There’s no one way to be a Zionist: Six different types of Zionist thought (Part 1)

According to the late Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua, Zionism means many different things. He ended up defining Zionism as a common platform rather than an exclusive ideology.
A woman waters a plant in the Negev Desert in Israel, 1950-1960. (Photo: Touring Club Italiano/Marka/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Editor’s note: This is part 1 of a two-part series. Read part two here.

We’re curious…

What does it mean to be a Zionist? What does the term Zionism really mean? According to the late Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua, it means many different things. And he ended up defining Zionism as a common platform rather than an exclusive ideology.

Writing in this Haaretz piece, Yehoshua explained that Zionism contains “various and even contradictory social and political ideologies. It therefore cannot in itself be considered an independent ideology.”

But this has always been the case — diversity and spirited debate have always been central to Zionism. 

For example, should we focus on Jewish survival or Jewish renewal? Is the purpose of the Jewish state to provide a safe haven for the Jewish people, or is it to renew the Jewish people and be a light unto the nations?

In his book, “The Zionist Ideas: Visions for the Jewish Homeland — Then, Now, Tomorrow,” Gil Troy puts forth six schools of Zionist thought: Political, Labor, Revisionist, Religious, Cultural and Diaspora Zionism.

These different schools of thought often clashed with each other. “The early Zionist movement was indeed a many-splendored thing: a rollicking conversation synthesizing Judaism, nationalism, liberalism, idealism, rationalism, socialism, and capitalism,” Troy wrote.

The idea of creating a Jewish state united them.

Let’s uncover, excavate and explore these six schools of thought and the range of Zionist ideas that continue to shape the conversation today. 

(Editor’s note: This article is part one in a two-part series — stay tuned for part two on Religious, Cultural and Diaspora Zionism.)

Political Zionism

Political Zionism was led by Theodor Herzl and Max Nordau in Russia. It stressed the importance of political action and the need to create a Jewish homeland in the land of Israel. 

According to Troy, this stream of Zionism had three basic tenets:

First, the Jews were a people (not just a religion) and shared national ties. “The principle of nationality which dominated thought and sentiment in Europe” had awakened the Jewish people’s “sense of their own identity,” Max Nordau explained in 1902.

“It has taught them to regard their unique qualities as values and has given them a passionate desire for independence,” he added.

Second, the Jews needed a state because of antisemitism, pogroms (violent riots against them) and other problems. “The world denounces the Jews resoundingly,” Theodor Herzl wrote in 1896 in “The Jewish State.” He continued:

“We have honestly endeavored everywhere to merge ourselves into the social life of surrounding communities and to preserve the faith of our fathers. We are not permitted to do so. 

In vain we are loyal patriots, our loyalty in some places running to extremes…in vain do we strive to increase the fame of our native land in science and art, or her wealth by trade and commerce. In countries where we have lived for centuries, we are still denounced as strangers.”

About 15 years before that, Leon Pinsker made a similar point: “Since the Jew is nowhere at home, nowhere regarded as a native, he remains an alien everywhere.”

The Jews must “build a secure home, end our endless life of wandering and rise to the dignity of a nation, in our own eyes and in the eyes of the world,” Pinsker concluded.

Finally, Jews must return to their ancient homeland, the land of Israel. In 1903 at the Sixth Zionist Congress, Herzl presented a plan to establish a temporary Jewish state in East Africa. He felt that the Jews needed to come up with a solution — any solution — to combat the rampant antisemitism of the day.

The Uganda Plan was rejected at the Seventh Zionist Congress in 1905. The other Zionist leaders would not give up their dreams to return the Jewish people to their ancestral homeland, even in the face of incessant, violent antisemitism.

Labor Zionism

Labor Zionists “treated Political Zionism as the start, not the end of the journey,” Troy wrote. They “envisioned a Jewish working class settling in Palestine and constructing a progressive Jewish society.”

“Labor Zionists did not just want to solve the Jewish Problem, or fashion a strong and self-sufficient New Jew. They wanted to save the world by creating a new model for humanity…to bring alive a realistic socialism,” Troy added.

One of the best-known expressions of Labor Zionism was the kibbutz. The kibbutz began as a communal farm where everyone shared everything. “Kibbutzniks” (as kibbutz members were called) worked the land and shared the responsibilities of running and protecting the community.

They shared profits, if they had any. Kibbutzniks did everything together. They dressed alike, ate the same food together in dining halls, and lived in simple, similar-looking concrete blocks. Originally, even the children lived together, away from their parents in communal children’s houses.

Labor Zionists believed that through working the land, the Jewish people would not only rebuild themselves — they would also create an egalitarian, cooperative society.

“The Jewish people will participate in the great historical movement of present-day humanity only when it will have its own fatherland,” Moses Hess, one of the founders of Labor Zionism, wrote in 1862. “Every Jew…ought to cling to the cause and labor for the regeneration of Israel.”

“Our pioneers [imagined] that when Jews would return to their homeland…they would make a better society…founded on the concepts of justice and equality,” said Golda Meir, Israel’s fourth prime minister and one of the founders of Mapai, the Labor Party of the Land of Israel, in 1930.

This strain of Zionism dominated for the first 30 years of Israel’s existence until Menachem Begin brought the Likud party to power in Israel, ushering in a new era in Israeli politics.

Revisionist Zionism 

Founded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky in 1925, Revisionist Zionism advocated a “revision” of the Zionist movement’s official policy (under the leadership of Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion).

“The goal of Zionism is: Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) as a single state on both sides of the Jordan River,” the slogan of the Revisionist Zionists read. What set this group apart from the other Zionists?

First, they insisted on the Jewish people’s right to sovereignty over the entire biblical land of Israel. To achieve this goal, they advocated for rapid, mass Jewish immigration to Palestine. This was in contrast to Weizmann who called for a more gradual settlement of the land.

Second, leading up to the Holocaust, the Revisionists also recognized the urgency of the situation and the immediate need to save as many Jews as possible. “Eliminate the Diaspora, or the Diaspora will surely eliminate you,” Jabotinsky warned bluntly.

Third, the Revisionists fundamentally mistrusted the British authorities in Palestine. While other Zionist leaders wanted to work with the British who (they believed) would eventually transfer power to the Jews, the Revisionists believed that the Jews would have to fight and win their own sovereignty. And they did not think it was going to be given to them by the British. 

Finally, the Revisionists opposed the Labor Zionists’ socialist vision for the Jewish state. They argued that there must be room for other ideologies in a future Jewish state.

“In opposition to the [Labor Zionist] workers, who claimed that they exclusively were the nation’s pioneers — which is how most of the Zionist public perceived them — Jabotinsky presented the petite bourgeoisie as another claimant to the crown of implementers of Zionism,” historian Anita Shapira explained.

After Jabotinsky’s death, Menachem Begin (who had been a leader in Jabotinsky’s youth movement, called Betar) came to embody Revisionist Zionism.

Like his mentor, Begin believed that all of the biblical land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel and the West Bank should be included. When asked about the annexation of the West Bank, he would get agitated and say: “You annex foreign land, not your own country.” 

But in 1979, Prime Minister Begin made a compromise with his own principles and agreed that Israel would withdraw all its settlements in the Sinai in exchange for peace with Egypt. Defending his decision to his fellow colleagues in the Knesset, he said:

“Yes there are difficulties in peace…there are. There are pains in peace…there are. There are victims for peace…there are. All of these are preferred to the victims of war…Our deepest desire is peace.”