The Start of Zionism

When the modern movement of return to the land - which came to be known as Zionism - began in the last decades of the nineteenth century, for many Jews the relationship to the Land changed yet again. Israel was once more viewed as a genuine contemporary option for Jewish life.

In the last years of the century, thousands of Jews began to move there with the intention of creating the basis for a modern Jewish society. For many Jews - who had relegated the country to the realm of the mythical - Zionism reclaimed it as a living, breathing land, a place where you could live and farm the earth; a place where, increasingly, you could speak again the ancient and somewhat fossilized Hebrew language, a place where you could talk about a real living Jewish future and not just a great Jewish past or a vague messianic hope. The name of the game was building a life - for many this became a real option, especially as numerous countries harshened their attitudes and their treatment of Jews.

Moneys were collected all over the world to support the new settlers and settlements or to buy land and plant trees. Fundraising - in the old pre-Temple destruction tradition of the half shekel for the Temple, together with the still practised tradition of sending money to the communities of scholars and residents of Eretz Yisrael - were now became harnessed to Zionism. Institutions like the Keren Kayemet LeYisrael (the Jewish National Fund) developed and became increasingly prominent in the life of much of world Jewry. Zionism was on the map. 

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 Opposition to Zionism - Battle Lines

There were many Jews who were not pleased with the new developments. Traditional, orthodox Jews in central and eastern Europe struggled with the new idea and tried to find ways of merging their traditional messianic ideas with the new political ideas of Zionism. Some joined the movement and tried to work within it to influence the direction of Zionism, which they saw as a step on the way to the messianic redemption. Others remained outside and strongly criticized the movement for its brazen attempt to replace God's messianic plan with a human one. The Zionists were undermining God.

Another group which vehemently rejected the new position proned by Zionism was much of emancipated western Jewry, who had invested so much effort over the last generations to prove to the outside world that they linked their fates with their non- Jewish neighbours in a common homeland of France, Germany or the United States. To them, Zionism was a threat, which risked undermining all their still precarious achievements, by proclaiming to the world what they themselves had utterly rejected: namely, that Eretz Yisrael was the homeland of the Jews. Thus, they fought it.

There were other Jews in the West who viewed Zionism as a reasonable and even an important option - but simply not for them. Zionism was a movement for those who needed a place of refuge from poverty or persecution, and they would support it as an important option for those less fortunate than themselves.

Thus, the battle lines were soon drawn up. Zionism had succeeded in thoroughly shaking up the Jewish world in its approach to the Land of Israel. Many enthusiastically embraced the new relationship that Zionism proposed and saw themselves as participants in the new national drama, either as actors or as a supportive audience. Others stood aside, opposed. Few were indifferent.

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 Dismissing the Galut in Zionist Ideology

Zionism analyzed the world in general, and the Jewish world in particular, in extremely ideological terms. It tended to develop a very black and white attitude towards many aspects of Jewish life - including the Galut.

Zionism always defined itself as superior to Galut and the Jew of the Galut, whom it depicted in the most uncomplimentary terms: they were 'weak' and 'powerless; 'leechlike' and 'parasitic'; they represented the 'old' as opposed to the 'new'; their way of life was 'unnatural' and 'abnormal'. In short, they were portrayed in a totally negative light, in contradistinction to the new, brave, strong Zionist Jew who - living in her or his own land - represented the future - the only future - of the Jewish People. Zionism viewed the world around it in the strictest ideological terms, all was analyzed and categorized; there could be no deviation. Zion was good, ergo the Galut was bad.

This abrupt and wholesale dismissal of the Galut was something fundamentally unworthy of continued existence in most of the central Zionist thinkers. Some were more extreme than others, like Jacob Klatzkin, who wrote, for example;-

"Perhaps our people can maintain itself in the Galut, but it will not exist in its true dimensions - not in the prime of its national character. Galut can only drag out the disgrace of our people and sustain the existence of a people disfigured in both body and soul - in a word, of a horror. At the very most, it can maintain us in a state of national impurity and breed some sort of outlandish creature...neither Jew nor Gentile - in any case not a true national type."

The sterotyped picture of 'Galut' and the 'Galut' Jew that Klatzkin and all the other major Zionist thinkers developed, actually derived from the Eastern European milieu with which they were so familiar - but which had declined considerably, a fact of which they were unaware. For that world was, in many ways, a world in process of disintegration: the vast majority of Jews were impoverished; community structures were in chaos; Jews were subject to the most terrible cruelties and were largely defenseless to deal with them and impotent in their reactions. These thinkers took the reality that they had experienced and even left behind them in Eastern Europe, and extrapolated the model to Jewries over the world. They could not do otherwise - Zionism was based on a total analysis, a very black and white theory which had no room for 'ifs' and 'buts'.

And in this way, the Zionist idea which developed as a reaction to the Eastern European Jewish world came to incorporate all Jewries, including the Jewries of the west.

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31 May 2005 / 22 Iyar 5765 0