By Wally Brooker
Zionism as a political movement began in the late 19th century. It first appeared as a program for a Jewish homeland in an age when powerful ideologies such as capitalism, imperialism, liberalism, socialism and communism were capturing the allegiance of people throughout the world. As proposed by Theodore Herzl and his contemporaries, Zionism was deeply influenced by European theories of nationalism – which had their roots in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. The earlier meaning of ‘Zion’ in Jewish history, liturgy and mass consciousness is a qualitatively different phenomenon. People did not think in terms of building nations before the late 18th century.
One of the great achievements of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars was the liberation of Jews from systemic discrimination. Everywhere the French armies were successful in this era, ghetto walls were torn down and Jews were able to join professions that had hitherto been closed to them. The worst violence against Jews at this time was in Tsarist Russia and Poland, territories that had not experienced the emancipation of the French Revolution.
The Zionist movement was a response to a rising wave of anti-Semitism in Europe, beginning in the 1870’s when some writers began to use hitherto linguistic definitions of ‘semitic’ and ‘aryan’ as racial terms. Racist pseudo-science gave an apparently sophisticated veneer to primitive resentment, superstition & politically opportune scapegoating of Jews in Germany, Austria-Hungary, France, Poland, Russia and elsewhere.
See also by Suzanne Weiss