What Is Zionism and Is It Fueling the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict?

Posted By on November 2, 2023

If Europe's Jews needed a catalyst to pursue independent nationhood, they found it in the Dreyfus Affair.

In 1894, a French army captain named Henry Dreyfus was falsely accused and convicted of treason in a highly publicized trial. Dreyfus, a secular Jew, became the target of openly anti-Semitic attacks in the press.

"Here is this army officer, the epitome of an emancipated and assimilated Jew," says Kotzin, but even he wasn't seen as a true Frenchman. "The people behind the treasonous accusations spread this false idea that Jews could never be part of the European nation state and should always be viewed with suspicion."

Among the journalists covering the Dreyfus Affair was an Austrian playwright named Theodor Herzl, who was living in Paris as a foreign correspondent for a Viennese newspaper. Herzl, himself a fully assimilated and nonreligious European Jew, wrote later that he identified deeply with Dreyfus. If a man of Dreyfus' stature wasn't immune from anti-Semitism, who was?

In 1896, Herzl published "Der Judenstaat" ("The Jewish State"), a call to Jewish nationhood that launched the modern Zionist movement. In it, Herzl argued that the establishment of an independent Jewish nation would not only be good for Jews, but good for Europe.

"Herzl said that anti-Semitism causes divisions within nations," says Kotzin. "If you can find a place for Jews to go, then that would solve a problem that was more than a 'Jewish problem.' It was a problem that plagued Europe."

Coming on the heels of the Dreyfus Affair, Herzl's writings found a ready audience among many Jewish intellectuals. In 1897, the First Zionist Congress met in Basel, Switzerland, and Herzl dedicated the rest of his short life he died from a heart attack in 1904 to securing political and financial support for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.

Kotzin points out that while Herzl is considered the father of the "Political Zionist" movement, there are several different streams of Zionism present in the 19th and 20th century. "Cultural Zionism," for example, was a movement led by the Ukrainian-born intellectual Ahad Ha-Am, which called for a spiritual rebirth of Judaism in Israel, not necessarily an independent state.

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What Is Zionism and Is It Fueling the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict?

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