Theodore Herzl began the modern Zionist movement with a practical goal of creating a Jewish state through political means. Early Zionists aimed to return the Jewish people to their homeland, the land of Israel. Herzl travelled from country to country, speaking to world leaders, influential Jews, and the Jewish community. Herzl spoke about the imperative for a Jewish state and tried to convince everyone they should give their support to his vision. When Herzl died, Chaim Weizmann took over and travelled the world trying to drum up support for a Jewish state. Weizmann, along with others succeeded in their goals.
With the dual goal of providing the Jewish people with a place of refuge to flee persecution and exercising the Jewish people’s right to self-determination of their historic homeland, the Jewish State was declared by Zionist leaders in Tel Aviv in May 1948. The founders of the Jewish State declared, “The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the ingathering of the Exiles.” The Jewish people are a nation, not just a religion. The State was now the open home of all members of the Jewish people.
In 1950, Israel passed the “Law of Return,” which stated, “Every Jew has the right to come to this country as an immigrant. An immigrant’s visa shall be granted to every Jew who has expressed his desire to settle in Israel.” The right of Jews to return to Israel extends to relatives as well, “The rights of a Jew under this Law and the rights of an immigrant…as well as the rights of an immigrant under any other enactment, are also vested in a child and a grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew.” Members of the Jewish nation, wherever they live, have the right to immigrate to Israel because the State of Israel was founded to provide all members of the Jewish people access to their historic homeland, the land of Israel.
In its Declaration of Independence, Zionists avowed, “The State of Israel will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions.” Immediately after the founding of the State in 1948 all Arabs were granted Israeli citizenship but were still ruled by martial law. In 1966, martial law was completely lifted and Arab citizens of Israel began enjoying the same civil rights as their Jewish neighbors.
Granting Israeli citizenship to Arabs is troubling to some Zionists. Arab Israelis are fully integrated into the Jewish State. They are Knesset members, judges, police officers, doctors and lawyers. There is no position denied to Arab citizens and Arab parties feature prominently in the Israeli Knesset. No longer regulated to the opposition, Arab Knesset parties have sat in the government. Why would a Jewish State, built by Zionists to be a place of refuge and home to the Jewish people, allow Arabs, members of a different nation, become citizens of its State? If Israel is a State for Jews, what role do Arabs play in it?
A legitimate argument can be made that Israel should be a state solely for the Jewish people. Jews should be accepted into the country almost immediately according to their rights under the “Law of Return.” Anyone else who wants to live in Israel can be accepted as residents but not citizens. Countries around the world, from the United State to the United Arab Emirates have similar laws.
Zionists and Israelis don’t see the Jewish State as a state like all other states. The Jewish people aren’t a people like all other people, and the Jewish State isn’t a state like all other states. Israel is meant to be a light unto the nations where a moral baseline is modeled for the rest of the world. Israel’s acceptance of over two million members of other nations as its own citizens (in a country of barely ten million) demonstrates Israel’s commitment to human rights, equality, and democracy. Israel’s acceptance of others should be a guiding light for other nations as they develop policies towards prospective immigrants.
Zionism was a movement that worked primarily to establish a home and refuge for the Jewish people. It also aimed to establish a nation among the international community that would make the world a better place through various means, including technological innovation and medical research. Morality, kindness and charity start at home, and before Israel could reach out and help foreign nations, it had a responsibility to help those within its own borders. In offering citizenship to a Jewish State, the Zionist leaders of Israel demonstrated the moral policies it hopes other nations will adapt to make the world a better place.