The term ‘Zionism’

Zionism is the term used to describe the national movement of the Jewish people, expressed as a Jewish commitment to the restoration of the land of Israel.

The term ‘Zion’ is derived from Mount Zion in Jerusalem, which traditionally symbolises both the city and the land. Psalm 137, for example, is a poem written after the destruction of the First Jewish Temple there in 586 BCE and the Jewish exile to Babylon which followed:

“By the waters of Babylon,
There we sat, there we wept,
When we remembered Zion…
If I forget thee, 0 Jerusalem,
May my right hand forget its skill.”

In the nineteenth century the word ‘Zionism’ was adopted as the term to describe the national movement of the Jewish people, expressed as a Jewish commitment to the restoration of the land of Israel. The concluding words of Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikva” (The Hope) summarises the aim of Zionism as follows:

“The hope of 2000 years:
To live as a free people
In our own land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.”

Zionism has always been an ancient/modern movement, with its roots in the Jewish people’s historical longing to return to their spiritual home, the land of their ancestors; and its modern impetus arising from the nationalist movement of the 19th Century.

Historical background

Roman ‘Judea Capta’ coins

The Romans marked their conquest of the Holy Land in 66 BCE by minting special coins bearing the words ‘Judea Capta’ (Judea is Captive). There followed two centuries of resistance by the Jewish inhabitants and devastation, including the destruction of the Second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in 70CE.

From that time on, prayers offered every day for the restoration of Jerusalem and the ingathering of the exiles became a central feature of Jewish life. This yearning was intensified by the cycle of persecution suffered almost every generation by a people living as strangers and outsiders in the mono-cultural societies of Christian Europe.

After the final defeat and expulsion of the Jews in 135 CE, the Romans renamed the land ‘Syria Palestina’ (‘Philistine Syria’ – in English ‘Palestine’). This land was ruled successively by the Romans, Persians, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders and Egyptians and, from 1517 to 1917, by the Ottoman Turks. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, a country which in Roman times had supported some three million people had been reduced to an impoverished population of less than half a million.

The origins of modern Zionism


The 19th Century began as the era of democratic revolution, of “liberty, equality, fraternity”. It ended as the age of rampant nationalism, of Pan Germanism, Pan Slavism, and the Italian Risorgimento.

The Jews of Europe were als caught up in the political whirlwind of 19th century nationalism. Liberalism implied and even explicitly promised the emancipation of the Jews from the legal, physical and psychological ghetto that had been their European experience until that time. On the other hand a national concept based on race both specifically excluded the Jews from the national destiny, and provided a stimulus for a secular Jewish national consciousness.

Rome and Jerusalem (1862) by Moses Hess, a former associate of Karl Marx, and Seeking Zion, written in the same year by Hirsch Kalischer, an Orthodox rabbi, both recognised the essential incompleteness of emancipation and responded with a call for a Jewish national movement dedicated to the rebuilding of the ancient homeland. The same call coming from two such different men represented the melding of ancient religious Zionism and modern political Zionism.

The events of 1881-2

By the 1800s more than five million Jews were living in Russia, the vast majority in conditions of desperate poverty. No liberal revolution had taken place in that country, although Tsarist autocracy was modified by liberal ideas in the reign of Alexander II (1855-1881). In 1861 the serfs of Russia were emancipated, and during the same period the Jews enjoyed an incomplete emancipation under which discriminatory laws were generally not enforced.

Then in 1881, Alexander II was assassinated. His successor, Alexander III, took pride in describing himself as an autocrat. He promulgated the ‘May Laws’, which placed severe restrictions on the areas where Jews were permitted to reside. Jewish boys were again conscripted into the army at the age of 12 for a period of 25 years. Pogroms (riots and murderous attacks on Jewish areas and villages) took place throughout Russia with the implied support of the authorities.

