34. The British Are Coming

The Zionist movement seized the opportunity presented by World War One — the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the advancement of the British Empire into the Middle East — to ally themselves with the West in the hopes of securing the promise of a territorial homeland in Palestine. They succeeded. But the British also made promises to the Arabs, and thus began a thirty-year struggle.


World War One was raging and the British were trying to defeat Germany in Europe and the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East. The British wanted to capture Palestine, which was under the Ottomans and the key strategic territory from which Britain could control the rest of the Middle East. It was essential, then, for the British to recruit the support of the local populations — about 600,000 Arabs, and a bit less than 100,000 Jews, to rebel against the Ottomans. 

The British were particularly disposed to seek the support of the Jews. For one thing, Britain had a longstanding fascination with all things ancient and biblical in Palestine. For the Philo-Semites of Britain — Christians who profess their love for the Jews — there was a religious justification for the return of the Jewish People to their ancient homeland (and the anti-Semites were happy to have somewhere to send the Jews away to). At the same time, being seen to support the Zionist movement would, the British hoped, positively influence the Jews in both the United States and Russia to pressure their governments to also support the British; and make the Jews of Germany think twice about supporting the German war effort.

Chaim Weizmann, the key Zionist leader after the death of Herzl in 1904, was the indispensable diplomat between the Jews of Palestine and the British. Intellectual and charismatic, he was also an important player in the British war effort, having developed crucial military technology the British needed. This gave him access to Britain’s senior military and political leaders, including the Prime Minister and, most importantly, the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Arthur Balfour.

To secure Jewish support, and to reward them for their loyalty to Britain, the British issued the Balfour Declaration in November, 1917. It was a 68-word letter from Lord Balfour expressing the British Empire’s support for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and a pledge to help facilitate it. It tied British government policy to the aims of the Zionist movement.

The problem was that the British also made a secret promise (in 1915) to the Arabs to support the creation of an independent Arab empire in the Middle East, including Palestine, if they started a revolt against the Ottomans. And in 1916 they made yet another secret deal with the French, called the Sykes-Picot Agreement, to divide up the Middle East into British and French spheres of influence. It was a betrayal of the promise made to the Arabs, seen as an imperialist-colonialist agreement that robbed the Arabs of their Middle Eastern empire. And it set up competing claims on the territory of Palestine.


Chaim Weizmann defined the foundation of Zionism as “the yearning of the Jewish people for its homeland, for a national centre and a national life.”

Weizmann invented the mass production of acetone, the crucial element needed in the production of cordite, which was the main ingredient for the explosives used by the British military to wage World War One.

Under the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the French would get Syria and Lebanon, the British Palestine and Iraq, and Jerusalem would be specially zoned as an international city.



Chaim Weizmann: successor to Theodore Herzl and one of most eminent Zionist leaders. Originally from Belarus, he was a trained chemist and became the movement’s most prolific diplomat between Palestine and Britain, securing much of Zionism’s support within the British government. He was an advocate for democracy, cultural literary, and the creation of the Jewish National Fund.

Lord Arthur Balfour: Foreign Secretary of Great Britain from 1916-1919, he issued the Balfour Declaration supporting the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.


In November, 1917, the British government issued the Balfour Declaration, a short, 68-word letter expressing the British Empire’s support for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. It is one of the foundational documents of modern Israel, and one of the great achievements of Theodore Herzl’s Political Zionism. It represents both the first international recognition of Zionism, but also the beginning of an irreconcilable clash with the Arabs over land, as the British made more promises than it could keep.

The British had a long standing interest in the Holy Land from both a religious and geopolitical viewpoint. The violent anti-Semitism that plagued much of Europe was largely absent from Britain, Jews having made much progress in political emancipation, economic prosperity, and assimilation as English citizens. British leaders often exhibited Philo-Semitism, or “love of the Jews” that caused them to look favorably on Zionism. Still, anti-Semitism was still present in the upper levels of society.

Chaim Weizmann developed the Synthetic branch of the Zionist tree. His take on Zionism was to try to blend all the branches together, and to pursue the aims of Political and Cultural Zionism all at the same time. He was invested in the political creation of the state, inspired by the idea of the Jewish homeland becoming the spiritual center of Judaism, and supportive of the efforts to establish agricultural communities in Palestine.

33. To Arms!

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, many of the early Zionist pioneers thought it essential that the Jews learn how to defend themselves. But the Jewish People hadn’t fielded an army since the Bar Kokhba Revolt against the Roman Empire in the year 135 CE. As a whole the Zionists had very little military experience. But that all changed with the onset of World War One in 1914, which provided an opportunity for the Zionists to not only get combat experience, but to also demonstrate loyalty to Britain, and, perhaps, get rewarded for their efforts.


The Ottoman Empire was falling apart, and the Jews were afraid of what the Turks would do if the Jews sided with the British. Paranoid about enemy sympathizers, the Turks began expelling thousands of Jews from Palestine, especially those of Russian origin. They sent around 6,000 Jews abroad, mostly to Egypt, where a few hundred of them banded together to form a Jewish fighting unit for the British.

On March 13, 1915, a meeting was held in Alexandria to determine a response to the Jewish deportations. It was led by Vladimir Jabotinsky, one of the most influential and controversial figures in Israeli history. He believed that since neither Turkey nor the Arabs would ever support Zionism, the only way the Jews would ever get a homeland would be to ally with the winning side in the war: the British. At the meeting he met Joseph Trumpeldor, a kindred spirit with significant military experience, and together they launched a new Zionist project to create a Jewish army. 

Although the British struggled to authorize a Jewish fighting unit, they eventually allowed the Jews to form a supply battalion: a mule transport unit that would carry supplies to British soldiers on the front lines. Thus the Zion Mule Corps was born, with the Grand Rabbi officiating at the ceremony. Their first mission: to support the Allied invasion of Gallipoli. A disastrous campaign for the Allies and the only major military victory for the Ottoman Empire during the war,  the Zion Mule Corps found themselves in the thick of the fighting. They suffered casualties and fought with distinction, impressing the British. Though disbanded in 1916, another Jewish fighting force came into being, called the Jewish Legion, with over 5,000 soldiers who continued to fight on the side of the Allies.

Meanwhile, back in Palestine, a small group of Jews launched a covert intelligence campaign against the Turks. The Aaronsohn siblings and a few friends formed an espionage unit called NILI to gather intelligence against the Turks and report back to the British. Sarah Aaronsohn  ran the show from her home in Zichron Ya’akov, but in 1917 she was caught by the Turks and tortured for information. She committed suicide before being taken to prison for further interrogation, which led to significant controversy over whether she could be buried in a Jewish cemetery. She is today an Israeli national hero.


In his spare time Jabotinsky translated Edgar Allen Poe into Hebrew.

Jabotinsky’s famous slogan was, “better to have a gun and not need it than to need it and not have it.”

Trumpeldor lost an arm in battle but after several months of recovery he rejoined his unit. When asked why he continued to fight, he said, “I still have another arm to give to the motherland.”

The Zion Mule Corps refused to unload the unkosher bacon supplies until they received a special dispensation from the Grand Rabbi.

