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Theodor Herzl and the trajectory of Zionism

An interview with Professor Derek Penslar, former professor of Israel Studies at Oxford University, offers one possible explanation for why Jewish nationalism is so divisive and garners such controversy.

Unknown. Public Domain. Honor guard standing next to Herzel's coffin in Israel. Unknown. Public Domain.

Debates over Zionism and its progeny, the State of Israel, often have a Manichaean quality to them. Critics of Jewish nationalism view it as synonymous with racism and colonialism, while advocates see it as a national liberation movement for an oppressed population. Rarely does either side concede much to the other.

Emotion plays its part here. But so too does the politics of the moment. The recent controversies over anti-Semitism in the UK Labour Party, for example, demonstrated clearly enough—as if demonstration were needed—how politics impinges on debate over the Jewish state and its founding ideology. It showed how easily conflict in the eastern Mediterranean can become a terrain where unrelated political questions are fought out.

Professor Derek Penslar, former professor of Israel Studies at Oxford University, offers one possible explanation for why Jewish nationalism is so divisive and garners such controversy. He points out there are multiple—sometimes contradictory—ideological and political issues embedded within Zionism and Israel. “The Zionist project combines colonialism, anti-colonialism, and postcolonial state-building,” he explains. “The entire twentieth century, wrapped up in one small state.”

The interview below is an attempt to engage with the history of Zionism and its afterlives in an informed and nuanced fashion. It brings out and, I hope, helps to clarify some of the key questions Zionists and anti-Zionists need to think about.


Theodor Herzl went from being a middle class, European Jew and journalist to a political thinker and activist, determined to build a Jewish state in the Middle East. What was the context of this transformation?

The most obvious context was the anti-Semitism that flourished in fin de siècle Europe. There is a famous legend that Herzl was transformed into a Zionist by the trial of Alfred Dreyfus in 1894. It is true that Herzl covered the trial as the Paris correspondent of the most influential newspaper in central Europe, Die Neue Freie Presse, but the trial in and of itself did not make him a Zionist. Rather, Herzl was deeply perturbed by European anti-Semitism in the early 1890s.

Herzl had himself experienced anti-Semitic insults. He was originally a lawyer, but there was only so far he could rise in the profession as a Jew. He also experienced anti-Semitic taunts as a student in Vienna. So in 1893-94 he started thinking about how to solve the ‘Jewish Problem’ and he considered the possibility that Jews should become revolutionaries and overthrow the old order.

There is a strong connection between Jews and the left because the left allegedly had promised to offer a class and prejudice free society. The left was supposed to reject anti-Semitism although it often didn’t. So Herzl was attracted to the idea of overthrowing the old aristocratic order and creating a new one. But he was a bourgeois, and socialist revolution quickly lost its appeal.

Another possibility he flirted with was conversion. He thought the Jews could convert en masse to Christianity. This idea was something that flitted through Herzl’s head—I wouldn’t take it too seriously—but it just shows the state of distress he was in.

He then fell into a kind of ecstatic state in the spring of 1895 while in Paris and he began to write constantly. Out of the mess of stuff he wrote, some of it mad, much of it quite lucid, came the material for a pamphlet which was published in 1896 and titled The Jewish State.

The odd thing about Herzl is that his writing is very cold, clear and logical, but underneath there is a tremendous amount of passion. When he writes he methodically argues on behalf of Zionism by rejecting all alternatives: assimilation does nothing to staunch anti-Semitism, revolution destroys the fabric of society; conversion is dishonourable and eventually ineffective – but underneath the sober prose is a tremendous amount of passion. Herzl was in a state of psychological crisis.

But Zionism already existed. He didnt invent it.

Herzl was certainly not the first Jewish nationalist. His pamphlet replicated what other Jews had written a decade or fifteen years previously. Associations of Jewish students throughout central Europe advocated Jewish nationalism, and an organization known as the Lovers of Zion had been active since 1884. The word Zionism had been coined in the early 1890s by a young Jewish nationalist named Nathan Birnbaum. There were many Jews who, like Herzl, believed that the Jews comprise a nation and that nation deserves a territory.

