Nationalism and Ethnicity: Zionism

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Nationalism and Ethnicity: Zionism

Zionism is an ethno-national ideology and a social movement that aimed to create and sustain a homeland for the Jewish people in the land of Zion (Palestine). Ideologically, Zionism advocated the right of (national) self-determination for the (ethnic) Jewish people; practically, it sought to create a Jewish demographic preponderance in Zion. Emerging in the late nineteenth century, Zionism reached its historical apex in 1948 with the establishment of the State of Israel, but Zionism as a movement continues, with a congress meeting every two years to preserve and promote the unity of the Jewish people and the centrality of Israel in Jewish life. Furthermore, opponents of Israel still refer to the state as the “Zionist entity.” Contested from its outset, the Zionist movement has faced numerous challenges from within and without, sparking popular controversy amongst the public, the media, and academia. This entry traces the emergence, realization, and, briefly, the consolidation of the Zionist idea and praxis.

Emergence: From Ethno-religion to Ethno-nationalism (the Nineteenth Century)

Zionism emerged in response to the challenges of modernity. In 1800, Jews worldwide numbered approximately 2.5 million, with about one million living in the Middle East, and the rest in Europe. The industrialization of Europe brought about a geo-demographic upheaval. By 1881, the year usually depicted as the onset of Zionism, while Jews in the Middle East still numbered one million, in Europe their number had soared to nearly seven million, the vast majority living in Eastern Europe. Zionism surfaced here and, almost concomitantly, in Central and Western Europe for distinct but interrelated reasons. Despite this enormous increase in population, modernity signaled to European Jews not only opportunities, but acute, often existential, perils.

Until modern times, the Jews preserved, and were preserved by, an ethno-religious tradition bolstered by the isolation imposed on them by their host countries. Their ethnic identity encompassed a sense of kinship, as if belonging to one extended family. Jewish peoplehood is predicated on this self-perception of a “fictive super-family” (this intersubjective view makes the community an ethnic rather than an objective race). The key marker of Jewish peoplehood had been religion: the metaphysical belief and the routine praxis of Judaism was to believe in God and to follow his commandments. But the wave of nationalism that followed the Enlightenment challenged the ethno-religious synergy: ethnicity became the harbinger of the nation, and religion was often depicted as a relic of the premodern past. The tension between Jewishness (the ethnic identity) and Judaism (the religious dimension) came to a head: can (should) a Jew be secular? Conversely, can one maintain Jewish religious belief without being part of the (ethnic) Jewish people? These quandaries raised the question: should Jews retain their unique collectivity and, if so, how? The “should” preoccupied Jews in Western and Central Europe; the “how” preoccupied Eastern European Jews.

In Western and Central Europe, the process of emancipation dominated the sociopolitical agenda. Beginning in France in the late eighteenth century, Jews were gradually granted full and equal citizenship. Freed from the ghettos, Jews were faced with preserving a unique collectivity while integrating into the general population. Integration was characterized by urbanization, secularization, and education. Trade and banking in particular provided a fast track to social mobility. Jews began to make their mark in cultural and intellectual life, in politics, and even in the army.

But integration came with a price: for a significant minority, it prescribed assimilation. Radical assimilation endorsed conversion, cutting ties with Judaism and Jewishness in an attempt to integrate fully into the general society. A more moderate view of assimilation proposed divorcing religion from ethnicity, adhering to the former but renouncing the latter, following the call of Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1786), the forerunner and founder of the Haskalah (the Jewish Enlightenment movement). Mendelssohn had sought to revive Jewish religion and culture (reinterpreted to fit modernity), but he identified with the German people. This path eventually led to the formation of such movements as Reform and Conservative Judaism, which later flourished in the United States.

Zionism in Central and Western Europe emerged against this backdrop. Primarily a product of disillusionment, it increasingly saw emancipation as a dead end. The leading figure in this national reawakening was Theodor Herzl (1860–1904), a Hungarian-born journalist who became the father of political Zionism. The Dreyfus affair persuaded Herzl that emancipation could not end anti-Semitism, and assimilation was accordingly futile. Only the establishment of a Jewish state could offer a real solution to the Jewish problem. The year following the publication of Herzl’s Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), he convened the first World Zionist Congress (1897) in Basel, Switzerland. The Basel Program stipulated that “Zionism aims at establishing for the Jewish people a publicly and legally assured home in Palestine.” This remained the primary goal of Zionism.