Sarah Aaronsohn, having committed suicide in violation of Jewish law, was only allowed to be buried in a Jewish cemetery if a small fence was placed around her gravesite. 


Vladimir Jabotinsky: Russian journalist from Odessa whose experience of the violent pogroms of the early 1900s convinced him that the Jews needed to learn self-defense. He had a much more antagonistic approach to the Arabs and was focused on aggressive colonization of the Land of Israel. He is the origin of Israel’s right-wing politics. 

Joseph Trumpeldor: colorful Israeli national hero from Russia with numerous military exploits to his name. The most decorated Jewish solider in Russian history, he emigrated to Palestine in 1911 and was one of those deported to Egypt.

Sarah Aaronsohn: One of the founders of NILI, a Jewish espionage unit working against the Turks. At 24 years old she left her marriage to start NILI with her siblings and another fighter whom she fell in love with. She committed suicide in 1917 after capture by the Turks, becoming both a religious and secular symbol of Zionist martyrdom.


Outraged by the pogroms afflicting the Jews of Russia, in particular the infamous Kishinev pogrom of 1903, Jabotinsky formed Jewish self-defense leagues with the purpose of arming and training Jews to defend their communities. He believed that the Jews would never establish a homeland in Palestine without being able to defend themselves, and made self-defense the central pillar of his Zionist activity. 

The Zion Mule Corps, and its successor Jewish Legion, were the first Jewish fighting units since the first century CE. They fought for the Allied cause in the hopes that when the British defeated the Ottomans, the Jews would be rewarded for their loyalty with a Jewish homeland in Palestine. They also saw World War One as a learning opportunity to train fighters and develop military skills and experience that could be used for self-defense in Palestine. 

Some Jews in Palestine also wanted to join the fight against the Ottomans by forming controversial espionage units. The most famous was NILI, organized by the Aaronsohn family and a few close friends. But many in the Yishuv were vehemently against such activity, worrying that the Turks would respond with mass reprisals and persecution. In several instances local Jews turned in Jewish spies in the hopes of currying favor with the Turks, and even after the war continued criticizing the NILI for putting the Yishuv in danger.

32. Meet Me at the Kibbutz

The kibbutz is perhaps the most famous Israeli institution, and has its origins in the Labor Zionism tree brach. Labor Zionism’s deep ideological tradition traces back to the socialist vision of Jewish workers in Russia and Eastern Europe. It was the dominant Zionist tree branch in Israel for decades.


The genius of the kibbutz system is that it exemplified two trends that complemented each other at this moment of Jewish history. One was economic necessity. The immigrants of the First Aliyah — the first wave of immigration in the last decades of the 19th century — largely failed at developing individual private farms. But those of the Second Aliyah realized that they could pool together their resources under the umbrella of a coordinated land purchase from the Jewish National Fund, to create a collective farming community. They called this type of community a kibbutz.

The second reason is socialism, which Jews in Eastern Europe, especially Russia, found themselves attracted to. Zionist and socialist ideology seemed incompatible at first. But for one thinker, Nachman Syrkin, Zionism needed socialism in order to be successful. The Jewish state, he said, should be based on social justice, equality, and secular culture. If Jews were to leave Russia, taking with them their socialist ideology, and merge it with Zionism in the Land of Israel, they would create their own successful Zionist-oriented socialist revolution there. Thus was born the Labor Zionist tree branch. 

The kibbutz was the vehicle for implementing the socialist-Zionist vision. The Labor Zionists looked with disdain upon the impoverished, physically weak Jews of Europe, and determined that the hard work of manual agricultural labor would create a New Jew who was physically and mentally strong.  AD Gordon, the spiritual father of Labor Zionism, called this “the religion of labor.”

To live on a kibbutz was to live by a set of principles around collectivism: communal property, communal care, communal decision-making. Gender equality was a necessary component, since all were required to work to ensure that the community functioned properly. 

The kibbutzim, focused on building the New Jew, didn’t use Arab labor on Jewish land. For one, they wanted to train Jews to defend themselves and so used Jewish guards to protect the kibbutz. Secondly, the point of the movement was to force Jews to do the manual labor of farm work, not to hire anyone else to do it, which would create an un-socialist class division between owners (Jews) and workers (Arabs). So a key feature of the kibbutzim is that they were populated solely by Jews. 

By the end of the first decade of the 20th century, the Yishuv was developing apace. There were about 85,000 Jews living in Palestine, spreading out in agricultural communities and coastal cities. But then came 1914, the world went to war, and Palestine all but collapsed.


Ki-betz” is a Hebrew root word meaning “to gather or collect as a group”.

On many kibbutzim parents didn’t directly raise their own children in their home. There was a children’s house where kids lived from toddler to teenager under the watch of workers dedicated to child care and teaching.

The first kibbutz was called Degania, meaning “Cornflower”, and was established on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in 1909 by ten men and two women.



Nachman Syrkin. Russian Jewish socialist thinker who set forth the founding principles of the Labor Zionist tree branch. He saw a natural merge between Zionism and socialism in which Jewish immigrants to Palestine would import revolutionary ideas to create a Jewish homeland free of class struggle. 

Kibbutz: collective farming community representing the practical expression of the revolutionary socialist ideology that Eastern European Jewish immigrants were bringing into Palestine.

AD Gordon: spiritual father of the Labor Zionist movement. He came from a well-off Orthodox family in Russia and didn’t come to Palestine until he was already in his 40s. But he devoted himself to working the land on a settlement near the Sea of Galilee, practicing the philosophy which he believed would lead to individual and national redemption. 

Ha’Shomermeaning “the Watchman”, it was a semi-professional Jewish guard force trained to defend the kibbutz.


Kibbutz life was hard. Here is how an early pioneer described kibbutz life, as told in Ari Shavit’s book, My Promised Land: “It’s either day or night here. Hard labor at the noon of day and ideological debates into the night. A loving family, a soft caress of a mother’s hand, the stern but encouraging look of a loving father — all the things that make life bearable — are not here.” There was searing heat, backbreaking work, little infrastructure or machinery to help with the labor, swamps and disease, and a rigid ideological structure. To be on a kibbutz wasn’t just to sign up for a life of labor; it was to sign up for an entire way of life.

Labor Zionism, merging socialism with Zionismsaid that “in a Jewish state, and only in a Jewish state, can Jews live normal, healthy lives, and develop a community around socialist principles.” This tree branch will be the dominant tree branch for most of Israeli history, responsible not only for much of Israel’s founding ideology but also for many of its founding fathers and later leaders. From Labor Zionism will we get most of the powerful institutions that built the Jewish homeland and then, when the state was declared in 1948, were turned into official government agencies. 

Second Aliyah. The second major wave of immigration came on the heels of the infamous 1903 Kishniev pogrom. Zionism only played a small role in the decision of millions of Jews to leave Europe. Only around 40,000 went to Palestine. Although most left, the ones who stayed were passionate about the socialist revolution, took up modern Hebrew, and set about building the institutions and settlements necessary for the Jewish revival. 

