24: Zionism is a Tree

Let’s talk Zionism! A perennially confusing topic on the Israel trips I lead, not least because it’s become such a loaded (and often negative) term these days. But let’s get back to the classical understanding of Zionism and work our way up from there. Bring on Theodore Herzl!


THE PLOT

I like to say that Zionism provided an innovative solution to two separate problems. The first problem was Eastern Europe, where Jews lived under mortal threat. The second problem was Western Europe, where Judaism itself seemed to be under threat: the Jews weren’t in danger of being killed so much as assimilating away their Jewish culture. In both cases, it seemed that Jews and Judaism didn’t have much of a future left in Europe.

But Zionism provided an elegant solution, solving both problems while also fulfilling a millennia-old spiritual dream of re-establishing the Jewish homeland. If they had their own state, they could both live as Jews AND live Jewishly, since Jewish culture would be the majority and no one would have to hide their identity. 

The Zionist thinkers thought that a return to Israel would not just create a new kind of Jew (one that was strong, physically fit, proud, educated, socialist), but would also benefit the world. The Arabs in Palestine, for instance, would benefit from the modernity that Israel would bring.

I like to think of Zionism as a tree. The roots are the situations in Eastern and Western Europe. Then you have the main trunk, which is the central idea of Zionism: re-establishing a Jewish homeland in the Land of Israel under the aegis of Jewish self-determination (also referred to as Jewish nationalism). That’s the basic message: that Jews have an historic need to create their own state to ensure their own survival.

Each branch off the main trunk represents a different stream of Zionism, each with its own ecosystem of ideology, ideas, individual leaders and heroes (the leaves).

Theodore Herzl led one of the most prominent branches: Political Zionism. This branch saw the success of Zionism as rooted in politics: Herzl thought that Zionism was a “national question, which can only be solved by making it a political world-question to be discussed and settled by the civilized nations of the world.”

To that end Herzl wrote a book, Der Judenstaat, or The Jewish State, that laid out precisely how this future Jewish nation would come about, and how its society would be organized. The Society of Jews would be created to represent diplomatically the Jewish pre-nation to the governments of Europe, and the Jewish Company would organize the economic logistics involved in moving the Jews out of Europe and building a new economy in Israel. He envisioned either a democratic monarchy or an aristocratic republic as the form of government. Herzl expressly wanted Judaism kept out of government administration, so that, having learned the lessons of anti-Semitism in Europe, there would be freedom of religion and full legal equality for all citizens. 

Ultimately, though, Herzl fell short in putting the “Jewish” in the future Jewish state, opening the door for other Zionist thinkers to advocate for Israel to become a spiritual center for Judaism, and to embody secular Jewish values, culture, history, and traditions — what came to be known as Cultural Zionism. 


FUN FACTS

  • Theodore Herzl thought that the Jewish State would destroy anti-Semitism, since there wouldn’t be a need for it anymore.
  • The term “Zionism” was coined in 1890 by the Jewish writer Nathan Birnbaum.
  • Herzl thought was democracy was too extreme a form of government for the Jewish State, and would involve “that objectionable class of men — professional politicians.”
  • Herzl rejected Hebrew as the language for the Jewish state: he considered it useless. “Who amongst us has a sufficient acquaintance with Hebrew to ask for a railway ticket in that language! Such a thing cannot be done.”
  • Herzl envisioned a white flag with seven gold stars for the Jewish state. White to represent the pure new life of the Jews in their new state. And the golden stars to represent the seven golden hours of the work day. 
 

NAMES TO KNOW

  • Theodore Herzl: considered the founding father of the Zionist Movement, it would be more accurate to describe him as the leader of Political Zionism — the branch of Zionism that was focused on politically and practically establishing the Jewish state. He was wrong in so many of his predictions about the future state, but he got right that it would be created. He died in 1904 and was reburied in Jerusalem in 1949.

KEY CONCEPTS TO KNOW

The early Zionist thinkers were right. Between 40-80 years before the Holocaust, they were correct in concluding that Jews and Judaism had no future in Europe. In the East, Jews were being horribly oppressed, and in the West they were assimilating away their Jewish identity. That “fear factor” which still motivates talk about Israel today (to varying degrees of success), was very real then, and all the Zionist leaders were in agreement that essential for the preservation of Jewish life was the creation of a specifically Jewish homeland.

 

Herzl’s book The Jewish State, published in 1896, laid out precisely how the state would be created, and then how its society would be formed. The book was designed to convince the Jews of Europe to back the Zionist project, and it propelled Herzl forward as the most influential leader of the movement. 

 

Herzl wasn’t the original leader of the Zionist Movement, or even its only prominent one. He was, however, the leader of what became known as Political Zionism — the effort to resolve the Jewish question and bring about a Jewish state through political means. Herzl argued that the Jews needed full political sovereignty in order to begin building their own homeland, and that this could only be achieved by working with the “civilized nations of the world” to make this happen.