The Zionist Movement

The Zionist movement was fueled by two things: the religious beliefs of the Jewish people regarding a return to their ancient homeland and the waves of anti-Semitism which swept the Jewish world in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century.

The Zionist movement, however, was never monolithic. It had many factions, differing ideas and unique personalities. The greatness of Herzl was that he was able to hold his movement together in its early years in the face of such diversity.

The early Zionist congresses, from 1897 to 1903, formed the crucible of the movement. They were the places where these contentious battles were fought. These battles never really ended. A great deal of what was a battle back then is still a battle among the Jewish people today.

Two Views of the National Jewish Homeland

Herzl came from the Western world. He was an assimilated Jew. He saw the necessity of a Jewish homeland as a practical idea. Therefore, to him, it did not necessarily have to be a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Herzl never imagined that the wealthy Jews of Germany, France and England would move to Palestine. He never imagined that the deeply assimilated Jews, like himself, were going to move to Palestine. Rather, he saw the Jewish national homeland as the place where destitute and poverty-stricken Jews would be able to settle and rebuild their lives.

In this definition, the Jewish national homeland would be in effect a dumping ground for people who couldn’t make it in Europe.

Those who opposed Herzl initially called themselves the “Democratic Fraction.” These were primarily Jews of Eastern European descent. They did not see the Jewish national homeland in the light he saw it. They saw it as attracting the best and most talented of the Jewish people. It was where the Jewish people would realize their age-old ambition of being “a light unto the nations” of the world, as a realization of the prophetic dream of the return to Zion.

Those were two diametrically opposed views of what the Jewish state was supposed to be. In retrospect, those views not only still exist but have never really been reconciled and exist today.


In 1903, the British foreign office, almost as a whim, offered Herzl the opportunity colonize the British East African colony of Uganda. If the Zionist movement would accept it England would support it and even provide some necessary financing.

England had an ulterior motive, of course. They were jockeying with Germany for control of Central Africa. Germany even had a claim to part of Uganda. By putting Jews there the British hoped that they would thereby solidify their claim.

Herzl thought it was a splendid idea. Destitute Jews across the globe could settle in Uganda, develop it agriculturally and industrially, have autonomy and be protected by the British army and navy. It would become a jewel in the crown of the British Empire at the same time it served his agenda for the Jewish people.

In perfect hindsight, his scheme was so naïve and far-fetched that it is hard to believe it came from a person as astute as Herzl.

Herzl was shocked at the vehemence of the opposition when he proposed the Uganda option at the Zionist Congress in 1903. He never truly comprehended the depth of the Jewish religion and what the Eastern European Jews were really about. He was astounded and even frightened at their reaction. Because of that he took it personally. He took it so personally that he got up in front of the Zionist Congress and announced that if Uganda was not adopted he would resign and leave the Zionist movement altogether.

His statement caused many of the delegates to panic and vote on behalf of the Uganda proposal, even though they otherwise opposed it. They felt that if Herzl left the movement the blow would be far greater than the movement could then stand. He was the glue that held it together. They were afraid to imagine what their movement would be without him.

Herzl would be dead within a year – and the Zionist movement would continue, even flourish. But at the Zionist Congress of 1903 they were afraid to risk it.

The Uganda proposal was adopted by a very narrow margin. The narrowness of the margin, and the fact that Herzl’s health immediately began to fail, guaranteed that it would never come to fruition. It was stillborn.

Chaim Weizman

The head of the opposition to Herzl was the Democratic Fraction and its leader was Chaim Weizman (1874-1952). He was born in Russia and educated in Pinsk and later Berlin. He came from a traditional Jewish home and had a traditional Jewish upbringing. All of his life he wavered between the ancient traditions and the modern world. He never synthesized them. There were times that he was very Jewish and there were times when he was not. At the end of his life he became an observant Jew again.

He is almost a tragic figure. Even though he is the person who guided the Zionist movement during 30 turbulent years from 1915 until 1945 and ended up being the first president of the State of Israel, he was in effect discarded at the end. And he felt that he was discarded.

Weizman was elected to the First Zionist Congress, but did not attend. From the Second Zionist Congress forward, however, he attended every one. He was an astute politician, great organizer, a fine speaker and a strong personality. He was the counterforce to Western, assimilated Zionism.

Here is an excerpt from his autobiography, called Trial And Error:

We were not revolutionaries. We were a struggling group of young academicians without power and without outside support. But we had a definite outlook on life. We did not like the note of eloquence and pseudo-worldliness, which characterized official Zionism. We did not like the dress suits and frock-coats and fashionable dresses of the West.

