It is with all this background that we now turn to the movement that is called Zionism. There are a number of different stages, even in early Zionism. The word itself was coined only in the early 1890s (by Natan Birnbaum, a fascinating figure who started out as an assimilated Jewish student and ended up amongst the leadership of the Agudat Israel movement). Prior to this, the movement tends to be called Hibbat Zion [Love of Zion] and its proponents Hovevei Zion [Lovers of Zion]. The roots of these groups can be detected in the 1860s, but their growth is also related to the pogroms in the Russian Pale of Settlement in 1881. These attacks on the Jews, of a kind and scope that had not been evident for several generations, opened up an enormous debate in the Jewish street about the question of emigration from Russia.
Two main schools of thought arose:
- The masses quickly started to vote with their feet, choosing America and the West.
- However, a number of young intellectual figures, who would later emerge as a cadre of leaders within Eastern European Jewry, supported the idea of emigration to the old-new land of Zion. For them it was not only that the Jews had left the ghetto, but rather, that Judaism had also come out of its closed environment.
According to these circles, Judaism now faced a crisis as it encountered an ocean of foreign culture that could only be managed, if the Jews recreated their national home in their historic homeland. By creating a homeland of their own, the Jews would be able to negotiate their relationship with European values and beliefs without being swamped by their immediate environment. America might be a solution for the individual, but could it also provide an answer to the spiritual and cultural needs of the Jewish masses, they asked.
And so, under the slogan of “Auto-Emancipation,” a number of societies began to form, calling for immigration to and productive labour in Eretz Yisrael. Even before the phrase was born, the idea of practical Zionism began to create a stir in sections of the Jewish public. In the early 1880s, many groups began to prepare their Aliyah with the hope of founding agricultural settlements in the Land of Israel.
At this point, the Zionist story splits into three, if connected parts.
- The first concerns the practical developments in Eretz Yisrael as waves of immigration began to transform the small Jewish community into a viable basis for a national home.
- The second concerns the development of a Zionist movement and organisation whose diplomatic efforts and political structure would provide the tools for the establishment of an autonomous Jewish community in Palestine.
- The third concerns the emergence of competing streams of Zionist thought and their interaction.
Without any one of the three parts, there would have been no whole: the state of Israel is a result of their interaction.
We will briefly survey the first of these and then turn to the second and third in more detail, examining the practical and theoretical underpinnings of Zionism as an ideology.
We understand the term ideology to mean:
“a coherent, action-orientated set of ideas that provides those who subscribe to it with a comprehensive cognitive map of their position and purposes.”
Shils and Friedrich