Zionism is the Jewish national movement of rebirth and renewal in the land of Israel – the historical birthplace and biblical homeland of the Jewish people. While there was a continuous Jewish presence in the land of Israel over the millennia, the yearning to return to Zion, the biblical term for both the Land of Israel and Jerusalem, has been the cornerstone of Jewish religious life since the Jewish exile from the land two thousand years ago, and is embedded in Jewish prayer, ritual, literature and culture.
Modern Zionism emerged in the late 19th century in response to the violent persecution of Jews in Eastern Europe and anti-Semitism in Western Europe. Modern Zionism fused the ancient Jewish biblical and historical ties to the ancestral homeland with the modern concept of nationalism into a vision of establishing a modern Jewish state in the land of Israel.
The “father” of modern Zionism, Austrian journalist Theodor Herzl, consolidated various strands of Zionist thought into an organized political movement, advocating for international recognition of a “Jewish state” and encouraging Jewish immigration to build the land.
Today, decades after the actual founding of a Jewish state, Zionism continues to be the guiding nationalist movement of the majority of Jews around the world who believe in, support and identify with the State of Israel.
The Balfour Declaration is the letter of November 2, 1917 from British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Zionist leader Baron Rothschild which expressed the British government’s support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. The Balfour Declaration was heartily welcomed by the Zionist leadership. Subsequent British policy and declarations on this issue were less supportive of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
After World War I, the League of Nations was charged with dividing the territories previously controlled by the German and Ottoman Empires. The League of Nations established the mandate system in which they allocated the territories which were considered to be more advanced. Under this rubric and as part of the Treaty of Sevres which divided the Ottoman Empire, the British were granted control over Transjordan (modern day Jordan) and Palestine (modern-day Israel, with the West Bank and Gaza Strip) in 1923. The British took little interest in achieving self-governance and exerted absolute control over all of the governmental affairs in Palestine. Throughout this period the Mandate sought to severely limit Jewish immigration into Palestine, even during the World War II period when Jews were being persecuted and exterminated across Europe.
In 1946, however, Transjordan declared its independence, ending British rule in the area. Growing Jewish-Palestinian violence and attacks on British personnel by some Jewish extremists led Britain to announce that it sought to cede control of the area, and the issue of sovereignty over Palestine was referred to the United Nations.
The General Assembly of the United Nations voted on November 29, 1947 to divide the British Mandate-controlled area of Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish. According to the plan, the two states, roughly equal in size and natural resources, would cooperate on major economic issues, sharing their currency, roads, and government services. The Jews reluctantly accepted the partition plan, as it offered at least two of their requirements – sovereignty and control over immigration. The Palestinian Arabs and the surrounding Arab nations rejected it outright, refusing to accept the establishment of a Jewish state in the region.
Israel's independence was officially declared in Tel-Aviv on Friday May 14, 1948 by Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion, the day the British Mandate over Palestine was officially terminated. Ben-Gurion proclaimed:
“...the establishment of the Jewish State in Palestine, to be called Israel...The State of Israel will be open to the immigration of Jews from all countries of their dispersion; will promote development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; will be based on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace taught by the Hebrew Prophets; will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed, or sex; will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture; will safeguard the sanctity and inviolability of the shrines and Holy Places of all religions; and will dedicate itself to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations...We offer peace and unity to all the neighboring states and their peoples, and invite them to cooperate with the independent Jewish nation for the common good of all.”
The political, social and economic institutions which governed Jewish life in the pre-state period served as the infrastructure of the new state. Despite the euphoria of the moment, Israel faced imminent disaster with an expected invasion by Arab nations who rejected the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. Outnumbered in men and arms, the new Israeli army was attacked from all directions. In addition, the fledgling state had to deal with the huge challenge of absorbing shiploads of immigrants who arrived daily – many penniless Holocaust survivors and refugees from Arab states.
Palestinians refer to establishment of the State of Israel as the Nakba, or catastrophe, and hold Nakba commemorations on May 14, the anniversary of the establishment of Israel. Some Palestinian writers and commentators have used the concept of the Nakba to insinuate that the very existence of Israel is a catastrophe and question the legitimacy of Israel as the Jewish national homeland.