Zionism Research Paper

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Zionism is a movement to establish a homeland for Jews who have been scattered throughout Europe. The word Zion refers to the land promised to the Jews by God in the Bible, but the activity of Zionism is almost exclusively political, rather than religious, because of Jews’ understanding that the land is not to be inhabited until the coming of their Messiah.

The need for a Jewish homeland began in 70 CE with the destruction of the second Temple of Jerusalem by the Romans. Since that time Jews have lived as a minority group in many countries. Despite the diversity of cultural settings and political regimes during the centuries, they have been able to maintain their ethnic, religious, and linguistic characteristics. Because of their strong nationalistic identity, they have been subjected to prejudice—known as “anti-Semitism”— and even persecution in many of the countries to which they have migrated. As a result, the primary aim of Zionists has been to find a homeland (preferably in the Jewish ancestral home of Palestine) where they can gain political independence, develop Hebrew as the spoken language, and provide a community for Jews who have been dispersed for centuries.

Writers during the nineteenth century spread Zionist ideas throughout Europe. Moses Hess wrote two works outlining the return of Jews to Palestine, Rome and Jerusalem (1862) and Plan for the Colonization of the Holy Land (1867). Leo Pinsker wrote in his pamphlet Auto-Emancipation (1882) that “The Jews are not a living nation; they are everywhere aliens; therefore they are despised . . . The proper and only remedy would be the creation of a Jewish nationality . . . a home of their own.”

Theodor Herzl (1860–1904), an Austrian journalist, moved to the forefront of the movement with the organization of the first Zionist Congress at Basel, Switzerland, in 1897. Delegates at the congress called for a publicly recognized Jewish home in Palestine. During the remainder of his life Herzl negotiated with world leaders to gain support for the Zionist movement. In 1903 the British government offered a large tract of land in Uganda, East Africa, for a Jewish homeland. Herzl promoted this idea to the Zionist Congress in 1903 as a “temporary haven” for Jews. Delegates at the congress strongly opposed the idea and remained committed to Palestine as the only sanctuary for Jews scattered throughout the world. Herzl died in 1904, but his contributions to the movement earned him the title of the “Father of Modern Zionism.”

Between 1881 and 1903 the first modern migration of Jews to Palestine established a small but influential presence. The first group of settlers was known as “Chovevei Zion” (Lovers of Zion). Numbering just thirteen men and one woman, the group landed at Jaffa on 7 July 1882. Many others followed during the first aliyah (going up) to Israel. In 1904 the second aliyah brought a new wave of immigrants to Palestine, mostly Russian Jews, including such influential leaders of the nation of Israel as David Ben-Gurion and Izhak Ben-Zvi. By the beginning of World War I about ninety thousand Jews were living in Palestine.


Zionists pursued their political agenda for a Jewish state in Palestine through diplomatic means with Great Britain and the other Allied powers (Russia, France, England, Italy, and the United States). The British tried to gain support in the Palestinian region from both Jews and Arabs. Because Palestine was under the political control of the Ottoman Turks, who joined Germany to oppose the Allied powers, the postwar division of Palestine by the victorious Allied forces was complicated by secret and ambiguous agreements made during the war among the British and Arabs and Jews.

Correspondence between Arab leader Sherif Hussein and the British high commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, expressed British support for an independent Arab state in Palestine. At the same time as these negotiations, the Sykes-Picot Agreement divided the region into mandate territories that would be under the influence or direct control of the British and French governments. The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 contained provisions that contradicted the Hussein-McMahon correspondence.

Meanwhile, Chaim Weizman, a Russian-born chemist and president of the World Zionist Organization, made contacts with many British leaders to gain sympathy for the Zionist cause. David Lloyd George, prime minister of Great Britain, viewed Palestine as the biblical home of the Jews. Also, British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour was supportive of the Zionist viewpoint and hoped that a Jewish homeland in Palestine would enable the British to have an influential presence in the region. On 2 November 1917, the Balfour Declaration expressed Britain’s public support for the establishment of a Jewish home in Palestine.

As a mandate territory under British control, Palestine was defined geographically for the first time in modern history. The League of Nations ratified the Palestine mandate territory in 1922. The preamble of the mandate included the Balfour Declaration, thus promoting the Zionist ideal of a Jewish state in Palestine to the status of international law.

Under British rule immigration by Jews to Palestine continued. Political and economic competition between Arabs and Jews escalated during the 1920s. Tension between the two groups climaxed in August 1929 during a Jewish religious fast when riots broke out in Jerusalem. More than sixty Jews and Arabs were killed. The British declared martial law in the region and sent an investigative commission to conduct hearings and issue a report. The report, known as the “Passfield White Paper,” stated that the riots had been caused by Arab fears of Jewish domination. The white paper called for a suspension of Jewish immigration until a policy could be created. The protest from Zionists and Jewish immigrants was so strong that the white paper was repealed the next year.

