The Zionist Social/Political Movement

Though modern Zionism arose within the milieu of European nationalism in the nineteenth century, the historians of that era usually content themselves with briefly noticing the movement, for the sake of "completeness. " The root cause of their difficulty is that Zionism cannot be typed, and therefore easily explained, as a "normal" kind of national Risorgimento. To mention only one important difference, all of the other nineteenth-century nationalisms based their struggle for political sovereignty on an already existing national land or language.

Zionism alone proposed to acquire both of these usual pre- conditions of national identity by the elan of its nationalist will. It is, therefore, a maverick in the history of modern nationalism, and it simplifies the task of general historians to regard it, at least by implication, as belonging only on the more parochial stage of the inner history of the Jewish community. Zionism: History

For Jewish historians Zionism is, of course, one of the pre-eminent facts -- for most, it is the crucial issue -- of Jewish life in the modern age, and it therefore engages their complete attention. Nonetheless, how to place it in some larger frame is still the most debated, and least solved, problem of Jewish historiography. In part, the difficulty stems from the very nature of the Zionist phenomenon.

As the historian attempts to assimilate Zionism within his larger understanding of the Jewish past, he is confronted by a movement for which the meaning and validity of that past are a central concern. The earliest forerunners of Zionism, pious rabbis like Alkalai and Kalischer, who insisted on standing within the tradition, had to prove before the bar of the classical religious heritage that self-help was a necessary preamble to the miraculous days of the Messiah rather than a rebellion against heaven.

Pinsker and Herzl, who appeared several decades later to preach the total evacuation of the land of the gentiles, could make their case only by interpreting the whole of postexilic history as an otherwise insoluble struggle with anti-Semitism. Nor was the past less of a problem to the extremist versions of Zionism which crystallized in the early years of the twentieth century. Their program of total revolution, of a complete break with the entire earlier career of the Jew in favor of purely secular national life, required the assumption that the eighteen centuries of life in exile had been a barren waste.

In sum, therefore, the past was, in two senses, a crucial issue for Zionist theory: on the one hand, history was invoked to legitimize and prove the need for the Zionist revolution; in another dimension, as it followed the pattern of all revolutions in imagining the outlines of its promised land, the mainstream of Zionism sought a "usable past," to act as guideline for the great days to come. The inevitable differences about the meaning of Jewish history thus are the stuff out of which the warring Zionist theories have been fashioned.

Precisely because these discussions have been complex, passionate, and often brilliant, the analysts of the career of Zionism have tended to be swept into the debate, so that most have written as partisans of, or in conscious opposition to, one or the other of these Zionist doctrines. But there is a more fundamental difficulty. From the Jewish perspective messianism, and not nationalism, is the primary element in Zionism. The very name of the movement evoked the dream of an end of days, of an ultimate release from the exile and a coming to rest in the land of Jewry's heroic age.

Jewish historians have, therefore, attempted to understand Zionism as part of the career of the age-old messianic impulse in Judaism. Writers too numerous to mention have characterized the modern movement as "secular messianism," to indicate at once what is classical in Zionism -- its eschatological purpose; and what is modern -- the necessarily contemporary tools of political effort, colonization, and the definition of Jewry as a nation, thereby laying claim to an inalienable right to self-determination.