Origins of Zionism
The major event that led to the growth of the Zionist movement was the emancipation of Jews in France (1791), followed shortly thereafter by their emancipation in the rest of continental and Central Europe. After having lived for centuries in the confines of Jewish ghettos, Jews living in Western and Central Europe now had a powerful incentive to enter mainstream European society. Jews, who had previously been confined to petty trade and to banking, rapidly rose in academia, medicine, the arts, journalism, and other professions. The accelerated assimilation of Jews into European society radically altered the nature of relations between Jews and non-Jews. On the one hand, Jews had to reconcile traditional Judaism, which for nearly 2,000 years prior to emancipation had developed structures designed to maintain the integrity and separateness of Jewish community life, with a powerful secular culture in which they were now able to participate. On the other hand, many non-Jews, who prior to the emancipation had had little or no contact with Jews, increasingly saw the Jew as an economic threat. The rapid success of many Jews fueled this resentment.
The rise of ethnically based nationalism in the mid-nineteenth century gave birth to yet another form of anti-Semitism. Before the mid-nineteenth century, European anti-Semitism was based mainly on Christian antipathies toward Jews because of their refusal to convert to Christianity. As a result, an individual Jew could usually avoid persecution by converting, as many did over the centuries. The emergence of ethnically based nationalism, however, radically changed the status of the Jew in European society. The majority gentile population saw Jews as a separate people who could never be full participants in the nation's history.
The vast majority of Jews in Western and Central Europe responded by seeking even deeper assimilation into European culture and a secularization of Judaism. A minority, who believed that greater assimilation would not alter the hostility of non-Jews, adopted Zionism. According to this view, the Jew would remain an outsider in European society regardless of the liberalism of the age because Jews lacked a state of their own. Jewish statelessness, then, was the root cause of anti-Semitism. The Zionists sought to solve the Jewish problem by creating a Jewish entity outside Europe but modeled after the European nation-state. After more then half a century of emancipation, West European Jewry had become distanced from both the ritual and culture of traditional Judaism. Thus, Zionism in its West European Jewish context envisioned a purely political solution to the Jewish problem: a state of Jews rather than a Jewish state.
For the bulk of European Jewry, however, who resided in Eastern Europe's Pale of Settlement --on the western fringe of the Russian Empire, between the Baltic and the Black seas--there was no emancipation. East European Jewry had lived for centuries in kehilot (sing., kehilah), semiautonomous Jewish municipal corporations that were supported by wealthy Jews. Life in the kehilot was governed by a powerful caste of learned religious scholars who strictly enforced adherence to the Jewish legal code. Many Jews found the parochial conformity enforced by the kehilot leadership onerous. As a result, liberal stirring unleashed by the emancipation in the West had an unsettling effect upon the kehilot in the East.
By the early nineteenth century, not only was kehilot life resented but the tsarist regimes were becoming increasingly absolute. In 1825 Tsar Nicholas I, attempting to centralize control of the empire and Russify its peoples, enacted oppressive measures against the Jews; he drafted a large number of under-age Jews for military service, forced Jews out of their traditional occupations, such as the liquor trade, and generally repressed the kehilot. Facing severe economic hardship and social upheaval, tens of thousands of Jews migrated to the cities, especially Odessa on the Russian coast. In their new urban environments, the restless and highly literate Jews clamored for the liberalization of tsarist rule.
In 1855 the prospects for Russian Jewry appeared to improve significantly when the relatively liberal-minded Tsar Alexander II ascended the throne. Alexander II ended the practice of drafting Jewish youth into the military and granted Jews access, albeit limited, to Russian education institutions and various professions previously closed to them. Consequently, a thriving class of Jewish intellectuals, the maskalim (enlightened), emerged in cities like Odessa, just as they had in Western Europe and Central Europe after emancipation. The maskalim believed that Tsar Alexander II was ushering in a new age of Russian liberalism which, as in the West, would eventually lead to the emancipation of Russian Jewry.
The hopes of the maskalim and of Russian Jewry in general, however, were misplaced. Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, and a severe pogrom ensued that devastated Jewish communities throughout the Pale of Settlement. The new Tsar, Alexander III, enacted oppressive policies against the Jews and denied police protection to those Jews who remained in the countryside. As a result, a floodtide of impoverished Jews entered the cities where they joined various movements that sought to overthrow the tsar.
The openly anti-Semitic policies pursued by the new tsar and the popularity of these policies among large segments of the nonJewish population posed serious political, economic, and spiritual dilemmas for Russian Jewry. On the economic level, the tsar's antiSemitic policies severely limited Jewish economic opportunities and undermined the livelihood of the Jewish masses. Many impoverished East European Jews, therefore, emigrated from the Russian Empire. Between 1881 and 1914, an estimated 2.5 million Jews left the empire, 2 million of whom settled in the United States.
For many Jews, especially the maskalim, however, the pogroms and the anti-Semitism of the new tsar not only meant economic hardship and physical suffering but also a deep spiritual malaise. Before 1881, they had been abandoning the strict confines of the kehilot en masse and rebelling against religious orthodoxy, anxiously waiting for the expected emancipation to reach Russia. The 1881 pogroms and their aftermath shattered not only the faith of the maskalim in the inevitable liberalization of tsarist Russia but also their belief that the non-Jewish Russian intellectual would take an active role in opposing anti-Semitism. Most of the Russian intelligentsia were either silent during the pogroms or actually supported them. Having lost their faith in God and in the inevitable spread of liberalism, large numbers of Russian Jews were forced to seek new solutions. Many flocked to the revolutionary socialist and communist movements opposing the tsar, while others became involved with the Bund, a cultural society that sought to establish a Yiddish cultural renaissance within Russia.
A smaller but growing number of Jews were attracted to the ancient but newly formulated notion of reconstituting a Jewish nation-state in Palestine. Zionism as it evolved in Eastern Europe, unlike Zionism in the West, dealt not only with the plight of Jews but with the crisis of Judaism. Thus, despite its secularism, East European Zionism remained attached to the Jewish biblical home in Palestine. It also was imbued with the radical socialist fervor challenging the tsarist regime.
Zionism's reformulation of traditional Judaism was deeply resented by Orthodox Jews, especially the Hasidim. Most East European Jews rejected the notion of a return to the promised land before the appearance of the messiah. They viewed Zionism as a secular European creation that aspired to change the focus of Judaism from devotion to Jewish law and religious ritual to the establishment of a Jewish nation-state.
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