The European heritage of Zionism

I’ve been episodically reading David Engel’s Zionism in Pearson’s “Short Histories of Big Ideas” series.  It seems like a good, fair, and readable introduction to the topic.

He distinguishes Zionism from “activist messianism.”  The latter, a religious movement,  grew in the 16th and 17th centuries and resulted in migration to Palestine in the 18th and 19th centuries.  A small group of Jews hoped that their efforts would lead God to send the Messiah.

Zionism, on the other hand, is a more secular movement based on trends in Europe, where so many Jews lived.  Many of the Zionists were influenced by European trends of the 19th century:

  • Nationalism was the most powerful influence, as Jews began to think of themselves as a national group without a state.  As other ethnic groups began to seek political unity based on a shared culture, influenced by the nationalist and liberal political ideas of the French Revolution, Jews found themselves defined as not part of the “nations” among which they lived.  This happened especially in Eastern Europe in the multinational Austrian and Russian empires, where about 85% of European Jews lived.  Jews were often assimilated into Western European countries, although anti-Semitism could flare there too (the Dreyfus Affair in France and Aryan supremacist thought in Germany are two examples).
  • Not all the Zionists even agreed that Israel was the proper place for their state, but they knew that they wanted a state somewhere.  One of the reasons given was that Palestine was “a land without a people for a people without a land.”  As Engel points out, the Zionists knew that there were people there, but did not consider the local Arabs a people in the sense of a European national group.
  • Some of the early Zionists were devotees of Marxist socialism, another European ideology.  The leading intellectual of this movement was Ber Borochov, who taught that Jews needed to go beyond the narrow economic life that they were allowed in Eastern Europe in order to truly participate in class struggle and socialist revolution.  These halutsim set up collective communities (like the kibbutz farms) in the Ottoman territory of Palestine.
  • Finally, I’ve been struck before by the sense of European superiority that the Zionists brought with them to their settlements.  Engel reminded me of what I have read before: Zionists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries said that the local Arabs would be glad to have the Jews there, as they would improve the local economy.  Theodore Herzl said The Jewish State that “If His Majesty the Sultan were to give us Palestine, we could in return undertake to regulate the whole finances of Turkey.  We should there form a portion of a rampart against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism.”  Engel doesn’t make the comparison explicitly, but it seems to me that there is a real similarity to the feeling of European supremacy that provided the support for European imperialism in this period as imperialists pledged to civilize the peoples of Africa and Asia.

Engel also discusses how some of the early Zionists got their land.  He writes that the Ottoman Empire had begun taxing the lands that Palestinian Arabs had owned for generations, and that many Arab families worked out deals with landlords (many of whom did not live in Palestine) who would get the title to the lands while paying the taxes.  Jewish migrants wanted to buy land, and this increased demand increased the land prices, encouraging the landlords to sell.  Many Arabs were kicked off of their land by the new owners without compensation.  The Jewish owners believed that they owned the land and could do as they pleased with it, while the Arabs believed that they had never really given up family ownership of the land when they made the deal with the landlords.  Also, the socialist Zionists urged Jewish landowners to hire only Jewish laborers to the exclusion of the cheaper Arab labor.  Arabs who were evicted from their land and/or unable to find agricultural work grew angry and violence against Jews by Arabs began to increase in the early 20th century.

I’m looking forward to learning more about this subject.  For now, I think it confirms my paradigm of looking at the Israeli-Palestinian situation as a tragedy that is so difficult to entangle because of the history.  I wish that the Zionist settlement of Israel/Palestine had been handled better (somehow), but no analysis of the situation is complete without understanding the predicament of the Jews in Europe, even before the Holocaust.  And in at least some ways, the European heritage that the Zionists brought to their project adds more layers to this problem as we see that they did not have the necessary respect for the inhabitants of the land in which they wished to construct their new home.

My quote from Herzl in from Gettleman and Schaar, The Middle East and Islamic World Reader, p. 167.



  1. […] My previous post on Zionism focused on the influences that the secular ideologies of socialism and nationalism had on Zionism, as has this one so far.  If Engel is right, as I think he is, then secular ideas played a major role in the foundation of the Zionist movement.  Many of the movement’s leaders, including the first prime minister of Israel, hoped that Israel’s establishment would lead to “normalization,” diminishing anti-Semitism as Jews rose to a normal status of nationhood along with other nations. […]

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