31. In the Land of Poetry

It’s the beginning of the most important theme in Israeli history: Jewish immigration to the Holy Land. Persuading Jews to move to Palestine was a difficult task, and the Zionist Movement was divided over how best to achieve it. The different Zionist tree branches — Political, Cultural, and Labor — approached the task of settling the Land of Israel with different ideologies, motivations, and urgencies.


Palestine was a rough place to eke out a living in the late 1800s and early 1900s. There was a lack of everything: not enough food, water, infrastructure, jobs, health care, or education. But there was an ample supply of extreme heat and tropical disease. The First Aliyah — waves of immigration to Palestine — brought around 25,000 Jews to the land. They were financially supported by the ultra-wealthy Jewish philanthropist Baron Edmond de Rothschild. He bought up tons of land and funded the necessary services, establishing Israel’s earliest communities like Rishon LeZion and Zichron Ya’akov. But without proper farming skills or capacity to develop the land amidst such hardship, most immigrants left soon after arriving.

It was the Second Aliyah, from about 1900-1914, that found success in developing Jewish agricultural communities, small new towns, and the institutions that would turn the the Jewish homeland into the State of Israel. Their ideological orientation was socialist, and they largely belonged to the Labor Zionist tree branch. Rachel Blustein, a poet, and her sister came with this second wave, brimming less with Zionism than with romantic idealism and a desire to escape European oppression. She exemplified the classic experience of the chalutzim — “the pioneers”falling in love with an idealized version of Eretz Yisrael, yet melancholy about the extreme difficulties of life there. Rachel the Poetess died young, but her works later made her a national hero in Israel. 

The Second Aliyah immigrants were determined to build more than just agricultural communities. They wanted industries and factories and Jewish neighborhoods and cities, and to move forward with the practical approaches to building the Jewish homeland. The Jewish National Fund was created in 1897 to buy up as much land as possible and to build schools, plan cities, and develop essential infrastructure.

Arthur Ruppin was the man chosen to lead this effort. He believed that the most essential element in the creation of a Jewish state then was to buy land and settle it as quickly as possible by any means possible. It didn’t matter if it was urban or rural, as long as the Jewish settlement could be economically viable, safe, and thriving.

Ruppin got a JNF loan for a small group of people to create a Jewish suburb next to the ancient port of Jaffa. They wanted to create the kind of small city they had left behind in Europe  to be a center for Zionist culture: Hebrew in nature and adopting modern urban aesthetics. Sixty-six families chose plots of land on April 11, 1909 and a year later gave their new town a name that evoked both the ancient past as well as Jewish renewal: Spring Hill — or, in Hebrew, Tel Aviv.


Rachel and her sister learned Hebrew by hanging out at the local kindergarten.

To start the Jewish National Fund, the first donation was made in the amount of ten pounds. Theodore Herzl provided the second donation to the organization, and the first tree the JNF planted was in his posthumous honor.

By the 21st century the JNF has planted over 250 million trees in Israel, making Israel the only country in the world to enter that century with more trees than it had at the start of the 20th.

The sixty-six families who gathered on a beach to start Tel Aviv in 1909 drew color-coded seashells to determine who got which plot of land. 



The Yishuv: the collective term for the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine. 

Rachel the Poetess: one of Israel’s earliest national heroes. She arrived in Palestine at age 19 and went to work at an agricultural school along the Sea of Galilee. Her poetry evoked both the romantic idealism of the early pioneers as well as the extreme hardships they endured to develop the land. When Rachel contacted tuberculosis her kibbutz kicked her out, and she died at the age of 40 in Tel Aviv in 1931.

Baron Edmond de Rothschild: scion of the famous Jewish banking family, his philanthropy paid for the earliest Zionist enterprises in Palestine. A huge supporter of Zionism, he had no patience for Theodore Herzl or other movement leaders, insisting that his Zionist colonies were his to do with as he pleased.

Arthur Ruppin: chief “doer” of the Zionist movement in Palestine, placed in charge of executing the practical necessities of developing Jewish settlement. He created two of Israel’s most famous and lasting institutions: Tel Aviv and the kibbutz


Aliyah means to “go up” or “ascend” (see Episode 27), and is the term used to mean immigrating to the Land of Israel. The history of aliyah is divided into different eras. The First Aliyah, or major wave of immigration, ran from roughly 1880 to the early 1900s, while the Second Aliyah, considered more consequential, ran from the early 1900s until the beginning of World War One. Tens of thousands of Jews came from Europe, but only a small percentage actually weathered the hardships to permanently settle. Each Aliyah wave shaped the Yishuv's — and then Israel’s — demographics in meaningful ways.

In 1901 Theodore Herzl proclaimed the creation of the Jewish National Fund (JNF), an organization to raise money to buy up land in Palestine for Jewish settlement. In 1905 the JNF started planting trees, and also served as a crucial agency for managing water resources, planning cities, organizing education, and researching new agricultural techniques. By the 21st century the JNF had developed over 250,000 acres of land, built a couple hundred reservoirs and dams, built the infrastructure for more than 1,000 communities, and created several thousand parks.

In 1909 the JNF gave Arthur Ruppin a loan for a small community to start a new neighborhood on the beach outside Jaffa. They called this new village Ahuzat Bayit, meaning “homestead,” and they wanted it to be a Hebrew version of the small European towns they had left behind. It began with just sixty-six families, and they soon renamed their town Tel Aviv, meaning “Spring Hill,” which was the Hebrew title given to Herzl’s 1902 book Altneuland, Old New Land.

30. Interview: The Trial of SS Officer Oskar Groening

I had the opportunity to interview Jordana Liebowitz and Kathy Kacer, authors of To Look A Nazi In the Eye. The book is about Jordana’s attendance at the 2015 trial in Germany of Oskar Groening, a former SS officer accused of complicity in the murder of 300,000 Jews at Auschwitz. The book raises all kinds of moral questions about history, justice, and values.


At 19 years old, Jordana Liebowitz, a Canadian college student, heard about a trial that was about to start in Germany. Oskar Graining, then 96 years old, was an SS officer stationed at Auschwitz. It was his job to organize, handle, and keep track of the property, money, and belongings of the Jews arriving from the rail cars and selected to be murdered in the gas chambers. The press called him the “Bookkeeper of Auschwitz.” The trial wasn’t about whether or not he was an SS officer at Auschwitz — he didn’t deny any of it. Instead the trial was about his guilt as an accessory to the murder of 300,000 people, though, he, himself, was a junior officer and never directly killed anyone or ordered any killings.

Jordana was determined to attend the trial. She convinced her family to allow her to fly to Germany and, through a lot of chutzpah, got herself attached as an observer to the team of lawyers and Holocaust survivors who were going to prosecute the case and offer testimony. 

Kathy Kacer, an author and the daughter of Holocaust survivors, heard about Jordana’s efforts and wrote a book, To Look a Nazi In the Eye, as an account of Jordana’s experience.

Take a listen to the interview. You can find To Look a Nazi In the Eye here.

29. Hanukah -- One Bad King and a Bunch of Non-Kosher Oil

Hanukah is arguably the most celebrated and most well-known Jewish holiday of the year, so you probably already know the story. But you might have some of it wrong — the whole oil-lasting-eight-days thing? Never happened. And that thing you light with the candles called the menorah? It’s technically not called that. In case you don’t know much beyond the basic outlines, the complete coverage is in this week’s episode.


