Take a survey of proponents and opponents of Zionism and ask both groups when Zionism started, and you’ll receive answers spanning thousands of years. Most movements have an easily defined start date; a movement is usually founded in response to a specific event, an injustice, or a rebellion against ruling powers. While there might have been an evolution that led to the movement’s formation, there’s commonly a seminal date that people can point to as the day when the movement began. Zionism is an exception to this general phenomenon; there is no consensus on Zionism’s start date.
Zionism’s opponents claim the movement is a modern phenomenon. They accuse it of being a modern European colonialist project. In an article titled, “A Century of Settler Colonialism in Palestine,” Tariq Dana and Ali Jarbawi argue: “Throughout the past century, the Zionist movement constructed the most sophisticated settler-colonial project of our age: the State of Israel. The violent birth of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent colonization of the entirety of the land of Palestine after the 1967 war are indeed reflections of Zionism’s successes in fulfilling its settler-colonial ambitions in Palestine.” It is clear that Dana and Jarbawi view Zionism as a modern settler-colonial project.
In 1897, Theodore Herzl, a lawyer by training and journalist by profession, hosted the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. It was at the Congress that he founded the World Zionist Organization and published a resolution called the “Basel Program” declaring that Zionism aimed to establish a legally assured home for the Jewish people. It outlined steps the WZO would need to take to achieve its goals. Herzl’s movement was called “Zionism” and is more accurately called “Modern Political Zionism.” Zionism’s opponents use Herzl and 1897 as the start of Zionism. In using a relatively contemporary start date, the opponents of Zionism can disparage Zionism as a young movement without historical provenance.
As a movement, Herzl’s modern political Zionism had a slow start but eventually took off. Herzl passed away prematurely as the movement gained popularity, and others took up his struggle. While the stated goal was to establish a Jewish State in what was then called Palestine, their underlying objective was to save Jews around the world from rising antisemitism. Early Zionists aimed to establish a refuge for Jews to escape threats that would eventually become a Holocaust. They aimed to create the Jewish State in the Land of Israel because it was the Jews’ historic homeland and the Zionists felt they had the right to establish a Jewish State there.
Herzl’s modern political Zionism movement started in the late 1800s, but Zionism, the movement that seeks to establish a Jewish state on the land of Israel, has a record that stretches much further back in history. The Jewish people count Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as their first ancestors. They sought to establish the land of Israel as the place for their children. Moses and Joshua were the leaders of the Jewish people more than 3,000 years ago. They led the Jewish people from Egypt to Eretz Yisrael and charged the Jewish people with conquering the land from the now long deceased Canaanite people and settling it. The Jewish people governed the land for over 1,000 years, were briefly exiled by the Babylonians, and returned to rule the land in a second commonwealth for over 400 years.
After the Roman Empire conquered and exiled the Jews almost 2,000 years ago, the Jews strove to return to their land. Three times a day Jews prayed to return to the land of Israel, ended their two most sacred nights of the year with cries of “Next year in Jerusalem,” and spent three weeks a year mourning their state of exile in the hope of returning to their land. During their 2,000-year exile there was always a Jewish presence in the land of Israel, and those Jewish residents pined for their fellow Jewish brothers and sisters to return home. Zionism, the connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel, is integral to Judaism and the Jewish people.
Counting Zionism as a modern movement, let alone a colonialist settler movement, is not only inaccurate, but it also paints millions of Jews who strove to make the Zionist dream of returning the Jewish people to their homeland as nefarious characters. Early political Zionists weren’t starting a new movement in the late 1800s. Herzl, Nordau, Jabotinsky, Weizmann, and Ben Gurion strove to fulfill 2,000 years of unfulfilled Jewish dreams. Their idea and movement weren’t novel. What made them stand out was thinking that dreams don’t have to be the stuff of legend; with enough will there is a way to make all dreams come true. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and Joshua’s efforts were resurrected by Herzl and his colleagues.