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Zionism and the Jewish People

By: Jacob Lewis

Zionism, since its emergence in the late 19th century, has become a prominent force and ideology for the Jewish people. Due to its prevalence in contemporary society, it is important to clearly define what Zionism is, to clearly explain why the movement became so prominent for the Jewish people in the first place, and to analyze how it has fundamentally changed Jews in the Diaspora and in Israel. This essay seeks to accomplish those goals by exploring a few historical events related to Zionism.

Although the concept of Zionism existed previously, the efforts of individuals like Theodor Herzl and Leo Pinsker in the late 19th century brought the idea to prominence among European Jewry. Pinsker pushed the idea that the Jews should “act for themselves as a collective,” while Herzl pushed for the establishment of a Jewish state (Shapira 7-8). Although there was some initial disagreement as to where the Zionists believed the Jewish state should be established, the large consensus settled on the ancient land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael). Zionism, as these political Zionists saw it, developed into the idea that Jews must establish their own state in Eretz Yisrael in order to have their own self-determination as a people and to set up a common Jewish identity. This would involve the revival of Hebrew, an emphasized collective history, and a shared physical land. Although some of these aspects in practice have differed from the ideas of early Zionist thinkers like Herzl and Pinsker, they at least have their roots in the foundational tenets of Zionism they helped to popularize.

The rise of Zionism was facilitated in the late 19th century by changes outside of and within the Jewish communities in the Diaspora. Throughout the 19th century, emancipation was being granted to many of the Jewish communities in Europe. Before this, Jews had been excluded from much of European society. Jews in Europe were clearly set apart from Christian society and therefore had very few fundamental rights, such as the absence of the ability to “exercise authority over Christians… [and] possess land” (Avineri 137). Although this kind of discrimination allowed Jews to organize themselves into their own communities, it placed them at a disadvantage within Christian Europe regarding their rights as a collective and as individuals. European society fundamentally changed during the Enlightenment as “equality before the law and the relegation of religion to the realm of private concerns meant that the state no longer viewed itself as a Christian state but as a state encompassing every citizen regardless of his religious beliefs or lack of them” (Avineri 138). This change brought Jews into European society, pushing them to move into cities, join the structures of European society, and secularize through European education. These changes, however, clashed with traditional Jewish life and customs as well as the emerging nationalist movements of Europe. Jews had to make choices, such as whether to send their children to state schools on Saturdays (the Sabbath) and whether to eat food with gentiles that was often not kosher. This made daily life a struggle of decisions for emancipated Jews (Avineri 139-140).

The nationalism that swept Europe at the same time also led to the further exclusion of Jews. A well known example of this was the Dreyfus Affair. Although Captain Dreyfus was an integrated member of French society and the military, he was still accused of treason as the “public consensus” was “it must be him; after all he is not really French, he is Jewish…to us, true Frenchmen, true descendants of the ancient Gauls, you are just Judas” (Avineri 141). Despite the attempts of Jews to join the rest of European society, in the end, they were often still seen as Jews and not members of the state they lived in. The failure to integrate Jews in Europe into the societies of their states led to more acts of discrimination against them despite their attempts to secularize and become citizens of their nations. Acts of violence, especially the pogroms in the Russian Empire during the early 1880s, also drove Jews to leave Europe as it became clear that the state had little interest in protecting Jews (Eisenstadt 143). Although these events caused some Jews to immigrate to other parts of the Diaspora, those who were looking for their self-identity as a Jewish people found that this was impossible in any state in the Diaspora, so the only solution was to form their own state and identity in Eretz Yisrael.

The Zionist movement has also clearly and fundamentally changed the lifestyle of the Jewish people as a group and as individuals. Some of the main factors involved in the revolution of Jewish identity associated with Zionism are the challenging of rabbinical law through secularization, the establishment of a Jewish majority in a single state, the separation of a Jewish state of Israel from that of the minority of Jews in the Diaspora, and the actions taken by the Israeli state to mold Jews into a group in the state of Israel with a common set of beliefs and culture. Although rabbinical law and a general religiosity had the real power in the Jewish communities of the Diaspora for thousands of years, this was challenged by Zionists through secularization in the revival of Hebrew as a modern language and the question of the rule of civil law versus religious law (Eisenstadt 151). No longer did the rabbinate and religious law have hegemony over the Jewish people; political Zionists pushed for the general secularization of the Jewish people in the laws of the state and common institutions such as the universal use of the Hebrew language. The Jewish people had also always been a minority living in other states but having a majority Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael made them a majority in their own state, allowing for a true self-autonomy not found by Jews in the Diaspora. The establishment of the state of Israel also set up a fundamental push and pull between the Jews living in Israel and those in the Diaspora. An important aspect of Zionism is the idea that Jews are unable to develop their own identity while living in the Diaspora, which is why they must move to Eretz Yisrael. However, many Jews still live in the Diaspora, and these communities are forever woven into the Jewish people, so there is a constant tension between the two groups (Eisenstadt 155). The original leaders of the state of Israel also sought to mold the many types of Jews living in Israel into a more homogenous group of Jews. They attempted to achieve this goal through institutions such as the common use of Hebrew, state education, and the control of other aspects of life by the state. All of these previous aspects also affected Jews as individuals. Jews had to make individual choices about how secular or religious they ought to be, whether they should live in the Diaspora or in Israel, and whether they should seek a religious or state education among many other similar difficult decisions. Whereas previously the Jewish people were largely united under rabbinical law, the emergence of Zionism and formation of the state of Israel created significant pressure to secularize and fundamentally altered the lives of Jews around the globe.

Through its early thinkers and founders of the state of Israel, Zionism has emerged as a fundamental tenet of Jewish life in the contemporary era. Due to the discrimination experienced via emancipation and European nationalism, there has been a push for Jews to move to Eretz Yisrael. This movement has revolutionized the Jewish people via secularization and the formation of many new aspects of a common Jewish identity.

Works Cited

Avineri, Shlomo. “Zionism as a National Liberation Movement.” The Jerusalem Quarterly, no. 10, 1979, pp. 133-144.

Eisenstadt, Shmuel N. Chapter 6: “Modern Jewish National Movements and the Zionist Movement.” In Shmuel N. Eisenstadt, Jewish Civilization: The Jewish Historical Experience in a Comparative Perspective. Albany: State University of New York Press (1992). pp. 141-159.

Shapira, Anita. “Introduction,” in Jehuda Reinharz and Anita Shapira (eds.), Essential Papers on Zionism, (New York University Press, 1996), pp. 1-29.

Jacob Lewis is a sophomore majoring in Political Science and minoring in Israel Studies and History.

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