As events move forward in Israel toward the likely formation of a new coalition government headed by Naftali Bennett, a former settler leader and stalwart for religious nationalists, and Yair Lapid, a centrist and former television host, it is a good time for American Jews to remember the indelible link between Zionism and Judaism.
Over the last two years, Israel has conducted four national elections without resolving the political imbalance in its polity. To form a viable government, political leaders must draw support of at least 61 members of Israel’s Knesset, which has 120 elected representatives.
Last week, Israeli opposition parties announced that they had reached a coalition agreement to form a new government, bypassing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history. Four weeks ago, Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin tapped Lapid to form a new government. Lapid notified Rivlin that he and Bennett had formed the coalition for a new government only minutes before his mandate expired.
While Israel is replete with divisions, the ideals of Zionism are the glue that holds it, and Jews all over the world, together. Zionism sprang forth as an ideal, the formation of a homeland for Jews on the land of ancient Israel. Zionism’s indelible nexus to Judaism is found in the Tanach or Five Books of Moses, the Prophets and other key Judaic writings. The core idea of Zionism was and remains the creation and growth of a Jewish homeland in the land of our forefathers.
Zionism, as a modern-day political movement, was spearheaded by Theodor Herzl, a distinguished Hungarian journalist and lawyer, whose brief life lasted only 44 years. Herzl covered the Dreyfus affair for the Viennese newspaper, Neue Freie Presse (“New Free Press”). Dreyfus was a captain in France’s army. He was accused of treason on trumped-up charges. Dreyfus’ court-martial became a cause célèbre. The controversy emanating from the Dreyfus affair evoked a wave of antisemitism in France, beginning in 1894.
Herzl’s experience in reporting on the Dreyfus affair transformed him into a Zionist. He realized that as long as antisemitism existed, Jews would find it impossible to assimilate fully into a nation’s culture while maintaining their identity as Jews. The only solution, Herzl reasoned, was creation of a Jewish state. Herzl was certainly not the first proponent of a Jewish homeland. For centuries, Orthodox Jews have beseeched Hashem for a return to Zion in daily prayers.
Herzl differed from others by writing and advocating for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in the ancient land of Israel. He wrote a famous pamphlet, “The Jewish State,” which was published in February 1896 in Vienna. The idea of a Jewish homeland, Herzl wrote, was not a social or religious issue, and could only be solved by making it “a political world question to be discussed and settled by the civilized nations of the world….”
In August 1897, Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. It lasted three days. Approximately 200 delegates attended. The attendees represented the broad spectrum of Judaism of that day — in attendance were Orthodox Jews, atheistic Jews, students, some Christians, and journalists from across the world. Most of the delegates were from Eastern Europe and Russia, and a few from Western Europe and the United States.
“We want to lay the foundation stone for the house which will become the refuge of the Jewish nation. Zionism is the return to Judaism even before the return to the land of Israel,” Herzl told the conclave.
The gathering agreed to be known as the Basel Program. It declared Zionism’s goal was “to create a publicly guaranteed homeland for the Jewish people” in Palestine. At this meeting, the Zionist Organization was founded. Herzl was named its president.
Herzl did not live to see the realization of his dream. He died in 1904. Per his last wishes, his body was reburied in Jerusalem in 1949, after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. The hill upon which Herzl now rests is west of Jerusalem and is appropriately named Mount Herzl.
The need for a free Jewish state is as necessary today as it was when Herzl covered the Dreyfus affair. Antisemitism is very real in today’s world. Just last month, the Anti-Defamation League reported an increase in online and real-world incidents of antisemitism. “As the violence between Israel and Hamas continues to escalate, we are witnessing a dangerous and drastic surge in anti-Jewish hate right here at home,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, the ADL’s CEO.
Hamas and Hezbollah continue to call for destruction of Israel. Can any among us imagine what the world would be like today without the democratic state of Israel as the homeland for the Jewish people? Antisemitism makes no distinction between religious and secular Jews. We are hated because of our religious roots. It is as simple as that.
After the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Herzl wrote in his diary:
“If I had to sum up the Basel Congress in one word — which I shall not do openly — it would be this: At Basel I founded the Jewish state. If I were to say this today, I would be greeted by universal laughter. In five years, perhaps, and certainly in 50, everyone will see it.”
A version of this editorial appeared in the June 10, 2021, issue of the Jewish Herald-Voice of Houston. Reprinted with permission.