Many people consider that the imperialist Balfour Declaration opened the way for the creation of the state of Israel. The Balfour Declaration may have intended nothing more than creating a pro-British colony of ex-pat European Jews in Palestine. But the Zionist movement took advantage of the opening provided to it and created an independent Jewish state. That was a historic accomplishment — but the greater achievement, in my opinion, was the revival of Jewish national identity precisely at the point at which it was likely to disappear, the subsequent ingathering of Jewish people from all over the world, and the gradual evolution of a new “multi-ethnic” Jewish culture in the Land of Israel.
Thanks to the European “Enlightenment”, European Jews were gradually emancipated and enfranchised. The process began sporadically with Frederick II of Prussia leading the way. Napoleon took the ideals of the French Revolution with his armies on his wars of conquest and liberated Jewish communities along the warpath. Conservative elements in these countries reacted strongly to this initiative and strove to restrain the liberalizing forces that Napoleon had unleashed, but slowly European Jews began to be integrated into the societies in which they lived, regardless of the hostility they encountered. They ceased to be “resident aliens” and gradually became citizens of the developing nation-states.
As these modern nation-states developed and nationalism intensified, the newly enfranchised Jewish communities were drawn in—and sought to draw themselves into—their host countries. By World War I, the Ashkenazi Jewish world had grown increasingly fragmented by language and citizenship. English Jews fought for Great Britain; German Jews sided with Germany. The ancient national bond of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel, still celebrated in traditional Jewish prayers, was at risk as more and more Jews defined themselves—and were seen by non-Jews—as Jewish by religion rather than nationality and as citizens of the countries in which they lived.
Modern anti-Semitism, which reached its apogee in Nazi Germany (and parallel movements in other European countries), was the reaction to a misperceived threat of Jewish integration. Jewish assimilation—the adoption of the norms of the host society, if not the embrace of Christianity itself—was a Jewish reaction to this rejection. If one could simply minimize (as in the case of Reform Judaism), or better yet, erase (through conversion) those points of conflict between Jew and non-Jew, full acceptance, some Jews thought, would be sure to follow. Jewish revolutionary activity was another response. It assumed that, come the Revolution, anti-Semitism would be wiped away as people joined together in a new era of international brotherhood.
Zionism was yet another response to modern anti-Semitism.
Zionism was seen as a solution to Europe’s “Jewish problem.” Actually it was a European Jewish solution to its “European Christian problem.” Based on the premise that Jews would never be wholly accepted by the European nations, Zionism proposed removing Europe’s Jews to a land where they could practice self-determination and live lives free from prejudice, discrimination, persecution and oppression. After heatedly considering various possible sites, the Zionist movement settled on returning to the homeland of Eretz Yisrael. But initially this return only applied to European Jews.
At the dawn of the Zionist movement, Jewish diversity meant westernized Ashkenazi Jews encountering traditionalist East European Ashkenazi Jews. The existence of Sephardic Jews scarcely entered the Ashkenazi consciousness and that of Mizrahi Jews even less so. Although European and American Jews had rallied to intervene when “exotic” Jewish communities were threatened, as in the case of the Chinese Jews of Kaifeng threatened by Christian missionaries or the Jews of Damascus under the cloud of a blood libel, Jews residing outside of Europe were scarcely taken into account by the Zionist endeavor. Nonetheless, even though this was not its primary intent, as a result of the creation of the State of Israel, Zionism reunited many of the diverse strands of the Jewish people in one national home.
One of my teachers at Hebrew Union College, the late Bonia Shur, used to wax poetic about what he saw as an emerging Israeli musical genre, one that would combine various Ashkenazi modes with Sephardic, Mizrahi, Indian, Ethiopian, and even Palestinian Arab musical traditions. The same idea holds true for other aspects of Israeli culture as well. Consider what this amalgamated Jewish culture might look like in another fifty years.
Zionism succeeded in saving the Jewish nationality at the very point in time when it was about to become extinct after some 2,000 years in Galut (Exile). More than this, by bringing these disparate Jewish communities together in their old-new home, Zionism created the opportunity for the weaving of a whole new cultural tapestry, woven from diverse cultures in which Jews had lived for several millennia.