Theordore Herzl at the First Zionist Congress, 1897 Theordore Herzl at the First Zionist Congress, 1919. Photo: Public Domain

In this, the third in our series Nakba75: the Roots of Israeli Apartheid, Susan Jones looks at the origins of modern Zionism and the importance of the Balfour Declaration

The State of Israel as we know it today is a product of Zionism. Zionism is a political philosophy of Jewish nationalism. It combines partly religious and partly historical ideas that claim the world’s Jewish population has a right to that part of the modern Middle East that has, for thousands of years, been home to Palestinian Arabs (Muslims, Christians and Jews).

Zionist ideas only started to gain influence in Jewish communities towards the end of the nineteenth century. At this time somewhere in the region of 90% of the Jewish population in the world lived in Europe. Though plenty of Jewish people were well assimilated into European culture across the continent and they had made important contributions to European culture in politics, the arts, literature and science, antisemitism in Europe was on the rise.

In eastern Europe, in the last vestiges of European feudal societies, local rulers tried to maintain their power by deploying anti-Jewish pogroms and expelling local Jewish communities. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, there were waves of deadly pogroms launched against eastern European Jewish communities in, what was known as the Pale of Settlement (covering parts of present-day Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia), where the Tsars of Russia allowed permanent Jewish residency.

In the face of increasing levels of violence and oppression, the Jews of Eastern Europe started to migrate. And as they migrated, they were confronted by racism. In opposition to the rising levels of antisemitism, Jewish communities began to develop and adopt strong traditions of anarchism and socialism.

The most significant Jewish organization to emerge from the Pale was the General Jewish Labour Bund (known simply as the Bund) formed in the late 1890s.The Bund was a secular, socialist organisation that actively campaigned against antisemitism, defended Jewish civil and cultural rights, and rejected assimilation. In general terms, the Bund rejected working with religious, Zionist and conservative groups in the Jewish community, and instead developed links with other socialist, labour and trade-union organisations.

Theodor Herzl

But antisemitism also led to the growth of Zionism. The Zionism that we know today can be attributed largely to the efforts of Theodor Herzl in the late nineteenth century. Herzl was an Austro-Hungarian Jew who dedicated his younger years to (non-Jewish) nationalism. But he was also a journalist and, in that role, he covered the trial of Albert Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army. Dreyfus faced trumped-up charges of communicating French military secrets to Germany. The trial provoked an outburst of antisemitism across France.

This had a profound impact on Herzl, who concluded that the only means to liberate the Jewish people from rampant European antisemitism was to encourage the migration of all Jewish peoples to Palestine. It is important to note that Herzl himself was not a particularly religious man, and that his Zionism was a secular one, though he did try to ingratiate himself with European Orthodox communities, to varying degrees of success. But he soon identified two key elements that were to shape modern Zionism.

First, he acknowledged that Jewish biblical myths were an important source for developing an exclusivist and nationalistic Jewish identity. Thus Palestine, as the ancient homeland of the Jewish diaspora, became the place to form the Jewish state.

Second, he deliberately linked the Zionist project into the broader European imperial scheme: he realised that, to establish an exclusivist Jewish state, Zionism would need to ingratiate itself with Europe’s imperial powers. Here he courted the British, because they were the most significant imperial power of the age. He believed that a Jewish homeland could only be obtained by ‘assured supremacy’, that is, becoming a colonial settler state tied to imperial interests. As Herzl said:

‘England with her possessions in Asia should be most interested in Zionism, for the shortest route to India is by way of Palestine. England’s great politicians were the first to recognise the need for colonial expansion … And so I believe in England the idea of Zionism, which is a colonial idea, should be easily understood.’

However, Herzl had some difficulty trying to convince other European Jews to drop everything and move to Palestine. He failed to drum up very much financial support for the Zionist movement.

Herzl had far more luck convincing some ordinary people that Jewish assimilation was impossible, and eventually garnered enough support to set up the World Zionist Organisation. The First Zionist Congress was held in Basel in 1897, a year after the publication of The Jewish State, for which Herzl had already become relatively well known.

British imperialism

It was Zionist leader, and future President of Israel, Chaim Weizmann who would play a key role in obtaining British support for the Zionist project. Weizmann was born in present-day Belarus, but moved to western Europe at the turn of the century. He lived in Manchester from 1904, and was introduced to (then Prime Minister) Arthur Balfour in 1905. In 1916, Balfour became Foreign Secretary in Lloyd George’s coalition government.

In 1917, Weizmann was invited to secret discussions with the British government which led to the Balfour Declaration. The Declaration is short, but makes its position clear: ‘His Majesty’s Government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object.’

The Declaration was motivated by British self-interest that coalesced with the ambitions of the Zionist movement. For the British, the aim was to:

‘Integrate this project [i.e. of establishing a Jewish Homeland in Palestine] into the goal of sustaining empire without appearing to replicate imperialist expansionism and colonisation. They hoped that Zionist settlement would provide a convenient surrogate, effectively implementing colonisation under the guise of national reconstruction. Zionism … became an important adjunct of British imperial strategy in the Near East.’[1]

At the end of the First World War, the League of Nations handed Britain the mandate to control Palestine. British control over Palestine, in conjunction with the Balfour Declaration, created a historic opportunity for the Zionist Movement to establish a settler society in Palestine – under British protection – that would start the process of the violent dispossession of the Palestinian people from their homes and land and come to shape modern Israeli society.


[1] Bernard Regan, The Balfour Declaration: Empire, the Mandate and Resistance in Palestine (London: Verso 2017), p.9.


The Nakba75: the Roots of Israeli Apartheid series:
  1. Downward spiral: Settlers and state violence
  2. Palestine and the carve-up of the Middle East
  3. The origins of Zionism and the Balfour Declaration
  4. Palestinian resistance to Mandate rule
  5. What is settler colonialism?
  6. Al-Nakba: The ethnic cleansing of Palestine
  7. Israel: Watchdog for US imperialism
  8. Palestine: the key to freedom in the Middle East rests with the Arab working class
  9. Palestine and international solidarity

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