Kibutz ceremony, 1951

Philosophical Origins and Sociopolotical Evolution of Zionism as a Nationalist Movement

Zionism is a movement that aims for the creation of a Jewish State. In its current form and for most of its history, this state is to be built in the region of Palestine (called Zion צִיּוֹן in the Old Testament). It appears in a context where, despite the recent implementation of laws that for the first time in Europe gave Jews equal rights, anti-Semitism was growing steadily. It must be acknowledged that Zionism is not a religious movement primarily, but rather a nationalist movement that in its origins has more to do with German idealism than Judaism. In this article I will explain the ideas that gave birth to Zionism and its role in the history of Palestine and Israel. To explain this, I will focus on British and French colonialism in the Middle East, but I will initially focus on Jewish scholars and authors who were central in the emergence of Zionism.

Flag of Israel
The flag of Israel in Yad LaShiryon, Latrun, Israel. Source: Wikimedia

Moses Hess, the first thinker of Zionism

Moses Hess was among the first Zionist thinkers. He left his religion in his youth but always kept his national identity, and throughout his teens became involved with Marx, Hegel and Spinoza. In his work, he speaks of history in a peculiar manner: he argues that history is a bunch of nations interacting with each other and evolving as they do so, until they reach a final point where they all live in harmony, having learnt to cooperate. This stage is called the Sabbath of History. This view is not a religious Jewish view, where history is God’s plan, but seems to have been influenced by German philosophy, especially by Hegel’s historical dialectic. Hess believed that the Jewish world-view was the only one truly concerned with this harmony, and that, for this reason, Jews had to maintain their national identity.

Around the same time, a movement was developing in Russia and Eastern Europe called the haskalah (השכלה). This movement was influenced by Western writers such as the ones read by Hess, but would also see a great impact from Russian radical authors such as Chernychevsky and Pisarev. This resulted in a sort of Jewish version of Russian populism, and was the basis of Zionism. It pictured Western cultural impact as a major threat, and was interested in religion inasmuch as it created a sense of identity and belonging to the nation.

Moses Hess. Source: Wikimedia
Moses Hess. Source: Wikimedia

Theodor Herzl and Alfred Dreyfus: The Dreyfus Affair

In the XIX century, Germany and France faced political tensions and French Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus was accused of sending secret military information to the Germans. The evidence given was a letter found in a trash can. Analysis, however, concluded that that was not Dreyfus’s handwriting, but the court considered that Dreyfus had faked his own handwriting, anticipating that the letter might be found. In 1895, Dreyfus was sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island, near the coast of French Guinea in South America.

Meanwhile, Theodor Herzl was working for a newspaper in Vienna. He was a secular Jew and had been struggling with the so-called ‘Jewish Question’: can Jews be integrated into European society? When he learnt about the Dreyfus affair, he thought, like many others, that it had been faked by the French and it was only a way to get ‘the Jew’ out of the officer’s court. A lie motivated by anti-Semitism. Herzl observed that this trend of anti-Semitism was growing in Europe, and strangely in the areas where Jewish legal emancipation took place. In other words, laws that gave Jews the same rights as other citizens also seemed to indirectly cause popular hatred towards them. In her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt would argue that this was because previously the Jews’ wealth had had a role for the community, which was to fund monarchies, but now that they were only the same as poorer citizens, this inequality of wealth was perceived as unjust. From this, Herzl saw that emancipation would fail, and concluded that Jews had to get out of Europe and form their own state.

Theodor Herzl. Source: Britannica
Theodor Herzl. Source: Britannica

In 1896 he published a book called Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), where he painted Jews as a national group, not a religious one. Jews should consider themselves a nation and be recognised as such by other nations in the world. He starts from the conclusion that Jews cannot be integrated into society, but to prosper need their own place to settle. Initially there were many proposals for where this state could be, from Argentina to Madagascar, but eventually, for Biblical reasons, Palestine was chosen as the place to be.