In the year 200 BCE, the Jewish province of Judea, located around Jerusalem, came under the control of the Seleucid Greek Empire, which had a mission to Hellenize its empire. At first, the Seleucid king allowed the Jews to continue practicing their faith and culture at the Temple in Jerusalem.

But there were two main Jewish factions fighting each other for control over Judaism.  The ensuing civil war was between the Egyptian-leaning traditional Jews, like the Maccabees, who wanted to keep things the way they had always been, and the Greek-leaning Jews who saw in Greek culture a path to modernity, greater prosperity, and personal freedom.

By the year 175 BCE, the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, a daft prick, decided to intervene in the civil war. Antiochus sacked Jerusalem and massacred as many of the traditional, Egyptian-oriented Jews as he could find. He outlawed studying Jewish texts and observing Shabbat. In 167 he defiled the Temple, outlawed the practice of Judaism, and had pigs sacrificed at the altar. That was a huge mistake. 

Mattathias and his five sons, who became known as the Maccabees, rebelled. They were religious fundamentalists who allowed no modernizing compromise, killing anyone, Jew or Greek, who got in their way. In 165 BCE they succeeded in driving the Greeks out of Jerusalem and restoring the Temple. They commemorated the event with a new holiday.

So why didn’t Hanukah make it into the Hebrew Bible? There are multiple theories. Perhaps the story of Hanukah wasn’t written in time to make it into the Bible, or it felt too recent to include. Or maybe later infighting between Jewish sects meant they couldn’t agree on how to include the story of the Maccabees, so they left it out altogether. Or maybe it’s because there were no divine miracles in the story, God didn’t play a role, so it felt inappropriate to include. 

But probably the most popular answer is that the Maccabees were left out of the biblical canon so as not to upset the Romans. The Hanukah story is one in which a modern, prosperous, and powerful empire invades Judea and gets beaten by a rough band of fundamentalist rebels. Two hundred years later, the Jews found themselves in a similar situation with the Roman Empire, but this time they lost and the Temple was destroyed forever. So the Jews may not have wanted to promote a text that would seem to encourage yet more rebellion against the Romans.


When Judah became the leader of the rebellion, his military prowess earned him a nickname: Ha’Maccabee, meaning “The Hammer”. Hence the famous name.

The Maccabees suffered a huge defeat early in the rebellion because they wouldn’t fight on Shabbat, which King Antiochus knew and used to his advantage. So the Maccabees re-interpreted the Torah to allow them to fight in self-defense under the principle of saving a life.

Two hundred years after these events, Josephus referred to the holiday as “The Festival of Lights.” The word Hanukah came about a hundred years later and means “to dedicate,” a reference to restoring the Temple. But Hanukah still wasn’t put together with the events of the Maccabees until several hundred years later in the Talmud.



King Antiochus IV Epiphanes: Seleucid Greek king who all but banned Judaism, wrecked the Temple, and had pigs sacrificed at the altar just to piss off the Jews.

The Maccabees: Mattathias and his five sons began a rebellion against the Seleucids. His son Judah took over for him and defeated the Seleucids a couple years later. 

Josephus: Jewish-Roman historian of the first century CE who brought us a good chunk of the story of Hanukah. He is most famous for later recording the story of Masada.


The Hanukah story is not found in the Torah. It comes from the First and Second Books of Maccabees, known as apocrypha, which are ancient books that didn’t make it into the finalized version of the Hebrew Bible but are still considered important historical works. The holiday itself is considered a “rabbinic” or “extra-biblical” holiday — not in the Torah, but still worth celebrating. 

Time and again in this era of Jewish history, we learn that the absolute worst way you can insult the Jews is to outlaw their religious practices, especially to defame the Holy Temple or to prevent their worship of God. So here we have Greek culture being forced upon the Jews in their own country, and at the expense of them being allowed to live their own cultural and religious lives. No wonder they revolted.

In order to fully rededicate the Temple in Jerusalem, the Maccabees needed oil to light the menorah. There was plenty of oil lying around, but not that much holy oil, which had to be specially blessed. The miracle of the oil came to us about 600 years after the revolt, when the Talmud wrote up the legend we all know about how the Maccabees found just enough oil to last for one day, but it instead lasted for eight. Possibly this story was included to give a “divine” imprimatur on a story that was really just about a great military conquest: throwing in a story about a miracle gives God a role, so enhances the holiness of the holiday.

On Hanukah, you are not actually lighting a menorah. The menorah was the seven-candle lamp used in the Temple. Because it was the central source of light in the Temple, it became the ancient symbol of Judaism. What you light on Hanukah is a modified version of the menorah, called a Chanukiah, which has a total of nine candles — eight branches for a candle for each of the eight days, plus a ninth, central, candle called the shamash, which is used to light the other eight.

28. M'daber Ivrit? (Speak Hebrew?)

In 1881 Eliezer Ben-Yehuda stepped off a boat in the port of Jaffa, took a look around, turned to his family, and said “From now on we are only speaking Hebrew.” The problem was that no one else really did. Ben-Yehuda set about reviving ancient Hebrew into a spoken language amongst the Jews of Palestine, making it a key part of the Zionist Movement.


Hebrew was used as a daily spoken language of the Jews from the time of King David up through the Roman Era, until around the year 200. It remained a literary language and the sacred tongue of the Jewish People — used in prayer, Torah study, and rabbinic legal documents.

Starting in the 1800s, Jews saw in Hebrew a return to a purer language that better reflected the ideals of Jewish history and culture, much more so than the vernacular languages like German or Russian or Yiddish. For the Zionists looking to both revive Jewish culture and to create a New Jew, Hebrew was symbolic of a time when Jews had their homeland in Eretz Yisrael, as well as a tool to unify the Jewish people around this nationalist ideal.

Enter Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. He wasn’t the first or only Hebrew speaker of his era, but he put Hebrew on the map. His idea was to teach Hebrew from infancy, thereby raising children fluent in the language in their ancient homeland, thus turning Hebrew into the national tongue. It worked. He started with his own son, Itamar, who was kept in near-linguistic isolation for his entire childhood, forbidden from associating with anyone who couldn’t speak Hebrew to him. Ben-Yehuda developed a Hebrew dictionary and a standardization process for new words and grammar — which he had to invent as Itamar grew up and needed to know words for things like ice cream, towel, and bicycle. To this day the Academy of Hebrew Language continues to invent new words in Hebrew to meet the needs of a modern and evolving society. 

Not everyone was on board with learning Hebrew, like the Orthodox community. Even those who were eager to link Hebrew with Zionism struggled with the complexities of a new language. But as the historian Paul Johnson notes, Hebrew succeeded where other language revival attempts failed because Hebrew was concerned with the basics of daily life. In the 1880s there was only one native speaker of Hebrew — Itamar Ben-Yehuda. Today there are around nine million. 


In 1908 archeologists found the Gezer Calendar, a small limestone tablet written in Hebrew. It dates to around 1,000 BCE, during the reign of King David and King Solomon.