The rise of the German Nazi leader Adolph Hitler in 1933 resulted in a new wave of anti-Semitism in Europe and a large migration of Jews to Palestine. By 1936, 30 percent of the population in Palestine was Jewish. Arabs reacted violently to the migration because they feared that they would become the minority group. Arabs pleaded with the British for their support.

In 1939 the British sought to resolve the Arab– Jewish problem by limiting the Jewish population in Palestine to one-third of the total population. Furthermore, the British declared that Palestine would become an independent state within ten years. Many Zionists saw this declaration as unacceptable because the state would be under Arab majority control, and the movement to establish a Jewish homeland would end. Many Palestinian Jews demanded an immediate uprising against the British. But the most prominent Zionist group, led by David Ben-Gurion, opposed an uprising. Instead, Jews undertook active resistance to the restrictions on Jewish immigration.

During World War II Zionists supported the Allies (France, England, China, Russia, and the United States) against Germany. Zionist leaders did not become aware of the Holocaust and the German plan to annihilate the Jewish people until 1942. The war in Europe and the Holocaust made it essential for Zionists to enlist support from the United States for a Jewish state in Palestine. Prior to World War II the United States had been neutral on the issue and saw the Palestine region as the responsibility of the British government. At the Biltmore Conference of the World Zionist Organization in 1942, Zionist leaders unanimously called for the immediate establishment of a Jewish commonwealth in Palestine and sought to pressure the United States into supporting their agenda. However, both British and U.S. governments opposed the Zionist plan because they wanted to maintain close ties with Arab neighbors who controlled vital oil deposits.

U.N. Resolution 181

At the end of World War II the British government sought an end to the mounting violence between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. Unable to mediate a settlement, the British unceremoniously turned the problem over to the United Nations in 1947. After much deliberation the United Nations on 29 November 1947 passed Resolution 181, which proposed partition of Palestine into separate Arab and Jewish states, with Jerusalem under permanent trusteeship. This resolution guaranteed a Jewish homeland. The Arabs immediately opposed the partition with violence. British troops hastily left the region in May 1948, refusing to enforce the U.N. resolution, and Zionists proclaimed the creation of the state of Israel. The first Arab–Israeli war erupted on 15 May 1948, with Arab armies from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq invading Israel. After a series of ceasefires and armistice agreements, Israel won its independence, and the Zionist dream was a reality.

Since the establishment of Israel as a state, Zionism has continued, offering a homeland to Jews who embrace Israel as theirs. Formalized support also continues as Zionists create economic and political programs that support their cause and as they continue to remind Israel that their definition as a state also delineates their culture and history as Jews. The most activist sects of the Zionist movement have viewed the military successes of Israel in the 1948 War of Independence and the Six-Day War of 1967 as divine miracles and a foreshadowing of the coming of the biblical Messiah. Thus, some Zionists view the retaining of the biblical land of Israel as a “holy war” against Palestinian nationalist ideologies and Islamic religious movements. Furthermore, they believe that the existence of Palestinian settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has prevented Jews from being able to claim complete or at least peaceful success in their goal of a homeland. More moderate Zionists have maintained a purely political agenda to continue to secure a homeland for Jews and maintain a cultural identity, trying to live in peace with their neighbors. However, some countries outside of the Middle East strongly believe that Zionism has refined itself from what had begun as a political agenda to an agenda driven by religious ideology.

To gain influence with the Arab community, Russia influenced the United Nations to draft Resolution 3379 on 10 November 1975, condemning Zionism as a form of racism and racial discrimination. The United States and its Western allies, who saw the resolution as a condemnation of the nation of Israel, bitterly contested the resolution. In 1991 the resolution was repealed amid efforts to allow the United Nations to play a role in the ongoing Middle East peace talks.

Zionism continues to play a major role in the Middle East peace talks as recent terrorist attacks have led to a call for more national unity in Israel in the spirit of the early days of the movement. Zionist rhetoric is used by both Jews and Arabs to describe the tense political situation in the region. The key to the future of Zionism is the connection between its religious identity and its desire for a homeland.


  1. Bickerton, I. J., & Klausner, C. L. (1998). A concise history of the Arab-Israeli conflict (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  2. Cohen, R. (2009). Israel is real: An obsessive quest to understand the Jewish nation and its history. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
  3. Halpern, B., & Reinharz, J. (1998). Zionism and the creation of a new society. New York: Oxford University Press.
  4. Hertzberg, A. (Ed.). (1959). The Zionist idea: A historical analysis and reader. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Herzl Press.
  5. Levin, N. G., Jr. (Ed.). (1974). The Zionist movement in Palestine and world politics, 1880–1918. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath.
  6. Radosh, A., & Radosh, R. (2009). A safe haven: Harry S. Truman and the founding of Israel. New York: Harper.

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