Photo Credit: Rudi Weissenstein
David Ben-Gurion publicly pronounces the Declaration of the State of Israel, May 14 1948, Tel Aviv, Israel.
David Ben-Gurion publicly pronounces the Declaration of the State of Israel, May 14 1948, Tel Aviv, Israel.

Zionism—the Jewish national renaissance movement—was perhaps the most successful example of modern nationalism and one of the least understood. Zionism is a paradox: at its core is an attempt to return the Jewish people to their ancestral homeland and make them “like all the nations.” [1] It is the “effort to return the Jew to history through national rebirth while rebelling against Jewish history; an attempt to restore Jewish tradition while recasting that tradition; an effort to make Jews like all the nations while highlighting the unique elements in Jewish culture, tradition and history.” [2]

Those who initially immigrated to the Yishuv (Jewish settlement in Palestine before the establishment of the State of Israel) were motivated by a desire for self-determination, liberation, and identity within the context of liberalism, secularism, modernism, and nationalism unleashed by the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Human Rights of Man. [3]


The Enlightenment, an intellectual utopian movement in the 18th century, posited that logic and reason would overcome superstition and hatred. With regard to the Jews, it was supposed to free the Jews from their old ways and enable them to acquire roots in their adopted lands. But the idea that it would usher in an era where bigotry and prejudice would be replaced with tolerance and moderation turned out to be a fantasy. It was ambivalent toward the Jews of Europe because in the 18th century they still lived behind ghetto walls, making them appear peculiar and parochial. Their dress, religious practice and ways of thinking set them apart. And even after the ghetto walls “fell,” masses of East European Jews maintained their “fossil” Judaism instead of assimilating.[4]

Zionism itself did not develop before the 19th and 20th centuries, because it was much more than just a response to antisemitism. It was an attempt to create a new Jew, based on Enlightenment idea [5]

Zionist “colonists” were unique in that they had “no mother country,” as did European immigrants to foreign soil. The Yishuv was not a colony in the conventional sense. The Jews who went had no strong roots in Europe and were not exploiting natural resources to export to mother countries. Israel has no towns or villages named New Warsaw, New Lodz, New Moscow, New Minsk, or New Pinsk—unlike the New World, where settlements were named for old cities—i.e. New London, New Orleans, New York, New England, and New Madrid.[6]

Furthermore, by rejecting Europe and the British Mandate, and by creating the modern Hebrew language, the Zionists tried to create their own intellectual and cultural energy without imitating or transplanting the old ways. They did not consider themselves outsiders or conquerors. They used Biblical (Hebrew) names to affirm control over their geography. Their settlements were tangible manifestations of the Jewish return to the homeland.[7]

Those Jews who settled in the Yishuv came to a land that was sparsely populated and economically underdeveloped, with sizeable regions of desert, semiarid wilderness, and swamps. Before the British arrived in Palestine at the end of World War I, the Ottoman government had practically no involvement in regulating land use, health and sanitary conditions or controls on the construction of private and public buildings. Except for a few roads and a rail line that projected imperial power, there were few public works projects. Resident Arabs, traditional in outlook, had no interest in new plans for their communities. For Herzl and other European Zionists, Turkish Palestine, was inviting because of its lack of government accountability, absence of local Arab initiative, and the “empty landscape.” [8]

The international community endorsed the right of the Jews’ desire for national self-determination, and the Jewish people made their claim to return to their land. Significantly, the Balfour Declaration and the Mandate under the League of Nations make no mention of recognition of Palestinians as a separate and distinct people with their own national rights. The indigenous people were regarded as residents whose political identity was connected to the larger Arab nation that was divided between 1920 and 1924 by the League of Nations into several states controlled by superpowers: Iraq and Transjordan were under the British, Lebanon and Syria under French rule, and Saudi Arabia was as a separate, autonomous entity.[9]

The British were quite clear: Palestine was not a state but the name of a geographical area. When the First Congress of Muslim-Christian Associations met in Jerusalem in February 1919, to select Palestinian Arab representatives for the Paris Peace Conference, they adopted the following resolution: “We consider Palestine as part of Arab Syria, as it has never been separated from it at any time. We are connected with it by national, religious, linguistic, natural, economic and geographical bonds.” [10]