Ben-Yehuda remembered his first Hebrew conversations upon arriving in Palestine: with a Jewish money changer, innkeeper, and wagoner.

Ben-Yehuda’s son Itamar was the very first native Hebrew speaker in nearly 18 centuries.

Theodore Herzl didn’t think Hebrew was going to work. “Who amongst us has a sufficient acquaintance with Hebrew to ask for a railway ticket!” he famously asked. “Such a thing cannot be done.”



Eliezer Ben-Yehuda: an Orthodox Jew from Belarus, he was heavily influenced in his youth by secular Zionism, and was convinced that reviving Hebrew would be essential for building a Jewish homeland in Palestine. He began the modern Hebrew dictionary and pushed the teaching of Hebrew in Jewish schools.

Devora Ben-Yehuda: Eliezer’s first wife, who was on board with raising their child using only Hebrew. She died in 1891, leaving behind five children, three of whom died a short while later.

Paula/Hemda Ben-Yehuda: Devora’s last wish was for her husband to marry her sister, Paula, who changed her name to Hemda. She finished the dictionary that Eliezer started, and was a prolific fundraiser, advocate, and journalist.

Itamar Ben-Yehuda: child of Eliezer and Devora, Itamar was the first natively-fluent Hebrew speaker in nearly 18 centuries.


Why Hebrew and not Yiddish? By the early 1900s Yiddish had 11 million speakers and was the daily vernacular throughout Eastern Europe. But both the Orthodox and the secular Zionists had problems with it. The Orthodox saw it as only a temporary, vulgar language until the Messiah comes and the world returns to speaking the divine language — Hebrew. For the Zionists who were trying to create a new kind of Jew, Yiddish was too much of a reminder of persecution and oppression, and of traditional Jewish ways that the Zionists were trying to eliminate. 

There was plenty of opposition to reviving Hebrew as the national language. New immigrants were excited about learning Hebrew, but in the challenges of daily life in Eretz Yisrael often just resorted to speaking Yiddish with each other. Even leading Zionists like Theodore Herzl and Ahad Ha’Am didn’t think Hebrew would gain much traction. And the Orthodox felt that Hebrew, the holy language, should not be used for such “profane” daily matters like asking for ice cream or flirting on a Birthright trip. 

27. Who Came First?

Let’s start discussing the elephant in the room: how Zionism thought about the Arabs living in Palestine. “Who came first?” I get asked a lot on Birthright trips. “Who was here first? Was it the Arabs or the Jews?” From the very beginning the early Zionist leaders were well aware of the Arabs living in Palestine, and each of the various branches of our Zionist tree had a different viewpoint.


By the turn of the twentieth century, there were around 500,000 Arabs living in the area of Palestine. But it wasn’t a Palestinian state, or even an Arab state. It was a territory of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, and lacked defined borders. The Arabs weren’t in control, the Turks were, and Christians, Jews, and Muslims generally managed their communities with a great deal of autonomy. 

Jews have had a continuous presence in Palestine going back 3,000 years. But the last time we had control over the territory (before Israel in 1948) was in the first century BCE, just prior to the Romans. Even after the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 CE Jews remained the majority population for several hundred years. Then came the Christians, then the Muslims, but there were still always Jews living in the region.

European Jews started immigrating to Palestine en masse with the First Aliyah, beginning in 1882, which brought in a net of around 15,000 by 1903. By the early 1900s there were around 

55,000 Jews living in Palestine. They legally bought land from the Ottoman government, or from Arab land owners, and mostly settled along the Mediterranean coast, or inland in the Jezreel and Jordan valleys. But the land was generally swampy and filled with malarial mosquitos, so not good for farming. It was very tough living, and thousands of Jews ended up leaving.

This influx of Jews to Palestine marked the beginning of relations with the local Arabs. The Arabs were not universally thrilled to welcome these new Jewish settlers, but there wasn’t yet an Arab national movement like Zionism. So relations between the two communities wasn’t necessarily negative.


Since 1516 Palestine was administered as a territory of the Ottoman Empire. It was under Turkish, not Arab, control, though the Ottomans, too, were Muslim.

Why do we always talk about 2,000 years, as in “the creation of Israel in 1948 ended two thousand years of Jewish exile?” What we mean by this 2,000 number is not that there were no Jews in Palestine since ancient times, but that the Jews hadn’t been sovereign there since then. 



The different Zionist tree branches responded to the Arabs in different ways:

Herzl and the Political Zionists: they were so focused on building the Jewish state that they looked past the Arabs who were already living there. Herzl thought that the creation of the Jewish state was going to bring such a high level of modernity and prosperity and political freedom and culture, that the Arab population would welcome the Jews with open arms, and there would be no conflict between the two.

Ahad Ha’Am and the Cultural Zionists: Ha’Am was prescient about the coming Arab-Jewish conflict, warning the Zionists to be very careful in their dealings with the Arabs. He described the settlers’ dealings with the Arabs as unjust and cruel, hostile and contemptuous. He appealed to Jewish teachings about what happens when a former slave becomes king: the oppressed becomes the oppressor.

AD Gordon and the Labor Zionists: AD Gordon saw the Arabs through the ideals of the Torah around protecting the stranger in your midst. He felt that the Jews’ treatment of the Arabs would be crucial to the success of the coming Jewish homeland. He therefore advocated policies to accommodate the native Arabs as much as possible. For instance, every new Jewish settlement should allocate adjacent plots of land specifically for the Arabs.


Jews are indigenous to the Land of Israel, tracing their lineage back thousands of years. But the Arabs who were living in Palestine at this time were, while not indigenous, certainly native. There were perhaps around 500,000 Arabs then living in Palestine, which was a part of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire.

In Hebrew the word “aliyah” means “to ascend,” or to “go up”. In ancient times, one made aliyah to literally walk up the stairs to the Temple in Jerusalem. Today aliyah has come to symbolize the idea that immigrating to Eretz Yisrael is an act of raising up one’s soul, of fulfilling a spiritual need.

It may seem like a fine distinction, but the semantic difference between whether Zionism was colonialism or colonization is important. Zionism wasn’t about imperial exploitation, economic gain, or political power on behalf of a European empire. The Zionists were doing the opposite — escaping the European powers. They were coming not as colonialists but to instead settle permanently in the region and develop a new state there. To colonize the land in a project of national renewal.

26. The New Jew

Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel, is these days a hot, rocky, swampy, impoverished backwater of the Ottoman Empire without an economy to its name. So what kind of Jew is going to live there? That’s the question confronting the Zionist Movement in the last couple decades of the 1800s. And they had an answer. They were going to create New Jews. Jews who were physically strong, burning with idealism and practical know-how, Jews who were young, Jews who were women, Jews who could fight, Jews who could work, and Jews who would reject the stern religiosity of Orthodox Judaism and instead nurture a spirituality connected to the land of the Torah. Zionism, then, wasn’t just an effort to create a Jewish state. It was also a movement to create an entirely new Jew.


Zionism was still a minority movement within the diaspora (i.e. outside of Israel) Jewish community. It was primarily a mass movement of secular, poor-or-middle-class Jews from Eastern Europe. Who was against Zionism, and why? 

