What Is Zionism?

Aaron Simons

Few words have become as flexible as ‘Zionism’. All at once, Zionism has become synonymous with Israel, nationalism, Jewish liberation, oppression, support for Israel, colonialism, Jewish identity, racism, anti-racism, nation-state theory, ultra-nationalism, ethnic exclusivism, Jewish heritage, occupation, territorial maximalism, and much else.

Any party with a stake in Israel and Palestine likes to claim and redefine the term as if that constitutes winning the debate. By rendering Zionism synonymous with support for Israel, sympathetic but critical voices are invalidated. By making Zionism and colonialism one and the same, there is no place for any sympathy with the Zionist narrative. By making Zionism and Judaism the same, any opposition to Zionism is construed as anti-Semitism.

Far from winning the debate, the politics of terminology over Zionism is largely a pathetic attempt to suppress debate. Instead of engaging with the issues at hand, debate is shut down, as the topic of the debate already comes preloaded with a final judgement. If someone says that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, any debate on Zionism is automatically shut down. Likewise, saying Zionism is colonialism does not win a debate, rather it just suppresses it. The merits and criticisms of Zionism cannot be discussed when the definition itself becomes a loaded one. Opposing views simply use different definitions and shout over each other at deafening volume.

To move away from the politics of terminology into genuine debate, it is worthwhile outlining a basic definition of Zionist ideology. This means looking not at actions or consequences of Zionism, or what has been done in the name of Zionism, or interpretations of Zionism, but at what the basic premises of Zionist ideology actually are.

Zionist ideology contains three key premises. Zionism claims that 1) the Jewish people 2) should have self-determination in a national home 3) in the land of Israel.

Like most ideologies, each premise here is a separate conceptual claim. If we are to have any meaningful discussion on what it means to be Zionist, we need a clear and nuanced understanding of what each principle entails.

Zionism’s first principle: the Jewish people

This is an often overlooked but nonetheless important aspect of Zionism. Zionism is Jewish nationalism, claiming that the Jews are a not merely a religious group, but a people or nation. Zionism argues firstly that modern Jewish identity has all the characteristics of nationhood: a shared history, culture, common identity, tradition, and religious heritage. The idea of the Jewish people is the first premise of Zionism, and a building block for its later arguments.

The principle of Jewish peoplehood today goes largely unchallenged, as it does accurately describe contemporary Jewish identity.  Historically, however, this was not always the case. Zionism triggered dramatic intra-communal debates on the nature of Jewish identity in the 1930s and 1940s, between those who claimed Jewish identity was solely religious and those who claimed it was national. Similarly, today many ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel are explicitly anti-Zionist, as they reject any idea that Jewish identity can be based on anything other than adherence to the laws of the Torah. The concept of Jewish peoplehood also has important implications for Israel as the Jewish state today, as it is this concept which defines the members of the national community.

Zionism’s second principle: self-determination in a national home

Zionism argues that the Jewish nation, like other nations, should have national self-determination in a national home. It is this principle which is at the core of Zionism, but also its lack of specificity places this principle at the centre of the various strands of Zionism. In its most basic form, this principle means the Jewish people should be free to live as they like, in control of their own lives, rather than relying on the benevolence of others as an ethno-national minority.

The various strands of Zionism diverge at this point. There is divergence over what political form the national home should take to fulfil the idea of self-determination. The political Zionism of Herzl argued that a Jewish state was required, whilst Ahad Ha’am’s vision of cultural Zionism argued a state was unnecessary. Many Jews envisioned a Jewish state but had no idea how it would come about, imagining decades of immigration under British or American control. Revisionist Zionism, led by Jabotinsky, argued for a romantic militaristic Jewish state based on an ‘Iron Wall’ against Arab opposition. The binationalist Zionists, such as Henrietta Szold and Judah Magnes, sought a single unitary state of Jews and Arabs. Radical socialist Zionism also sought one state based on the unity of the working classes.

There is also divergence at here over what principles the Jewish national home, and then the Jewish State, should embody. Labour Zionism argued that the Jewish state should be secular and socialist, based on the communal living of the kibbutz and moshav. Cultural Zionism saw the Jewish state as a means to inspire a national cultural and religious revival, educating the Jews of the diaspora. Religious Zionism saw the Jewish state as key to restoring the Jewish faith to a messianic age, and today sees settling in the biblical lands of Israel (the West Bank, or Judea and Samaria) as central to this goal. Liberal Zionism emphasises democratic values and the protection of human rights.

