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Zionism - What, When and Why

“God will never abandon Zion”

1 Kings 19:31

“Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination”

UN Resolution 3379, November 10, 1975

“Zionism is all things to all people. To some, it is the noblest of causes. To others, it is a curse.”

“The Guardian”

The Bible describes the Land of Israel, the Promised Land as “A land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:17), as a green and fertile land. And Zion or Mount Zion has always been a symbol of the Holy Jerusalem, the best representation of the Holy Land itself. As Prophet Isaiah says: “Mount Zion is the place where the God of Israel dwells (Isaiah 8:18). And hence the idea of the revival of the Holy Land, recreating it as a land of milk and honey, has always been one of the central ideas of both the Christianity and Judaism. But the definition of the “revival” could be very different – from the spiritual revival before the days of the Messiah till the creation of the specific Jewish political entity at the Holy Land.

"What couldn't be fulfilled under the rule of Napoleon I, can be fulfilled by Wilhelm II" Theodor Herzl, the creator of the worldwide political Zionist movement wrote in a letter to the German Emperor Wilhelm II in 1899. What did he mean by that? He meant the short but very important romance of Napoleon with the Holy Land. It took place during his military campaign in the Middle East when in 1798 he led his soldiers into the Land of Israel. “Napoleon intends to restore to the Jews their Jerusalem," read a French report at the time, while another report claimed that "Bonaparte published a proclamation that calls on all the Jews of Africa and Asia to rally around his flag in order to reestablish ancient Jerusalem."

The proclamation itself has never been found, but a copy, translated into German,out of all the languages, which was uncovered in the notorious 1939, has it addressed to "the Jewish nation from France's top general, Bonaparte, and Rabbi Aharon in Jerusalem," and reading: "Israelites, unique nation, France offers you at this very time... Israel's patrimony; take over what has been conquered and with that nation's warranty and support, maintain it against all comers." Herzl's statement supports the claims that Napoleon actually was the harbinger of the Zionist Movement.

But it took dozens of years more until a 19-years old Nathan Birnbaum founded in 1883 the first Zionist student association in Vienna and declared that the Jews constituted a distinct nation destined to reclaim Palestine as its national homeland. It was Birnbaum who coined the terms "Zionistic", "Zionist", "Zionism" and "political Zionism". This happened many years before Theodor Herzl, the official father of the Zionist Movement, inaugurated the First Zionist Congress.

But the very idea of the Zionism seen as a revival of the Holy Land was much older, anyway. Back in the VI Century AD, the total population of the Holy Land, the Palestine, was about 5 million people, 3 million Christians and 2 more – Jews and Samaritans. By the mid-19th Century this population was diminished to about 150 thousand people only. The once flourishing country was turned into a stony desert due to over 15 hundred years of constant neglect and devastating wars.

And this is how, in 1866 a group of 157 men, women and children of the Christian Lovers of Zion left the State of Maine in the US and sailed to Palestine. Their mission was to develop the Land of Israel and prepare Palestine for the establishment of a Jewish nation in the Promised Land. They built in the New England wooden prefabricated houses and brought them to Jaffa on board of their ship, to build the first modern settlement in the Holy Land and to bring new life onto its barren soil. Their target was far from being easy to fulfil. Just two years after their arrival there were only approximately 24 of the original American settlers remaining. Some died, most left.

Soon after the Americans abandoned, the group of German protestants who called themselves the Templers, arrived in Jaffa, after first disembarking at Haifa and building their first settlement there in 1868. In 1869 the Tempers bought the abandoned American colony homes and took up residence. The Templers aimed to prepare Palestine for the Second Coming of Jesus. And it was obvious for them, that their job was to make the Holy Land ready for that by making its barren soil flourishing again. They further spread their agricultural villages over Palestine, built homes and planted orange groves, banana plantations and vineyards. The revival of the Holy Land had started!

First Jewish settlers were to follow very soon. For centuries Jews have longed for and tried to return to the Land of Israel, until these endeavors finally began to bear fruit in the later XIX Century, when more and more groups of Jews started returning to their historical homeland. Between 1882 and 1903, about 35,000 Jews relocated to Palestine. Most of them settled in villages and agricultural communities and started developing the land. Those first settlers were mostly religious Jews, unexperienced in manual work but filled with the Messianic fire. Some left, being unable to stand unbearable life conditions, but most stayed, clutching to to land.

The year 1897 marked a turning point when those efforts became focused on creating political institutions towards the establishment of a Jewish State. In 1897, an Austrian journalist Theodor Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress at Basel in Switzerland. This Congress became a milestone in transforming a messianic zeal and a popular phenomenon into a Worldwide political movement. Herzl wrote about that event: "At Basel I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, l would be greeted by universal laughter. In five years perhaps, and certainly in fifty years, everyone will perceive it."

Soon after, in 1901, a Jewish National Fund (JNF) was established which target was and still is to continuously developing the land of Israel. So far, JNF has planted over 240 million trees in Israel. It has also built 180 dams and reservoirs, developed over 1,000 km2 of land and established more than 1,000 parks.

And this is how the Christians’ and Jews’ religious zeal of making this Holy Promised land ready for the fulfilment of the Biblical Prophecy, meets the daily realities of life in Modern Israel. 660,000 Jews already lived in Israel before the country’s Independence in 1948, and over 7.5 million – in 2022. Religious or secular alike, most of the Jews in Israel feel that their life has a deep meaning, far beyond of just satisfying their daily needs.

The meaning of life in Israel is of building the Future, being it a fulfilment of the Biblical Prophecy or of the political idea of creating a Modern Jewish Nation at the Historical Homeland. Are these two ideas different or are they two parts of the same? The answer is left for anyone. Indeed, “Zionism is all things to all people”!

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