Political and Social Movements


What is Zionism?

Zionism was founded as the nationalist movement to establish an independent Jewish state; it began in the 1890s, and roughly 50 years later, in 1948, the movement’s activism resulted in the proclamation of the state of Israel. Since that time, Zionism has focused its efforts on building bridges between Israel and Jewish people around the world.

The roots of Zionism date to 1882, when a movement began encouraging Jewish settlement of Palestine, the region in the Middle East (in southwest Asia) that borders the Mediterranean Sea to the west, Lebanon to the north, Syria and Jordan to the east, and Egypt (the Sinai Peninsula) to the southwest. Groups advocating immigration to the Jewish homeland in Palestine called themselves Lovers of Zion (Hoveve Zion): Mount Zion is the site in Jerusalem where the Temple of David (king of the ancient Hebrews; d. 962 B.C.) was built, and it is therefore considered the center of Jewish spiritual life.

As a political movement, Zionism was founded in the late 1890s by Austrian journalist Theodor Herzl (1860–1904). In 1894 Herzl was among the reporters covering the trial of Alfred Dreyfus, a French army officer falsely convicted of treason. Though the artillery captain, who was Jewish, was later declared innocent (the guilty verdict rendered in his first trial was annulled), many felt the Dreyfus case had exposed a “deep vein of anti-Semitism” in Europe. Herzl’s conclusion was that if anti-Semitism could take hold in France, it could prevail anywhere. Based on this belief, he began working for the reclamation of a Jewish state in the Middle East. In 1897 Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress, held in Basel, Switzerland, bringing the movement to worldwide attention. In 1917, against the backdrop of World War I (1914–18), British foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour (1848–1930) issued a declaration vowing his country’s support for a national Jewish homeland in Palestine; this came after British troops liberated the Middle East from the control of the Ottoman Empire. In 1920 the Ottoman Empire dissolved as part of the conclusion of World War I and by international agreement the British were given rule over Palestine.

Numerous Jews immigrated to Palestine, where fighting broke out with Arabs who opposed Jewish resettlement. Previously boosted by British support of an independent Jewish state, Zionists received a heavy blow in 1937 when, with another conflict in Europe on the horizon, Britain reversed its policy in Palestine—in an effort to gain Arab support should fighting break out with Germany. At the end of World War II (1939–45), Britain turned over the problem in the Middle East to the newly created United Nations, which decided that out of Palestine both an independent Jewish state and a self-ruling Arab state should be formed. In 1948 the state of Israel was declared by Polish-born and Zionist moderate David Ben-Gurion (1886–1973), who became head of the nation’s provisional government. The World Zionist Congress was later separated from the government. The organization has since turned its attention to immigration and cultural activities. German-born scientist Albert Einstein (1897–1955) was among Zionism’s most prominent adherents.


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