What is Zionism? A political movement that believes the Jewish people, the people of Israel, are a nation, like any other nation, with a right to self-determination – a sovereign state of their own – in their historic homeland, the land of Israel. Below is a review of the Zionist narrative, for those that identify with the Zionist idea, that a Jew belongs to a nation that has a shared land, language and culture, and as a result, has the rights to national sovereignty in the only land they’ve ever known.
National rights – the origin
The Jewish people, according to the Zionist Narrative, are a nation like any other nation, with the rights to self-determination in their historic homeland.
The story of the Jewish people begins with the stories of the Bible where eventually Joshua, taking over for Moses, leads the people of Israel to the promised land. If one doesn’t necessarily believe in the stories of the bible, there is extensive archaeological evidence to the indigenous roots of the Jews to the land of Israel that corresponds to the time of the stories of the Bible over 3000 years ago. It was then that the first Jewish commonwealth is established with its capital, Jerusalem. The kingdoms were divided, and then conquered. The people were exiled but then returned and established a new kingdom and new temple, but only to repeat the same story of suffering conquest and exile from their land, which happens again in 70 CE with the destruction of the 2nd Temple by the Roman Empire.
And the Jews revolted one last time in their fight for sovereignty, the Bar Kochba Revolt, which was squashed by the Romans, in 135 CE. The Romans subsequently rename the area from Judea to Palestine to distance the Jews from their land, naming it after the Philistines who had lived on the coast during biblical times.
Sustaining National Identity in Exile
For 2000 years following the destruction of the 2nd Jewish commonwealth in the land of Israel, the Jewish people have been dispersed in all four corners of the globe. Rabbinic Judaism replaced the Temple-based faith of the Jewish nation, which (according to Zionists) was the vehicle that helped sustain the national identity of the Jewish people as they lived as a stranger-nation among other nations.
During this Diaspora, the connection to the land stayed alive during all this time through religion, culture, language, migration, residency and spiritual longing for return to the good old days. It stayed alive during the modern re-definition of the Jews in modernity and the Enlightenment, as Napoleon claimed, “the Jews are French of the Mosaic persuasion.” Jews in America, like in Western Europe, became fully-fledged citizens as a minority religious group, not a stranger-nation which they had been known as for most of their history in Diaspora.
By the mid to late 19th century, the combination of modern Antisemitism and modern nationalism emerges as a catalyst in Europe to bring about the political organization of a Zionist movement which believes in the return of the Jewish Nation to its historic homeland, the land of Israel. At it’s most simple form, the basis of the restitution of the nation of Israel to its historic homeland as an autonomous entity is rooted in their native and indigenous connection the land. With that, at the very minimum, the Zionist idea holds that Jews are like any other nation with a right to self-determination because they share similar characteristics to any other nation on earth – land, language and culture.
A Nation like Others – Shared Land, Language and Culture
Zionists have a shared land – Israel; a land in which their people have always lived in, even when they were not the majority and lacked sovereignty. There has always been a Jewish population throughout the years of exile in Jerusalem, Tsfat, Tiberias and Hebron – the four holy cities – and even with many massacres and expulsions throughout the years, there has always been a Jewish presence in the land of Israel through the entire period of exile.
But the Jewish people’s connection to the land is not just about sovereignty or being the demographic majority in the area. As a nation, the Jews have always had a desire for a physical or spiritual return to the land.
In the 3rd century the Haggadah is developed – the book Jews use at the Passover Seder – where the traditional event always ends with singing the words, “Next year in Jerusalem.”
Every time a religious Jew eats a piece of bread they say, “May we rebuild Jerusalem speedily in our days.”
Jews that pray three times a day meditate about the return of the exiles to Israel and a rebuilding of the capital.
When a Jew gets married, before they stomp on the glass commemorating the destruction of the temples, they recite, “If I forget Jerusalem let my right hand wither.”
For Zionists, even if a political organization dedicated to the return of Jewish sovereignty was only established in the 19th century as many other nations were doing, you cannot deny the deep intellectual, emotional, physical and spiritual connection of the Jewish people to their homeland and constant desire to return.
The Jews have a shared language, Hebrew, which they have shared since their emergence as a civilization over three thousand years ago. Even though Jews have constantly been displaced for quite a while, thus picking up additional native spoken languages or developed their own dialects of local languages (Yiddish & Ladino for example), Jews wrote these tongues in Hebrew script, studied traditional texts in Hebrew, and corresponded in Hebrew, whether for business, pleasure or religious inquiry. Even when Hebrew was not a modern spoken language, Hebrew has always been the shared language of the Jewish people, just like any other people. Therefore when the Zionist movement restores a spoken Jewish language for the Jews to speak as a national group in its homeland, it could have only been Hebrew.
Besides having a shared land and language, the Jewish people have had a shared culture. It is a culture rooted in a religious experience, but has transformed for many Jews to be an ethnic, tribal, cultural and a multifaceted experience where they would simply identify a belief, behavior or ritual as simply “Jewish.” As the Jews were spread throughout the diaspora, gefilte fish became Jewish food for Ashkenazim and Moroccan fish has always been thought of as Jewish food for many Sephardim.
Today in the 21st century, most Israeli Jews have a Passover Seder even though most are not religious. Most Jews around the world mark the High Holidays in some way, but do not do it because they feel commanded by God through a religious imperative, but because they feel a part of a Jewish culture. There are various Jewish cultures around the world that have evolved as the Jews spread around the world, and with their diversity are rooted in a foundational connection which are identified by their practitioners as “Jewish.”
Returning to a land without a people?
When the Zionist movement is solidified, and organized Aliyot (Zionist migrations) begin in mass in the 1880’s, there was a belief in this famous phrase – “A land without a people for a people without a land.”
According to Zionist understanding of history, the only people to have ever had sovereignty in the land of Israel has been the Jewish nation; otherwise it’s been a colonial backwater to another Empire. If you look at a chart of who the sovereigns were in the land of Israel, the only time it’s been a national state for one nation has been when it was a Jewish Commonwealth – and the other times it has always been a colony of a foreign entity. For Zionists, the name Palestine emerges not because a local Arab people identified it as Palestine and called themselves Palestinian, but rather it is the Roman Empire which gives it a new name in 135 BCE to distance Jews from their homeland.
Nevertheless, when Zionism returns to the land of Israel, it does indeed encounter another people living there with a completely different story, a completely different narrative and a completely different identity which sees itself as the only indigenous inhabitants of the land. This fact will exemplify the very roots of the current Arab-Jewish conflict over the same shared imagined homeland – two peoples that understand their competing contemporary nationalistic claims rooted in a primordial past.