Jews, Israel and Zionism: Background
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The issue of the relationship between Jews, Israel and Zionism is extremely complex. The Jewish people are originally from Israel and have for 2000 years (since they were progressively exiled) dreamed of and prayed for a return to their homeland. Jews formally pray three times a day and in each service, as well as the remembrance of that origin, there are pleas to return to Jerusalem, Zion, the Temple etc. This also occurs in the prayer said after eating a meal, several times a day.
The following short history is to demonstrate the relationship Jews have always had with the land of Israel, even before the modern political Zionist movement was born in the later part of the 19th Century. Despite the end of self-rule, exile and widespread dispersion around the Mediterranean, Europe and further afield, Jews have in fact lived continuously in the historic Holy Land. They were the majority there until the 4th Century when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. This sparked anti-Jewish persecution which led to many Jews leaving. Some returned in the 7th Century, when Muslims conquered Jerusalem and Caliph Omar allowed them to live in Jerusalem for the first time in centuries.
Jews tended to fare better under the rule of Muslims, who had a place for Jews in their Ummah (community), although often as second class citizens paying the Jizyah tax. The medieval Crusades were bad news for Jews as well as Muslims. In the 16th Century, mystics in northern Israel (Tsfat), many of whom had arrived from Spain after the expulsion in 1492, invented Kaballah, a mystical form of Judaism which to this day has had a massive impact on world Jewry. Jews had a continuous presence in other parts of the holy land including Hebron (which is now a major flashpoint in the Israel/Palestine conflict).
In the 17th Century, belief in a ‘false messiah’ called Shabbatai Tzvi swept across Europe and the Ottoman Empire. The diarist Gluckel of Hameln wrote that her uncle had packed his bags to return to Jerusalem, waiting for this messiah to take them. For many Jews in Europe at that time, the return to Israel was a palpable event that they expected in their lifetimes.
The term Zionism has had many meanings over the years. Zionism historically is the belief in a right to a Jewish homeland. It’s fair to say that the current definition, a Jewish state in the land of Israel, was not always so clear. One of the pre-state Zionists was Martin Buber, who wanted a single state with equal rights for all its inhabitants, whether Jewish or Palestinian. To most Jews, the term Zionism now simply means support for the establishment and continued existence of the State of Israel, and they believe this was and is the free will of the majority of the Jewish people. It’s not surprising that, according to polling, over 90% of British Jews have a strong attachment to Israel (with over 60% identifying as Zionists).
Many people identify as anti-Zionists because they acknowledge that the Palestinians suffered a fundamental injustice at the time Israel was established, when hundreds of thousands of their people were displaced, often by force, and were not permitted to return. At a minimum, anti-Zionists are opposed to the continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza by Israel and settlement of the former, and support an independent Palestinian state. Some however would like Israel dissolved into a single state for both Israeli Jews and Palestinians. Of course, many Zionists also support Palestinian rights, and so are offended by the use of the word ‘Zionist’ – or worse ‘Zio’ – as an insult. This lack of understanding of the basic meaning of the word ‘Zionism’ has led to much division and hostility.