Israel is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. However, the idea of ​​a Jewish state goes back far into the 19th century. What is the origin of the Zionist idea and how did it develop?

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Origins of the Zionist Movement

Zionism entered the stage of national movements late. However, the idea of ​​the return of the Jews to their historical homeland is as old as their dispersion. Even before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Jews lived in the diaspora, which at that time stretched from Egypt to Asia Minor. With the loss of their religious and national sanctuary and the end of all political sovereignty, the Jews became a diaspora people par excellence. Their most important writing after the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud, written in Aramaic, originated in Babylonia. The most important philosophical writings of the Jews in the Middle Ages were written in Arabic in Spain and North Africa by Yehuda Halevi and Maimonides. In the 18th century, Moses Mendelssohn was one of the outstanding thinkers in the German language.

Despite this close connection with their environment, the Jews over the centuries did not lose their emotional connection to the land they call Israel, which the Romans called Palestine as punishment for the rebellion of the Jews in homage to the Philistine people . Even in biblical times it said in Psalm 137: “If I ever forget you, Jerusalem, then my right hand shall wither.” On the shores of Babylon, says the psalmist, the exiles sat and wept when they commemorated Jerusalem. In any case, even if we cannot prove these legends historically, they had a tremendous impact on the Jews of later centuries who recited and internalized these verses. From all four corners of the dispersion, facing Jerusalem, they prayed three times a day for their return to Jerusalem, which was symbolized by Mount Zion. Moving poetry from the Middle Ages bears witness to the will to return that individual Jews repeatedly expressed. If they didn’t go to Palestine to live, then at least to die there. This applies to some of the Spanish-Jewish thinkers of the Middle Ages, and even Moses Mendelssohn called his most important religious-philosophical work “Jerusalem”.

Jewish tombs in Jerusalem (© National Photo Collection Israel)

Although most Jews lived in the Diaspora after the Temple destruction, many came to the Holy Land to die. (© National Photo Collection Israel)

Although most Jews lived in the Diaspora after the Temple destruction, many came to the Holy Land to die. (© National Photo Collection Israel)

Emancipation of the Jews

As the Jews began to integrate into their environment, their attitude towards their historical homeland began to change. In the wake of American independence and the French Revolution, Jews were first fully accepted as citizens of the states in which they lived. In the other states of Western and Central Europe, the emancipation of the Jews also became a reality during the 19th century as a result of a protracted process. Now they defined themselves as German or French citizens of the Jewish faith. The principle of the French Revolution, formulated by Count Clermont-Tonnerre in 1789, was that the Jews should receive nothing as a nation, but everything as individuals. In other words, they should no longer see themselves as a collective nation within another nation, but redefine their Judaism on a purely denominational basis. The German Jews did this, as did the French and the Americans. This also involved renouncing the desire to return to the land of biblical origins and submitting oneself solely to the good of the country in which one lived and with which one identified.

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Typical of the new attitude were the words the cantor spoke at the dedication of a new synagogue in Charleston, South Carolina in the mid-19th century: “This synagogue is our temple, this city is our Jerusalem, this blessed one land of our Palestine.” We hear similar words from the German states, where, for example, Düsseldorf on the Rhine has now been described as “our new Jerusalem”. These and similar words were meant seriously, the Jews of Europe and America wanted to integrate and only preserve the faith of their forefathers. Just as the Christian Germans went to church on Sunday, so the Jews should go to the synagogue on Saturday. The other differences should slowly fade into the background or disappear completely.

Exclusion of the Jews

However, the hoped-for social integration of the Jews was hampered by ever new obstacles in the course of the 19th century. For a long time, legal restrictions stood in the way of equal rights. When these disappeared, a new racially motivated hatred of Jews arose, which took on the pseudo-scientific name of “anti-Semitism”. This actually misleading expression was used for the first time in 1879 in a debate about the anti-Jewish writings of the journalist Wilhelm Marr. In the same year, the conservative historian Heinrich von Treitschke made hatred of the Jews socially acceptable by writing an article in the respected “Preußische Jahrbucher” (“Preussian Yearbooks”), warning of the foreign invasion of Germany by “trouser-selling youths” who were said to be pouring in from the East. In this context, the words “The Jews are our misfortune” were used for the first time. Around the same time, a court chaplain to Kaiser Wilhelm I founded a “Christian Social Workers’ Party” that tried to snatch the workers away from social democracy. When this goal failed, he turned primarily to the lower middle classes and took up the cause of the exclusion of Jews from society. All of this must be seen in a larger context: as early as 1850 Richard Wagner (initially anonymously) had railed against “Judaism in music”, and also in the middle of the century French early socialists had identified the Jews as capitalists. Karl Marx, born to Jewish parents but baptized a Christian as a child, willingly followed this argument.

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Moses Hess

Moses Hess, a close confidant of Marx, did not share the criticism of the Jews. The Bonn Jew attributed their still deplorable situation to the fact that they did not have their own state. Under the impression of the Italian Risorgimento, Hess wrote his essay Rom und Jerusalem in 1862. Just as the Italians managed to build a new state around Rome, the Jews could build their new empire around Jerusalem. As early as the 1960s, racially based anti-Semitism was Hess’s main driving force behind leaving Europe: “The Germans hate less the religion of the Jews than their race, less their peculiar beliefs than their peculiar noses,” he wrote in his book .

The situation in Eastern Europe

In Eastern Europe the situation for the Jews was quite different. Emancipation did not come here. Jews were not integrated as Russian citizens of the Jewish faith. They remained part of a Jewish people who maintained their own language (Yiddish), differed in their clothing and cultural traditions from the Polish, Ukrainian or Romanian environment. While the economic situation of the Jews improved decisively in the West, the significantly more numerous Jews in Eastern Europe lived in great poverty. In addition, especially at the end of the 19th century, there were pogroms, violent riots against the Jewish minority, which were often tolerated by the authorities of the Tsarist Empire. An enlightenment movement (Haskala) arose among the educated Jewish classes, which revived the Hebrew language as a modern literary language. Hebrew never died out but was used in prayer as well as in daily study. Now, however, authors wrote their novels and poems in a modernized Hebrew, which was to be used again as an everyday language.

Leon Pinsker

After the Jews in the Tsarist Empire were chosen as the scapegoat for the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 and a wave of pogroms shook the Jewish communities, the idea of ​​establishing a Jewish state received political impetus. As in the case of Moses Hess, the outcry came from a well-integrated Jew who saw his position endangered by the new anti-Semitism. Leon Pinsker, a respected Jewish doctor from Odessa, reacted directly to the pogroms with his pamphlet Auto-Emancipation (1882). Pinsker viewed the path of emancipation as a failure and instead called for the self-emancipation of the Jews as a nation. Where exactly they should find their home Pinsker initially left open and thought of Argentina as well as Palestine.

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The failed emancipation in the west with the new threat of racially colored anti-Semitism and the preservation of the national characteristics of the Jews in Eastern Europe against the background of an economic and political crisis were the midwives of political Zionism at the end of the 19th century. His most important goal was the establishment of a national home for the threatened Jews in Europe.


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