One response to the new conditions was Jewish emigration to America. Between 1882 and 1914 some two and a quarter million Jews left for the United States. Another response was Zionism. Leo Pinsker, a physician who had previously been one of the leading advocates of cultural assimilation, expressed the new feelings forcibly in his pamphlet “Autoemancipation” (1882) in which he diagnosed “Judeophobia” as an incurable disease in European society. The pamphlet reflected the new determination that only with the restoration of a Jewish homeland would the eternal cycle of degradation and persecution ever come to an end.

Members of the Hovevei Zion group of Vilnius

Associations for Jewish emigration to Palestine known as ‘Hovevei Zion’ (‘Lovers of Zion’) were founded in a number of Russian cities. One group of students from Kharkhov, calling themselves the ‘BILU’ (an acronym for the Hebrew “House of Jacob, let us arise and go”) immediately left to set up a collective settlement in Palestine.

Thousands of other young Jews followed, establishing settlements in what was then a desolate corner of the Turkish empire, consisting very largely of malarial swamp, desert and rocky hills, and often relying on the support of Jewish philanthropists for their survival. In 1884 a conference of the Hovevei Zion was held at Katowitz, in German Poland, and Leo Pinsker was elected as its first president. The organisation was not effective politically, however, and made very little impact outside Russia.

The first Zionist Congress

In 1896 Theodore Herzl, a journalist for a Viennese newspaper, was in Paris, covering what ‘The Dreyfus Affair’. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the French Army, had been convicted of treason on the basis of forged documents, and was not released even after government officials became aware that the documents were forged. The scandal which followed reflected and further fueled an outbreak of fierce antisemitism.

Herzl, who had witnessed the growth of a new racial antisemitism in Germany and Austria, was shocked at this manifestation in France, the centre of liberalism and democracy. His conclusion was that the effective emancipation of the Jews of Europe was impossible and that Jewish dignity could be protected only with the restoration of a Jewish Commonwealth.

He published a pamphlet, “Der Judenstaat” (“The Jewish State”), in which he called for a legally recognised state, established by negotiation with the great powers, in a land restored by Jewish labour and the application of modern techniques. “If you will it,” he said, “it is no dream”, and forecast the establishment of a Jewish state within 50 years.

Metal sculpture of Theodore Herzl atop a water tank in the modern Israeli town named after him, Herzliya. the Hebrew writing on the tank says “If you will it, it is no dream.”

The pamphlet generated a powerful response throughout the Jewish world, and on 29 August 1897 Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress at Basel in Switzerland. The Congress took the form of a Jewish parliament, comprising 204 representatives of Jewish communities from around the world. The Congress created the World Zionist Organisation, and adopted as its program:

“Zionism seeks to establish a home for the Jewish people in Palestine secured under public law.”

In 1900 the Jewish National Fund was established, and its blue coin boxes appeared in every Jewish home for the purpose of raising money to buy and thereby legally acquire land in Turkish Palestine. Herzl was a charismatic figure, able to attract and move the Jewish masses, and he had a flair for public action on a grand scale which gave international standing to the Zionist movement. He was able to confer with British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain and with Russian Interior Minister Von Plehve; to meet publicly in Jerusalem with Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and to have continuing discussion with Sultan Abdul Hamid II of Turkey.

Herzl’s search for an internationally-endorsed legal Charter for Zionism was ultimately unsuccessful, and he was unable to open the gates of Palestine for large-scale settlement. However, he did succeed in creating a political identity for the movement, so that it became an international address for governments coping with Jewish dislocation.

After the Russian pogroms of 1903, culminating in the Kishinev massacre, the British Government faced a surge in Jewish immigration, and approached the Zionist movement with a proposal for a Jewish place of refuge in El Arish, a tiny enclave on the northern coast of Sinai. This was followed by a more developed proposal for Jewish settlement in Uganda. The Zionist movement was deeply split, but in 1903, faced with the desperation of Russian Jewry, voted by a majority to send an investigatory commission to East Africa. In 1904 Herzl died at the age of 44.