  • Orthodox Jews: only God, not humans, can bring about the restoration of the Jewish homeland. The return of the Jewish People to sovereignty in the Holy Land is part of God’s larger plan for humanity, so its creation can’t happen until the coming of the Messiah and the redemption of humanity.

  • Secular Jews: despite the occasional anti-Semitism, Western Jews generally feel like they are safe, assimilated, and cultured — so why give that up to move to Palestine?

  • American Jews: don’t create a new homeland, just move to the new one that already exists, the United States! With its constitutional democracy, equal rights, and freedom and prosperity, American Jews feel that there is no reason to think that Jews won’t forever be safe and secure here, free to practice Judaism and celebrate Jewish culture.

Zionism said that a New Jew is needed. Someone whose Judaism is based on physical strength, a renewed spirituality, and an unrelenting focus on the land; as opposed to the weak, intellectual Jew of the European ghetto. Max Nordau, a Zionist leader, called this “muscular Judaism.” 

So we have a new Zionism tree branch: Labor Zionism. Aaron David Gordon pushed the idea that the New Jew would be created by working the land. Through the hard labor of agricultural work the New Jew would connect with nature to invigorate creativity and spirituality. This worldview joining socialism with physical labor, is the basic premise behind Labor Zionism. It profoundly influenced Israeli life, and still does, most visibly through the kibbutz.

What we have emerging at this point, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, are different clumps of ideas and theories manifesting themselves in Eretz Yisrael. Small cities are popping up, socialist villages are being built, land is being cleared for agriculture, new kinds of music, dance, and social interactions are developing, there’s an old language (Hebrew) being revived. All of these leaves and branches are creating this new world, this new Jewish culture, and a new kind of Jew. All of these things are Zionism. And all of these things contribute to the Israel that eventually emerges, and the Israel that we have today.


  • Given the religious opposition to Zionism, there still exists today Orthodox Israelis who reject their Israeli identity as illegitimate, even though they live there.

  • Max Nordau’s solution to the physical degeneration of European Jews was to create Hebrew sports clubs to promote Jewish achievement in sports as a way to boost confidence.



  • Max Nordau: a close confidant of Theodore Herzl, Nordau was born Orthodox but rejected his identity to become an assimilated German. The Dreyfus Affair awakened his Jewish identify and he became a prominent Zionist leader, focusing on developing the democratic nature of the movement. He coined the term “muscular Judaism” to describe the new kind of Jew Zionism wanted to develop.

  • Aaron David Gordon: AD Gordon was a Zionist thinker, philosopher, and early leader of the Labor Zionist tree branch. ““It is labor which binds a people to its soil and to its national culture,” he said, articulating what became known as the “religion of labor” to describe how the Jews were going to transform themselves.


There was a theory that the Jews would end up being fine in Europe as long as they had some degree of autonomy within their communities. Led by a Russian Jewish historian named Simon Dubnow, this idea — called Jewish autonomism — said that the Jewish future depended on them remaining spiritually and culturally strong wherever they lived. If agreements could be struck with local political powers to ensure Jewish communal self-rule, then Jews could reject assimilation and, essentially, have their own mini-homelands wherever they were. The Holocaust would later permanently destroy the idea of autonomism, but at the turn of the century a lot of Jews believed in it.


At the Second Zionist Congress in 1898, Max Nordau coined the term “muscular Judaism” to contrast the New Jew of Eretz Yisrael with the pale, weak, intellectual Jew of the European ghetto. But it wasn’t just about strength for the sake of being physical strong. It was also about reviving the Jewish spirit, beaten down by centuries of persecution in Europe. And Eretz Yisrael as our homeland because that’s where the Jews were once strong and powerful.


Labor Zionism is the notion that in order to build a homeland and renew the Jewish body and spirit, the Jewish people would have to take up hard agricultural work to connect them to nature. It wasn’t just leaving Europe for the Land of Israel. It wasn’t just about getting exercise and building muscles. It wasn’t just about shedding the Orthodox Jewish traditions of Europe. It was about rejuvenating the Jewish people through labor, in which they would be forced to work together in harmony. And out of this harmony and shared purpose will be a reawakening of the Jewish spirit in a new form, and a new person.

25. Let's Bring the Jewish

We’re adding a branch to the Zionist redwood tree! We talked about Political Zionism — the political effort to establish a state for Jews. Now we’re talking about Cultural Zionism — the effort to make that state Jewish. Led by an exceptional thinker named Ahad Ha’Am, cultural Zionists sought to ensure that the future Jewish state would be a spiritual center to inspire Jews to embrace their secular culture and history. Ahad Ha’Am was sharply critical of Herzl and his ideology, and together these two branches formed the core of what the State of Israel is today.


Ahad Ha’Am, one of the major Zionist leaders even before Herzl came on the scene, famously wrote that he wanted “a Jewish state and not merely a state for Jews.” He meant that creating a state for Jews to live in wasn’t enough to revive Judaism, which he saw in a state of moral decline. The Jewish state also had to offer Jews access to their own secular culture, history, language, and traditions. 

Rather than creating an entire Jewish state, Ahad Ha’Am thought that Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel/Palestine) could only support a small Jewish colony in the near-term. This colony of just a few thousand Jews living Jewishly would inspire Jews around the world to embrace Jewish culture. In 1892 Ahad Ha’Am wrote that when Jews came to visit the colony, “they would feel a deep love for the ancestral land and their brothers living in it, so that many of them would soon becomes Lovers of Zion themselves.” That “Israel glow” we feel after our Birthright trip is exactly what Ahad Ha’Am was aiming for!

The aim of Zionism for Ahad Ha’Am’s Cultural Zionists, then, wasn’t necessarily the creation of a Jewish state. Zionism was intended as a vehicle to revive Jewish culture and spirituality in a way that would ensure the Jews of Europe preserved Judaism. And while he wasn’t totally opposed to the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, he thought it was generations away from being viable; in contrast to Herzl, Ahad Ha’Am didn’t really see the urgency. But three events in rapid succession tilted the balance in favor of Herzl’s vision:

  1. The First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897. Herzl led the kickoff to the Political Zionist movement, which adopted a four-part platform to guide the Zionist project. Herzl wrote in his diary, “in Basel I created the Jewish state.”

  2. Herzl’s 1902 book Altneuland (“Old New Land”). A utopian novel about a Jewish traveler who finds himself in the Jewish state in Palestine, which has become a thoroughly modern Western nation, cosmopolitan, technologically-advanced, and with equal rights for Jews and non-Jews alike. The book inspired Jews around Europe to take up the Zionist cause, as they could envision how beneficial this future Jewish society would be. Ahad Ha’Am criticized Herzl for aspiring to create just another European state, rather than one with an explicitly Jewish character.

  3. The Kishinev Pogrom in April, 1903. Egged on by Christian authorities who accused Jews of the blood libel (murdering Christian children to use their blood in making matzah for Passover), locals murdered 49 Jews and destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses. The pogrom led to an increased sense of urgency regarding the precariousness of Jewish life in Europe, thus strengthening the Zionist Movement.