Zionism as a whole cannot be reduced to any of its individual interpretations. Zionism is only the broader principle from which all these interpretations are derived. The differing interpretations of Zionism remain at the core of Israeli politics today. Netanyahu’s Likud follow Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionism, sitting in coalition with the religious Zionist parties. Herzog’s Zionist Union is the inheritor of Labour Zionism, whilst Yesh Atid, Kadima, and Meretz all carry strands of liberal Zionism.

Zionism’s third principle: the land of Israel

Zionism holds that the location of the Jewish national home should be in the land of Israel. This is based on the presence and status of the land of Israel in Jewish texts, scripture, and history. Quite simply, the Jewish homeland could not be anywhere else. The importance of the land varies according to the strands of Zionism, ranking highest in religious Zionism due to its emphasis on the land’s biblical heritage.

Ideology in Context

None of this is intended to preclude criticism of Zionist ideology, or to whitewash the history of Zionism, or to invalidate interpretations of Zionism, critical or otherwise. Defining Zionism by its own ideological claims sets a common basis for what Zionism fundamentally is. It does not mean that Zionism has to be accepted, or that it is free from judgement. Nor does it free Zionism from interpretation. Zionism can be interpreted both as a liberation movement and as a colonial movement, but neither interpretation fundamentally changes this definition.

What is required is an end to the politics of terminology, whereby interpretation and judgement are interwoven with definition. Redefining Zionism is not a substitute for argument; it is rhetorical isolationism. Attempting to redefine Zionism in this way simply fragments debate into a series of misfiring echo-chambers, each unable to engage with opposing views. If any substantive debate on Zionism is to occur, it is time to move beyond such pettiness.

Why Are Most Jews Zionist?

Noah Lachs and Joel Collick

It’s often glibly assumed that most Jews are Zionist simply because it says Jerusalem a few times in the Tanakh, or that Jews want to recreate a civilisation that faded away 2000 years ago.

Religious texts and geographical heritage do play a part in the Zionist narrative, but it is way off the mark to reduce Jewish support for Zionism to this. The attraction of Zionism is the product of the Jewish experience in past and present, as well as a reflection of the contemporary world.

It’s worth starting at Zionism’s core principle: that Jews constitute a nation in the world of nation-states. Zionism claims that Jewish identity is primarily national, rather than based on religious practice. The first principle of Zionism is Jewish peoplehood.

This principle resonates with most Jews today, for whom their Jewish identity is not simply a religion. As well as religious obligation, Jews share history, culture, tradition, language, heritage, and much more. Jewish peoplehood recognises the breadth of Jewish identity for both religious and secular Jews.

This is however only part of the story. Zionism does not have a monopoly on Jewish national identity. The Bundist movement, for example, made similar national claims. What distinguishes Zionism is its desire for a Jewish national home in the land of Israel.

Why do Jews desire a Jewish homeland?  Why do Zionist Jews place such high value on national self-determination? It is not, as some slurs suggest, due to a vision of ethno-supremacy.

Jews support the idea of a Jewish national home for two main reasons: the negative push of anti-Semitism, and the positive appeal of national self-determination. It is for these two reasons that Zionism cements itself in the rubric of Jewish identity, religious or otherwise.

The fate of the stateless Jew has been one of near-existential crisis. During the Medieval period, Jews were accused of using the blood of Christian children for ritual purposes as a pretext for anti-Semitic imprisonment, torture and murder. Jews were deprived of basic rights, expelled from major European countries, later ghettoised, and exploited economically.

The 19th century promised citizenship rights for some Jews, many of whom became more integrated into European society than ever before. However, Enlightenment liberalism failed to deliver. Jewish emancipation was largely contingent on assimilation and renunciation of one’s Jewishness. When that failed, dogmatic European nationalism saw Jews as an unassimilable and permanent fifth column. No case proves this better than the Dreyfus Affair of 1894.

