independence in their ancient homeland. All maintained this desire to return through prayer, ritual and belief. It was similar to a petitioner constantly bombarding the government (in this case God), hoping his request will be granted.

We will list only a few of the “petitions” here. Every year at the holiday of Passover, at the end of the traditional meal known as the seder, Jews would sing “Next Year in Jerusalem”. Part of the ”shemoneh esreh”, the daily obligatory prayer, includes requests from God to return the Jews to Israel and restore it to its former glory. This attachment was so strong that Jews often nicknamed their cities of residence after cities in Israel. For instance, Vilna, a major Jewish center in Lithuania, was named “Jerusalem of Lithuania” after the former capital of Israel.

Small groups of Jews even took the next step and returned physically, either individually or in groups. Returning to Israel often involved great risks, including the crossing of many borders, which at the time was quite hazardous and costly. Among the Jews who returned were some of Judaism’s greatest religious authorities, such as Nachmanides, Rabbi Joseph Karo, Rabbi Shlomo Luria and students of the Gaon of Vilna.

Nevertheless, most Jews remained outside of the country, in lands ruled by Christians or Muslims during the Middle Ages. Deprived of most rights, forced to wear humiliating clothing and often denied the right to work in respectable professions, Jews clung to the hope of Divine redemption. Even in the most difficult periods, when Jews were slaughtered wholesale or expelled from whole countries, they clung to the hope that God would eventually save them.

All this changed in the 18th-19th centuries, first in Christian Europe and then among Jews in Muslim lands. Jews, formerly second-class citizens with few rights, were given emancipation – the right to become full citizens in their respective countries. This placed Jews with a difficult dilemma, one which they deal with to this day – how to become full, integrated citizens without completely assimilating? Many tried to do both declaring themselves “German (or French &c) citizens of the Mosaic faith”. Thus they tried to balance their religious faith and traditions with being loyal citizens. While some left the faith completely, most Jews tried to maintain this balance between tradition and citizenship in one form or another. The Jews hoped that the era of discrimination was over and that they could now stand with pride as full members of their respective countries.

They were in for a rude surprise. Although Jews were legally emancipated, social discrimination of all kinds was rampant. Jews were still barred from many jobs and social groups. In the Russian empire, Jews were restricted in where they could live or work, and were often unjustly blamed for all the empire’s problems. In Germany, the cultural center of Europe, the term ”anti-semitism” (meaning hatred of Jews) was first coined (in 1879) by a hater of Jews. In France, the trial and expulsion of Alfred Dreyfuss, a Jew and a military officer, in 1894 for espionage (he was innocent) was accompanied by agitators yelling “death to the Jews!.” Worse still, racism – or the idea that European races are inherently superior to other peoples gained traction. Jews, who were considered part of the inferior “Semitic races” were one of the first targets of this hatred. Try though they might, the Jews’ countries of residence would not fully accept them.

This rude awakening led an increasing number of Jews to advocate a solution for the problem of the Jewish people in the 1880s. Integration was not working. Instead, the Jews should cease to be helpless minorities at the whim of other countries. Other peoples – such as Greece (1832), Italy (1870) – fought for and achieved political independence. Why should the Jews be any different? Surely it is time that the Jews “emancipated” themselves and became a sovereign nation, with its own language and culture. There was no better place to do this than in the Jews’ ancient homeland – Israel. Thus, Zionism was born.

Zionism is an ideology which rejected the passive longing for Zion, according to which God would do all the work. It advocated replacing it with actively reconstituting the Land of Israel as a political and cultural center for the Jewish people. Different streams of Zionism differed as to the how and the why. Some saw the solution as purely political, others saw the issue as a cultural issue, a matter for socialist solutions, or a catalyst for religious revival. Still others, especially those who lived in Muslim countries, were Zionists out of a simple and abiding love for the Jewish homeland. All, however, shared a conviction that the key to the Jewish people’s survival and flourishing in the modern world, filled with hatred and difficulties galore, hinged on the rebuilding of the ancient homeland.

Zionism is more than a political ideology. It was and is, in the words of scholar David Vital, a “revolution”. It is a movement of Jewish national revival, with its cornerstones being the Hebrew language, the Land of Israel and the Jewish people. It has brought about the revival of a “dead language”, the establishment of an independent state, and the re-forging of an ancient nation.

Published: 21-06-2011