In 1895, Herzl didn't know where this Jewish homeland would be. In the diary entries out of which The Jewish State emerged he wrote a lot about South America because Jewish agricultural colonies had been set up there in the 1890s. Even in The Jewish State there is a brief section titled “Palestine or Argentina?”. Herzl did not become attached to the notion that there has to be a Jewish homeland reestablished in Palestine until he got involved with eastern European Zionists, who were attached to the biblical Land of Israel, and set up what became the Zionist Organisation.

Most importantly, Herzl was not wedded to the notion of a Jewish state. He calls his pamphlet Der Judenstaat, but he never held out for statehood. He wrote about many different forms of political organisation and he changed his mind from one week or month to the next. It could be a state, it could be an autonomous province in the Ottoman Empire, it could be a crown colony, or a protectorate under European control. He was just as willing to make a deal with the Ottoman Empire, as he was to cut a deal with a European empire for Palestine.

Not only was Herzl himself pragmatic about the actual political form this Jewish home would take, the official goal of the Zionist movement, as promulgated by the First Zionist Congress in 1897, is not a Jewish state, but rather a Jewish national home to be secured by international law. The Zionist movement only clearly adopted a call for statehood in 1942 in WWII as the storm clouds had gathered and the situation of the Jews was absolutely catastrophic.

What kind of reception did Herzl receive in the diaspora? Was Zionism popular?

At the time of Herzl’s death in 1904, The Zionist Organisation had about 100,000 members, and there were about fifteen million Jews in the world, so it was a minority movement.

Many were highly orthodox and thought the idea of Jewish nationalism was anathema. They thought the idea of returning to the land of Israel en masse before the Messianic era was presumptuous if not blasphemous.

Then there were opponents of Zionism who were secular, socialist Jews. Eastern Europe was filled with secular Jews who were attached to one form or another of socialism and they rejected Zionism as utopian. They asked the Zionists: you expect Jews in Europe to move by the millions to Palestine? It’s crazy.

And then there were assimilated Jews in western and much of central Europe, as well as the established Jewish community in the United States - who for the most part thought Zionism was outrageous and an implicit rejection of their claim to be fully integrated into the countries in which they lived.

That said, there were throughout Europe, the Middle East, and North America many Jewish intellectuals as well as bourgeois Jews in business and the professions who took Zionism very seriously. So yes, he had minority support, but it was very fervent.

There are, it seems, two aspects to Zionism. The first: bringing an end to diaspora existence with the national revival of the Jewish people and the second, creating a New Jew that is, a matter of personal rather than collective transformation. Which of these aspects was the more important for Herzl?

The two aspects of Zionism have historically almost always been linked. For Herzl the immediate emphasis was on survival. The Jewish State is about the impossibility of combating anti-Semitism and the necessity for eastern European Jews to go abroad and create their own country in some corner of the globe or return to their ancient homeland. It’s a matter of physical security.

But there is also the other goal: that Jews need to become proud of themselves. They need to have a sense of dignity. Herzl writes in many places that only by becoming a political force in the world and only by taking their fate in their hands can the Jews regain their honour.

Herzl also envisions the future Jewish national home as an ideal society that has harnessed technology for the good of all and is a model for the world. Herzl does not envision the Jewish-Arab conflict or of the need for a strong defence force.

Many Jews found sanctuary from European anti-Semitism in America. Was emigration to the US considered a realistic alternative to creating a new state?

The Zionist argument was that they could go to America and all that would happen was there would be more anti-Semitism. Wherever the Jews go, Herzl wrote, they compete with the pre-existing labour force, so wherever they go anti-Semitism is going to be a problem. They're not going to fit in.