In Eastern Europe, Jews who lived in the relatively secluded shtetls were not free from anti-Semitism. These communities, governed by their own councils or kahal, sought to preserve and protect both Jewish people and their faith. Alas in the face of pogroms it could do neither. During the early 20th century, an estimated 70,000 to 250,000 civilian Jews were murdered at the hands of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, the Ukrainian Green Army, nationalist gangs, the White Army and the Red Army.

Middle-Eastern Jewish communities were also ravaged by pogroms. The destruction of the Jewish quarter of Fez in 1912 and the 1941 Farhud in Iraq shatter the illusion that anti-Semitism was solely a European phenomenon pre-1948.  Middle-Eastern Jews even faced blood libels, as in Damascus in 1840, where eight leaders of the Jewish community were imprisoned and tortured after being falsely accused of killing a Christian monk.

Over 2000 years of Jewish homelessness, neither assimilation nor seclusion succeeded in overcoming systemic and violent anti-Semitism. The onset of the Holocaust, and murder of six million Jews—actively assisted by collaborators, and unhampered by apathetic Allied forces—showed that even in the face of annihilation, Jews could not rely on anyone to come to their aid.

The persecution experienced by Jews at the hands of others reinforced over and again a need for a home of their own. Zionism was not a reaction to the Holocaust. The Holocaust, once and for all, proved the need for Zionism. The fact that Jews today do not face the same levels of persecution does not invalidate this long history, nor does it mean this anti-Semitism will not return. 60 years of relative safety is an anomaly over a 2000 year history of persecution.

Support for Zionism is not, however, solely a reaction to anti-Semitism. Zionism today still has the strong positive appeal of self-determination. Abba Eban illuminates these motivations for Zionism. Eban wrote in 1947: “Even if the world were a federation of free, democratic states devoid of the least hint of anti-Semitism, Zionists would not surrender their claim to win a national existence of the Jews.”

Consequently, Eban makes a vital point: Jewish people desire to determine their own forms of political and cultural expression. This is not simply because history has prevented Jews from doing so, but also due to the intrinsic appeal of these objectives. An independent national home allows Jewish tradition and culture flourish.

Socialist Zionist youth movement, Hashomer Hatzair had similar views. Historian Stephan Wendehorst notes how the movement “was opposed to refugee Zionism; first, as it appeared to give credence to the idea that Zionism was merely the product of anti-Semitism, the Jewish nation a creation of Hitler, and not the ‘positive reflection of the deep-rooted urge of the Jewish people for its own life’”.

In wanting a national home, Zionism seeks only to realise for the Jewish people what all other nations desire. For Jews, its promises loom larger when juxtaposed with history: Zionism trades communal vulnerability for collective rights. Zionism consists in nothing less than the emancipation of the Jewish people from perpetual guest status to equality amongst the nations of the world.

It is clear, then, why Jews support the principle of Jewish people, and why for both negative and positive reasons they would want a national home. But what is the significance of Zion? Why the strip of land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean?

Jewish history, philosophy and liturgy concretises Israel as a homeland; the connection is tangible not simply mythic. Israel is where the Jewish forefathers dwelt, the territory governed by Kings Saul, David and Solomon and their successors for a millennium, where there was a significant Jewish presence until the Bar Kochba revolt and a small minority of Jews have remained there ever since. Establishing a Jewish national home anywhere else just wouldn’t be authentic. This does not mean that all Zionists think the Jewish right to live there is exclusive.

That is, in long form, why most Jews are Zionists. Put it in short form and the case becomes even clearer. Zionism is the emancipation of the Jewish people from centuries of expulsion, inquisition, and mass murder, the establishment of the State of Israel, a phoenix from ashes. Zionism elevates the Jewish people from minority status to national equality, providing a place where being Jewish doesn’t mean being an exception from the norm, and gives the Jewish nation a national home.

The Judaism of Zionism

Ezra Margulies

The traditional historiography of Zionism sees Zionism as avowedly modern and secular: the reimagining of Jewish identity away from Judaism as religion, and towards Jewishness as nationality.

Yet this narrative of modern transformation creates a false binary, in which the role of Judaism as religion disappears entirely from Zionist thought, playing into a historiography that sees Zionism solely and exclusively as a modern construct. This excludes the numerous ways in which the rabbinical Jewish religion has influenced Zionism, and how, far from rejecting Judaism-as-religion outright, Zionism sought to adapt and reinvent Jewish religious tradition in the modern Jewish nation.