Zionist ideologies

Early socialist Zionists: “Lovers of Zion”

From the beginning the Zionist dream always had a utopian element. The great hope of restoring the land of Israel and ingathering the exiles was not enough by itself. The socialists who dreamed of an ideal and just society, the “revisionists” who sought a revival of Jewish dignity through courage and self reliance, and the religious who demanded a State bound by biblical precepts, all had their distinctive visions. These varied visions still form the basis of the complex pattern of Israeli politics today.

Typical of the early years was the Tolstoyan vision of A.D. Gordon, who preached the dignity of physical labour for the redemption both of the land and the Jewish people. Other ideologists contributed their differing visions of a utopian socialist State. Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the charismatic Revisionist leader, wrote of the necessity for military self defence and arranged for Jewish participation in the allied forces during the First World War. Rabbi Avraham Kook, one of the architects of modern religious Zionism, took issue with those who refused to take active steps to restore the land before a messianic divine intervention. Eliezer Ben Yehuda developed Hebrew from the language of prayer and study into a language of daily speech and action capable of uniting a diverse people in a modern State.

However the dominant ideology among the early settlers was socialist. Various kinds of socialist enterprises were established, such as the kibbutz (communal settlement), the moshav (farmers co-operative) and the Histadrut (the trade union movement). Meanwhile, in the Diaspora, the Zionist movement established branches in countries with Jewish communities and raised funds for the purchase and development of land. World Zionist congresses were democratically elected, and consisted of parties representing the different ideologies of the movement.

The Balfour Declaration and the Mandate

Balfour Declaration (r)

World War I created a dramatically new situation. The World Zionist Organisation was based in Germany and Turkey, the ruler of Palestine, was Germany’s ally. The British Zionist Federation under the chairmanship of Chaim Weizmann now became the centre of Zionist activity. By 1917, when it became clear that Turkish Palestine would come under British control, Weizmann was able to present the Zionist case to the British Government. With the historic Balfour Declaration, and the subsequent mandate, came the charter for a Jewish homeland envisaged by Herzl. (This was somewhat ironic, as Weizmann had always been sceptical of Herzl’s vision of a charter from the great powers, and regarded actual settlement and development – “another cow in Gedera” – as the Zionist priority.)

The Mandate had provided for an “appropriate Jewish Agency” to assist in the establishment of the Jewish national home, and in 1922 the British Government recognized the Zionist Organisation as that agency.

The Zionist movement now had the aims of developing the economy of Palestine, facilitating immigration, and conducting relations with the British Government. Their task was immensely difficult. Under an unsympathetic administration, land was purchased and Jewish immigrants worked to restore its fertility. Collective settlements were established, desert areas were developed, trees planted and malarial swampland drained. Infrastructure, including the electricity company created by Pinchas Rutenberg, came into existence, industries were established and the city of Tel Aviv, founded in 1908, started to grow from the sand dunes. As a result of the attraction of this economic development, the Arab population of the region doubled between 1917 and 1946.

At the same time, Arab riots in opposition to Jewish settlement led to Royal Commissions and subsequent White Papers in 1922, 1930 and 1939 which drastically limited Jewish immigration and settlement. Meanwhile the situation of the Jews in Europe became increasingly desperate with the threat of the approaching holocaust.

The Zionist movement continued to grow in Jewish communities throughout the world. The Zionist Federation of Australia and New Zealand was formed at a conference in Melbourne in 1927, under the presidency of Sir John Monash, the former General Officer Commanding the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in Europe during the First World War.

Major General Sir John Monash, first president of the Zionist Federation of Australia and New Zealand

By the 1930s the Zionist movement was split between those who supported Weizmann’s policy of continued co-operation with the British and those who joined Jabotinsky in advocating opposition to the Mandate and the establishment of a Jewish State. In 1942 the Zionist movement adopted the “Biltmore Program” at a conference at that city in the U.S., proclaiming “the establishment of Palestine as Jewish Commonwealth” as the Zionist aim.

