Zionism is a religious and political effort that brought thousands of Jews from around the world back to their ancient homeland in the Middle East and reestablished Israel as the central location for Jewish identity. While some critics call Zionism an aggressive and discriminatory ideology, the Zionist movement has successfully established a Jewish homeland in the nation of Israel.
What is Zionism?
Simply put, Zionism is a movement to recreate a Jewish presence in Israel. The name comes from the word “Zion,” which is a Hebrew term that refers to Jerusalem.
Throughout history, Jews have considered certain areas in Israel sacred—as do Christians and Muslims. The Torah, the Jewish religious text, depicts stories of ancient prophets who were instructed by their God to return to this homeland.
While the fundamental philosophies of the Zionist movement have existed for hundreds of years, modern Zionism formally took root in the late 19th century. Around that time, Jews throughout the world faced growing anti-Semitism.
Some historians believe that an increasingly tense atmosphere between Jews and Europeans may have triggered the Zionism movement. In one 1894 incident, a Jewish officer in the French army named Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused and convicted of treason. This event, which became known as the “Dreyfus Affair,” sparked outrage among Jewish people and many others.
Persecuted Jews who were struggling to salvage their identity began promoting the idea of returning to their homeland and restoring a Jewish culture there.
Modern Zionism was officially established as a political organization by Theodor Herzl in 1897. A Jewish journalist and political activist from Austria, Herzl believed that the Jewish population couldn’t survive if it didn’t have a nation of its own.
After the Dreyfus Affair, Herzl wrote Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), a pamphlet that called for political recognition of a Jewish homeland in the area then known as Palestine.
In 1897, Herzl organized the First Zionist Congress, which met in Basel, Switzerland. He also formed and became the first president of the World Zionist Organization.
Although Herzl died in 1904—years before Israel was officially declared a state—he’s often considered the father of modern Zionism.
The Balfour Declaration
In 1917, British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour wrote a letter to Baron Rothschild, a wealthy and prominent leader in the British Jewish community.
In the brief correspondence, Balfour expressed the British government’s support for the establishment of a Jewish home in Palestine. This letter was published in the press one week later and eventually became known as the “Balfour Declaration.”
The text was included in the Mandate for Palestine—a document issued by the League of Nations in 1923 that gave Great Britain the responsibility of establishing a Jewish national homeland in British-controlled Palestine.
Two well-known Zionists, Chaim Weizmann and Nahum Sokolow, played important roles in obtaining the Balfour Declaration.
Zionism and World War II
Many Jews living in Russia and Europe suffered horrific persecution and death during Russian pogroms and under Nazi rule. Most historians estimate that about 6 million Jews were killed in Europe during the Holocaust.
In the years before and during World War II, thousands of European Jews fled to Palestine or other regions to escape hostility. After the Holocaust ended, Zionist leaders actively promoted the idea of an independent Jewish nation.
With the end of Great Britain’s mandate in Palestine and the British army’s withdrawal, Israel was officially declared an independent state on May 14, 1948.
Jewish Resettlement in Israel
The rise of Zionism led to massive Jewish immigration into Israel. About 35,000 Jews relocated to the area between 1882 and 1903. Another 40,000 made their way to the homeland between 1904 and 1914.
Most Jews—about 57 percent of them—lived in Europe in 1939. However, by the end of World War II, only about 35 percent of the Jewish population still resided in European countries.
In 1949, more than 249,000 Jewish settlers moved to Israel. This was the largest number of immigrants to arrive in a single year.
The Jewish population in Israel increased from about 500,000 in 1945 to 5.6 million in 2010. Today, around 43 percent of the world’s Jews live in Israel.
The Current State of Zionism
Since it started more than 120 years ago, Zionism has evolved, and different ideologies—political, religious and cultural—within the Zionist movement have emerged.
Many self-proclaimed Zionists disagree with each other about fundamental principles. Some followers of Zionism are devoutly religious while others are more secular.
“Zionist lefts” typically want a less-religious government and support giving up some Israeli-controlled land in exchange for peace with Arab nations. “Zionist rights” defend their rights to land and prefer a government based strongly on Jewish religious traditions.
Advocates of the Zionist movement see it as an important effort to offer refuge to persecuted minorities and reestablish settlements in Israel. Critics, however, say it’s an extreme ideology that discriminates against non-Jews.
For example, under Israel’s 1950 Law of Return, Jews born anywhere in the world have the right to become an Israeli citizen, while other people aren’t granted this privilege.
Arabs and Palestinians living in and around Israel typically oppose Zionism. Many international Jews also disapprove of the movement because they don’t believe a national homeland is essential to their religion.
While this controversial movement continues to face criticism and challenges, there’s no denying that Zionism has successfully bolstered the Jewish population in Israel.
What is Zionism?: Vox Media.
History of Zionism: ReformJudiasm.org.
What is Zionism?: ProCon.org.
Israel Studies An Anthology: The History of Zionism: Jewish Virtual Library.
British Palestine Mandate: History and Overview: Jewish Virtual Library.
Mandatory Palestine: What It Was and Why It Matters: TIME.
The continuing decline of Europe’s Jewish population: Pew Research Center.
Is a Left Zionism Possible?: Dissent.