The Developments of Zionism

Many groups of Jews initially strongly opposed the project of Zionism. Orthodox Jews argued that God had expelled them from Palestine and only at the end of time, with the return of the messiah, would He give it back to them. Thus, it was sacrilege for a group of secular Jews to want to take it before God decided it was time. Liberal Jews worried about the basic premise of Zionism, that Jews cannot be integrated, because if Europeans believed them it could be disastrous, and history has shown it in Nazism. An Eastern European group called Autonomous agreed that Jews needed their national status but thought that the idea of going elsewhere to build their own state was over the top, and that rather Jews should strive to gain rights wherever they lived now. Finally, socialist Jews opposed Zionism because they believed that every kind of nationalism was a tool of the upper classes to distract the lower classes from the real class struggle.

In her lecture ‘The Birth and Evolution of Zionism’, Professor Haplerin narrates the Aliyas, the waves of Jewish migration to Palestine. The first Aliya (עֲלִיָּה, ascent) happened in 1882, when a group of Zionists called Hibbat Zion (חיבת ציון, Lovers of Zion) set up agricultural communities in Palestine, often hiring local Arab workers. The end of the XIX century was a rough time for the Ottoman Empire, who then owned Palestine, and thus they put forward a set of policy reforms called the tanzimat, which allowed Europeans, including Jews, to come into Ottoman land freely to set up businesses. These new agricultural communities failed, and many Jews returned to Europe, but a lot of them had the support of French Jewish philanthropists, notably the Rothschilds, a family of powerful bankers.

The second Aliya, however, came from Russia in the 1920s. By this time, socialism was thriving in that part of the world, and it indeed influenced the Zionist thought of the communities of this Aliya. These newcomers despised hiring Arabs, because they saw it as exploitation, and they argued that if they made others work their land, they would never really connect with the land. Thus, this Aliya of socialist Jews excludes non-Jews from the Jewish labour market and the market in more general terms. This project was good-willed, and theoretically it aimed at separating communities that would live in harmony, each minding their own businesses. But it had negative consequences for the idea of Zionism.

File:Vladimir Lenin.jpg
Vladimir Lenin, one of the major figures of Russian socialism: Source: Wikimedia

Palestinian response to Zionism

In the 1920s, when the Jews had already begun carrying out their rituals before the Buraq Wall on the Temple Mount (the same location as the Muslim al-Aqsa Mosque), the Palestinians gave the first demonstration against Jewish immigration. By this time, in only 30 years since the first Aliya, there were around 70 000 Jews settled in Palestine. Moreover, the Ottoman Empire had collapsed after World War 1 (1916-1919), and Palestine was now dominated by the British Empire. For economic interests in the war, the British had sided with Zionist Jews, and this bias was evident in the execution of the Sykes-Picot agreement, where France and Britain distributed among themselves areas of the conquered Middle East.

Muslims Protesting against Zionism. Source: al-Jazeera
Muslims Protesting against Zionism. Source: al-Jazeera

Similar demonstrations and conflicts happened throughout the following years and, consequentially, Britain began limiting the number of Jews that could enter Palestine per year in the 1940s. The Zionists saw this as betrayal, and carried out a series of terrorist attacks against the British. One example is the King David Hotel bombing in July 1946, where the southern wing of the hotel, which housed the British administrative headquarters for Palestine, was destroyed. This attack was organised by Menachem Begin, who later would become Prime Minister of Israel (1977-1983). The Jewish soldiers, having been trained and with experience in two World Wars, used this skill against the British, and now opted for another candidate to ally with: the US.