Herzl did not, however, believe that all of the world’s Jews would concentrate in Palestine. He thought once there was a Jewish state or homeland in place the Jews who were left in the diaspora would be respected because now the Jews would be a normal people with a normal political homeland.

The creation of nation-states frequently leads to the formation of minorities who do not identify with the ruling culture. Did Herzl think this might happen with the indigenous Arab population of Ottoman Palestine?

No. He didn't think that would happen and this is odd. When Herzl went to Egypt in 1902, he went to a lecture and encountered a number of young Egyptian nationalists. He writes in his diary that these young men may some day bring about the overthrow of British rule in Egypt. Herzl never made similar observations about Palestinians. It’s true, though, that at the time the Arab nationalist movement was very young and small, and what did exist of it was mainly concentrated in Beirut, Damascus and Cairo. There was very little going on in Palestine.

Herzl was only in Palestine once very briefly and he never really got a sense of what the Palestinian Arabs thought or wanted. He doesn’t even mention Palestinians in his accounts of his visit in 1898. He does write quite frequently that Jews will bring nothing but benefits to the native population. He often wrote that the Zionists bore no grudge against these people: we will give them our technology; they’ll be better farmers; they’ll have better health—in short, a paternalistic, yet benign, version of the western, liberal doctrine of progress.

In his novel Old-New Land one of his major characters is a Palestinian, Rashid Bey, who speaks perfect German and is very acculturated to western culture and talks about how much the Jews have benefited his people. Rashid Bey symbolizes the egalitarian spirit of what Herzl calls the New Society that will take form in the Jewish homeland. Also, Rashid Bey symbolizes confessional and ethnic diversity. Herzl did conceive of a diverse society, but he did not come to grips with Palestinian opposition.

There was a very interesting exchange of letters between Muhammad Dia al-Khalidi, a former mayor of Jerusalem, and Herzl in 1898. Al-Khalidi writes to Herzl that the Jews have every right to dwell in the land of Israel. He acknowledges the Jews’ biblical connection with the land. But he also points out that the land is populated with Arabs. Not only does Herzl have the Palestinian Arabs to deal with, he says, but there are 300,000,000 Muslims in the world, who will be outraged by a Jewish national home in historic Palestine. Herzl responds with the arguments I mentioned earlier – that the Jews will bring nothing but benefits to the Arabs of Palestine. You can see how they are talking past each other.

Zionism was in line with popular notions of national consciousness and political self-determination. Was there also a colonialist aspect to it?

Zionism is a product of the era of colonialism. There would never have been a successful Zionist project without colonialism. But the Zionist project could also never have succeeded without anti-colonialism and decolonisation.

The word colonialism has in our era become hugely fraught, but let’s use it in its technical sense, referring to projections of political and economic power beyond a polity. Colonialism has been practiced by polities throughout the world, but the best-known forms in modern history have originated in the west.

And how could we even think of the Zionist movement succeeding without support from the western colonial powers? Without the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the British colonial presence in the near and Middle East? Without the British fostering for two decades the development of the Jewish national home? So, of course, Zionism is connected with western colonialism.

On the other hand the state of Israel was born in 1948 during the era of decolonisation. It emerged at the same time as independent India and Pakistan, a time when the British Empire was crumbling, and the Zionist movement was able to take advantage of British weakness. A Zionist armed insurrection forced the British to turn the Palestine file over to the United Nations; the Zionists won international support for partition and then fought a successful war against the Palestinians and then against several Arab states.

In terms of political movements and geo-political structures in the twentieth century, Zionism represents one-stop shopping: it is a nationalist movement with a strong socialist component embodied in Labour Zionism. Counterpoised to Labour is a right-wing version of Zionism that has at times flirted with fascism. The Zionist project combines colonialism, anti-colonialism, and postcolonial state-building. The entire twentieth century, wrapped up in one small state.

The Zionist movement and the state of Israel were dominated by Labour Zionists from the 1930s until the late 1970s. How was the universalism of a socialist outlook squared with the particularism of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people?

