In 1890 the Austrian journalist Nathan Birnbaum (1864-1937) was the first one to use the word Zionism, in the pages of the journal Selbst-Emanzipation! [Self-Emancipation!]. But it was another journalist, Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), who was born in Budapest and had lived in Vienna for several years, to make Zionism a more widely known concept. In 1897 in Basel he organised the first Zionist Congress, thus giving birth to a political movement whose main aim was creation of a nation-state for the Jews: according to him, this could be achieved only with the support of one of the world powers.
Between the end of the XIX century and the beginning of the XX, several different tendencies emerged within Zionism. Apart from Herzl’s proposal, which was referred to as “Political Zionism”, there was the so-called “Practical Zionism”: numerous young people from the territory of the Russian Empire believed that their main mission was to emigrate to Eretz Israel [the Land of Israel], at that time part of the Ottoman Empire, in order to create agricultural settlements and give birth to a nation-state.
After the death of Herzl, a new leader emerged within the Zionist movement, Chaim Weizmann (1874-1952), a chemist who was born in what is now Belarus and later moved to England. It was he who merged the “political” and “practical” tendencies to give birth to the so-called “Synthetic Zionism”: while supporting the creation of agricultural settlements, he managed to win the support of the British Empire – with the Balfour Declaration of 2 November 1917 – thus concretely fulfilling Herzl’s aim of an alliance between Zionism and a European power.
By the 1920s, while the Zionist project began to be carried out within the framework of the British Mandate in Palestine, at least three competing tendencies emerged within Zionism, the most important of which was “Socialist Zionism”. A number of political leaders and intellectuals adhered to that trend, but the uncontested leader was David Ben Gurion (1886-1973), born in Poland and emigrated to Eretz Israel in 1906. As the Israeli historian Zeev Sternhell clearly states, “Socialist Zionism” was a movement whose nationalist aims were much more important than socialist values: socialism was considered an instrument to fulfil the goal of Zionism, creating a nation-state for the Jews in Palestine. Only Jews could take part in this nationalist project. The main consequence was that the Arabs living in Palestine – who were going through a process of nation building themselves and were the majority of the Mandate population at that time – were totally excluded from that project. “Socialist Zionism” was no different from the so-called “Revisionist Zionism”, whose main representative was Vladimir Ze‘ev Jabotinsky (1880-1940), in proposing how to deal with the Arab Palestinians. Both tendencies believed that Jews should conquer Palestine thanks to a vast migration and should therefore harshly confront the Arab Palestinians’ opposition. The two main differences between “Socialist Zionism” and “Revisionist Zionism” were their attitudes towards the British Empire (revisionists were extremely critical of London, which was perceived as progressively pro-Arab and anti-Jewish) and their economic policy (socialists asked for a major role of the state, while revisionists were in favour of a free-market economy).
“Socialist Zionism” was the major force behind the birth of Israel in 1948 and the military victories of 1956 and 1967 that allowed Israel to become a regional power. Yet it was as a consequence of the Six Day War that the centrality of “Socialist Zionism” began to be disputed. In June 1967 Israel conquered, among other territories, the West Bank – or Judea and Samaria, as it was referred to – including East Jerusalem, thus extending its control over the Western Wall and other Jewish holy sites, such as the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. As a consequence of that, “Religious Zionism”, that is, the third tendency that was born at the beginning of the XX century, started challenging “Socialist Zionism” as the authentic embodiment of Zionist principles. To “Religious Zionism”, the most important value was not Medinat Israel (the State of Israel) and its existence, but Eretz Israel (the Land of Israel), meaning maintaining full control over Judea and Samaria.
Starting from the late 1970s – with two important exceptions in the 1990s – “Revisionist Zionism”, in partnership with “Religious Zionism”, won all the Israeli political elections against “Socialist Zionism”. The main difference between the political parties that have developed from those tendencies – the right-wing Likud and the left-wing Labour Party – has been the willingness to reach a compromise with the political representative of the Palestinians, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). While the Labour Party was ready to reach a compromise with the PLO in terms of controlling the West Bank, the Likud and the political parties heir to “Religious Zionism” were not, thus preventing a peace agreement from being reached.
At the moment, while Israel celebrates its 70th birthday, the main division within Zionism is still between those who stand for Medinat Israel and those who fight for Eretz Israel. The first option means renouncing vast parts of the occupied Palestinian territories (i.e. the West Bank) and ceasing to rule over the Palestinian population: this would allow Israel to maintain – not without contradictions – its Jewish and democratic characters. The second one means maintaining control over the West Bank and its Palestinian population: this would mean either leaving the Palestinians without basic political and civil rights, thus bringing the Israeli democracy to a conclusion, or giving them full rights, thus renouncing Israeli Jewishness.
It is very difficult to foresee what might happen. Certainly, Zionism needs to choose between the two alternatives, so as to determine the future of Israel.