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What Zionism is and what it is not

Israeli flag flying in Jerusalem (Photo: Shutterstock)

People are throwing this term “Zionism” and “Zionist” around, sometimes as a compliment – sometimes as an insult – and don’t seem to understand what it really means.

People who define themselves as anti-Zionists are always emphasizing that they’re not antisemitic, since it’s supposedly better to hate an ideology, which people can exchange freely, rather than hating a race that people are born with.

In Israel, Zionism is usually seen as Israeli patriotism, but those who hate Israel seem to use the term to refer to anyone who believes Israel should be allowed to exist, which includes… well, not just 90% of all the Jews in the world, but billions of people. Including you, probably, if you’re taking the time to read this article. Which technically means that anti-Zionism is a lot worse than antisemitism.

What they don’t seem to understand is that Zionism, just like many other ideologies – such as capitalism, feminism, or liberalism – is more of a general term, encompassing many subcategories which can be extremely different – and often even at odds – with each other.

In this article, I want to explore the history of the three Zionisms: Secular Zionism, Religious Jewish Zionism and Christian Zionism. Finally, I’ll take a quick look at what Zionism in Israel looks like today – and the difference between the religious settler Zionism and the Pro-Palestinian Zionism.

When I was a kid, I was told that a Zionist is someone who loves Israel, and that was clear enough for me, and I’d say it’s a pretty accurate description. Zionism is Israeli patriotism. It doesn’t mean that a Zionist will necessarily agree with everything the Israeli government does: Do American patriots always support what the American government does? It doesn’t have to mean that you are racist or have biases toward non-Israelis. Again, is an American patriot someone who hates all Mexicans? They exist, for sure - but they are not representative.

History of Secular Zionism

The first-ever sign of Secular Zionism was when Napoleon attempted to establish a Jewish state in Israel in 1799, but failed to conquer Acre and, instead, returned to France to become emperor. Throughout the 19th century, writers and thinkers kept proposing the idea, but the man most associated with the term Zionism was Theodor Herzl.

Herzl wasn’t the first person with the idea that Jews should move to Palestine and set up a national home there, but he was the first secular person who wrote books on it, succeeded in setting up a large Zionist organization (the Zionist Congress), and attempted to make it a reality. He believed that antisemitism stemmed from the fact that the Jews were strangers wherever they went. Once they had a country, like all other nations, antisemitism would disappear forever. (We can see how well that went…)

Herzl’s Secular Zionism early on attracted socialist and even communist followers who agreed with the idea, but not necessarily the means – rather than advocating for Zionism among world leaders, they were in favor of going there and establishing facts on the ground. They wished to liberate the Jews from the shackles of religion and bourgeoisness and create a new Jew– a proletariat Jew of the working class who works the land. This was the start of the kibbutz movement.

For Herzl, achieving a territory – any territory – was the main issue. He didn’t believe in God, nor did he have a squishy, sentimental attachment to Israel. Only after the Uganda scheme was officially rejected by the Zionist Congress in 1905, did Zionism become focused on the land of Israel exclusively. But this secular mindset was still with them: 'Any territory is better than no territory,' which is why Jewish holy sites in East Jerusalem and Hebron didn’t matter to Ben Gurion, and he was more than happy to accept the UN’s 1947 Partition Plan, and the ceasefire agreement in 1949, which left many ancient Jewish sites outside of Israel's control.

The Israeli socialist labor party ruled Israel from 1948 to 1977, and after they conquered the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, they continued with this line of thinking: They wanted to give back the territories in exchange for peace immediately, but were rejected. They lost power in 1977, but once they came back in 1992, they set up the Oslo Agreement. Until today, the political left in Israel has continued to be vocal in its support of giving up territory to achieve peace.

As for the Arabs, the socialist Zionists hoped for a future of brotherhood with them but had conflicting ideas about how that would come about. Some accuse them of having a bit of a colonial mindset. Herzl had a vision where the Arabs would accept the Jews with open arms and thank them for developing their land and making it a better place to live. Others had ideas of forced removal, similar to the population exchange between Turkey and Greece in the 1920s.

But not all secular Zionists were socialists. Capitalism, money from Rothschild, American Jewish millionaires, and revisionists, like Jabotinsky, also raised their voices in favor of Zionism – and their Zionism, even though it also was secular, differed a great deal from the socialist version.

Without the generous support of wealthy Jews like Edmund Rothschild, Moshe Montefiore, Nathan Straus, and even rich Christian Zionists like Lawrence Oliphant, many current Israeli cities wouldn’t exist today. The purchase of land, the banking system, and many other Zionist endeavors during this time were clearly capitalist in nature, something that socialist Jews either tried to avoid or had reluctantly accepted out of necessity.

Jabotinsky founded “Revisionist Zionism” which was the rival of the socialists within the Zionist movement. He was fiercely opposed to Communism, and called his movement "revisionist" because he wished to revise the policies of the Zionist movement. He was against compromises and division plans, saying that the entire British Mandate to Palestine should become the new Jewish state – including the part which is now Jordan.

