Zionism – a view of its evolution

While Zionism means different things to different people, as examplified in a series of articles collated here for the centenary in 1997, can we at least ascertain the organised Zionist world’s definition of what Zionism actually is?  Consider the following…

In August 1897 in Basle, the First Zionist Congress laid the formal foundations and step by step plan for the establishment of the Jewish State. The idea of course was the establishment of a home for the Jewish People wherein Jews would determine the fate of Jews – an idea that for 2,000 years had seemed to be an unachievable dream. This was known as “The Basle Program”.


One can trace the development and maturation of contemporary Zionism by following the 3 later modifications of the Basle manifesto as versions of “The Jerusalem Programme”.


Zionism is a dynamic movement which has changed and continues to change according to the circumstances of the day. But it took 54 years for the first modification to appear.


In August 1951, three years after the establishment of the State, the World Zionist Congress met in Israel for the first time (it was the 23rd Congress) and made several major changes to the Basle Program. This Jerusalem Program focused on the Land itself, on agricultural development, on the Hebrew language, Jewish values and democracy.


In June 1968 at the 27th World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem, the next revision of the Zionist manifesto was passed against the background of the previous year’s 6 Day War.


And this time the changes were historic. Ideas were formalised including the centrality of the State of Israel in Jewish life; the concept of a “prophetic vision”; and Israel’s role in “protection of Jewish rights everywhere”.


This Jerusalem Program began the move away from a Herzl philosophy in regards to Zionism to one of Achad Ha’am.


Herzl viewed Zionism as the complete solution to Jewish continuity and identity and saw no Jews who wished to remain Jews living in the Galut, other than small pockets of Orthodoxy. He did not see Israel just as the centre, but as the whole, and saw no need for the Jewish State to be concerned with protecting Jews outside of Israel. In fact, he foresaw no task for the State of Israel for Jews outside her borders at all.


Asher Ginsberg (Achad Ha’am) however saw an Israel as the cultural and spiritual centre of the Jewish world.


June 2004 saw the Executive of the World Zionist Organisation, as summarised here, formalise the end of Herzl’s vision of the Jewish world outside of Israel and the triumph of the views of Achad Ha’am. 


It also elevated the nature of the Jewish State in religious terms. It referred to the “historic homeland Eretz Yisrael”; emphasised the importance of Jerusalem both as Israel’s capital and for the Jewish nation; reiterated Israel’s determination to be a democratic society, and a just and moral one with a spiritual dimension; that the State of Israel should be the vehicle for Jewish continuity wherever Jews may be located; and declared one of Israel’s role to be that of fighting anti-Semitism around the world.


Achad Ha’am’s triumph was complete. An Israel confident of itself with a sufficient critical mass, taking on for itself the continuity of the Jewish people and protection of world Jewry, against a background of a declining Diaspora in relative power and absolute numbers


The upcoming 61st Yom Ha’atzmaut will deepen Achad Ha’am’s vision.  As then Prime Minister Olmert declared in June 2008, until now the Jewish People had built the Jewish State whereas from now it was the turn of the Jewish State to build the Jewish People. That is also why the choice of the Prime Minister of Israel, and how he or she acts is so critical to life to the Jewish Diaspora.



For further related discussion, Gil Troy, a Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal, has written excellent articles, including a video and written piece on Why I am a Zionist, and has additional Zionist related links. He also recently penned an article, strongly supportive of Israel with the theme of Don’t cry for us, New York Jewry (and elsewhere).




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One thought on “Zionism – a view of its evolution

  1. Thanks for the historical overview. It can be difficult to respond immediately to the question, are you a Zionist or what does it mean to be a Zionist. This is one site I find useful – http://www.zionismontheweb.org/zionism_definitions.htm
    It includes the question and answer:
    Are You a Zionist?
    Every Jew has to decide for themselves if they are a Zionist. If you believe that the Jews are a people, and support the right of the Jews to a national home, and you are willing to stand up for that right when it is challenged, then you can call yourself a Zionist, whether or not you belong to any organized Zionist group or accept any “official” definition of Zionism, and whether or not you live in Israel or plan to live in Israel.