When Religion Becomes Political: Understanding the Historical Roots of Zionism


Zionism, and the ideology it promulgates, is rarely viewed through the lens of its victims. Broadly defined as the “national liberation movement for the Jewish people,” Zionism pays no homage to those who  suffered from its colonial attitudes. Early Zionist leaders were both the victims of anti-Semitism and the willing agents of imperialist and chauvinistic supremism. The question remains: to what degree did the secularization and politicization of Judaism, via the Zionist ideology, lead to the creation of Israel and its subsequent discriminatory policies towards its non-Jewish population? Revisiting the early history of Zionism displays a striking similarity in the rhetoric and goals of a Jewish state to present-day Israel, revealing that exclusion, whether welcome or not, was bound to happen.

Political Zionism, which dates back to the late 1800’s, was an ideological mechanism for gathering international support for an exclusively Jewish state. While Theodor Herzl may have been the founder of political Zionism, his ideas date back to other Jewish intellectuals: Moses Hess, Leo Pinsker, and Ahad Ha’am. These are but a few of the many people that were akin in their conclusion that all roads lead to Zion. Zionism was conceived as a solution, and perhaps an offshoot, for challenges facing Europe in the nineteenth century.

Developments in Europe during the second half of the 19th century, such as the rise of European nationalism and the 1881 Russian pogroms, provided the conditions necessary for the birth of the imperialist-conceived Zionist political ideology. Moses Hess, the first proponent of the Jewish national idea, authored Rome and Jerusalem in 1862 in direct reference to the nationalist movement in Italy. Following the mass Jewish exodus caused by the Russian pogroms, discussions surrounding settlement in Palestine and the revival of Hebrew as a living language were pushed to the forefront of the debate. Leo Pinsker’s Auto-Emancipation began to garner more support in arguing for “Jewish self-rule” and the development of a “Jewish national-consciousness” (Novak 45). Though there was growing support among European Jewish communities, central leadership for the Zionist movement was still sparse. Theodor Herzl, a young Viennese Jew, was to provide the leadership for a movement that catalyzed Jewish activists globally.

In response to the vast amounts of anti-Semitism in Europe, Herzl authored Der Judenstaat (The State of the Jews), which argued that attainment of statehood on a land purely their own was the only solution to the plight of the Jews. Herzl was aware of the implications of Jewish statehood: “the voluntary expropriation will be accomplished through our secret agents...we shall then sell only to Jews, and all real estate will be traded only among Jews”. Herzl began to garner support and gain legitimacy, resulting in the founding of the World Zionist Organization (held their first congress in Basel, Switzerland in 1897), with the fundamental goal of Zionism being to “publicly recogniz[e], legally secured homeland in Palestine”, after looking into other territories such as Argentina (Zionism, Imperialism, and Racism, 14). Herzl initially intended for the congress to be held in Munich, but was unable to garner enough support for Zionism from the Jewish community, and thus had to relocate to Switzerland.

Herzl’s Zionism displays the symbiotic relationship between anti-Semitism and Zionism: “no great exertion will be necessary to stimulate the immigration movement. The anti-Semites are already taking care of this for us”. Similarly, Ahad Ha’am, a Zionist intellectual, described Herzl's Zionism as “the product of anti-Semitism and is dependent on anti-Semitism for its existence.” This symbiotic relationship has become the backbone of the state of Israel: support is ralied through the perpetual conflation of anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism.

Advocates of Zionism appealed to the biological likeness between European Jews in order to advance the claim that Jewish identity was racially determined. Herzl’s writing made references to the “Jewish race” and “uplifting the Jewish race” (Zionism, Imperialism, and Racism, 29). Similarly, he described the “likeness” in Jewish characteristics when he made his first trip to a synagogue (Viorst, 27). This was not isolated to Herzl; in Zionist literature there is a clear overlap between nation or culture with race in a genetic sense, indicating that by “Jewish race” Herzl meant biological determinism: a fallacious pseudoscience that has historically been used to justify racist beliefs. Arthur Ruppin, an early Zionist advocate, claimed a nation’s racial and cultural values justify its need for a separate existence; similarly,  Barnet Litvinoff described the Zionist view of brotherhood as founded on a “strictly nationalist or racial basis”(Zionism, Imperialism, and Racism, 33). An earlier draft of the Balfour Declaration, the document that ultimately provided British support for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, utilized this biological claim by mentioning a “national home for the Jewish race.”

For European Jews, however, racial likeness was accompanied with a perception of superiority: Ahad Ha’am claimed that existence within the diaspora is only possible as long as “we feel ourselves to be a historical aristocracy.” Herzl similarly stated “our race is more efficient in everything than most other people of the earth”, and Ben Gurion, another prominent Zionist intellectual, asserted the same notion: “I believe in our moral and intellectual superiority to serve as a model for the redemption of the human race”.

Early advocates of Zionism used similar rhetoric to describe Arabs as reliant on European Jews to become civilized. Weizmann’s trip to Jerusalem altered his perceptions of the Arabs. Describing them as “clever and quick-witted...but treacherous by nature” and “a demoralized race with whom it was impossible to treat” (Viorst 90). Similarly, Herzl repeatedly speaks of “dirty Arabs” in Altneuland (Old-New Land), who in order to be “restored” to their former glory needed European Jews (Massad 86). These ideologies also took on an official capacity as Arthur Balfour, architect of the Balfour Declaration, was both a white-supremacist and an anti-Semite.Weizman, who claimed to represent 96% of the world’s Jews, asserted that Palestine could absorb five million Jews without harm to the Arabs: an impossible feat.

Israel today stands as an embodiment of the core Zionist principle of exclusion. Whether through the more recent Nation-State Law which claims the right to national self-determination is “unique to the Jewish people” and establishes Jewish settlement as a national value that the state will continue to encourage and promote, the older  Law of Return which allows any Jew within the diaspora to immigrate to Israel and become a citizen, or the existence of Birthright which provides free state-sponsored trips to Israel for young Jews that encourages resettlement, Israel legalizes and embodies discriminatory principles and practices towards non-Jews.

In 43% of Israeli towns, residential admission committees—which function by law—filter out applicants due to “incompatibility with the social and cultural fabric.” As Human Rights Watch has noted, these committees are used to “exclude Arabs from living in rural Jewish communities.” Palestinians face additional discrimination when it comes to family life, in contrast to their Jewish counterparts. The Citizenship and Entry Into Israel Law imposes severe restrictions on Israeli citizens to apply for permits for their Palestinian spouses and children from the occupied territories to enter and reside in Israel for the purpose of family unification. Israel’s Supreme Court put its stamp of approval on this blatant discriminatory law when Justice Asher Grunis claimed “human rights are not a prescription for national suicide.” Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon deemed the law to be simply about “demographics” emphasizing the long-held Zionist belief that Israel was to be purely comprised of Jews.

About 4.5 million Palestinians live under a military occupation and are governed using martial, rather than civil law. This two-tier system of living is strictly enforced by the Israeli government, which regulates access to basic rights such as electricity and water, all while nearby Jewish settlers easily enjoy these state-provided benefits.

Israel, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said, “is not a state of all its citizens.” This should come as no surprise, as Zionism core principle was the creation of a Jewish state, which inevitably had the consequence of disenfranchisement of the Arabs.

As long as Judaism is inextricably linked with Zionism, and anti-Zionism is deemed anti-Semitic, the narratives of both Jews and Arabs will continue to be dominated by a political ideology with no prospect for peace in the Middle East.

Janine Nassar