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King David Hotel bombing. Source: Wikimedia

Britain leaves, the First Arab-Israeli War

With this incident, Britain had had enough and passed the Palestinian issue to the newly formed United Nations in 1947, but never ceased to support Zionism. The UN proposed that year the Partition Plan, which divided Palestine into an Arab half and a Jewish half, while setting the city of Jerusalem to international management. The Jews, who in 1946 owned 5.8% of the land, were given in this Plan 56% of the territory, in a time when Arab Palestinians made up 66% of the population. The Arab world didn’t receive this project kindly and, one day after it was accepted by the UN, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq declared war on the Jews. The Jews received Britain’s and the US’s support, and they won the war. In 1949, the state of Israel was declared.

More on The Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration

Left 1946, Right 1947 UN Partition Plan. Source: The Zionist Story documentary
Left 1946, Right 1947 UN Partition Plan. Source: The Zionist Story documentary

Throughout the 1920s and onwards, Palestinian rejection of Jewish immigration was hotly debated among the Jews. Herzl hadn’t been of the idea of removing local Arabs to make way for the Jews, but he and his contemporaries hadn’t either given much thought as to how existing Arab populations would feel about mass migrations into their land. Zionism had become an exclusively Jewish project, following the socialist exclusion of Gentiles from the Jewish economy, and this had its consequences in this debate. These socialist Jews argued that the Zionist project was doing the right thing, and that Arabs were simply not understanding, but argued that this could be solved by sheer dialogue. Right-wing Jews, however, were always more eager to use the military against protestors. Professor Haplerin says in minute 36:46 of her lecture that “this belief in the inevitability of conflict and the justness of using force to win if necessary also has its ripples in contemporary Israeli policy”. Indeed, Berelovich, in his documentary The Zionist Story, notes that Israel has a long history of Prime Ministers who were previously fighters and officials of the military.

After the Holocaust, Zionism underwent another important change. The Jewish community had faced one of the worst episodes that history has seen, losing at least 6 million of its people in six years. The western world, and especially the UN, felt a deep remorse and care for the Jews and European and American opinion came to the conclusion that perhaps Herzl was right: Jews couldn’t integrate in society and needed their own state. This shift in opinion was the uplift that traditional Zionists needed to claim that Zionism was the only way a proper Jew ought to think.

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German concentration camp at Wobbelin. Source: Wikimedia


Zionism emerged among secular circles of Jewry as a consequence of growing anti-Semitism in the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe. It is influenced by modern European philosophy and creates a sense of belonging through ethnic nationalism. In the case of Russian Zionism, it also took advantage of religion in order to create this unity. In more recent times, Zionism has been adopted by the more Orthodox Jews and has become widely accepted as the right way a Jew should think (although it does have opposition within Judaism), and its basis has come to include, as well as the unity of the nation, the Biblical promise of the return to Judea.

From the case of Zionism in the second Aliya, as analysed by Haplerin in her lecture, we can infer that the market can be central to the inclusion of a community. This has to do with interdependence. A community will see another as part of their lives if they are affected by them in some way. In this way, the other community can be seen as a peripheral part of the nation, but when the community is totally excluded from the market, they are out of the concept of nation and thus become mere disturbances in “our land”. This may also be seen in Arendt’s analysis of anti-Semitism, where Jews became hated when their wealth lost legitimacy. Their place in the nation was justified by their role, a role which also kept them as the Other. When the law tried to integrate them, they found themselves obliged to sacrifice this role, and this led to hatred because now the Same was somehow different and better off. Perhaps, then, Marx’s materialism had some truth in it when saying that the most important thing is means of production.

Orthodox Jewish opposition to Zionism. Source: Wikimedia
Orthodox Jewish opposition to Zionism. Source: Wikimedia
Protests against Zionism. Source: AJC
Flag of Israel with Nazi Swastika. Source: AJC


1895 Documentary: The Zionist Story by Ronen Berelovich

Khan Academy: Theodor Herzl and the birth of political Zionism

Haplerin. L (2014). The Birth and Evolution of Zionism, lecture, FPRI’s Middle East History Institute, University of Colorado, delivered 25-26/10/2014

Taylor. A (1964). Zionist Ideology: An Interpretive Analysis. Middle East Journal: Middle East Institute

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