Zionism

The modern Jewish movement to first create and then sustain a national homeland. The movement is named for Zion, originally simply a hill in Jerusalem but also a literary reference to the traditional land of Israel. Diaspora Jews never truly lost the hope that one day they could return to their homeland, the area of the eastern Mediterranean shore commonly referred to as Palestine. By the late nineteenth century, however, many Jews living in the wealthier nations of western Europe or the United States had focused their attentions on assimilation into the cultures of those countries, often with considerable success. Jews who favored a return to Palestine tended to be Russian Jews who lived under much more oppressive conditions than those elsewhere. Meanwhile, the only people then seriously thinking in terms of a Jewish nation-state were racial nationalists who tended to have Christian backgrounds. That changed rapidly. The modern Zionist movement, sometimes known as political Zionism, was founded by an Austrian Jewish journalist named Theodor Herzl. While covering the trial of Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jewish army officer falsely convicted and then imprisoned for betraying military secrets, Herzl grew convinced that Jews could never be fully assimilated into European nations; they would always be in some ways a people apart. Only with a state of their own could they maintain full self-respect and command an equal voice among the nations. Publicizing his ideas in books and newspapers, Herzl reached a ready audience, particularly among eastern European Jews. The first Zionist Congress met in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897, where members devised a plan to create for the Jewish people a home in Palestine secured by public law. The Zionist movement spread rapidly, publishing its own newspaper and raising funds in order to establish communities of settlers in Palestine. It also helped to inspire a Jewish cultural rebirth featuring, among other things, the restoration of Hebrew as an everyday spoken language rather than a scholarly language mainly restricted to experts, comparable to Sanskrit in India or Latin and Ancient Greek in Europe. By the outbreak of World War I in 1914, there were some 90,000 Jewish settlers in Palestine, then under the control of the Islamic Ottoman Empire, which largely welcomed them. In 1917, Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann secured the support of the British, who were shortly to take over Palestine, in setting up a Jewish state. Settlers continued to move there in the 1920s and 1930s, ultimately reaching a population of some 250,000, until the British stopped their migrations in the face of widespread riots among Palestinian Arabs. Following the Holocaust of World War II, many European Jewish refugees displaced from their homes or unwilling to remain in Europe set out for Palestine despite the legal restrictions then in place. The British soon turned the region over to the United Nations. On November 29, 1947, the UN voted to recognize the modern State of Israel, and local Jewish fighters confirmed its establishment in the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 and 1949. Herzl’s dream had come to pass. Since 1947 and 1948 the Zionist movement has focused on raising funds to support Israel and encouraging Jews to move there. The Hebrew name for the nation is Eretz Israel, or Land of Israel, to distinguish it from the people of Israel, who might reside anywhere.

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