Zionism is a term much misunderstood and one that has become highly politicised.
Is Zionism a spiritual, religious movement, or a secular, political movement? The historical record is complex and shows that Zionism takes many forms. It is a multifaceted movement.
Zion refers to a hill outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, where King David’s city once stood.
From the time of the Jews’ first expulsions from the land, they expressed a longing for return. In exile in Babylon, the Psalmist wrote a song of lament, yearning for Zion. History
Although there was a partial return to the land, even in the time of Jesus most Jews still lived outside the land. Jews were again expelled by the Romans in the first and second centuries. The longing to return to Zion persisted however and was remembered in prayers and festivals – such as the annual Passover prayer: ‘next year in Jerusalem’.
The term Zionism, however, is relatively recent. And it wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that it took on political form, as devised by Theodore Herzl. The situation for the Jews in Russia and Eastern Europe had become dire. As a result of pogroms and persecution over 3 million Jews fled these countries.
Even in supposedly enlightened France, Jews faced antisemitism. Having witnessed the trial of the Jewish Captain Dreyfus, falsely accused of treason, Herzl was moved to launch his political Zionism. He concluded that the only answer to the persistent problem of antisemitism was for the Jewish people to have a national home.
Not all Jews supported political Zionism. Some believed they should wait for the M’shiach or Messiah to come and to restore them to their land as promised in the Scriptures. Others were concerned support for a Jewish homeland would lead to accusations of disloyalty to their countries of birth. Some, including Herzl, entertained the idea of establishing a homeland in a place other than then Palestine, but others insisted that the Jewish homeland could only be re-established in their ancestral land.
In the same period, a movement developed in Britain as part of an Evangelical revival, offering support for the return of the Jews.
It was not until the 1917 Balfour Declaration that Zionism found broad support amongst Jews. The period between the World Wars was one of dynamic growth under the British Mandate for Palestine. Zionists developed national infrastructure with help from many around the world.
And in 1948, just three years after Hitler’s attempt to rid the world of Jews, the Zionist dream was realised. Israel was reborn.
One of many myths about Zionism, is that it was a settler-colonialist movement that overran the indigenous people of the land.
Firstly, even though they had been a minority, the Jews were, and are, indigenous to the land, and maintained a continuous presence through the centuries.
Secondly, unlike New Zealand, where settlers with no prior connection came to a foreign land, Jews were returning to their ancestral homeland.
Thirdly, Palestine under Ottoman rule was an undeveloped and sparsely populated land. There were no defined borders and its administrative centre shifted over the period. A variety of peoples lived in the land: Bedouin, fellahin, villagers, Jews, Muslims and various Christian groups, but for centuries it had been ruled by the Ottomans from afar. The area became more desirable as returning Jews began to develop the land and immigration of both Arabs and Jews increased markedly over the period.
Finally, the historical record shows that Jews intended and expected to live at peace with the other peoples of the land.
It should also be remembered that in 1922, Jordan was created. It was originally part of the British Mandate but was handed over to the Arabs. What was left for the Jews was a tiny piece of land half the size of New Zealand’s Canterbury region.
A common accusation is that ‘Zionism is racism’. Opponents rail against the very idea of a Jewish state. In reality it is opposition to the existence of one small Jewish state in a vast sea of Arab nations that is racist. Anti-Zionism rejects the right of self-determination for just one indigenous people group: the Jews.
The antisemitism of the 1800s gave Zionism great impetus. Tragically, the 20th century saw the murder of one third of the world’s Jews. Sadly, the ancient hatred is on the rise once more.
Whether viewed through a spiritual, humanitarian, historical, or political lens, Zionism is legitimate and the argument for a Jewish homeland is as strong as ever.