The League handed international trusteeships to the French and British to prepare those liberated from the Turks for independence. Once the indigenous populations demonstrated their ability to assume control, the mandates were supposed to be self-terminating. For the Zionists and the international community, justice for the Arabs meant guaranteeing their economic, civil, and religious rights within Palestine. Awarding the Arabs any form of self-government was precluded by British commitments to the Jews under the Balfour Declaration, which was now incorporated into the mandate of the League of Nations. [11]

The Jewish Connection to the Land of Israel

Culturally, during the eighteen centuries of Jewish life in the Diaspora, the connection to the Land of Israel played a key role in the value system of Jewish communities and was a basic determinant in “their self-consciousness as a group.” Without the connection to the Land of Israel, the people who practice Judaism would simply be a religious community, without national and ethnic components. Jews were distinct from the Muslim and Christian communities in which they lived, because of religious beliefs and practices, and the eternal link to the land of their forefathers. That is why Jews considered themselves—and are seen by others as “a minority in exile.” [12]

Abraham Joshua Heschel, professor of Jewish Ethics and Mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary explained, “This…is an intimate ingredient of Jewish consciousness, at the core of Jewish history, a vital element of Jewish faith…For the Jews and for them alone, this was the one and only Homeland, the only conceivable place where they could find liberation and independence, the land toward which their minds and hearts had been uplifted for a score of centuries and where their roots had clung in spite of all adversity… It was the homeland with which an indestructible bond of national, physical, religious, and spiritual character had been preserved, and where the Jews had in essence remained—and were now once more in fact—a major element of the population.” [13]

Wherever Jews lived, they did not publicly challenge the occupation of the land by the empires of the East and West. They did so in their homes, sanctuaries, books, and prayers. Religious rituals were instituted to remember the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent exile. During times of joy and sorrow, Zion is always part of a Jew’s thoughts and liturgy. At least three times a day, observant Jews pray for the redemption of Zion and Jerusalem and for her well-being.[14]

When the Muslims invaded Palestine in 634, ending four centuries of conflict between Persia and Rome, they found direct descendants of Jews who had lived in the country since the time of Joshua bin Nun, the man who led the Israelites into the Land of Canaan. This means that for 2,000 years Jews and Christians constituted the majority of the indigenous population of Palestine, while the Bedouins were the ruling class under the Damascene caliphate. As far back as the Byzantine Empire, (313 to 636), rabbinical leaders in Palestine argued about “whether most of Palestine is in the hands of the gentiles,” or “whether the greater part of Palestine is in the hands of Israel.” This was essential to determine, since according to halacha (Jewish law), if the Jews ruled the country, they were obligated to observe religious agricultural practices in one way, and another if they were not in control.[15]

Major Arab contributions to history originated in Damascus, Mecca, Cairo, and Baghdad, but not from Jerusalem. The Land of Israel is two percent of the Arab-controlled landmass; to the Jewish people it is their home.[16]

David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, points out that more than 3,000 years before the Mayflower left England for the New World, Jews fled from Egypt. Jews who are even slightly aware know that every spring Jews commemorate and remember the liberation from slavery and the Exodus from Egypt to the Land of Israel. Those who observe the seder end it with two sentences: “This year we are slaves; next year we shall be free. This year we are here; next year we shall be in the Land of Israel.” [17]

The Meaning of a Jewish State

A Jewish State also means “Jewish security. Even in countries where he seems secure, he lacks the feeling of security. Why? Because even if he is safe, he has not physical provided safety for himself. Somebody else provides for his security. The State of Israel provides such security.[18] Ben Gurion knew of “…no other people that was exiled from its land and dispersed among the nations of the world to be hated, persecuted, expelled and slaughtered…that did not vanish from history, did not despair or assimilate (though many individual Jews did), but yearned incessantly to return to its land, believing for two thousand years in its messianic deliverance—and that indeed did return and… renew its independence.” [19]

Former Israeli Ambassador Yaacov Herzog, in a debate with British historian Arnold Toynbee, asserted that the normal laws of history do not apply, “so long as the world agrees that there is something unique about the Jews in the history of mankind, it cannot deny the right of the Jews to this land.” In describing the Children of Israel 3,000 ago, Balaam the Prophet, referred to them as “A people that dwells alone.” This is how the Jews are perceived today. Whether this concept suggests privilege with a unique responsibility or an anomaly, which must be refuted and rejected, is “the question of Jewish history.” [20]

When Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, searched for international support for a Jewish state, European governments were vigorously trying to expand their economic and political power throughout the world. White-man rule over people of color was inevitable and even beneficial, because powers like France and Great Britain had progressive political and social systems. The demise of western imperialism didn’t begin until 1904, when Japan defeated Russia. After that, there were revolutions in Turkey, Persia, China, the radicalization of the Congress Party in India, and the beginning stirrings of Arab nationalism.[21]

A Final Note

Israel was created in 1948 in one-sixth of the area allotted by the Balfour Declaration. The Allies had gained a vast area from the Turks during the war, and the British took one percent of the land the Great Powers acquired from the Turks to establish a Jewish Homeland. In appreciation for having liberated them from the “tyranny of a bestial conqueror,” and providing them with independent states, Lord Balfour hoped they would begrudge the Jews “that small notch in what are now Arab territories being given to the people who for all these hundreds of years have been separated from it.” The Arabs found this small accommodation to the Jews unacceptable.[22]

Richard Crossman, a Labor M.P. in the British Parliament, who was on the editorial staff of the London New Statesman and Nation, and who served as a member of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, believed Zionists were wrong in thinking that the establishment of Israel would solve the Jewish problem. What it did was enable the Jews to adjust to a hostile world in the 20th century. Israel does not protect Jews from “constant danger of persecution; and their relations with their fellow Gentiles will be a fairly accurate measure of the degree of civilization [to which] any nation has attained.” [23]

* Excerpt from Alex Grobman, Nations United: How The UN Undermines Israel and West (Noble Oklahoma: Balfour Books, 2006).


[1] Abraham I. Edelheit, The History of Zionism: A Handbook and Dictionary (Boulder, Colorado: Westview, 2000), xv.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Shlomo Avineri, The Making of Modern Zionism: The Intellectual Origins of the Jewish State (New York: Basic Books, Inc. Publishers, 1981), 5, 13.

[4] George L. Mosse, Germans and Jews (New York: Grosset and Dunlop, 1970), 42- 76. Many Jews, particularly on the left, were influenced by the ideas of the Russian revolution that all oppressed nations should unite in their fight for emancipation against a common enemy. Jacob L. Talmon, Israel Among The Nations, (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1970), 142.

[5] Avineri, op.cit., 5, 13.

[6] S. Ilan Troen, Imagining Zion: Dreams, Designs, and Realities in a Century of Jewish Settlement (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2003), 7-9.

[7] Ibid. 151-152, 158.

[8] Ibid. op.cit. 70, 90-91, 159.

[9] Eli E. Hertz, Reply (New York: Myths and Facts, 2005), p.24. See Yehoshua Porath, The Palestinian Arab National Movement: From Riots to Rebellion, Volume 2 (London: Frank Cass and Company, 1977), 81-82.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Troen, op.cit. 44; Gorny, 82; Michael J. Cohen, The Origins and Evolution of the Arab Israeli Conflict (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1987), 64-65.

[12] Shlomo Avineri, op.cit.3.

[13] Abraham Joshua Heschel, Israel: An Echo Eternity (New York: Farrar, Straus, 1967), 55, 57, 61-67.

[14] Ibid. 55, 61-67.

[15] Yaacov Herzog, A People That Dwells Alone (New York: Sanhedrin Press, 1975), 33; Ibid.57; While Jewish settlement in recent times began in 1881, in the third and fourth centuries Palestine was probably the largest and most significant Jewish community in the world. Jewish towns and settlements in Palestine from the tenth century. Benjamin of Tudela, Saadia Gaon, Maimonides and Judah Halevi were there from the twelfth century and Nachmanides from the early thirteenth century. Rabbi Estori Ha-Parhi, author of Kaftor va-Ferah, demonstrates how since Biblical times, Jews have lived on the land continuously.

[16] Heschel, op.cit. 59.

[17] The Jewish Case Before The Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine (Jerusalem: The Jewish Agency For Palestine, 1947), 63,65.

[18] Ibid.68.

[19] David Ben Gurion, “Ben-Gurion and De Gaulle: An Exchange of Letters,” Midstream (February 1968): 12.

[20] Herzog, op.cit. 128-129.

[21] Talmon, Israel Among The Nations, op.cit.143.

[22] Marie Syrkin, “Who Are the Palestinians?” Midstream (January 1970): 8, 10.

[23] Richard Crossman, Palestine Mission: A Personal Record (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1947), 73.

Dr. Alex Grobman is senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.


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Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. He has an MA and PhD in contemporary Jewish history from The Hebrew university of Jerusalem. He lives in Jerusalem.