Photo Credit: Public domain image
Binyamin Ze’ev Herzl on the veranda of the Three Kings Hotel in Basel, August 29, 1897.

On the occasion of the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress, it is time to take stock of what has unfolded so far. The ongoing Zionist revolution is one of the few from that era that have actually succeeded in effecting change in a radical way all the while constantly evolving to the emerging challenges.

It transformed the Jewish people and saved it from gradual dissolution into a group of Orthodox zealots and a fringe of assimilating Jews. It brought the Jewish people back into history as a nation that could stand on its own two feet and shape its future.


The lay of the land at the outset had many obstacles that were seemingly insurmountable. After all, the vision included the establishment of national sovereignty for the Jews without meeting the pre-requisites: a functioning people, a national living language, and a concentration of Jews in the desired land. On top of that, there was active opposition to this effort by the locals.

A majority of the Jewish people were not an active part of this revolutionary vision. Only a small minority, including among its many supporters, were willing to step up to the plate and take action. The majority of rabbinical leaders opposed it and some of them even rejected the idea of returning to Zion, saying this was akin to blasphemy.

Most of the Jews who did gradually take up this cause were unwilling to have skin in the game. The Zionist accomplishment is unique not because it overcame external opposition from the Palestinians or the world, and not even because it managed to convince a small cadre of determined idealists. Its stellar success is rooted mainly in that it managed to convince Jews that had been attracted to it for non-Zionist reasons to convert their passions into real Zionist fervor that made pre-state Israel a reality that would eventually become a viable and strong national homeland.

An overwhelming majority of the Jews who live in Israel are those who arrived here because of necessity, not because of their Zionism. They could not stay in their home countries, and upon leaving, they could not reach the destinations they had sought. The ultimate test Israel faced ー its Zionist test ーwas to integrate them despite the many hardships they faced and to convince them and their descendants to stay here by choice and make it their home.

The challenges that lie ahead

By far, the most important accomplishment of the Zionist movement was its success in making Israel the home to the largest amount of Jews (close to a majority of Jews live in Israel) and making it ー almost from scratch ー the place where the continuation of Jewish peoplehood is guaranteed. Thanks to this enterprise, the Jews returned to their historical homeland as a functioning people, their national language was revived and their historic sovereignty was applied.

The bridgehead established by a minority with a radical vision in the Land of Israel became the vibrant center of Jewish life. What began two generations ago as a third-world, poor, and weak country that had only 6% of the Jews, transformed thanks to the dedication and talent of later generations into a regional democratic power with a thriving economy and top-notch accomplishments.

More important than the successes of the past are ensuring gains down the road. It is almost inevitable that Israel will continue to be the focus of Jewish life at the expense of the second most important Jewish concentration ー North America. The widespread assimilation in younger generations, coupled with declining birth rates, compared with almost zero mixed-marriages in Israel and a very high birth rate ensures that Israel will be the epicenter of Jewish life.

The major challenges within Israeli society are much more dangerous than the threats posed by Iran and its proxies. Israel has a successful track record of weathering through tough times, just like after the Yom Kippur War and the Second Intifadah. What should worry us is the radicalization of some Haredi groups and the continued control over millions of Palestinians. Those two trends threaten the democratic and pluralistic nature of the Zionist enterprise that have made it so successful over the past 100 years. Without them, Israel will devolve into a backward, authoritarian state that could threaten the future of the Jewish people.

{Written by Dan Schueftan and reposted from IsrraelHayom}



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