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What is Zionism Anyway?

On America Online, there is a popular feature called "Judaism Today: Where Do I Fit?" (keywords: Judaism Today). Non-AOL members can visit People anonymously send in e-mail to the author of the feature, Gil Mann and he selects one for a public response in his Jewish E-Mail column. This column is now syndicated internationally in Jewish papers and websites.

Dear Gil:

I am a Christian and support Israel from my perspective of Biblical history, personal experiences in Israel and what I read in Israeli and international media. I'm perplexed by why some in the Orthodox or Ultra-Orthodox community are extremely anti-Zionist. I hope you can help clarify the following for me:
What is your definition of Zionism?
How does Zionism compare with patriotism?
Why are some Israelis so opposed to Zionism?

In search of understanding,


Shalom P:

Your questions are most appropriate given the current situation in Israel. I know that your questions are shared by others and deserve clarification.

The definition of Zionism is simple: Zionism is the movement to support a homeland for the Jewish people.

The movement began in the mid to late 1800s as a result of the vicious anti-Semitism of Europe. The pivotal leader was a non-religious Jewish journalist named Theodor Herzl. A turning point for Herzl occurred when he covered the trial a French Army officer, Alfred Dreyfus who was falsely convicted of treason. (He was later pardoned.) The biased trial greatly disturbed Herzl. He concluded that the anti-Semitism of France and Europe was so deeply ingrained and widespread that the only hope for Jews to live in safety was if they had their own state. (Sadly, I suspect, Herzl would not be surprised to see today's anti-Semitism in France and other places in Europe.)

The word Zionism comes from the word Zion--a reference to Jerusalem, the city of King David. Jews longed and prayed for a return to Zion for 2,000 years and some are Zionists for religious and Biblical reasons. In spite of this, early Zionists were so desperate for a safe haven for Jews that locations other than the land of ancient Israel were considered, like Uganda! A number of options were pursued, and in 1917 the British issued the famous Balfour Declaration, stating that "His Majesty's Government" viewed with favor the establishment of a Jewish homeland in the area that today is Israel and was then a British Mandate.

Ultimately, in 1948, the establishment of the state of Israel became the fulfillment of the Zionist dream to have a Jewish homeland. Since then millions of Jews from all over the world have immigrated to Israel. Many were Holocaust survivors and W.W.II refugees; many others fled the anti-Semitism in their home country that Zionism anticipated and was formed to address. Many people do not realize that about 600,000 Jews who immigrated to Israel were refugees who were forced to flee--often empty handed--from Arab countries where they were persecuted.

A quick but important aside: Israel is the only country in the world where Judaism is the official state religion. Yet many other religions are freely practiced in Israel. I'll never forget being in Israel one December and seeing an ad in the paper for Christians to receive free Christmas trees from the Israeli government!

Nevertheless, Israel is primarily a Jewish State, so I think you can safely say that to be a Zionist is in a sense being a patriot to the Jewish State. The highest level of dedication or patriotism would probably be to live in Israel, but a person does need not to live in Israel to be a Zionist or in favor of a Jewish State. Nor does a person need to be Jewish to be a Zionist. In fact, many non-Jews (like you) are supportive of the state of Israel, and I think they could consider themselves to be Zionists.

While there are many non-Jews who are supportive of Israel, there is a tiny fringe group of Jews who are anti-Zionists. These Jews are religious fundamentalists who object to the establishment of Israel from a theological point of view. They believe that according to Jewish tradition, God will establish a Jewish State to coincide with the coming of the Messiah. Since the Messiah has not arrived, they believe Israel is an artificial work of man, not God.

This group represents very few people, but enemies of the state of Israel love to "parade" these oddball Jews out during anti-Israel demonstrations. Almost all Jews, from very religious to secular, strongly disagree with these anti-Israel Jews.

Including me, because I definitely consider myself to be a Zionist. I'll add a personal note in closing: as a Zionist, I pray for a day when the Jewish State has warm relations with all nations, including her Arab neighbors and a peaceful, prosperous future Palestinian State.

Thanks for writing!


A form of nationalism of Jews and Jewish culture that supports a Jewish nation state in territory defined as the Land of Israel. A supporter of the ideal that Israel be defined as a Jewish nation state.
Gil Mann

Gil Mann is the author of: How to Get More Out of Being Jewish Even If:
A. You are not sure you believe in God,
B. You think going to synagogue is a waste of time,
C. You think keeping kosher is stupid,
D. You hated Hebrew School, or
E. All of the above!

Gil's work on this book, on America Online, and this column are all done pro-bono. You are invited to his area of AOL (Keyword: Judaism Today,) for a free download of the first 2 chapters of his book and other Questions and answers with Gil. He welcomes your E-Mail comments and questions about this column or any subject. Write to To order the book ($17.95) call: 800-304-9925.

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