The Birth of Political Zionism and Early Jewish Immigration

Theodor Herzl, dressed in a suit, arms crossed. He a medium length, thick beard. Photograph taken in 1897.
Theodor Herzl, 1897

Please note: the following is a transcript to the first episode of a new podcast that we’re launching. 

Hi everyone, and welcome to ‘The History of Modern Israel.’ I’m your host, Roman. In this weekly podcast, we’ll take you through the story of the modern state of Israel, delving into the pivotal moments and key figures that have shaped its history. The content will come from a variety of sources to help bring multiple perspectives into the state’s amazing but complex history.

In today’s episode, we begin with the birth of political Zionism. Let’s get started.

To understand modern Israel, one has to begin with the notion of Zionism and its deep roots in Jewish history and culture. Let’s start by breaking the word out into its two parts – “Zion” and “ism.”

Without going too deep into ancient and biblical history, the word Zion originally referred to a specific hill in Jerusalem, Mount Zion. Over time, Zion came to symbolize Jerusalem and the entire Land of Israel, which Jewish people consider their spiritual and physical homeland. Archeology confirms this belief, with evidence showing a Jewish presence since at least around the 13th century BCE.

So that’s the Zion part. Now for the ism. Around 70 CE marked a pivotal time in Jewish history. That’s when the Roman Empire expelled and dispersed most Jewish people from their homeland. The exile marked the beginning of a longing to return to Zion. It became a belief, doctrine, a central theme in Jewish prayers and rituals, and one could say part of the meaning of being Jewish.

That’s how we get the word Zionism. It simply means a belief in a Jewish homeland in Israel.

Now, there is an important question here: What are this homeland’s boundaries? We’ll leave this question open for now, but we’ll get to it in upcoming episodes.

Continuing on – centuries passed without Zionism gaining much traction in practice. Some people never left, and others moved to the homeland, but that was mostly in small numbers. Then came two important changes, both occurring in the late 19th century. The first was a global shift in how societies were being organized – the days of empires were starting to end, replaced with a rise of nationalist movements throughout Europe. The second significant development was Theodor Herzl.

Theodor Herzl had a full beard and intense eyes. He was tall, and people said he had a commanding presence and a charismatic personality. Born in 1860 into a Jewish family but raised in a secular environment in Hungary and Austria, one wouldn’t have necessarily picked Theodor as the man who would lead the Jewish people back to their homeland. But lead them, he certainly would.  

Theodor’s path to Zionism began as he grew into adulthood and started to observe the pervasive anti-Semitism Jewish people faced across Europe. In particular, the Dreyfus Affair in France—a political scandal in which a Jewish French army officer, Alfred Dreyfus, was wrongfully convicted of treason, profoundly influenced Theodor, who covered the trial as a journalist, witnessing firsthand the virulent anti-Semitism.

Theodor became convinced that Jews would never be truly safe or accepted in Europe, regardless of their level of assimilation or social status. He wrote,

“The Jewish question persists wherever Jews live in appreciable numbers. Wherever it does not exist, it is brought in together with Jewish immigrants. We are naturally drawn into those places where we are not persecuted, and our appearance there gives rise to persecution. This is the case, and will inevitably be so, everywhere, even in highly civilised countries.”

Even worse, he would conclude, was that “Things cannot improve, but are bound to get worse – to the point of massacres. Governments can’t prevent it any longer, even if they want to.” His words would prove poignantly prescient a few decades later with the Holocaust.

In 1896, Theodor published ‘Der Judenstaat’ or ‘The Jewish State,’ where he articulated his vision for a Jewish nation-state. He argued that the Jewish people needed a country of their own to escape persecution and build a future based on self-determination. Beyond statehood, he also laid out a broader vision, writing, “I believe that a wondrous generation of Jews will spring into existence…The Jews who wish will have their state. We shall live at last as free men on our own soil, and die peacefully in our own homes. The world will be freed by our liberty, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness. And whatever we attempt there to accomplish for our own welfare will react powerfully and beneficently for the good of humanity.”

The book became the cornerstone of Zionist ideology.

A year later, in 1897, Theodor organized the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. This historic gathering brought together Jewish leaders and activists from around the world to discuss the future of Zionism. Here, they articulated the goals of the movement and created the World Zionist Organization to advance the cause. After the Congress, Theodor wrote in his diary, “Were I to sum up the Basel Congress in a word — which I shall guard against pronouncing publicly — it would be this: At Basel, I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. Perhaps in five years, certainly in fifty, everyone will know it.”

As is often the case with movements, timing matters, and Theodor came along at the right time. This brings us back to the first development. By the late 19th century, the world was experiencing a change in how societies were organized. The days of empires were being replaced with the rise of nationalist movements throughout Europe, inspiring many ethnic groups to seek self-determination and organize into their own nation-states.

It was within this environment that political Zionism began to take shape. The ancient longing to return to Zion became a practical endeavor rooted in deep emotions. And with Theodor, obsessively driven by the desire to establish a safe and sovereign state for Jewish people, as the leader of the movement.

To conclude this introductory episode – today we explored the beginnings of political Zionism. In our next episode, we’ll delve into the early 20th century Jewish immigration to Zion, or what was then the Ottoman Empire territory known as Palestine with an Arab population living there. Thank you for joining us on this journey. Don’t forget to subscribe to ‘The History of Modern Israel’ and leave us your feedback.


Click here to read our Theodor Herzl snapshot biography.