ORIGINS OF ZIONISM
The major event that
led to the growth of the Zionist movement was the emancipation
of Jews in France (1791), followed shortly thereafter by their
emancipation in the rest of continental and Central Europe. After
having lived for centuries in the confines of Jewish ghettos,
Jews living in Western and Central Europe now had a powerful incentive
to enter mainstream European society. Jews, who had previously
been confined to petty trade and to banking, rapidly rose in academia,
medicine, the arts, journalism, and other professions. The accelerated
assimilation of Jews into European society radically altered the
nature of relations between Jews and non-Jews. On the one hand,
Jews had to reconcile traditional Judaism, which for nearly 2,000
years prior to emancipation had developed structures designed
to maintain the integrity and separateness of Jewish community
life, with a powerful secular culture in which they were now able
to participate. On the other hand, many non-Jews, who prior to
the emancipation had had little or no contact with Jews, increasingly
saw the Jew as an economic threat. The rapid success of many Jews
fueled this resentment.
The rise of ethnically based nationalism in the mid-nineteenth
century gave birth to yet another form of anti-Semitism. Before
the mid-nineteenth century, European anti-Semitism was based mainly
on Christian antipathies toward Jews because of their refusal
to convert to Christianity. As a result, an individual Jew could
usually avoid persecution by converting, as many did over the
centuries. The emergence of ethnically based nationalism, however,
radically changed the status of the Jew in European society. The
majority gentile population saw Jews as a separate people who
could never be full participants in the nation's history.
The vast majority of Jews in Western and Central Europe responded
by seeking even deeper assimilation into European culture and
a secularization of Judaism. A minority, who believed that greater
assimilation would not alter the hostility of non-Jews, adopted
Zionism. According to this view, the Jew would remain an outsider
in European society regardless of the liberalism of the age because
Jews lacked a state of their own. Jewish statelessness, then,
was the root cause of anti-Semitism. The Zionists sought to solve
the Jewish problem by creating a Jewish entity outside Europe
but modeled after the European nation-state. After more then half
a century of emancipation, West European Jewry had become distanced
from both the ritual and culture of traditional Judaism. Thus,
Zionism in its West European Jewish context envisioned a purely
political solution to the Jewish problem: a state of Jews rather
than a Jewish state.
For the bulk of European Jewry, however, who resided in Eastern
Europe's Pale of Settlement (see Glossary) --on the western fringe
of the Russian Empire, between the Baltic and the Black seas--there
was no emancipation. East European Jewry had lived for centuries
in kehilot (sing., kehilah), semiautonomous
Jewish municipal corporations that were supported by wealthy Jews.
Life in the kehilot was governed by a powerful caste
of learned religious scholars who strictly enforced adherence
to the Jewish legal code. Many Jews found the parochial conformity
enforced by the kehilot leadership onerous. As a result,
liberal stirring unleashed by the emancipation in the West had
an unsettling effect upon the kehilot in the East.
By the early nineteenth century, not only was kehilot
life resented but the tsarist regimes were becoming increasingly
absolute. In 1825 Tsar Nicholas I, attempting to centralize control
of the empire and Russify its peoples, enacted oppressive measures
against the Jews; he drafted a large number of under-age Jews
for military service, forced Jews out of their traditional occupations,
such as the liquor trade, and generally repressed the kehilot.
Facing severe economic hardship and social upheaval, tens of thousands
of Jews migrated to the cities, especially Odessa on the Russian
coast. In their new urban environments, the restless and highly
literate Jews clamored for the liberalization of tsarist rule.
In 1855 the prospects for Russian Jewry appeared to improve significantly
when the relatively liberal-minded Tsar Alexander II ascended
the throne. Alexander II ended the practice of drafting Jewish
youth into the military and granted Jews access, albeit limited,
to Russian education institutions and various professions previously
closed to them. Consequently, a thriving class of Jewish intellectuals,
the maskalim (enlightened), emerged in cities like Odessa,
just as they had in Western Europe and Central Europe after emancipation.
The maskalim believed that Tsar Alexander II was ushering
in a new age of Russian liberalism which, as in the West, would
eventually lead to the emancipation of Russian Jewry.
The hopes of the maskalim and of Russian Jewry in general,
however, were misplaced. Alexander II was assassinated in 1881,
and a severe pogrom ensued that devastated Jewish communities
throughout the Pale of Settlement. The new Tsar, Alexander III,
enacted oppressive policies against the Jews and denied police
protection to those Jews who remained in the countryside. As a
result, a floodtide of impoverished Jews entered the cities where
they joined various movements that sought to overthrow the tsar.
The openly anti-Semitic policies pursued by the new tsar and
the popularity of these policies among large segments of the nonJewish
population posed serious political, economic, and spiritual dilemmas
for Russian Jewry. On the economic level, the tsar's antiSemitic
policies severely limited Jewish economic opportunities and undermined
the livelihood of the Jewish masses. Many impoverished East European
Jews, therefore, emigrated from the Russian Empire. Between 1881
and 1914, an estimated 2.5 million Jews left the empire, 2 million
of whom settled in the United States.
For many Jews, especially the maskalim, however, the
pogroms and the anti-Semitism of the new tsar not only meant economic
hardship and physical suffering but also a deep spiritual malaise.
Before 1881, they had been abandoning the strict confines of the
kehilot en masse and rebelling against religious orthodoxy,
anxiously waiting for the expected emancipation to reach Russia.
The 1881 pogroms and their aftermath shattered not only the faith
of the maskalim in the inevitable liberalization of tsarist
Russia but also their belief that the non-Jewish Russian intellectual
would take an active role in opposing anti-Semitism. Most of the
Russian intelligentsia were either silent during the pogroms or
actually supported them. Having lost their faith in God and in
the inevitable spread of liberalism, large numbers of Russian
Jews were forced to seek new solutions. Many flocked to the revolutionary
socialist and communist movements opposing the tsar, while others
became involved with the Bund (see Glossary), a cultural society
that sought to establish a Yiddish (see Glossary) cultural renaissance
A smaller but growing number of Jews were attracted to the ancient
but newly formulated notion of reconstituting a Jewish nation-state
in Palestine. Zionism as it evolved in Eastern Europe, unlike
Zionism in the West, dealt not only with the plight of Jews but
with the crisis of Judaism. Thus, despite its secularism, East
European Zionism remained attached to the Jewish biblical home
in Palestine. It also was imbued with the radical socialist fervor
challenging the tsarist regime.
Zionism's reformulation of traditional Judaism was deeply resented
by Orthodox Jews, especially the Hasidim (sing., Hasid-- see Glossary).
Most East European Jews rejected the notion of a return to the
promised land before the appearance of the messiah. They viewed
Zionism as a secular European creation that aspired to change
the focus of Judaism from devotion to Jewish law and religious
ritual to the establishment of a Jewish nation-state.
Data as of December 1988