Zionism - Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

    May, 1998          
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History of Zionism

By by Chana Fluenstein

  Although the history of modern Zionism began just before the turn of the twentieth century, the roots of Zionism are planted deep inside the Jewish People. The yearning for Zion, meaning returning to our national homeland, has been part of the liturgy and prayer for thousands of years. Since the exile of the Jewish people from their land some two thousand years ago, the desire to return and live again in our own land has occupied no small part of the literature of the exiled Jew.

  From these spiritual roots, a grass roots movement was born in Europe to train and prepare small groups of hard working and idealistic men and women to come to the then desolate land of Israel and begin transforming it into a national homeland. These early Zionists were pre-Theodore Herzl. They were small groups of spirited young men and women, mostly non-religious, who actually came to Israel and began agricultural work.

  During this period which was marked by local anti-semitism, these non-religious settlers viewed living in Israel as the solution to pogroms and discrimination. In our own home land we will rule and anti-semitism will have no hold over us. The religious groups in this period, looked upon these brave settlers with both awe and disrespect. They envied them for leaving the European hell and fulfilling the heart felt dream of living in the Holy land. But they disdained their lack of commitment to the traditional customs and laws. Then in the last years of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, the Zionist movement, sparked by the imagination of Theodore Herzl, penetrated and united world Jewry. Slowly the World Zionist Congresses built up power and respect both in the eyes of the Jew and Gentile. A world movement was created that gave funding to the settlement of the land of Israel. The longing of the heart began to firm into reality. Although the Orthodoxy in Europe bade their adherents to separate from this movement due to itís heretical leaders, and the Reform movement in America shunned the identification with a seemingly un-American concept of leaving the country of current refuge and settling the Holy land, still the movement gained popularity in the eyes of the common Jew, including both Orthodox and Reform.

  Eventually, this movement, which gave expression to the yearning of every Jewish soul, bore fruits. In 1948, the dream was realized amidst the blood and sweat of many un-named pioneers. The state of Israel was established as a Jewish state. True, there were many various opinions as to how the character of the state should be expressed. Although early settlers, wanted to make German the national language, in 1948, there was no doubt that Hebrew was established as the official language of the new State. Saturday, the Jewish Shabbath, was recognized as the official day of rest and not Sunday. Even though the non-religious elements in the Kenneset out numbered the tiny minority of religious members, still these leaders realized that Israel is to be a Jewish state. The early immigrant leaders were largely Ashkenazic, meaning they came from Europe (the Sfardic Jews were from Arab lands). The Ashkenazic Jews dominated the government during this formative period. Their ideas were based on the socialist and communist philosophies that abounded during their formative years in Europe. Israel became a socialist state.

  As the state developed during the fifties and sixties, the state received much financial support from the Jews living abroad. This funding was used to set up basic industries. The government organized the labor force and the state began to develop. Overcoming the numerous wars, the small country began its slow growth from a agricultural settlement to a modern industrial state. The citizens were idealistic and self-sacrificing. They labored in the fields, in factories and gave their blood and lives in the battlefield defending their small newly created state against massive Arab armies.

  Today, the State of Israel is established and celebrates itís fiftieth birthday. Those dreams and aspirations of those noble pioneers have given forth produce. Israel today is recognized as a modern country. The living standards, while not yet equal to the richest countries, are still comfortable. The squalor of the first settlers is all but forgotten. The country too, has changed itís face. No longer is it a staunch socialistic state; it has liberalized itís laws permitting western style capitalistic business to flourish. No longer is Israel praised only for itís Jaffa orange, it is know as a hot bed of high-tech companies with a good track record and solid potential. Yet in spite of, or perhaps, because of, the growth and gain in material assets, the inner structure of society has changed. The once friendly grinning Israeli has been replaced by a high tension and aggressive personality. The feeling of warmth and openness has changed to a society of pleasure seekers. The scourge of the western world, drugs, corruption and decadence, which has marked so many established Western counties, now has taken root in Israel. The youth, no longer inspired by the Zionist ideal of settling the land, are no longer willing to sacrifice their comfort for the benefit of the state. Domestic violence, increased pre-occupation with material gains, and personal unhappiness are characterist symtoms of a disturbed society.

  Here-in lies the challenge of Zionism. Zionism brought them to settle the state. Through Zionism, the dream of a state was fulfilled. But what about the future? Has the Zionist idea run dry? Has Zionism only a fragment of worth in continuing to raise monies for the state, but not a daily impact on the lives of over five million Israeli Jews?

  The answer is difficult to forecast. We witness today, a polarization of lifes in the state. The growth of the religious, on the right and the waning of the non-religious on the left. The religious, through infusing their idealism into the souls of the youth have increased proportionally beyond the dreams of any early Zionist. The secular, have drawn closer to the Arabs and even support their causes above that of the Jew. They have come full circle from the early Zionist aspiration of Jewish dominance of the Jewish homeland and wish to give to the Arabs land won by Jewish blood to their historic enemies.

  What will be in the coming future? A growing polarity between the religious and secular? A continuance of the ascension of the religious in Israel is for certain due to the high birth rates?

  What is needed certainly is more tolerance, more acceptance of differences in us. Although Zionism, as a movement, is nearing itís end, still the need now, more than ever before, of education which stresses the traditional Jewish values, both in the secular and religious circles and promotes mutual respect of one another. With out it, Israel will only be a nightmare instead of a dream.


from theMay, 1998 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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