The formalism of the Zionist congresses made a painful impression upon me, especially after my visits to the wretched and oppressed Russian Jewish masses. Actually, it was all very modest, but it smacked to us of being artificial and extravagant. It did not speak to us of the democracy, simplicity and earnestness of the Jewish people. We were uncomfortable with it.

That captures the relationship between the Eastern European Jews to Herzl’s Western European Jews. In the official annals of Zionism it was down-played because it showed an enormous split on a fundamental level.

Culture Clashes

The second split in the Zionist movement had to do with “culture,” which was generally a euphemism for religion. Did the Zionist movement have anything to say about Jewish “culture”? In other words, was it supposed to be a practical movement to try to save Jews physically and not mix into Jewish spiritual life? That was Herzl’s idea. The first four Zionist congresses adopted resolutions that Zionism was neutral on all matters of Jewish culture. Zionism will never do anything against the Jewish religion – but it will never do anything for the Jewish religion either. Herzl was not interested in defining a “Jewish state.”

The Russian Jews objected to that for reasons stemming from the first difference. They were making a utopian state, one that was to be “a light unto the nations” and restoring the messianic era. It would be the model for all states. Therefore, it had to be infused with Jewish culture.

But, what was the definition of Jewish culture? The Haskalah and left-wing Socialist-Marxists had a definition completely opposite of religious Jews. To the former, religion was the “opiate of the masses.” The solution lay in the destruction of Jewish religion and rituals. To the masses of Jews, though, to have a Jewish state without Judaism was worthless.

In truth, those two definitions were never reconciled. Herzl was aware of that and wanted to avoid this war at all costs. He knew how deep the feelings ran. Therefore, he tried to have culture removed completely from the discussion.

Try though he did, it was an impossible task. From the fifth Zionist Congress onward, the Zionist movement set about to bring culture to the Jewish people.

Despite that, the issue was never solved. The story of the early Zionist movement was the story of trying to reach a consensus between elements as diverse as the piously religious and the atheist Marxist. It never happened.


When the early pioneers came there was a discussion as to what should be the official language. No one had given it any thought. Herzl originally proposed that it be French. Later, he agreed with the Kaiser that it should be German. In his mind, since it was going to be a modern state it had to have a modern language.

The Eastern European Zionists, on the other hand, produced a strong movement to make Yiddish the official language of the state. Of course, Yiddish would in effect have excluded a million Sephardic Jews. But that did not deter them.

The language, of course, ended up being Hebrew – and a new kind of Hebrew. That was due to the efforts of one man: Eliezer ben Yehudah (1858–1922). He wrote one of the finest dictionaries of Hebrew. Then he lobbied, traveled and persevered until he sold the idea to the masses that Hebrew should be revived and be the language of the new country.

Therefore, from about 1909 onward Hebrew became the de facto spoken language of Jewish pioneers.

The Creation of Religious Zionism

There were and still are three main viewpoints with religious Jewry regarding the Zionist movement. One sees in the accomplishments of Zionism the beginning of the process of redemption; it is the introduction, as it were, to the messianic age. Therefore, it not only has a purpose, but a positive purpose. Being part of that positive purpose is almost a commandment, according to this viewpoint.

A second group was represented by the ideas expressed by the fathers of the Mizrachi movement. It was founded in the early 1900s by Rabbi Jacob Reines, who had been a rabbi in Lithuania. A graduate of the prestigious Volozhin yeshiva, he was a renowned scholar, powerful speaker and great organizer. Though highly thought of, he was also controversial.

He purposely did not want to advance the cause of Zionism as having anything to do with the messianic era or the redemption of the Jewish people. He saw it only as a practical solution to a terrible problem, namely Jewish persecution to the point of destruction.

In short, it was Herzl’s idea of practical Zionism, but with an important twist. It was going to be a Jewish state as defined by Jewish tradition. He felt that this could be done, and that it would be done, only through cooperation with the Zionist movement, only by being part of the Zionist movement and pursuing its goals. For a long period of time the Mizrachi movement was popular, even among Eastern European religious Jews. Many Hassidic rabbis also supported it and were part of it.

The third opinion was that Zionism had to be opposed unequivocally because it was a secular movement that would secularize the Jewish people and diminish loyalty to Torah. It would substitute nationalism for religion. The method and depth of the opposition varied from group to group. But most of the great rabbinic scholars of the time opposed it.

This split within religious Jewry has changed little over time. The basic split still remains. But the battle lines were already drawn by 1906 or 1907. What kind of Jewish state? What kind of culture? What kind of religion? All of those questions were present then. All the problems that exist now can be found in the writings put to paper back then. Unfortunately, the answers then were not any clearer than they are now. It is a matter that is almost left for history to resolve.

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Crash Course
Berel Wein adapted by Yaakov Astor
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