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History of IsraelModern Zionism

"Zionism" has existed as a concept, if not by name, since Biblical times, when the Jews, suffering during their first exile in the land of Egypt, were brought out by Moses and began their journey home—to the land of Israel.

Since then, there have been many periods throughout Jewish history during which Jews were exiled from their land or persecuted within it. Yet the Jews persistently, stubbornly, refused to give up on their homeland, and in every generation groups have attempted to return home and revive Jewish culture and life in Israel. Examples abound: Ezra and Nehemia, who brought the Jews back from Babylonian exile an eventually rebuilt the Second Temple; Nahmanides and Judah HaLevi, among others, two great scholars from the Middle Ages who gave up their home in the Diaspora to move to Israel. This is only a small part of the list, of the people and families whose life goal was to resettle their homeland.

The Age of Enlightenment ("Haskalah" in Hebrew), during the 18th and 19th centuries, revolutionized the way other nations viewed Jews, and the way Jews viewed themselves. Jews began to be granted equal citizenship rights in countries across Europe, starting with France, and many assimilated into their new culture and country, popularizing secular Judaism. At the same time, anti-Semitism was on the rise, but this time it was racially, rather than religiously, motivated. For many, the rise in anti-Semitism, particularly in Russia, combined with the Enlightenment-era notion of "nationalism" stirred Zionist aspirations.

Influential Jewish voices recognized the importance of the Jewish people taking steps to reestablish Israel as the homeland of the Jews. The Vilna Gaon, a Lithuanian Torah sage, exhorted his followers to make aliyah and resettle the land of Israel. Though he himself never made it to Israel, following his death, a group 500 of his followers undertook the arduous journey to Israel between the years 1800 - 1812. They eventually settled in Jerusalem, spreading the teachings of the Vilna Gaon and establishing a vibrant Ashkenazic presence in Israel.

Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer, a German rabbi who lived at the beginning of the 19th century, was one of the earliest modern Zionists, and he, too, took practical steps to rebuild the land of Israel. His goal was to establish Israel as a homeland for the persecuted Jews of Eastern Europe, as well as to improve the lives of the Jews already living in Israel. He believed that, like in Biblical times, success in the land depended on agricultural achievements. With donations from Diaspora Jews, Kalischer planned to cultivate the land, open an agricultural school, and form a military group in order to guard the fragile new settlements. His book, Derishat Zion, sums up his philosophy: The Jews can only be saved if they help themselves, and they must do so by settling the land of Palestine.

This movement was called Hovevei Zion—literally—Lovers of Zion. It was a forerunner of the modern Zionist movement. Their goal was to promote immigration to Israel, and advance existing Jewish settlements, specifically focusing on agricultural developments.

Sympathy for the Zionist cause from powerful political figures such as Sir Moses Haim Montefiore, a high ranking British Jew, and Baron Edmond Benjamin James de Rothschild, a French Jew of great standing, spurred Kalischer into action. He seized advantage of this newfound influence and launched a settlement movement. Kalischer traveled around Germany, establishing societies to come to Israel and cultivate the land. Kalischers' son, Wolf Kalischer, founded the Mikve Israel agricultural school, located near Tel Aviv, supported financially by Baron Rothschild. Kalischer's zeal and unceasing devotion to his cause, combined with his influence on the powerful men of the day, made him one of the cornerstones of the modern state of Israel.

Though the majority of the influential early Zionists were of Ashkenazic descent, the Sephardi Jews had a vocal presence as well. Judah ben Solomon Hai Alkalai, born in Sarajevo, wrote a book whose theme of redemption through settling the land of Israel had major impact on Kalischer's writings.

Moshe Hess, a French philosopher and secular Jew active in the early 1860s, saw the rise of nationalism in Italy and Germany, and predicted that the Germans would ultimately be intolerant of the nationalistic aspirations of others. His book, "Rome and Jerusalem: The Last National Question," though mostly unnoticed in his time, declared that establishing a homeland for the Jews in Palestine was the only long-lasting solution to anti-Semitism. Hess was honored retroactively for his role in establishing the state of Israel.

Pogroms in Russia from 1881 1884 destroyed thousands of Jewish homes in 166 towns across the southern empire. While fatalities were few, many families were reduced to poverty. The tsar blamed the Jews for the pogroms, and enacted harsh restrictions on them. In the years 1903 1906, a much more brutal pogrom broke out, killing an estimated 2,000 Jews. Other riots broke out in Odessa from 1859 1905 leaving hundreds dead. These attacks forced the Jews to change their perception of their status in Russia; immigration to the United States and Zionist ideology both experienced an increase following these pogroms. Though most of the Jews fleeing Russia went to the US, some groups decided to make aliyah.

One of these groups was called "Bilu." The name is an acronym of a verse in Isaiah 2, which exhorts the "House of Jacob" to "go up." The goal of Bilu was to reestablish a Jewish community in Israel, thereby "redeeming" it. The first group of Biluim was founded by a group of university students who traveled in Palestine in 1882. They quickly joined the Hovevei Zion group and established the agricultural cooperative of Rishon LeZion. Although it initially failed, due to lack of fresh water, Baron Rothschild stepped in and funded a winery in Rishon, which eventually became a profitable business. Baron Rothschild also helped the Biluim establish the city of Zichron Yaacov.

Leon Pinsker, a Polish physician and Zionist who lived in the mid 1800s, was at first convinced by the Enlightenment movement that the solution to anti-Semitism was assimilation. However, the wave of Russian pogroms in the 1870s and 1880s changed his thinking, and he became a proponent of a Jewish state, stating that the perpetually homeless Jews, persecuted for centuries, could only find peace in the Land of Israel. His book, "Auto Emancipation," unlike Hess', made a splash and provoked strong responses. Pinsker, too, became one of the founders of the Hovevei Zion movement funded by Baron Rothschild. In order to be formally recognized by the Russian government, the movement became a charity, "The Society for the Support of Jewish Farmers and Artisans in Syria and Eretz Israel," later known as the Odessa Committee. The committee was dedicated to cultivating the agriculture of Israel, and helped to establish the community of Rehovot and Rishon LeZion, among others.

These early Zionists, known as "Proto Zionists," paved the way for the massive waves of immigration to Israel—called "aliyah," from the Hebrew word "to ascend"—beginning at the end of the 19th century.