If I had been a delegate at the first Zionist Congress in 1897, I would’ve left the conference enthusiastic and inspired but also frustrated. I appreciate “defining my terms,” creating an action plan based on the terms, and then putting the plan into action. At the first Zionist Congress the delegates adopted the “Basel Program” – but never defined Zionism.
The Basel Program aimed to establish a “publicly and legally assured home in Palestine” for Jews. It promoted moving Jewish agriculturists, artisans, and tradesmen to Palestine, creating federations of Jews around the world, strengthening Jewish sense and consciousness, and taking preparatory steps to attain government grants necessary for the Zionist purpose. These were ambitious goals for a people who hadn’t enjoyed autonomy in their homeland in almost 2,000 years. Yet, with all their plans, they neglected to define what they stood for and how they defined their movement.
While no “official” definition of Zionism has ever been declared for the movement, a consensus definition, made up of four parts, has spread throughout the world of Zionism. “Zionism is the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in their historic homeland.” This definition includes (a) Jewish rights; (b) the Jewish people; (c) Jewish self-determination; and (d) historic homeland. These four components are not givens, and over the past 150 years many have opposed, one, two or all of them. To fully appreciate the novelty of Zionism, one must appreciate the four components that went into its composition.
The idea of a Jewish right to self-determination in the land of Israel is confusing for a 21st century world focused more on progressive social justice than national rights. The entire notion of an ancient people rejuvenating itself and gathering its people from all four corners of the world to establish a state after a 2,000-year absence seems archaic and otherworldly to this generation. The people of today’s times see little value in one’s ancestry or place of origin. To be taken seriously, Zionism needs to demonstrate its relevance.
Zionism is premised on the principle that just as individual human beings have innate rights, so do the groups that individuals form to unite themselves as a nation. Nations, just as much as individuals, have innate rights. These rights aren’t earned but come automatically when the group of individuals unite together. These rights are inalienable and any nation that aims to deny another nation its rights is violating that nation’s sovereignty and breaking the expected norms of relations between nations.
The Jewish people were a nation long before they were considered a religion. Many people aim to limit Jews by calling Judaism “just” a religion and refusing to see Jews as a separate and unique people. A Jew is a Jew irrespective of their adherence to Judaism’s principles, laws and philosophical axioms. The lack of necessity to conform to religious practice while still retaining one’s Jewish “citizenship” demonstrates that Judaism isn’t just a religion but a full nation. Like any other nation of the world, the Jewish people enjoy the inalienable rights afforded to all nations.
One of the rights all nations of the world can expect to exercise is the right of self-determination. Each nation has the right to develop its own aims and objectives without care or concern for how other nations will think. Most importantly, each nation should have the freedom and independence to exercise their national interests without the hindrance of other nations. Even the United Nations, often used as an impediment to freedoms, recognized this right, stating its purpose was to, “Develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples.”
If Jews are truly a people, they must have come together at some point, or at least originated in one geographical location. Otherwise, without a central location, what organized them into a nation? That place is the land of Israel. In fact, the people of the Jewish nation were originally called “Israelites” because they came from the land of Israel. To the Jewish nation, Israel isn’t a mere place to move to, it is a place they came from. A sound argument alleges that the Jews are the indigenous people of the land of Israel.
Zionism isn’t a new movement that strove to establish a revolutionary idea in the world. Zionism was an ancient movement, buried deep in the heart and ambitions of every Jew for millennia. While the world either forgot or worked hard at erasing the Jewish people’s nationhood, rights, and history in its land, the Jewish people never forgot. Modern political Zionism, a movement started by Theodore Herzl in the late 1800s, aimed to restore the nationhood and rights of Jewish people and to gather them back to their historic homeland. It achieved its success in 1948 with the establishment of the State of Israel.