His vision was a free and democratic state with equal rights for everyone, Jews and non-Jews, but with a clear Jewish majority. Before the Holocaust, this was still doable, and he spent a lot of time trying to convince Jews in Europe to come to Israel before the impending doom. Many probably regretted not having listened to him.

He was in favor of armed struggle, which has made many see him as a racist Jewish supremacist as opposed to the socialist Zionist who envisioned peaceful coexistence with the Arabs. This is not entirely correct. As we saw, the socialists’ faith in peace with the Arabs stemmed from colonialist-influenced thinking. Jabotinsky was more pragmatic and didn’t believe the Arabs would accept becoming a minority without a struggle. He believed this not because he looked down upon them, but because he valued them. His goal was that the Jews would win this future war and establish a state where the Arabs would have equal rights, but be a minority. He even proposed a constitution to regulate that the Israeli president would always be Jewish and the prime minister an Arab, and similar ideas like that. This can hardly be seen as a racist ideology.

After Jabotinsky died in 1940, Menachem Begin took over and became the leading Zionist opposition against Ben Gurion. He led the armed Irgun organization, which committed attacks against the British and Arabs. After the goal of establishing Israel had become a reality in 1948, they gave up their weapons and instead became political parties. Begin became the right-wing opposition leader in the Knesset and Ben Gurion’s harshest critic. After a few political merges, his political party became known as the Likud in the 1970s, and in 1977, Begin won the elections for the first time, becoming Israel’s first right-wing prime minister.

History of Jewish Religious Zionism

If we define Zionism as a yearning for Zion and a belief that Israel belongs to the Jewish people – and Jerusalem our eternal capital – then Zionism has always been a part of Judaism. But when Secular Zionism arose, religious Jews became split on whether this was a part of God’s plan, or a shameful secular attempt to “play God.” The former joined forces with the secular Zionists, while the latter opposed them – some from within Israel itself. These are often seen as religious Zionists and religious anti-Zionists, but I’m not sure that’s correct. Even if they oppose the current state of Israel and modern Zionism, they do believe in the biblical promises of a Messiah that will rule from Jerusalem in the future, so they are really Zionist at the core.

Religious Zionists were initially small and insignificant, feeling not quite at home anywhere. As religious people, they were “less Zionist” than other Zionists, but as Zionists, they were “less religious” than the ultra-Orthodox. With one foot in each world, they operated on the fringes of Zionism – until 1967.

Rabbi Kook (1835-1935) formulated ideas and theology for Religious Zionism, and his ideology became a leading light for the subsequent movement led by his son, Zvi Yehuda Kook, which achieved traction chiefly after the Six-Day War in 1967. They quickly established new Jewish settlements throughout the West Bank and eventually also in the Gaza Strip, and fought the secular socialist government that didn’t want them there. Today, the Religious Zionist movement has become one of the more influential voices within Zionism but has also produced many extremist fanatics, including a few Jewish terrorists, as well as Yigal Amir, the man who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

Most of the national Religious Zionists disassociate with these extremists but will agree with the general Zionist goals that all of Israel, "from the river to the sea," rightfully belongs to Israel. They generally oppose a two-state solution but are often in favor of some sort of Palestinian autonomous self-rule under Israeli sovereignty. They typically wear modern clothes and have a knitted kippa.

The ultra-Orthodox Jews, or Haredi, are the ones considered non-Zionists. They are the ones wearing the stereotypical “Jewish” dress code with black hats and curls. As I stated before, it’s not entirely correct to call them non-Zionists, but there is a small extremist faction within them who are openly hostile to the state of Israel and support Iran and the Palestinians. But even those who are not that extreme will generally see Israel as a temporary evil that God will eventually do away with. Just like Israel had bad kings in the Bible, like Ahab, so they see the secular Israel of today – an evil kingdom, Jewish in name only, which they have to reluctantly live under. Slowly, they have begun to accept more and more parts of Israeli society. By now, most speak Hebrew in daily life, even if some still insist on Yiddish.

After Israel was established, Jewish law and rabbinical courts received authority over issues like marriage, divorces and burials, and these issues are mostly handled by the Haredim. Since 1977, they also have held powerful positions in government and use their position to make sure their religious schools are funded, their students exempt from military service. By ruling Israel's Ministry of the Interior, their view on who is considered Jewish or not often becomes the policy that dictates who can receive Israeli citizenship and who cannot. In short, today they are non-Zionists in name only because they benefit from Israeli institutions far too much to wish for Israel’s demise.

History of Christian Zionism

To be a Zionist, all you need to do is to believe the Bible literally. This is why Christianity should have been Zionist from the start, just like Judaism. But the institutionalized antisemitism and replacement theology cemented a symbolic interpretation of these Bible passages early on – so Christian Zionism really only had a chance to grow when the Christians started reading the Bible again, with the reformation.