Nationalism and socialism throughout the twentieth century were often linked. If you look at Third World liberation movements, the anti-colonial, nationalist and socialist aspects were all connected. Think about Nasser’s Egyptian nationalism, which was tied up with socialism. If you look at the Baath in Syria and Iraq, it’s not the Baath as such; it’s the Syrian or Iraqi Baath. There’s a strong nationalist element there, but there’s also a very strong socialist one.

Liberation movements also often conceived of entire nationalities as oppressed and hence as a kind of ethnic proletariat. Thus socialist and nationalist ideals could be reconciled.

So, although Labour Zionist ideology was filled with contradictions, I don’t believe it was necessarily any more filled with contradictions than liberation movements throughout the world in the twentieth century which squared the circle all the time.

After the 1973 war, the Labour Zionism of the states first thirty years gave way to a more religiously-orientated, irredentist nationalism that seems to have gained a hegemony over Israeli political culture. How do you account for this shift?

First, I would redefine the terms a little bit. Although Labour and Revisionist Zionism differed a good deal before the state was founded, the Labour Zionists ideally would have had a Jewish state that went out to the Jordan River. They even talked about a Jewish state that would extend beyond the Jordan.

The difference between the Labour and Revisionist Zionists was that the former were more pragmatic. In 1937 when the British proposed a very small mini-state the official Labour Zionist reaction was to accept what was offered. It may be that David Ben-Gurion, the leader of the dominant Labour Zionist political party and by extension of Palestine’s Jewish community, had in mind an aggressive war down the road. Or perhaps he just wanted to see what was going to happen once statehood was attained.

Despite Labour Zionist pragmatism there was still, throughout the Zionist movement, a sense of the land of Israel as a territorial whole. And after 1967 there was an alliance of secular and religious Zionists who were very happy about the conquest of the Sinai, Gaza Strip, West Bank, and eastern Jerusalem.

A lot of the most influential figures in what became known as the Movement for Greater Israel in 1967-68 were Labour Zionists. The religious and messianic elements within Zionism were always present even if under secular Labour Zionism they were largely dormant.

If you look at early Zionism, there were even some Orthodox rabbis who supported it. The most famous case was Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook—the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Palestine. He was Orthodox, mystically-oriented, and a Zionist. He believed secular Labour Zionists were unwittingly part of a divine plan for the restoration of the Jews and the advent of the Messiah. In the early decades of the state, the orthodox Zionists did not influence military or security affairs but were essential components of governing coalitions.

After the 1967 War the religious Zionists felt more empowered. The state of Israel was now synonymous with the Biblical land of Israel. But it still took time for the religious elements to come to the fore in the mid- to late-seventies. It’s not as if Israel was secular and moderate and didn't really care about irredentism and all of a sudden Orthdox nationalists hijacked the ship. Zionist irredentism was always present, although before 1967 its outright expression was limited to the political fringe.

In 1977, the new Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin, who was an old fashioned, secular right-wing nationalist, formed an alliance with the more religiously-inspired nationalists for whom Eretz Irael was not just the Jews’ historic territory, but a sacred land. The alliance between the hawkish, largely secular, Likud party and Zionist orthodoxy, has existed in one form or another for almost four decades.

To end where we began – with Theodor Herzl – the Israeli political system in place over this time is a far cry from Herzl’s own vision, as enunciated in The Jewish State:

We shall keep our priests within the confines of their temples in the same way as we shall keep our professional army within the confines of their barracks. Army and priesthood shall receive honors high as their valuable functions deserve. But they must not interfere in the administration of the State which confers distinction upon them, else they will conjure up difficulties without and within.

About the author

William Eichler is an editorial assistant and freelance journalist who lives and works in the UK. He has an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Nottingham, and reviews academic books on the Middle East for the LSE Review of Books. You can follow him on Twitter: @EichlerEssays.


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