Ultimately, though, both Herzl and Ahad Ha’Am got things right, and got things wrong. Herzl didn’t get that the Jewish state needed to go beyond the political to embrace Jewish culture, tradition, history, and meaning in order to inspire the Jewish people. Ahad Ha’Am didn’t appreciate the urgency of the situation, or of the need to build practical steps towards creating a homeland. 


  • Ahad Ha’Am’s given name was Asher Ginsburg, but like many Zionists and early settlers he changed it to Hebrew. His name means “one of the people”.

  • In 1898 Herzl visited Eretz Yisrael for the first and only time in his life. He went to Jerusalem to meet with Kaiser Wilhelm II to persuade the monarch to support the Zionist cause. Herzl later noted that the Kaiser didn’t say yes, but also didn’t say no.

  • Herzl’s 1902 book Altneuland (“Old New Land”) was translated into Hebrew and given a new title: Tel Aviv. Tel (meaning an ancient hill) and aviv (meaning spring) conveyed an image of restoration and renaissance. Later a new city built along the beach would be given the same name.

  • The 1903 Kishinev pogrom was so traumatic that the New York Times called it a “horror…beyond description.” President Theodore Roosevelt mentioned it in his 1904 State of the Union Address.



  • Ahad Ha’Am: early Zionist leader and thinker from Odessa, Ukraine. Ideological father of Cultural Zionism, which saw the Jewish state as being built on secular Jewish traditions, culture, and history. He believed that the future homeland should be a small colony whose function is to inspire the Jews to embrace their Judaism, thus preventing its moral decline.


The idea that the future Jewish homeland should serve as a spiritual center for Jews and Judaism — and not just as a place for Jews to live — is what we call Cultural Zionism. In re-establishing the Jewish homeland, it ought to be specifically Jewish, that is, reflective of the secular traditions, history, and culture of the Jewish People so that Judaism itself can flourish. Zionism, then, is the opportunity to reconnect Jews to Judaism through language (Hebrew) and culture, and it requires only some small settlements in Palestine, not necessarily an entire state.


In what has been called the most significant gathering of Jews in nearly two millennia, the First Zionist Congress was held on August 29, 1897, in Basel, Switzerland. The Congress launched Zionism into the forefront of Jewish life (though many Jews were still opposed) and solidified Herzl’s leadership of the movement. Its agenda and subsequent “Basel Program” platform expressed the goals of Political Zionism, “to establish a home for the Jewish people in Palestine secured under public law”, and included efforts such as promoting Jewish settlement, strengthening Jewish awareness, and beginning the necessary diplomatic and political efforts. The Congress continued to meet; the World Zionist Organization which began in 1897 still exists today.  


Political Zionism and Cultural Zionism are the two big branches of the Zionist tree at the turn of the century. Though Herzl and Ahad Ha’Am each got some things right and some things wrong, it was the integration of these two seemingly-competitive ideologies that formed the kind of nation and society that Israel is today. Herzl led the Zionist movement until his death in 1904, and was responsible for galvanizing public opinion, and political and financial support, for the drive to create a state. But Ahad Ha’Am understood that the long-term vision of a Jewish state had to include secular Jewish culture as a source of inspiration and meaning, and to arrest what he saw as the moral decline of Judaism in Europe.

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!


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. 


  • 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.



  • 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.


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.

23. J'Accuse!

Today we meet a secular, assimilationist Hungarian Jewish journalist unengaged with Jewish history, culture, religion, Torah, or Hebrew. Theodore Herzl nevertheless had one of the most significant impacts on the Jewish People in our history. “All the deeds of men are dreams at first,” he once said, and in the 1890s he had a really big dream: to create a Jewish state. He was heavily influenced by the trial of Alfred Dreyfus in France, which would lead him and other western European Jewish leaders to the same conclusion as their counterparts in the east: that the Jews had no future in Europe and therefore needed a homeland of their own. 


The story of the trial of Alfred Dreyfus — or the Dreyfus Affair — begins in the early 1800s with Napoleon. Napoleon ushered in the age of what became known as the Jewish Emancipation, in which the Jews were freed of restrictive laws and given the same rights and privileges as any other French citizen. Jews mainly responded to this equality in two ways: they either doubled-down on their traditional Jewish observance, further separating from mainstream society; or they assimilated, dropping most aspects of their Jewish identity to become fully mainstream Frenchmen and women. 

But there was one problem: in assimilating into French society, they refused to take up Christianity. So while the Jews thought that they had finally been accepted by mainstream society, their neighbors still resented them. This dynamic was repeated throughout Western Europe. 

In 1862 the Jewish writer Moses Hess wrote a book called Rome & Jerusalemarguing that Europe would never fully welcome the Jews. In 1881, the German publicist William Marrcoined the term “anti-Semitism” to argue that Jews could never fully assimilate, and that they posed a threat to the racial purity of Germany. 

In Paris, in the fall of 1894, French counterintelligence agents discovered that military secrets had been leaked to Germany. Evidence was falsified to blame Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the only Jew at the General Staff Headquarters. A year later he was found guilty and stripped of his rank, with the crowd outside the trial yelling (according to Herzl, who was observing the trial), “Death to the Jews!”

Motivated by what he witnessed, Herzl published Der Judenstaat, or The Jewish State, in 1896, considered the groundbreaking book of the Zionist Movement.  He began traveling around Europe to promote his ideas about re-establishing the Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael — the Land of Israel.

Meanwhile, the sensation over Dreyfus’ guilt or innocence had become a proxy fight between the voices of tolerance and intolerance in France. The Dreyfusards were those who expounded his innocence and criticized French anti-Semitism, such as Marcel Proust, Emile Zola, Anatole France, and future political leaders. In 1898 Emile Zola published an open letter titled “J’Accuse!” (“I Accuse!”), warning that “this odious anti-Semitism will destroy freedom-loving France.” Zola forced the issue of anti-Semitism out into open debate.

Dreyfus wasn’t officially exonerated until 1906, when he went back on duty in the army. Wounded in an assassination attempt at Zola’s funeral in 1908, Dreyfus served during World War I, and died in 1935.


  • Theodore Herzl claimed that the one time he went to synagogue as an adult, he didn’t even know the words to the basic Shabbat blessings.

  • William Marr, who coined the term anti-Semitism, had four wives, three of whom were Jewish or half-Jewish. He later recanted his beliefs, blaming the Industrial Revolution, not the Jews, for the plight of Germany.

  • Herzl at first wasn’t particular about where the Jewish state would be located. He thought that Argentina would do nicely. But at the end of The Jewish State he insisted that “Palestine is our unforgettable historic homeland,” and that “the Jews who will it shall achieve it.”

  • After his conviction, Dreyfus was sent to the infamous Devil’s Island prison off the coast of French Guiana in South America. The stone hut where he lived still exists today.

  • French Jews only numbered only around 100,000, out of a population of 40 million.



  • Napoleon: Emperor of France in the early 1800s, he initiated the Jewish emancipation, ensuring that Jewish citizens of France enjoyed equal rights and freedoms.

  • Moses Hess: French Jewish writer and Zionist, wrote Rome & Jerusalem, an influential book arguing that the Jews would never be fully accepted in Europe and should look to re-establish their homeland in Palestine.

