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The Origins of Zionism: 19th Century - World War I PDF Version
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Photomontage of portraits of delegates to the first Zionist Congress
Source: Yivo
The Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE spelled the end of Jewish national autonomy in Israel. Like other defeated peoples, the Jews were dispersed. But throughout centuries of Diaspora life, both Judaism and Jewish national identity survived. A collective Jewish memory of the Land of Israel was passed from generation to generation through incorporation into Jewish liturgy and customs.

Beginning in the 19th century, longing for the Land of Israel took modern form in Zionism, a political movement aimed at restoring Jewish self-rule in Palestine. It was a time of great political ferment. Anti-Semitic violence in Eastern Europe, the trial of Alfred Dreyfus in France, and the rise of anti-Semitic political parties in Central Europe dashed the hopes of those who had believed that assimilation would lead to the acceptance of Jews in society and full civil rights for them. Many other nationalist movements were emerging and gathering strength during this era, and in this way, Zionism was very much a product of its time and place.

Early Zionist leaders, such as Leon Pinsker, author of Autoemancipation (1882), formulated the cornerstones of Zionist ideology: that the Jews were not only a religion but a nation, and that they were an anomaly among the nations of the world in that they did not have their own national territory, but instead lived scattered among other nations and were powerless to control their own destiny. Jews, the Zionists maintained, would only be able to gain control over their own safety, affairs, and future if they had their own national territory.

Beginning in the 1880s, small groups of mostly young people from Eastern Europe started making their way to Palestine, then a territory of the Ottoman Empire, and founded Jewish settlements, which they hoped would serve as a nucleus for later waves of Jewish settlement. In 1897, the Zionist movement became more organized when Theodor Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. From the beginning, the movement served as an umbrella for many different ideologies and visions of the future. This lesson focuses on the evolution of the mainstream Zionist movement, and students will explore how it was unified by the commitment to creating a Jewish state in Palestine, the location of the ancient Jewish homeland.

Grade Level:
High School

Subjects Covered:
European/World History, Arts and Communication, Art Connections, Historical Understanding

Students will gain an understanding of the origins and early history of Zionism. They will gain insight into why the movement took hold of the imaginations of so many Jews and became a force for change in modern Jewish life.

Learning Objectives:
Students will be able to:

  • explain the origins of the Jewish connection to the land of Israel;
  • understand the environment, events, and important figures surrounding the rise of modern Zionism;
  • explain the different facets of early Zionism;
  • understand why the movement took hold of the imaginations of so many Jews and became a force for change in modern Jewish life.

Suggested Time Frame:
Two 45-minute to one-hour class periods with optional additional time for presentation of extension projects.

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