In the late 1800’s antisemitic events were rising dangerously high in Europe. For almost two thousand years the Jews had been wanderers without a home. Exiled from their land by the ancient Romans, the Jews had spread to the four corners of the world. Although finding temporary refuge in numerous places, the Jews would inevitably be persecuted by their hosts. The results of antisemitic persecution the Jews suffered under exile ranged from pogroms to a Holocaust.
In the two hundred years leading up to World War Two, the Jews and the gentiles both asked, “What should be the fate of the Jews?” Gentiles no longer wanted to host the Jews, they saw them as permanent foreigners, not a group they wanted to incorporate into their nations. The Jews sensed the world’s rejection of them as neighbors and asked where they would go and find a place to call home. This led Theodore Herzl and other Jewish thinkers to answer the Jewish question in a unique way – creating a Jewish state where Jews could determine their own future. Zionism, as the political movement became known, began as an answer to the Jewish question.
As the Zionist movement grew and became more than just Herzl’s speeches and his best-selling book, it gained popularity, and the movement became more practical in its thinking. Aiming to save European Jewry from a coming disaster, the movement turned political and tried to garner support for the creation of a Jewish state. Herzl and his supporters put more emphasis on saving the Jews than the location of their salvation. Herzl and the early Zionists spent a few years researching Uganda, Africa as a possible location of a future Jewish state. Uganda would serve the purpose of providing a safe refuge for the Jewish people.
When the decision to accept the British offer of Uganda for a Jewish state was brought to a vote at a World Zionist Congress, it was narrowly rejected. The delegates at the Congress voted the new Jewish state would be in Eretz Yisrael and nowhere else. Zionism had evolved from a movement mostly concerned with saving European Jewry from persecution to a movement demanding the creation of a Jewish state in the Jewish people’s historic homeland, the land of Israel. Jewish national rights demanded that Jews enjoy self-determination in their own homeland.
In 1948, the Zionists’ dreams were fulfilled. A Jewish state, fully autonomous, Democratic, and in Eretz Yisrael was established. At this point Zionism required another evolution. The movement no longer had to worry about establishing a Jewish state, it now had to be concerned with sustaining the State of Israel and gathering the exiles from the four corners of the earth. Almost immediately following its founding, the State of Israel faced an existential threat when five Arab armies attacked it and tried to annihilate the fledging Jewish state. Shortly after the war, the Arab countries expelled its Jews and over 800,000 Jews from Arab lands flooded the State of Israel. The almost immediate doubling of Israel’s population was almost too much for the state to handle, and Israel struggled to absorb its new citizens. Zionism had become a movement focused on survival.
Seventy-years later Zionism has become a continuously evolving movement. It has shifted from defense to offense. Zionism no longer worries about survival and focuses more on development. With one of the strongest economies in the world, the State of Israel spends its energy deciding where to invest its resources, mostly cerebral, and not how to protect them from attack. Israel is thriving, and while it still faces consistent threats, it no longer faces existential crises. Zionism is the metaphysical fuel to the physical State of Israel. The Jewish state has become the fulfillment of the early Zionist dreams.
Looking forward, Zionism will continue to be the fuel of an even more vibrant Israel but it will also evolve into a global influencer that addresses international problems like climate change, water shortages and more efficient transportation. As it has in the past decade, the world’s technological advances will largely include Israeli ingenuity. Zionism can’t evolve into a solely global movement; there are plenty of challenges it must face at home in Israel as well. Growing divisions within Israeli society and between Israel and the Diaspora threaten to fracture a united Israel. Israel will have to simultaneously address internal challenges while thriving externally to ensure Zionism’s next evolution is successful.