Few political terms have such a hazy and imprecise definition in popular discourse as “Zionism.” In part, this is due to the political agenda behind the views of both self-professed Zionists and anti-Zionists. And yet, it is critical for us, as aspiring politically-aware Jews, to understand both what Zionism is, its history and successes, as well as different strains within the Zionist movement.
One of the great myths behind Zionism is that its sole founding father was Theodor Herzl, who came to the conclusion that Jews needed a state of their own after witnessing the virulent anti-Semitic excesses of anti-Dreyfusian France. While Herzl played an important role in popularizing Zionism and winning support from Jews and non-Jews alike, most of his ideas had already been developed in previous years by various pre-Zionist thinkers. The largest and most influential pre-Zionist “school” is undoubtedly that of the ex-Maskilim. Ex-Maskilim were Russian advocates of emancipation through enlightenment and integration who became disillusioned by the spectacular savagery of the 1881 Russian and Ukrainian pogroms that destroyed backward Shtetls and “Enlightened” Odessa alike. Perhaps the most influential of these ex-Maskilim was Leon Pinsker, a soldier and sailor in the Russian Navy who would go on to write his 1882 manifesto Auto-Emancipation, which would go on to delineate the Zionist vision.
The key assumption made by Pinsker and other early Zionists was that all Jews are united not by the bonds of religion, but those of nationhood. This new notion was a direct challenge to both Orthodox and Reform Jews; for the Orthodox because it challenged the authority of the religious establishment, and for the Reform because it rejected the view that Jews could identify as Germans, Frenchmen, Russians, or Americans.
Another key distinction made by Pinsker is that between “subject” and “object.” In contemporary Europe, the Jewish people were an object of history–meaning outside forces acted on them and the Jews themselves were essentially powerless to shape their own destiny. This was a problem Emancipation was unable to solve, as Emancipation simply meant giving Jews individual rights while taking away their collective power. Without any ability to hold their benevolent masters accountable, the Jews would be powerless should a malevolent force take over (as indeed would happen across Europe). Clearly then, what the Jewish people needed was to become a historical subject—taking charge of their own well-being. Here we come to the heart of what being a Zionist means, the one basic concept that unites Marxist Zionism with Revisionist Zionism, and Liberal Zionism with (certain) Religious Zionism.
Pinsker closes Auto-Emancipation with a call to arms: “Help yourselves, and God will help you!” This highlights his second argument—that for Zionist dream to come about, it will not, indeed it cannot, be delivered on a silver platter by benevolent or disinterested European powers, but must be brought about by the strength of the Jewish people. In other words, the only people that can truly emancipate the Jews are the Jews themselves. For Pinsker this means a functioning state, along with a strong economy and a strong industrial base.
What must be emphasized is that Pinsker’s Zionism is both materialistic and disinterested in any return to a “holy land.” He did not base his views on any God-given “right” of Jews to live in Palestine, but rather on an analysis of the challenges Jews were facing at the time and how to best alleviate their burden. And while he concedes that Palestine as a home for the Jewish nation would pose some advantages, he adamantly proclaims that should it turn out that creating a state elsewhere in the world would benefit the Jewish nation more, “We must not attach ourselves to the place where our political life was once violently interrupted and destroyed.”
And now we come back to the original question: “What is Zionism?” Leaning on Pinsker’s analysis, I propose the following definition: Zionism is the movement for self-determination and auto-emancipation of the Jewish people. What follows from this definition are several proposals that might seem contradictory and yet make sense when one considers the early Zionist movement. Firstly, a “Jewish state” might be desired, but not necessary to fulfill the Zionist mission, if the Jewish people themselves do not wish it (consider the radical Marxist-Zionist movement Hashomer Hatzair, the forerunners to the modern day Zionist-Left Meretz party).
Furthermore, while it was possible to be both Zionist and religious, Zionism is at its heart a secular nationalist movement, and as a result there are many conflicts, both overt and covert, between the two, the repercussions of which we still see today. And perhaps most critically, Zionism is not an ideology in the sense that it has a definite goal in mind—indeed, the ultimate goals of Marxist- and Revisionist-Zionists are nearly irreconcilable. Rather, Zionism is about the process, the ability of Jews to freely determine their own future, whether they as a whole wish to live in an explicitly Jewish state or a bi-national one, whether they wish their state to be located in present-day Israel or elsewhere.
Note that I do not claim that Pinsker, rather than Herzl, is the sole father of Zionism. In fact, Pinsker was far from alone in formulating comparable hypotheses; many of his fellow ex-Maskilim arrived at similar conclusions. Nor did the development of what one might consider “universal Zionist theory” end with him. Herzl and Max Nordau, for example, made key contributions that cannot be ascribed to any single current of Zionism. Pinsker is simply the most accessible of this group.
One might also ask: why deliberately search for the true definition of Zionism at a stage when it was presumably less developed? The problem with searching later on, for example in the early 1900s, can be seen by examining the World Zionist Congress. For while this body was initially designed as a place where Jewish and Zionist unity would be upheld, it rapidly became rife with untold numbers of factions, representing every possible political combination. So, understanding the Labor Zionism of Ben-Gurion and Ber Borochov cannot tell you anything about the secular nationalist “revisionist” Zionism of Jabotinsky, and neither of these can explain the religious Zionism of Rabbi Avraham Kook. To truly find the uniting threads of Zionism, one must analyze a time before the irreparable divisions began. This means looking to the time before the WZO was established, and thus a time before Herzl.
Needless to say, the definition of Zionism I have described is a far cry from what passes for its definition today, both among right-wing Zionists and left-wing anti-Zionists. In part, this is a result of political tactics; since the political inclination of Israel has shifted from the left to the right, the right has attempted to change the definition of Zionism to add legitimacy to their ideology and irredentist and destructive policies. In so doing, they give fodder to the anti-Zionist left, who effectively argue that Zionism is synonymous with the right. Unfortunately, this collaboration between rivals to redefine Zionism has been remarkably successful. Ultimately, if discussion of Zionism rests on the premise of unconditional support for Israel, rather than on the liberation of the Jewish people, the Zionist dream cannot and will not be fulfilled.