Christian voices speaking about a utopian future in which the Jewish people move to Israel and come to faith in Jesus existed on the fringes of Christianity until 1799. But as the new ideas of the French Revolution brought new eschatological hopes – Napoleon almost established a Jewish homeland in Israel in 1799 – things started to stir in the hearts of many Christians. They established missionary societies, some of which specifically focused on converting the Jews, and some went to Jerusalem to preach to the local Jews as early as the early 1800s. It wasn’t called Zionism at the time, as the term had yet to be coined, but the theology was already there, and they were undeniably earlier than many other Zionists. Preachers like Charles Haddon Spurgeon spoke of a literal interpretation of the scriptures, and that the Jewish people one day would return to Palestine and establish a kingdom.

An early problem with Christian Zionism was the fact that it wasn’t about them moving to Israel themselves. It was about convincing the Jews to do so. And sometimes, the missionary endeavor and the Zionist endeavor became opposites, as Jews who came to faith in Jesus in Jerusalem assimilated among the Christians and left Palestine in search of a better life elsewhere. This created Zionist Christians who were opposed to any kind of missionary activity, like the previously mentioned Lawrence Oliphant, and the founder of the American colony, Horatio Spafford. Their spiritual descendants still exist in the form of Christian organizations in Israel that do charity work and promote Zionism without trying to bring Jews to Christ. Other Christians took the opposite view, and saw universal evangelization as the only true Christian endeavor, dismissing Zionism altogether. They would often even believe in replacement theology, convincing the Jews that once they became Christians, they were no longer Jewish.

There were, however, Christians who walked the fine line between these two and advocated for a Zionism, that included missionary activity – but this could only be possible if the Jews maintained their Jewish identity also after coming to faith in Jesus. Enter the Messianic Jews.

As it turns out, the socialist Zionism’s wish to disconnect their Jewish identity from the religion had worked extremely well. So well, in fact, that once Israel became independent, it became possible to maintain a Jewish identity while believing in Jesus. When Great Britain offered asylum to all Jewish believers in 1948, many jumped at the offer, leaving only about a dozen Jewish believers behind. They were fewer in number, but the ones who stayed were highly motivated to remain in Israel and build a local community. These people and their descendants, as well as the believers who arrived shortly after 1948, became the backbone of the current local Messianic body in Israel.

Evangelical Christian Zionists of today have inherited this same issue – walking the fine line of believing the biblical promises of the Jews coming home to Israel, while still wishing for them to be saved and believe in Jesus. The first issue makes them want to cooperate with Jewish and Zionist organizations, while the fact that the second issue exists makes the Jews extremely skeptical about ulterior motives. The existence of us Messianic Jews in Israel, proving that one can believe in Jesus without losing your Jewish identity, only helps to a certain degree. Today, still, most Zionist Christians must decide whether they can stand on both legs and support both goals or if they would rather focus on one of them only.

Modern Zionism – what does it look like today?

If it wasn’t for the conflict and the hatred against Israelis worldwide, many Israelis today wouldn’t feel particularly Zionist. When did you last meet a patriotic Norwegian or Portuguese? I’m sure they exist, but when your country isn’t threatened, patriotism just isn’t really a thing. The country just exists, and that’s that. I think many Israelis would love it if that was the case – if they didn’t have to define themselves as Zionists.

Israel, today, is post-Zionist in many ways. The generation growing up takes Israel for granted, and people have no problem emigrating from Israel if they can make a better life for themselves elsewhere. Or, at least, so we thought before October 7th. It’s really amazing to see how this younger “TikTok generation” is stepping up to defend Israel against the terrorists. These latest events have made most Israelis more Zionist than ever.

But among the modern Zionists, I’d say there’s a spectrum from the religious settlers to the Pro-Palestinian Zionists. The religious settlers are strongly patriotic and believe in expanding the settlements and find a way to subjugate or expel the Palestinians.

Pro-Palestinian Zionists are strongly in favor of a two-state solution, following in the footsteps of Herzl and Ben Gurion, wishing for an Israel with a clear Jewish majority that lives in peace with a Palestinian neighbor state. Most Israelis find themselves somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, but they’re ultimately all Zionists, since they all want Israel to exist.

In short, Zionism is a huge umbrella ideology with a long history that can be defined as believing in the Jewish people’s right to self-determination. More precisely, in this current phase of history, Zionism is believing in Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. That’s pretty much it.

Within Zionism, there are multiple, often contradictory, ideologies from left to right: from capitalism to socialism; from expansionism to minimalism; from secularism to deep religious conviction. There’s even room for pro-Palestinians, provided they believe in a two-state solution, and not the eradication of the Jewish state.

With this in mind, remember to remind anyone who advocates for a two-state solution that they are, in fact, a Zionist, and that the anti-Zionist chants to kill all Zionists apply also to them.

Tuvia is a Jewish history nerd who lives in Jerusalem and believes in Jesus. He writes articles and stories about Jewish and Christian history. His website is

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