Secular Zionism

From religious idea to secular ideology.


The hope for the redemption of the Jewish people–the end of exile and the return to the Land of Israel–is a central component of Jewish religious belief. The transformation of this religious belief into a political ideology at the end of the 19th century led to the creation of the Zionist movement.

For Jews, the dominant issue of the day was the so-called “Jewish Problem,” the anti-Semitism and outsider status Jews faced in Europe. The Zionists perceived this “problem” as one that could only be solved  by a Jewish national home. Early Zionism was divided into four major streams–religious, political, cultural, and labor-socialist. All except the first constitute the different types of secular Zionism.

Political Zionism

Most of us associate Theodor Herzl with the founding of the Zionist movement. This is true in that Herzl succeeded in bringing together under one organizational roof various Zionist groups; however, there was significant Zionist activity before Herzl came onto the scene.

early secular zionism--herzlMore than 20 new Jewish settlements were established in Palestine between 1870 and 1897 (the year of the first Zionist Congress). These were built by various groups, most notably Hovevei Zion (“lovers of Zion”), a network of local Zionist groups in Eastern Europe. Hovevei Zion joined together secular and religious Jews who shared the goal of colonizing the Land of Israel and did so in a proactive and organized way that set a precedent for the future.

Leo Pinsker, a doctor from Odessa, became one of the leaders of Hovevei Zion. In reaction to growing anti-Semitism in Russia and the pogroms of 1881, he wrote an important pamphlet, “Auto-Emancipation” (1882), in which he said the Jewish people were a “nation long since dead.” The Jew, “a ghost,” was hated by all, cursed to live out the millennia along with anti-Semitism, which would continue as long as the Jew walked among the nations.

To Pinsker, the answer was what he called Auto-Emancipation: The Jewish people had to organize, revive itself as a nation, and remove itself to a new land. “We need nothing but a large piece of land for our poor brothers; a piece of land which shall remain our property, from which no foreign master can expel us,” he wrote. Pinsker did not believe that this land had to be the Land of Israel (though this was preferable), but first and foremost a refuge–granted by the nations of the world–that would save and rehabilitate the Jews.

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Rabbi Ed Snitkoff is the Director of the Ramah Israel Seminar and lives in Jerusalem.

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