Leading Nazi Adolf Eichmann’s cynical offer of a million Jewish lives for 10,000 trucks was conveyed to the British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, by the Zionist leaders Weizmann and Sharett, as was the Jewish Agency’s call for the bombing of Auschwitz. Both requests were refused. During the war Zionists in Europe struggled to save Jewish lives – one example was the evacuation of children in a sealed train. The trickle of ‘illegal’ Jewish immigration to Palestine continued, sometimes with tragic consequences as ships were refused permission to land anywhere at all. One example was the “Struma”, refused permission to refuel or take provisions in Turkey and eventually scuttled at sea with the loss of all the passengers’ lives.

By the end of the war it became clear that the Nazi atrocities had resulted in the death of six out of every seven of the Jews of Europe. After the war, when hundreds of thousands of survivors still remained stranded in the DP (Displaced Persons) camps of Europe, the Zionist movement joined in the struggle against the British to open the doors of Palestine. Illegal immigrants in their small ships struggled to land, and intense resistance broke out in Palestine.

Illegal Jewish immigrants crowded onto ships bound for Palestine

Britain referred the issue to the United Nations, the Zionist movement engaged in the intensive representations which led to the Partition Resolution of 1947, and eventually, on 15th May 1948, Israel became an independent state. With the establishment of the State of Israel, the primary aim of the Zionist movement was fulfilled. The movement remains in place as a symbol of the commitment of Jews to the Jewish homeland. Elected Zionist congresses are still held in Israel and the world movement now engages in immigration, settlement and development projects in partnership with the government of Israel.

Relevant Quotations

Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad (1863)

“The further we went the hotter the sun got and the more rocky and bare, repulsive and dreary the landscape became. There could not have been more fragments of stone strewn broadcast over this part of the world if every ten square feet of the land had been occupied by a separate and distinct stone-cutter’s establishment. There was hardly a tree or shrub anywhere. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country

… Nazareth is forlorn; about that ford of Jordan where the hosts of Israel entered the Promised Land with songs of rejoicing, one finds only a squalid camp of fantastic Bedouins of the desert … Renowned Jerusalem itself, the stateliest name in history, has lost all its ancient grandeur, and is become a pauper village … Palestine is desolate and unlovely … It is a hopeless, dreary, heartbroken land.”

Moses Hess, Rome and Jerusalem (1862)

“We shall always remain strangers among the nations. They may even be moved by a sense of humanity and justice to emancipate us … but despite enlightenment and education, the Jew in exile who denies his nationality will never earn the respect of the nations among whom he dwells.”

Leo Pinsker, Autoemancipation (1881)

“Judeophobia is a psychic aberration. As a psychic aberration it is hereditary, and as a disease transmitted for two thousand years, it is incurable…

The Jewish people have no fatherland of their own, though many motherlands; they have no rallying point, no centre of gravity, no government of their own, no accredited representatives. They are everywhere as guests and nowhere at home. The nations never have to deal with a Jewish nation but always with mere Jews…

For the living the Jew is a dead man, for the natives an alien and a vagrant, for property holders a beggar, for the poor an exploiter and a millionaire, for patriots a man without a country – for all classes a hated rival…

We must have a home if not a country of our own.”

Theodore Herzl, Der Judenstaat (1896)

“What glory awaits those who fight unselfishly for the Cause! Therefore I believe that a wondrous generation of Jews will spring into existence. The Maccabeans will rise again. Let me repeat once more my opening words. The Jews who wish for a State will have it. We shall live at last as free men on our own soil, and die peacefully in our own homes. The world will be freed by our liberty, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness. And whatever we attempt there to accomplish for our own welfare will react powerfully and beneficially for the good of humanity.”

A.D. Gordon, Writings (1920)

“In Palestine we must do with our own hands all that makes up the sum total of life. We must ourselves do all the work from the least strenuous, cleanest and most sophisticated, to the dirtiest and most difficult. In our way, we must feel what a worker feels, think what a worker thinks – then, and only then, shall we have a culture of our own, for then we shall have a life of our own.”

© Ian Lacey AM (This article originally appeared in Teaching History, the journal of the NSW History Teachers’ Association.)

Click here for the Jewish Agency’s detailed “Concepts of Zionism” history and information