  • William Marr: German publicist who coined the term “anti-Semitism” in 1881. He argued that Jews and Germans were in a racial struggle for superiority in which the Jews were in danger of winning. He later renounced his arguments.

  • Alfred Dreyfus: French Jewish military officer falsely accused of espionage in 1894, whose conviction sensationalized France and led to much debate about the place of the Jews in French society.

  • Emile Zola: Non-Jewish French writer who took up the cause of Dreyfus, and whose forceful denunciations of anti-Semitism opened up that debate in France.

  • Theodore Herzl: secular Hungarian Jewish journalist, playwright, and author. Upon witnessing Dreyfus’ trial, he wrote The Jewish State in 1896, arguing that the Jews should seek political support to realize the Zionist dream.


Beginning in the early 1800s under Napoleon, the Jewish emancipation meant that the Jews were treated as equal citizens under the law, enabling them to further assimilate and integrate into European society. Unlike their counterparts in Eastern Europe, Western European Jews thought they had finally conquered anti-Semitism and would be accepted by mainstream Europeans. But these neighbors weren’t quite as enamored of the Jews as the Jews thought. And so while Western Europe in the 1800s was an era of increased Jewish participation, achievement, and assimilation, it also saw the flourishing of new theories about the perils of Judaism. 


Although Jews thought that their embrace of modernity would end anti-Semitism, it actually had the effect of increasing it. The Jews were hated because of their assimilation, blamed for economic problems and invading and corrupting local culture and European society. Building on these concepts, William Marr posited a racial struggle between Jews and ordinary Germans, a war which he warned the Jews were winning. 


Theodore Herzl, having watched the impact of the Dreyfus Trial, developed his own brand of Zionism. He came to the same conclusions as other Zionists — that the only hope for Jewish life lay in re-establishing a Jewish homeland. But he took it a step further by promoting Zionism as a political solution, based on Jewish national identity, and one that the nations of the world would come together to support. So he combined political Jewish self-determination with the spiritual notion of returning to the Jewish homeland in Palestine, to form this root of Zionism in Western Europe. 

22. The Czar Is Dead

I want to tell you a unique story about the Jewish People and how we returned to Eretz Yisrael — the Land of Israel. Since the first century the Jewish People kept alive the idea of someday returning to their ancient homeland in order to live freely as Jews. After 1,800 years of galut (exile), in the historical blink of an eye, we suddenly found ourselves once again a sovereign people in our ancient homeland and with a modern nation state of our own making, and in our own image. But the movement to make that happen, called Zionism, began earlier, in the latter half of the 1800s. 

This season we’re going to explore the beginnings of modern day Israel, the Zionist Movement, and the key factors, people, choices, and events that led us to where we are today: with a Jewish State the size of New Jersey with 8.9 million people, that dominates in economics and science and diversity and headlines and, yes, global conflict.

Let us begin.


In the 1800s, the Jews of Russia were kept in abject poverty and oppression in an area known as the Pale of Settlement, a strip of land running north-to-south from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. On March 13, 1881, in Saint Petersburg, Russia, Czar Alexander II, a reformist czar who made small but welcome improvements to Jewish life, was assassinated by Russian revolutionaries. His heir, son Alexander III, was a notorious anti-Semite who reversed the gains made under his father to repress the Jews even further through a series of legislation known as the May Laws.

These events form the roots of the Zionist Movement, which is the national movement of the Jewish People to re-establish a Jewish homeland in the Land of Israel. While many Jews left Russia during this era, those that stayed began to develop social action around the two thousand year old spiritual notion of the Jews returning to Israel; they began to see this ideal not as a fantasy, but as a tangible goal necessary for the survival of the Jewish People. 

Beginning in the 1870s, even before the assassination of the czar, small organizations began to form in the small villages inside the Pale of Settlement. They were known as Chovevei Zion — Lovers of Zion. They were not political clubs but rather social and cultural, organized around the ideas of Zionism. So they did things like teach Hebrew and Jewish history, and raise small funds to support fledgling agricultural settlements in Palestine. 

A leader for the Lovers of Zion soon emerged named Leon Pinsker. In 1882 he wrote a book, Auto Emancipation, in response to the persecution he witnessed in Russia. It was probably the most influential Zionist work before Herzl would begin publishing 14 years later. Pinsker’s main argument was that the Jews, lacking a nation of their own, had no “center of gravity” to provide national dignity. They would never be accepted into European society, so they had to establish their own independent national homeland. The effect of his book was to wake up the Jews of Eastern Europe to their profound vulnerability. Pinsker put Zionism on the map, and between 1884 and his death in 1891, he built an effective grassroots organization around these Zionist ideas, propelling the movement forward to the next stage. 


  • Jews, hated as they were by Czarist Russia, made up only 1/24th of the population.

  • Czar Alexander II sold Alaska to the United States for $7 million in 1867.

  • The oppression of the Jews of Russia was so great that in 1891 President Benjamin Harrison wrote in his State of the Union address to Congress that the United States had lodged a formal complaint to the czar. Presidents Chester Arthur (in 1882), Grover Cleveland (in 1895), and Teddy Roosevelt (in 1904) also spoke out against Jewish repression in Russia.

  • The Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah (“The Hope”), originated with the Chovevei Zion movement. It was written in 1877 by the Ukrainian Jew Naftali Herz Imber, and was back then known by the name Tikvateinu, which means “Our Hope”.



Czar Alexander II (1818-1881): The reformist, yet autocratic, czar of Russia from 1855-1881, he instituted measures to improve the lives of Jews. He was assassinated in 1881, touching off a wave of repression against the Jewish community.

Czar Alexander III (1845-1894): son and successor to Alexander II, he responded to his father’s murder with a severe crackdown on civil liberties, especially targeting the Jews.

Leon Pinsker (1821-1891): a writer from the Ukraine, he penned the deeply influential Zionist book Auto-Emancipation, making him the first major Zionist leader, at least in Eastern Europe.


Anti-Semitism was official policy in Czarist Russia. While Jewish life in Europe went through ups and downs over the millennia, the Jews in Russia in the 1800s led extremely proscribed lives. They were kept in abject poverty and severely restricted in terms of property, jobs, travel, education, even clothing. They were totally at the mercy of the local princes and petty officials. Jews suffered under the pogrom — violent riots that frequently targeted Jewish business for destruction, and led to outright murder. 


In response to this persecution, Jewish communities formed independent clubs known as the Chovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion). These clubs formed the beginnings of the Zionist Movement in Eastern Europe, pursuing social and cultural activities to instill national pride and hope amongst the Jews, and dedicated to the idea of a return of the Jewish People to their ancient homeland in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel). They weren’t engaged in political activity but in small-scale efforts like teaching Hebrew and funding small agricultural communities in Palestine.


Leon’s Pinsker’s book Auto Emancipation, published in 1882, laid out some of the early arguments of Zionism. Because the non-Jewish majority hated and feared the Jews, they would never be accepted into society. In order to preserve their lives and live as Jews, they needed to establish their own homeland in their own territory. Zionism, then, was an effort to ensure the survival of the Jewish people by re-establishing their ancient national homeland.