Membership, Community, Diversity

What is Zionism?

In general Zionism means the modern movement of Jewish return to the holy mountain of Zion in the hope of reclaiming it as the heart of the biblical Promised Land. Near the end of the nineteenth century, many Jews in eastern Europe began to view Israel as more than just a place for pilgrimages or for occasional settlement by strong believers. Encouraged by the rise of nationalism in Europe, certain Jews sought to return to the land of their ancestors and to make their homes there. This impulse gave rise to the political movement known as Zionism. (The expression comes from the word “Zion,” which is a poetic term for the Holy Land.) Nathan Birnbaum coined the usage in 1890. In 1896 Theodor Herzl organized the political movement that has borne the name ever since. Herzl convened the first of many Zionist Congresses at Basel in 1897.

Chaim Weitzmann (1874-1952) was one of the most influential leaders of the movement. He was a powerful presence at the negotiation of the Balfour Declaration of 1917, a watershed document that ultimately made serious talk of a Jewish state possible, right through negotiations for Israeli statehood in 1948. Weitzmann also served as Israel’s first president. Zionism has, to be sure, been a bone of contention because of the political and social implications of so dramatic a reshaping of what had formerly been called Palestine. Zionists see Jews as more than a loosely bound group of religious believers. Politically, Zionists argue that Jews are bound to the land—to Israel—and that they were chosen for a role that is inextricably connected with Abraham.


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