Though most of the first Congress’s participants were from Eastern Europe, their path to Zionism differed from that of their Western European counterparts. In Russia, where by the late nineteenth century more than five million Jews lived, there was no emancipation until the 1917 revolution. Consequently, assimilation was rarely perceived as a viable option by Jews in Eastern Europe. Economic hardship and waves of violent anti-Semitism triggered Jewish calls for new survival strategies, for both the individual and the collective. Zionism was but one of these. Most Eastern Europeans Jews chose to fight for their rights within their own countries or to decamp to the United States, which, between 1881 and 1914, absorbed some 2.5 million Jews.

A small minority, however, began to regard the fight (for rights in Europe) or flight (to the United States) as inapt strategies. Thus Leon Pinsker (1821–1891), a Russian-Polish scholar initially dedicated to integration in Russian society, became disillusioned following the pogroms of 1881 to 1882, and wrote Selbstemanzipation (Auto-emancipation), the first Zionist manifesto. Like Herzl, Pinsker saw anti-Semitism as a consequence of the anomaly of Jewish life, which could be normalized by establishing a homeland for the Jews.

Thus these two distinct societies converged in describing a similar predicament for Jews and prescribing a similar, Zionist, solution. Religious identity became subservient to a Jewish ethnic identity. At the outset of The Jewish State, Herzl proclaimed: “We are a people’one people [ein Volk]” (p. 76). The next step led naturally to a national conclusion; the self-determination of nations, which had become a rallying cause in the mid-nineteenth century (most conspicuously in the 1848 “Spring of Nations”), became a core Zionist contention and its answer to the challenges of modernity.

Realization: From Nation to Nation-state (the First Half of the Twentieth Century)

Jewish ethno-national self-determination was constantly contested from both within and without, especially by the Arabs, who constituted an overwhelming majority in the Middle East. Although the idea of a Jewish national homeland was at times provisionally accepted by certain Arab leaders, most prominently Emir Feisal I (1885–1933; later the king of Iraq), the Arab elite and people largely rejected Jewish self-determination in Palestine. This rejection was not exclusive to Arabs; it was shared by others, among them many Jews. The assimilationists abhorred the notion of a Jewish nation. Others, notably the ultra-Orthodox, regarded Zionism as a sin against God. Still others argued that Jewish survival lay in attaining truly equal rights (or perhaps autonomy) in the Diaspora. Even among supporters of a Jewish homeland, some preferred a subsovereign, rather than a fully independent, polity. Indeed, Zionism was accepted among the majority of Jews only after the horrors of the Holocaust.

Within the gradually increasing Zionist camp there were lively debates regarding the movement’s prime purpose and strategies. Following are the five main points of contention within the Zionist movement.

The first point of contention concerned operative priorities: would the end-goal be better served by negotiating with empires to secure their agreement or by encouraging immigration, settlement, and land acquisition in Palestine? The debate focused on how to best allocate limited resources. Herzl was a strong proponent of the diplomatic course. His activities made the world aware of the Zionist cause and provided an organizational basis, but fell short of securing the desired charter. Chaim Weizmann (1874–1952; Israel’s first president) advocated a synergetic approach. His diplomatic efforts peaked with the Balfour Declaration (1917), wherein the British government stated that it “views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”

Diplomacy, however, was accompanied by increasing investment in immigration and settlement. The first two waves of Jewish immigration to Palestine, still under Ottoman rule, brought fewer than 80,000 to the land. With the 1923 British Mandate (which incorporated the Balfour Declaration) in place, immigration increased, peaking at 250,000 during the 1930s, driven mainly by anti-Semitism in Europe. (Doubtless, the closure of U.S. gates to mass immigration made Palestine a viable alternative.) Concomitantly, Zionists invested significant funds in the purchase of land from Arabs, who were, overall, more willing to sell than the Zionists were able to buy. Jewish settlements were established mainly in the coastal plain, in the Jezre’el and Huleh valleys, and along the Tel Aviv–Jerusalem road.

