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A Brief History of Zionism

Ed Rabin and Al Sokolow provide background on the history of Zionism, in anticipation of a community forum on the topic to be held Sunday, February 13, at 3 pm at Congregation Bet Haverim (Enterprise Commentary, 2/9/2011).


The conflict between Jews in Israel and Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza has many aspects. Among them is the role of Zionism in the founding of the state of Israel. To further understanding of the history and nature of this concept, Congregation Bet Haverim will present an in-depth forum on Zionism at 3 p.m. Sunday. The public is invited.


As background, we offer this very brief introduction to Zionism. Zionism may be defined as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. Traditionally, it has meant a yearning for a return to their historic land, a deep-seated desire of Jews since the destruction of the Second Temple and the Roman conquest of the Holy Land in the first century and even earlier after previous exiles.


In the countries of Europe and the Middle East to which they were dispersed, Jews were oppressed, exploited and humiliated for centuries by intolerant majorities. Eventually, many Jews came to believe that the Jewish people would be treated as equal to other peoples only if they, like others, had a homeland of their own.


'Zion' originally meant a specific section of Jerusalem, and later by extension, all of the Holy Land. The modern Zionist movement thus promoted the return of Jews to 'Eretz Yisrael,' the land of Israel.


As an organized movement, modern Zionism was founded by Theodore Herzl in the late 19th century. Herzl was an Austrian journalist and author who had become convinced that Jews had a dismal future in a largely anti-Semitic Europe and that the recreation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine was the answer to what was then termed 'the Jewish question.'


His writings inspired Jews throughout the world. He organized the First Zionist Congress in Basle in 1897, which set the scene for an acceleration of political and economic developments supporting his concept.


Herzl and his colleagues did not invent Zionism. In fact, the yearning of the Jewish people for a return to Zion had persisted since the Roman and earlier conquests. For centuries, the Passover seder conducted by Jews every year throughout the world has ended with the prayerful wish, 'Next year in Jerusalem!' Jerusalem is mentioned 669 times in the Hebrew Bible ('Old Testament') and Zion 154 times.


And although Jews were scattered throughout the world, Jerusalem and Israel remained central to Judaism and to Jewish culture. Some Jews have resided in the Holy Land from biblical times to the present, and since the 19th century they have constituted a majority of the population of Jerusalem.


A combination of positive and negative developments affecting European Jews stimulated the development of Zionist belief and organization in Herzl's time.


On the one hand, starting in the 18th century, some Western European countries began to 'emancipate' Jews by granting them legal rights that formerly had been denied to them. As the resultant beneficiaries of new educational and economic opportunities, Jews arose from ghetto life to develop a more sophisticated self-awareness.


On the other hand, harsh anti-Semitic behavior, especially in Eastern Europe, marked by pogroms - mob violence against Jews, often officially sanctioned - as well as less violent forms of intolerance, led to the realization that a sustainable Jewish life in Europe was not possible. (That was confirmed later by the Holocaust.)


At about the same time, the formation of new European nations - Hungary, Romania and Poland, for example - provided examples of what ethnic nationalism could achieve. It was natural, then, for Zionists a century ago to seek the revival of Jewish nationhood in Palestine as a means of protecting the Jewish people from physical and spiritual annihilation.


The leaders of the Zionist movement in the 19th and 20th centuries, and certainly those who organized the modern state of Israel, anticipated a Jewish state in peaceful coexistence with Arab neighbors. As subjects alike of the Ottoman Empire that for four centuries had controlled most of the Middle East, both Jews and Arabs had nationalist aspirations.


After the World War I breakup of the empire, Arab nationalists successfully secured the independence of such countries as Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Egypt. The Jewish community in Palestine and Zionists throughout the world supported a comparable Jewish nationalism.


The world did not see Zionists as invaders and usurpers in the Middle East. Rather, Zionists hoped that Jewish life in a very small part of the region would be of benefit to both Jews and Arabs. Unfortunately, the surrounding Arab nations attacked Israel in 1948 in an unsuccessful attempt to destroy the new Jewish state. This war resulted in hundreds of thousands of Arab refugees as well as a slightly larger number of Jewish refugees from Arab countries. But before the Arabs launched their offensive against the Jewish communities in Palestine, there were no Arab refugees since Zionist settlements had acquired land by purchase, not conquest.


Even before the creation of Israel, starting in the 1920s Arab Palestinians mounted deadly attacks on Jewish communities. Despite this, the Zionist leaders in Palestine continued to seek peaceful relations between Jews and Arabs. In 1937, David Ben- Gurion wrote, 'All our aspiration is built on the assumption - proven throughout all our activity in the Land of Israel - that there is enough room in the country for ourselves and the Arabs.'


Ten years later, following the United Nations partition resolution, Golda Meir repeated the same theme: 'Both states can live in peace with one another and cooperate for the welfare of their inhabitants.' Sadly, this Zionist dream of peaceful coexistence has not yet been achieved.


Today, there are different views about the current role of Zionism. Some believe that now that the state of Israel is established, the mission of Zionism has been completed. Others argue that the concept maintains its spiritual significance as in unifying the Jewish people, both in Israel and elsewhere.


Zionism also continues to have practical meaning, preserving Israel as a refuge for Jews in distress - whether from Ethiopia, the former Soviet Union, Yemen or elsewhere. These and other challenging questions will be explored in depth at Sunday's forum on Zionism.


- Ed Rabin and Al Sokolow are retired faculty members of UC Davis, and both are longtime residents of Davis. Reach Rabin at and Sokolow at





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What: Public forum on Zionism, featuring John Rothmann, San Francisco radio host and author, and Guy Bershadsky, an Israel fellow at UC Davis Hillel House


When: 3 p.m. Sunday


Where: Congregation Bet Haverim, 1715 Anderson Road


Info: Al Sokolow at or (530) 758-3246

This site provided with the assistance of the Davis Community Network.