The Founders and Foundations of Zionist Thinking

Broadly speaking, Israeli political philosophy follows two main schools of thought: a) the political Zionism of Theodor Herzl and its subsequent synthesis in the political and practical-socialist Zionism of Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion; and b) the revisionist Zionism of Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky.

The roots of these two approaches can be found at the beginning of the Zionist movement in the late 19th century in a society known as Hibbat Zion (Love of Zion), from Zion, one of the biblical inames for Jerusalem. Its members promoted the settlement of Palestine to Jews in Russia, where persecution had recently taken the form of state-abetted pogroms. This violent development was a major catalyst in the demand for a homeland where Jews could normalize their status among the peoples of the world. A leading member of Hibbat Zion, Moshe Leib Lilienblum, suggested that anti-Semitism was the result of Jewish alienation that could be overcome only by return to the ancient land of Israel. A Jewish medical doctor, Leo Pinsker, had written “Auto-Emancipation: An Appeal to His People by a Russian Jew” (1882), in which he provided the ideological underpinnings for Jewish nationalism. In 1884 he became the leader of Hibbat Zion, whose first meeting inspired the young Chaim Weizmann, future first president of the State of Israel.

The word Zionism was first used in 1885 by the Viennese Jewish author Nathan Birnbaum. He coined the term to describe the movement created to resolve “The Jewish Question,” the problem of persecution of Jewish communities, especially in Eastern Europe. According to his view, other attempts to solve the problem, including emancipation and assimilation into the various cultures and nations of Europe, had not been successful. Nationalism had become the preferred solution for other peoples, went the argument, so why not for the Jews? Despite the religious and historical background of the Jewish people, Zionism was at this stage a secular, political and incipient national force.