The second point of contention revolved around the movement’s raison d’etre: was Zionism primarily about Jewish physical-political survival or about cultural revival? Again, the heterogeneous and dynamic nature of the movement prescribed a hybrid approach. Although some Zionists argued that an independent Jewish polity was primarily a spiritual vehicle, necessary for reinventing the Jewish person and collective in modernity, most regarded culture as secondary to survival. The revival of Hebrew as an everyday language, beyond its basic liturgical usage in the Diaspora, played a pivotal role in the debate. Initiated by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858–1922) in the late nineteenth century, the Hebrew project triggered a “war of words.” Could Hebrew, should Hebrew, be the primary language of education? The language battle peaked from 1913 to 1914, with Hebrew supporters coming out on top.

Religion dominated a second important aspect of the cultural debate. Zionism preferred Jewishness to Judaism. Preference, however, is not a zero-sum game. Admittedly, the movement was comprised mainly of nonreligious Jews, many of whom regarded Judaism as a relic to be discarded by the new nation. The majority, however, were not outrightly hostile to religion. Pillars of Judaism, such as reading the Bible and observing the Sabbath, were reframed to fit into the largely secular ethno-national project. At the same time, religious Zionism (Mizrachi), founded in 1902 in defiance of ultra-Orthodox opposition, became an increasingly important minority within the movement.

The third tension lay between geography and demography. Should Zionism strive to obtain as much land as possible or was it more important to secure a Jewish majority in less territory, and thus enable a democratic Jewish polity? And could this only be in Zion? For many early Zionists, Herzl and Pinsker included, Zion was the preferable but not the only possible place for the realization of Jewish nationalism. Historical-religious links were important but not paramount. Zionists who emphasized the “problem of Jews” over the “problem of Judaism” (i.e., the survival of the community over the revival of its culture) were prepared to consider territories other than Palestine. If conditions elsewhere provided a more feasible locus for Zionism, they argued, realpolitik should prevail.

The matter came to the fore in the wake of the Kishinev pogroms, when Britain offered a portion of British East Africa to settle the Jewish people. The proposal, called the Uganda Program, was painfully accepted by the Zionist Congress (1903), though later (1905) rejected. Palestine thus remained the goal of Zionist aspirations and actions, but for most Zionists, while size mattered, it was more important to found a democratic Jewish state. The territorial debate resurfaced repeatedly: with the extraction of Transjordan from the British Mandate (1923), the Peel Commission partition plan (1937), and UN Resolution 181 (1947). Each time, most Zionists opted for less land in order to secure a viable independent Jewish polity. Even religious Zionism, which was rooted in the sacredness of the Land of Israel and, increasingly, in the notion of a “Greater Israel,” supported both the Uganda Program and the partition plan, following the majority view. Even the radical revisionist movement, which ideologically held fast to a “Greater Israel,” in its later incarnation (the Likud Party) was eventually willing to compromise land (such as with the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty of 1979).

The fourth point of contention related to the Zionist view of Jews living outside of Palestine. Zionism had emerged as a reaction to life in exile, and therefore one might have expected Zionists to negate Jewish life in the Diaspora. But most Zionists in Palestine retained ties with family left behind, and it was usually the conditions of life in Europe, not European Jews themselves, that were regarded as shameful. Finally, American Jewry was becoming an increasingly major exception to the rule, which gradually diminished the rule itself. However, Zionism was still regarded as the prime answer to persecution, and ultimately the Holocaust was and continues to be perceived as vindicating the Zionist premise that life in the Diaspora is innately perilous, and that without a state, Jewish existence, individual and communal alike, is at risk.

The last but certainly not the least of the tensions within Zionism concerned its relations with the Arabs. Contrary to a widespread perception, the oft-cited phrase “a land without a people for a people without a land” neither originated nor was popular among Zionists. The presence of an Arab majority in Palestine was recognized from the outset, as were the moral questions raised by choosing to settle there. Initially, many Zionists, including Herzl, believed that the political and economic blessings of modernization would help the Arab population accept a mutually beneficial coexistence. A few, notably David Ben-Gurion (1886–1973; Israel’s first prime minister), even held that local Arabs were in fact descendants of the ancient Hebrews, and thus ethnically linked to the Jewish people.