This begins at the very idea of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel itself. Careful scrutiny of Jewish thought throughout the centuries reveals, beyond any doubt, that sovereign existence represents a paradigmatic Jewish value. Historically, the idea of yearning for a home in Zion was affirmed by Jews in all eras and locations, with the singular exception of the Reform movement between 1820 and 1937. This hope was always intrinsically linked to the land of Israel and this longing accompanied the Jews through centuries of dispersion.

Yet until the ascendance of the Zionist movement, the restoration of Jewish sovereignty in the Promised Land was conceived as messianic in nature. In other words, Jews envisaged the return to the land of Israel to occur under the aegis of the Messiah, with divine support.

Enter Zionism. The formation of a Zionist ideology occurred alongside the emergence of competing nationalist movements in late-19th century Europe. The same momentum which inspired Italian, German, Polish, or Ukrainian nationalisms affected the Jewish populations which resided in those countries. Whilst Jews previously defined their communal autonomy in terms of religious separateness, a new generation arose which re-interpreted this basic reality in terms consonant with 19th century ideologies. Zionists claimed that Jews represented a distinct nation in the modern sense of the term, and were thus deserving of sovereignty in a nation-state. Yet despite its modern context, Zionism did not have to invent anew the idea of Jewish sovereignty. Rather, it had to create a modern, secularized form of the messianic aspiration for sovereignty which Jews already harboured.

Conversely, it is worth noting that Jewish religious anti-Zionist groups, such as the Neturei Karta, Satmar Hasidim and the Edat ha-Haredim, found their conviction upon this same tradition. Evidently, the messianic era remains a distant hope rather than a reality. The Talmud also contains certain statements cautioning against a return to Zion conducted without divine approval. Yet these groups’ opposition to the modern Jewish state is living proof that sovereignty in Zion is a key premise of the Jewish religion. The anti-Zionism of these religious groups merely maintains the view that the expected restoration must be subservient to universal redemption.

The Judaism of Zionism cannot be reduced to the singular notion of sovereignty in the land. The competing streams within the Zionist movement each developed an entire system of values, hierarchies, and ideals which drew on Jewish religious sources. Micha Yosef Berdichewsky, for example, imagined Zionism would liberate the Jews from the shackles of the Jewish legal tradition and enable them to freely satisfy their sexual and intellectual cravings. Ahad Ha’am, in contrast, sketched out a vision of national renewal which would emanate from the Jewish spiritual centre in Palestine and overflow among Jewish populations in the Diaspora. Nearly half a century later, Eliezer Berkovits conceived of Zionism as a movement for Jewish religious rebirth.

These few examples illustrate the diversity of systems which developed within the Zionist movement, each of which expands well beyond the simple idea of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel. There are innumerable differences between the Zionist visions of Herzl and Ahad Ha’am, Bialik and Brenner, Rabbi Kook and Rabbi Reines, Ben-Gurion and Begin, and even today, between Zehava Gal-on and Naftali Bennett. All of these figures identified and are affiliated with the Zionist ideology.

There is, however, one common factor across these numerous streams within the Zionist movement. Zionism, at every stage, communicated and engaged with Judaism. It absorbed, but also transformed, numerous motifs and values from the heart of the Jewish tradition. The “spiritual” Zionist vision sketched out by Ahad Ha’am hearkens back to the Talmudic account of Yochanan ben Zakkai’s escape from Jerusalem, whereas the socialist kibbutz movement celebrated the festival of Israelites’ release from Egyptian bondage during Passover as an epic national and class struggle. Early pioneers drew inspiration from the universalistic ideal of a “light unto the nations,” found in the prophecies of Isaiah, whilst large portions of the settler movement justify the occupation of the West Bank through biblical references to the Davidic monarchy in Judea and Samaria, and Nahmanides’ claim that the settlement of the land of Israel is a positive commandment incumbent upon Jews in all ages.

Zionism – like all nationalisms – is of course a modern construct. Yet just as it is entirely inaccurate to conflate it with Judaism, so is it misleading to sever it from its Jewish origins. The majority of the values and motifs at the heart of the Zionist ideology originate within the Jewish religious tradition. To dismiss this crucial part of Zionist history is to miss out an integral part of the Zionist story.