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The role of Zionism in today’s war between Israel, Hamas


The eternal search for a homeland

The Middle East has been a tumultuous region for centuries, with each populace resorting to war over land and religious beliefs. While there have been moments of peace, these periods were rocky at best between the bordering countries.  The historic tension usually spills over into the United States, but this time it’s different as authorities have announced that hate crimes against both Jewish and Muslim citizens have risen by some 40% since the Hamas terrorist attack on Oct. 7.

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) was out for a jog in the Old City that morning when the chaos began. His chief of staff called advising him to take immediate cover:

“When I got back to the hotel, I joined others in the stairwell. [There were] many frightened faces, a number of which were Americans,” Booker said.

There were reports that Eritreans (asylum seekers) on opposing sides threw rocks and vandalized some shops in Southern Tel Aviv following the attack. News reports have revealed that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu requested two months ago the immediate deportation of African migrants from Israel. 

African-Americans have taken to social media to voice their opinions. Some have taken sides–as is common amid persistent warfare in the region–but many have opted this time to “sit this out.”

While ancient history, such as the study of the Roman and Ottoman empires, plays a role in how the countries in the Middle East border one another, the recent struggle for territory and power started back in the late 1800s when Zionism influenced the minds of many Jewish people living in European countries. The ideology of Zionism has been around in some forms since the Old Testament, but modern Zionism is a nationalist movement founded by Theodor Herzl in 1897. Herzl, an Austrian journalist, regarded assimilation in Europe as most desirable but, because of widespread anti-Semitism in Europe, the dream was largely impossible to realize. Herzl came up with the idea that if Jews in Europe were forced by external pressure to form a nation, they could live a normal existence only through concentration in one territory. 

In 1897, Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress at Basel, Switzerland, which drew up the Basel program of the movement, stating that “Zionism strives to create for the Jewish people a home in Palestine secured by public law.” 

At the core, the Zionist concept was the traditional aspiration for a Jewish national home through the re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty in Palestine. This was to be facilitated by the Jewish Diaspora. The organizations of Hovevei Zion held as the forerunners of Zionist ideals and were responsible for the creation of 20 Jewish towns in Palestine between 1870 and 1897.  Over the next few years, Herzel and the Zionist Congress met every year; gathering support from other nations to find a suitable place for Jewish people to settle.  In 1903, after being denied land in Palestine by the Ottoman government, Herzl found support in Great Britain, as they offered him and his group 6,000 square miles of uninhabited land in Uganda. While everything was moving in the direction Herzl and the Zionists were hoping, it changed in 1904 with the death of Herzl. 

The Zionists, at that point, had been around for some time but remained a small minority within the larger Jewish community in Europe. Many questioned the ideals of the Zionists and their vision for the Jewish community.  Zionism implied disbelief in the promise of civil emancipation and a certain contempt for Jews whose fervent wish was assimilation into their immediate environment. On the other hand, by offering a secular alternative to tradition, Zionism challenged religious orthodoxy as well — although, given the orthodox view of Jewry as a nation. The Zionists were thus condemned from the outset to being a minority among the Jews and lacking the support that national movements receive from the people they were trying to liberate.

With the death of Herzl in 1904, the perception that the majority of Jewish people had of Zionism–and having to deal with the consequences of the failure of the Russian Revolution of 1905– things looked bleak for the movement. But rising Zionists Chaim Weizmann and Nahum Sokolow had plans that changed the trajectory of the movement.  They were instrumental in obtaining the Balfour Declaration from Great Britain in 1917, which promised British support for the creation of a Jewish national home in Palestine. In the following years, the Zionists would form  Jewish urban and rural settlements in Palestine, perfecting autonomous organizations and solidifying Jewish cultural life and Hebrew education. 

In March 1925, the Jewish population in Palestine was 108,000 and rose to about 238,000 by 1933. While the numbers seem large the Jewish immigration was slow, that didn't stop Arabs from fearing the loss of their land to foreigners. The strain of suppressing the Arab revolt of 1936–39, which was more extensive and sustained than earlier uprisings, ultimately led Britain to reassess its policies. In hopes of keeping the peace between Jews and Palestinians and retaining Arab support against Germany and Italy in World War II, Britain in 1939 placed restrictions on Jewish immigration.. 

In 1947, The United Nations (U.N.), led by Dr. Ralph Bunch as secretary of the Palestine  Commission, approved a plan to partition Palestine into a Jewish and Arab state, but the Arabs rejected it. In May 1948, Israel was officially declared an independent state with David Ben-Gurion, the head of the Jewish Agency, as the prime minister. A large European Jewish migration took place, with many moving to the now-known country of Israel. Tensions were still high between the Zionists and Arabs, which led to the First Arab–Israeli War, followed by the civil war in Mandatory Palestine as the second and final stage of the 1948 Palestine War. It formally began following the end of the British Mandate in Palestine on May 14 of that year when the Israeli Declaration of Independence was issued earlier that day, and a military coalition of Arab states entered the territory of British Palestine the following morning.

The establishment of Israel and the war that followed and preceded it led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, who became refugees, sparking a decades-long conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people. About 800,000 Arabs had also fled or were expelled from the area that became Israel. Thus, 50 years after the first Zionist Congress and 30 years after the Balfour Declaration, Zionism achieved its aim of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine, but at the same time, it became an armed camp surrounded by hostile Arab nations.

Now, Gaza and Israel have divided the world as some feel that Gaza and Hamas are in the wrong for attacking Israel, while the opposite side feels like Israel changed their original plan for wanting a home for Jewish people to a Zionist and conquering mindset. In 2021, Israel threatened to evict Palestinian families from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem — home to holy sites of significance for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. This move led to protests from Palestinians but turned violent once Israeli police arrived in East Jerusalem, giving way to war. Hamas fired rockets at Jerusalem, and Israel responded with airstrikes on Gaza, as Hamas assumed control of Gaza in 2007.  After 11 days of fighting, 200 civilians died in the back-and-forth tragedy. A ceasefire was brokered by Egypt and Qatar, but Palestinian frustrations were left unaddressed, and violence continued. 

While the world preached and advocated for peace in the Middle East for generations, the situation severely devolved into wanton violence on Oct. 7, 2023. Hamas launched an attack on Israel, with Israel quickly responding with an attack on Gaza. The attack on Gaza puzzled the nation because up until that point, Gaza was seen as a refugee camp, as The U.N. described the  occupied territory as a “chronic humanitarian crisis.” Israel's intelligence bureau had led citizens to assume that Hamas soldiers were stationed in Gaza, which prompted the continuous airstrikes and the blockade put up by Israel at the Gaza Strip.

At the moment of this article, the death toll in the war has amounted to more than 10,000 civilians dead in Gaza, which includes more than 4,000 children. Another 26,000 people in Gaza have been injured and roughly 270,000 persons have been displaced. Israel's loss of 1,400 people is the largest death toll for Jews since the Holocaust. At press time, some 5,600 Israelis have been injured. The numbers will rise as the war persists and at a rapid rate as countries like Iran, Syria, and the USA possibly look to intervene at some point if Gaza, Hamas, and Israel don't come to a ceasefire or a peace treaty. 

“The dread Israelis are feeling right now, myself included, is a sliver of what Palestinians have been feeling daily under the decades-long military regime in the West Bank, and under the siege and repeated assaults on Gaza,” writes the Israeli journalist Haggai Mattar in 972 Magazine. 

This article is a part of a series of articles for Our Weekly's #StopTheHate campaign and is supported in whole or part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library. #NoPlaceForHateCA,

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