The Origins of Zionism: Haskalah, Chovavei Tzion, Dreyfuss and Basel.

Welcome to the first in a series of 10 short articles which I hope will describe the history of Zionism, it’s different forms and what that means in today’s context.

For hundreds of years, Jews all over the world were oppressed by different countries and peoples. In Europe, Christians were forbidden from usury (lending money at interest), so the job fell to Jews to provide the start-up capital to businessmen, shopkeepers and societal leaders all over the continent. Over time, this engendered much hatred against Jews from the populations, leading to such events as all Jews being banned from Phillip II’s France from 1181 – 1198, and from Edward I’s England from 1290 until Oliver Cromwell allowed them back in 1659.

Then came the French revolution and the englightenment. For the first time, Jews in many parts of Europe were, at least officially, treated as equal to the rest of the population. At this stage, however, Jews all lived in very introverted, tightknit communities (called shtetels), making for little room for interaction between Jews and non-Jews.

This all changed with something called the Haskalah (the Jewish enlightenment). Spearheaded by people such as Moses Mendelssohn in Prussia, progressively more and more Jews began to become more educated in so-called “secular studies”. Mendelssohn became a well-known philosopher in German circles and a prolific author. Along with his fellow Maskilim (proponents of the Haskalah), he promoted use of the German language among Jews and better integration with the wider society. He also produced the first ever German translation of the Torah (the Hebrew Bible), and German language commentary on it, which often was contrary to the official rabbinical commentary on the original Hebrew version.

The Haskalah led to somewhat of a split amongst Judaism, with the Reform movement coming from it’s members in 1819. On the opposite side was Rabbi Moses Sofer. He fiercely opposed Reform Judaism and the concept that Judaism could be changed or adapted to fit modern circumstances. He introduced the concept of “Hadash asur min ha-Torah” (Anything new is forbidden by the Torah) and proclaimed, along with his supporters, that the only legitimate form of Judaism was that which had been practiced up until that point. As such, he gave birth to what we now know as Charedi Judaism (Ultra-Orthodox Judaism).

Jews continued as such for the next century, with a split between Reform and Orthodox, in addition to many other new forms of Judaism forming (such as Cultural, and Conservative/Masorti).

In 1862, Moses Hess wrote Rome & Jerusalem, considered to be one of the most important books in early Zionist history. In it, Hess (a colleague of Karl Marx and a Socialist) outlined his thoughts on a future Jewish state. Around this time, the religious Chovavei Tzion (Lovers of Zion) movement also sprouted up throughout Europe, with an especially strong base in Russia. This movement aimed to increase numbers of religious Jews living in Israel, and to increase support (especially financial support) from Jews living in the diaspora to Jews in the land of Israel (Then Palestine, under Ottoman Empire rule). They were supported in their aims by Jewish philanthropists, most notably Baron Edmond James de Rothschild.

In 1882, Chovavei Tzion supporters immigrated to Israel in what is now known as the 1st Aliyah (literally “ascent”, in this context means Jews moving to the land of Israel). They attempted to form agricultural communities and towns across the country, one of which still existing today is Rishon LeTzion (First to Zion), now a small city just outside of Tel Aviv.

In 1894, a Jewish French army officer named Alfred Dreyfus was accused of treason. Dreyfus was innocent, and his conviction was caused by false documents and cover-ups by high-ranking officers. Writer Emile Zola revealed this to the public with his famous article J’accuse! (I Accuse!). Watching this affair was a young Jewish Austrian journalist named Theodore Herzl. Herzl saw the anti-Semitism that was rife in the aftermath of this affair, with Paris crowds chanting “Death to the Jews!” at mass rallies. Up until the Dreyfus controversy, Herzl was mostly uninterested in Jewish issues, believing that assimilation and integration was the key to ending discrimination against Jews, but the Dreyfus affair switched his opinion right round.

In 1896, Herzl wrote Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State) in German, and it was published and read widely amongst Jewish circles. The book was a call for a Jewish state, and laid out in some detail the inner workings of this future state. The following year, in 1897, the First Zionist Congress was held in Basel, Switzerland. Herzl was elected head of the Zionist Organisation, and proclaimed after the congress “In Basel I have founded the Jewish State”.

Next part to come next Thursday. Hope you learnt something.

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