It was not until the demise of the Ottoman Empire, with the concomitant growth of Arab nationalism, that Arab opposition to Zionism was understood as the emergence of a fundamental conflict. Still, even during the British Mandate, there were Zionists who saw the conflict as either a terrible misunderstanding or a result of Zionist unwillingness to compromise. Some groups, notably the Marxist socialist Hashomer Hatzair (later, Mapam) and the more marginal Brit Shalom, even went so far as to suggest substituting a binational model for the mainstream Zionist advocacy of a Jewish independent polity. Ze’ev Jabotinsky (1880–1940) was among the first to reject, on principle, the validity of such compromises, outlining a stark description of and prescription for Jewish-Arab relations. In a milestone article, “The Iron Wall” (1923), Jabotinsky argued that no compromise could appease the Arabs, who would make peace only after losing any “spark of hope that they can get rid of us.” This view gradually became the hallmark of Zionism’s outlook vis-à-vis the Arabs. All attempts at compromise met with little or no response on the Arab side, and the path was paved to the overall clash of 1947 to 1948.

Consolidation: A State in Question

“At Basel I founded the Jewish State,” wrote Herzl following the Congress of 1897, “if I said this aloud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. Perhaps in five years, and certainly in fifty, everyone will agree” (Hazony 2000, pp. 123–124). Fifty years later, the United Nations voted to establish a Jewish state, and a year later, in the midst of war, it came to be. The British Mandate had allowed for internal Jewish and Arab self-government. While the Arabs failed to take advantage of this path to self-rule, the Zionist movement established sociopolitical organizations such as an internal government, political parties, labor unions, education, health care, and a defense force, and developed agriculture and industry. Thus, though the Jews were greatly outnumbered in 1948, the state was born and survived. Moreover, in the United States, home to the largest Jewish community outside Israel, Zionism—which was rejected by Reform Judaism, the largest group among American Jews—is now accepted and has even become a major part of Jewish life. In recent times, it has gained significant support from (largely evangelical) Christians who see Israel as some sort of cosmic clock. Consequently, America’s pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), has become a significant factor in U.S. politics. Prime facie, Zionism was realized and has broadened its base of support. Why, then, does it remain a contemporary issue?

First, the tensions within the movement discussed above continued after the founding of the state and still drive the political divisions in modern Israel. Second, there is an unavoidable tension between the ideal and the real. For example, although Israel has become home to the largest Jewish community in the world, most Jews still live outside Israel. A deeper reason, however, derives from the normative fragility of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Economically, Israel has the most robust market in the Middle East; militarily, it commands an advanced army and a vast arsenal of nuclear weapons. Levels of health and education measure up to those in other developed countries. Israel has a long tradition of peaceful governmental changes through democratic elections, and its citizens enjoy various liberal liberties. However, Israel’s right to exist is a continuous bone of contention, not least within Israel itself.

This normative challenge persists for three main reasons, including, first, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the derivative clash between Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews. While Israel’s right to exist was denied by Arab regimes from the outset (often by framing the Jewish state as an aggressive colonial enterprise), since 1967, with the occupation of the Gaza Strip and West Bank, leaders and public opinion in many non-Arab countries have likewise argued not just against Israel’s policy but its polity. Moreover, leaders of Israel’s substantial Arab minority increasingly call for substituting a binational state for a Jewish state (alongside a Palestinian one).

Second, Zionism’s ethno-national foundation and religious dimension have become heavily contested aspects of nationalism. Although many democratic states exhibit similar patterns of attachment to their ethnic communities in the diaspora (e.g., Bulgaria, Hungary, Ireland, Finland, Greece, Armenia, Germany), and many hold a revered place for religion in the official public space (e.g., Greece, Ireland, Norway, Poland, Italy), Israel is often depicted as unique (and thus nondemocratic) in both respects.

Third, Israel faces acute demographic problems. Zionism envisioned millions of European Jews immigrating to the Jewish state, securing its Jewish character and democratic regime. Jabotinsky, for example, wrote of a state where the prime minister would be a Jew, with an Arab deputy, or vice versa. The Holocaust shattered these dreams. Zionism’s ability to sustain its democratic-demographic balance depends increasingly on redrawn geopolitical lines.

Thus, while Zionism succeeded in creating Israel, Israel itself still finds a question mark hovering over its very existence.


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Uriel Abulof

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Nationalism and Ethnicity: Zionism