Two 20th Century events irrevocably shaped Jewish destiny: the massacre of six million Jews in the Shoah and the establishment of the State of Israel. They are certainly linked; after all, a visitor cannot understand Israel without visiting Yad VaShem. And yet, it is crucial to understand that Israel was well on its way to becoming real long before Hitler’s rise.
As we commemorate Yom HaShoah, friends and foes alike repeat the falsehood that Israel was established because of the Holocaust. Many Jews, lacking the knowledge of Israel’s history and purpose, believe that Israel came into being in 1948 as some sort of reparation the world’s failure to stop the Nazis in time. Occasionally Palestinian propagandists suggest that Jews were awarded Palestine as compensation for their victimhood—and that Palestinians have suffered for Europe’s crimes.
Even President Barack Obama, in his famous 2009 Cairo speech to the Muslim world, demonstrated this misreading of history, invoking the Shoah as the only rationale upon which Israel exists.
But the origins of Zionism are far earlier than World War II. Certainly, there were always Jewish enclaves in the Land of Israel throughout the ages. But when we speak of “Zionism,” we mean the modernist movement that emerged in the 19th century salons and journals of Enlightenment-era Europe.
Various streams of Zionism appeared at that time. They fit four general categories: religious awakening, the question of how to be a Jew in modern times, the renewal of Jewish culture, and a response to anti-Semitism.
Most Jewish religious movements in the 19th century—Orthodox and Reform alike—avoided calling upon Jews to move en masse to the Land of Israel. Nevertheless, as early as the 1830s nonconformists like Rabbi Yehuda Alkalai in Serbia (1798-1878) and Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer in Prussia (1795-1874) were making the religious case for self-emancipation and the establishment of new schools and communities in Palestine.
However, most 19th century Zionist leaders were secular Jews who had been influenced by the zeitgeist of the day: nationalism. It dawned on them—and, unfortunately, on their neighbors—that Jews would always be guests (at best) amidst the nationalist aspirations that were flourishing across the continent. Jews—who had always identified as am yisrael, “the nation of Israel”— began to explore what membership in the Jewish nation meant.
Many of the Zionist leaders had abandoned traditional religion which, in their view, failed to offer meaning in the modern world. So they asked: What, beyond religion, does Jewish peoplehood mean today? For thinkers like Yosef Hayyim Brenner (1881-1921) or Aharon David Gordon (1856-1922), Jewish spirit in the Diaspora would always be stunted; only by working the Land of Israel itself would a new, healthy Jew emerge. And for Ahad Ha’am (1856-1927), Jewish autonomy entailed a renaissance of Jewish culture and in all the expressions of its spirit. This renaissance could not happen as guests in another’s home.
Others were convinced that Zinoism was the only refuge from pogroms and state- and church-sanctioned anti-Semitism. This political Zionism culminated with Theodor Herzl (1860-1904). Herzl concluded that a cataclysm was approaching and he sought a political refuge to save Jewish lives—decades before Hitler’s appearance.
In 1897, Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, where leaders of different streams gathered to shape the movement. Afterwards, Herzl wrote in his diary:
In Basel I founded the Jewish state. If I were to say this aloud I would meet with general laughter; but in another five years, and certainly in another fifty years, everyone will be convinced of this.
After World War I, as the Ottoman Empire collapsed and Great Britain came to dominate the Middle East, maps and futures were being redrawn. The floodgates opened with the Balfour Declaration. On November 2, 1917, the British foreign secretary officially endorsed “with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”
The Balfour Declaration coincided with waves of Jewish immigrants coming to Palestine. The Second Aliyah (1904-1914) brought 40,000 people, largely Russian socialists and labor Zionists, fleeing the pogroms. The Third Aliyah (1919-1923) brought another 40,000 Jews and the Fourth Aliyah (1924-1928) brought 80,000, as a result of postwar economic crises—and immigration quotas in the United States.
Simultaneously, the Yishuv (the nascent Jewish government in Palestine) was building the infrastructure of the state-to-be. The city of Tel Aviv was founded in 1909 on the seashore north of Jaffa. The Haganah, the antecedent of the Israel Defense Forces, was established in 1920. And Hebrew University in Jerusalem was dedicated in 1925.
These currents made the coming reality of a Jewish state clear by the 1930s. In 1937, the British Peel Commission recommended the partition of Palestine into a Jewish State and an Arab State. Setting a sad precedent, the Zionist leadership accepted the plan while the Arabs rejected it. But by now the words “Jewish state” were no longer a political unicorn; its realization was in sight.
This momentum was contagious overseas. American Reform rabbis reversed their longstanding rejection of Zionism. In the Columbus Platform of 1937, they wrote:
In the rehabilitation of Palestine, the land hallowed by memories and hopes, we behold the promise of renewed life for many of our brethren. We affirm the obligation of all Jewry to aid in its upbuilding as a Jewish homeland.
Even then, few anticipated the Final Solution. If the Nazis never had come to power, or if they had been stopped by the allies before the Holocaust came to be, there is no reason to think that the Zionists’ momentum would have ceased.
Of course, the death camps did happen, and in 1948 the State of Israel was declared. Hundreds of thousands of refugees arrived on Israel’s shores. The attempts by the British to limit Jewish migration to Israel—as dramatized by the Exodus 1947 episode—only served to illustrate why a Jewish State was necessary.
Why is all this important? Because to understand Israel today, one must realize that the Shoah is part of the collective story of the Jewish people. But our connections to the land—and to one another, to am yisrael—were in place long before the Nazis’ vile rise to power. The Shoah may justify the vigor with which Israelis fight for their right to exist, but it does not explain why Israel became a historical reality.
Hitler did not create the State of Israel. But because of the Shoah, Israel’s importance, its legitimacy, and its centrality in Jewish life are laid bare.