Echoes of Ancient Longing: Zionism as the Continuum of Jewish Identity

Jerusalem, The Old city, City walls - This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International
Jerusalem, The Old city, City walls - This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

One finds oneself, with weary inevitability, confronting yet another dismal mischaracterization of the Zionist enterprise. The claim is so audaciously simple-minded that it would scarce merit a response, were it not so perniciously widespread: that Zionism is merely the latest chapter in the sordid annals of colonialism, a conjurer’s trick played with smoke and mirrors to dispossess and subjugate in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Such assertions are the intellectual equivalent of cheap conjuring tricks, designed to dazzle the gullible while the truth vanishes up the sleeve of history.

It behooves us, therefore, to administer a brief tutorial — not merely a rebuttal but a corrective — to this flagrant amnesia masquerading as enlightenment. To peddle the line that Zionism is a colonialist escapade, blooming in the shadows of the Shoah, is to exhibit a breathtaking contempt for the historical record. The ties that bind the Jewish people to the strip of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea are not the tawdry stuff of imperialist machination but the sinew and bone of historical connection, as enduring and venerable as any that history can furnish.

To overlook the tendrils of this bond that reach back to the very cradle of Jewish civilization is an act of deliberate historical vandalism. And it is done, one suspects, with the most cynical of motives: to delegitimize a nation-state that has, against a tide of unrelenting hostility and with a tenacity that borders on the miraculous, carved out a place for itself under the sun.

The litany of those who yearn to see Israel expunged from the register of nations is long and ignoble, and it is no secret that Hamas, with its charter calling for the destruction of Israel, beats its chest at the vanguard. But to parrot the talking points of such factions under the guise of anti-colonial fervor is not merely wrong-headed; it is an intellectual offense of the first order.

One need not carry water for the Israeli government, nor offer apologetics for the complexities of Israeli policy, to recognize that the story of Jewish return to Zion is as replete with nuance and narrative richness as any epic. And just as with any grand narrative, it deserves to be told in full, free from the taint of ideological distortion.

The attempt to recast the Jewish struggle for a homeland as a belated colonialist scramble for territory not only insults the intelligence; it besmirches the memory of those for whom the dream of a return to Zion was kept alive through centuries of dispersion and persecution. If one is to engage seriously with the Middle East, it is past time these shabby and threadbare canards were retired, and the discourse elevated to a plane befitting the gravity of the subject.


Zionism, as a crystallized political impulse, made its debut in the waning years of the nineteenth century, its contours sharply etched in Theodor Herzl’s “Der Judenstaat,” an urgent manifesto predating the Shoah by half a century. Herzl’s text was less innovation than it was a distilled essence of a millennia-old Jewish plea for emancipation from the perennial specter of European anti-Semitism. Yet to construe Zionism as a mere reaction to this hostility is to ignore the venerable lineage that underpins it.

The Psalmists of antiquity were not composing mere poetry when they lamented by the waters of Babylon; they articulated a visceral yearning for Zion, a yearning that has been the bedrock of Jewish liturgical and cultural existence since the epoch of the Babylonian captivity. The Jews knew where they belonged long before Herzl penned his clarion call.

Consider this: to postulate that Zionism is a product of the Shoah is akin to suggesting that Greek philosophy owes its genesis to the Roman Empire—such an argument would be laughably anachronistic, not to mention patently false. The link between the Jewish people and Israel is not a convenience of recent political necessity; it is a thread woven through the fabric of Jewish identity, as ancient as the covenant of Abraham, as enduring as the stones of Jerusalem (Sachar, Howard M. “A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time.” New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996).

Herzl’s Zionism was no colonial pipe dream; it was an echo of an ancient call to return, a plea that resonated through the long night of the Diaspora. The waves of Aliyah in the dawn of the twentieth century were the physical manifestation of this enduring hope—an expression of the intrinsic human right to self-determination and a repudiation of the notion that a people could be eternally adrift from their historical moorings (Segev, Tom. “One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate.” Translated by Haim Watzman, Henry Holt and Company, 2000).

To attribute to the Shoah the genesis of Zionism is to display a grievous historical amnesia. Yes, the Holocaust, in all its abject horror, underscored the desperate need for a Jewish homeland, but it was by no means the progenitor of this aspiration. The Shoah illuminated the peril of statelessness; it did not engender the long-standing Jewish claim to nationhood (Bauer, Yehuda. “A History of the Holocaust.” Franklin Watts, 1982).

The tapestry of Jewish continuity, with its rich hues of religious and cultural tradition, has always had Zion as its central motif. The liturgical refrain of “Next year in Jerusalem,” does not owe its origins to modern political circumstances; it is a legacy from the time when the Second Temple still cast its shadow across the Judean hills (Schwartz, Dov. “Yom Kippur: The Day of Atonement in the Jewish Tradition.” Translated by Batya Stein, Academic Studies Press, 2020).

It bears stating that the medieval and early modern periods saw Jewish scholars and mystics maintaining a living bridge to the land of Israel, often against insurmountable odds—a testament to the enduring bond between the people and the land, not a fleeting impulse born out of the European machinations of empire (Elon, Amos. “The Israelis: Founders and Sons.” New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971).

Zionism, in the final analysis, was and remains a movement deeply seated in the historical consciousness of the Jewish people—a people’s unflagging quest for a return to their ancestral homeland, a journey back to a place that has been etched into the very sinews of their collective identity long before the modern political lexicon had words for such phenomena (Laqueur, Walter. “A History of Zionism.” New York: Schocken Books, 2003).

The academic exercise of dissecting Zionism through the lens of historical and ideological development only further corroborates its deep-seated roots in the annals of Jewish memory and identity, as Zerubavel articulates in “Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition” (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).

Thus, while political Zionism was indeed galvanized in the modern age, it was nothing short of the reanimation of an ancient spirit—a spirit that has roamed through the corridors of Jewish history, undimmed by exile and unquenched by dispersion. The Zionist ethos is a reverberating echo of a millennia-old litany for homecoming—a sentiment deeply interwoven with the narrative of Jewish endurance.

About the Author
Catherine Perez-Shakdam - Director Forward Strategy and Research Fellow at the American Centre for Levant Studies. Catherine is a former Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and consultant for the UNSC on Yemen, as well an expert on Iran, Terror and Islamic radicalisation. A prominent political analyst and commentator, she has spoken at length on the Islamic Republic of Iran, calling on the UK to proscribe the IRGC as a terrorist organisation. Raised in a secular Jewish family in France, Catherine found herself at the very heart of the Islamic world following her marriage to a Muslim from Yemen. Her experience in the Middle East and subsequent work as a political analyst gave her a very particular, if not a rare viewpoint - especially in how one can lose one' sense of identity when confronted with systemic antisemitism. Determined to share her experience and perspective on those issues which unfortunately plague us -- Islamic radicalism, Terror and Antisemitism Catherine also will speak of a world, which often sits out of our reach for a lack of access.
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