Zionism: One Hundred Years and Counting

Most of us hardly noticed that Israel was having a birthday. No, I’m not talking about its upcoming 50th, which will be celebrated in 1998. It was in August 1897 that a group of Jewish representatives in silk hats and frock coats filed into a hall in Basel, Switzerland, to hear Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, call the First Zionist Congress to order.

Amid scenes of great enthusiasm, the delegates heard a resounding statement regarding the ultimate goal of the movement.

“Zionism seeks to establish a home for the Jewish people in Palestine secured under public law.” The Congress also created the World Zionist Organization and assigned its leadership the task of implementing the dream of a sovereign Jewish state in the Middle East. Herzl was so convinced that Zionism’s goals would be reached that he wrote in his personal diary:

“In Basel I founded the Jewish state.”

The journalist-turned-visionary confidently predicted that the state would be born—“Maybe in another five years, at the utmost fifty years.” It was, nearly to the day, fifty years before the dream became an international reality.

Theodor Herzl, however, was not the first to dream of a Jewish state in Palestine. There were others—perhaps less articulate, but no less determined. For centuries, the return to Zion had been fired by messianic fervor. The very word Zionism, adopted for the secular move toward the Promised Land, was transported from the long-standing anticipation of the coming of the Messiah to gather His people home. At its heart is the word Zion. Zion has, from time immemorial, been linked to Jerusalem—David’s city.

Although secular Zionists broke with the messianic hope, the desire to possess the land was no less a fervent fact of life. For religious Jews, the land would be prepared for the coming of the Messiah. For those not so inclined, the land would be possessed by the Jewish people. It would be a haven that would end the Jews’ millennia-long search for a homeland.

From among the ranks of practical Zionists came waves of pilgrims sweeping into a land strewn with rocks and festering with malaria-ridden swamps. These new immigrants were making Aliyah, or ascending to Zion. Not unlike their forebears in the days of Joshua, they were entering the land in hope of “possessing their possession”—Eretz Israel.

From about the mid-1800s, successive waves of Jewish immigrants began flowing into the country. According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, their motivations were threefold.

  1. The age-old devotion of the Jews to their historic homeland and the hope of messianic redemption.
  2. The intensification of the intolerable conditions under which Jews lived in Eastern Europe.
  3. The efforts of an active minority convinced that the return to the homeland was the only fundamental and lasting solution to the Jewish problem.

A look at the fabric of Zionists immigrating to Israel today exhibits the same driving forces. For Russian Jews, it is the desire to escape totalitarian oppression. Religious Jews go there hoping for the day of messianic redemption. Still others, viewing developments on the world scene, are convinced that Israel is their ultimate hope for a better day.

To put it mildly, the centennial celebration of the birth of modern Zionism has been a muted affair. Extravagant plans had been laid. But suicide bombers, political tensions, lack of adequate funding, and other factors caused planners to take the low road, which, for a world that needs to be reminded, is unfortunate.

Zionism is based on factors that reach far beyond what secular minds or even devoted religious commitments can adequately implement. Zionism, in its purest form, is a divine manifestation. It was the mind of God that conceived the Jewish people. It was the promise of God through which they have received a land. It will be the hand of God that will one day bring the dream—“to live in freedom in the land of Zion and Jerusalem”—to full fruition.

So, happy anniversary Israel! Your Zionist dream has reached a full one hundred years, but this is only the beginning. There are thousands more to come!

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