What is Zionism?

There are only two real differences that distinguish between Zionism and previous messianic movements

THE TWENTY-FIRST Zionist Congress, Geneva, 1939. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
THE TWENTY-FIRST Zionist Congress, Geneva, 1939.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
One of the key divisions in Orthodoxy is its relationship to the state of Israel.
What is to be made of the strange phenomenon called Zionism? On the one hand, it embodies the hopes and dreams of our people for close to 2,000 years; on the other hand, it was created by Jews who denied God and rejected Halacha. Added to the bewilderment is the amazing success Zionism has had in establishing not only its state, but becoming a world power even while falling short of its unstated messianic goal. There are more Jews studying Torah today in the State of Israel than ever before in Jewish history. There are more synagogues, yeshivot and mikvaot – funded by the state – than in any country in the world. There are now more Jews living in the State of Israel than at any time in Jewish history. Yet, Israel still ranks too high in drug smuggling, the trafficking of women and digital piracy compared to any other country in the world. Its leaders are mostly either atheists or at best give a polite nod to religion. The vast majority of its citizens keep neither Shabbat nor kashrut.
What are we to make of all this? What is Zionism?
In a very real way, Zionism is in fact messianism under new modern rationalist branding. Most scholars agree that messianic movements shoot forth out of a crisis that the Jewish people suffer and then pivot toward the messianic movement as a sort of remedy to deal with the crisis. Zionism’s crisis was the emergence of the Jew from the ghetto to rejoin European civilization and the inability of the Jew to properly assimilate into its midst. One can say that the failure of 19th century European Jewry to assimilate successfully is the seed that brings forth the harvest of Zionism.
There are only two real differences that distinguish between Zionism and previous messianic movements:
1. Past messianic movements centered around a single individual, while Zionism centers around an ideology and a geographic area.
2. Every “messiah” in the past has been by definition a false messiah, while Zionism has yet to prove itself false, and if anything, its successes only buttresses its messianic claim.
These are also some of the problems Europeans historians have in trying to classify Zionism. Some ignore it; others give it a polite nod. Unlike other national movements of the 19th century, Zionism does not fit neatly into any of the categories that historians place for themselves. Unlike other national movements where people sought to establish their national aspirations on their already existing national soil; Zionism sought to reconstitute a people from dispersed lands into a country that they mostly did not yet live in!
The other difference between Zionism and other national movements of the time is precisely what brought many of us here to Eretz Yisrael. The reason behind its success against the odds is that Zionism was no mere national movement like that of the other European peoples. Zionism for the Jew evoked messianism and an eschatology of sorts. The very name of the national liberation movement, “Zionism,” brought to mind biblical dreams of the utopian end of the Exile as foretold by the Hebrew prophets. It was almost impossible to even utter the term without all of the historical, religious and messianic baggage the word conjured.
“They think they have made Hebrew into a secular language, that they have removed its apocalyptic sting,” wrote Gershom Scholem, “but that is not so… God will not remain dumb in the language in which He has been adjured so many thousands of times to come back into our lives.” 
In fact, some scholars believe that the early Zionists “freely employed messianic language in books, tracts and speeches as a sort of romantic nationalist “code” in order to lend the movement legitimacy and gain the support of the Jewish masses.” (Sorkin, “Between Messianism and Survival,” Journal of Modern Jewish Studies, Vol 3, March 2004)
This leads us to believe that Zionism is the modern incarnation of the same messianism that propelled all the other messianic movements in Jewish history. Yet, unlike other messianic movements, it has yet to be proven a success or a failure! Because Zionism is a form of messianism, it constitutes a religious movement, even if it fiercely denies that.
For these reasons, both secular and religious Jewry were wary of Zionism. This wariness was even more acute among the haredim, because Zionism posed a threat to one of its core beliefs, that redemption would only come through adherence to the mitzvot and not through political agitation. The fact that Zionism’s success was due to the cessation of just praying for the redemption and actually doing something to bring it about only leads to a greater confusion among them.
We religious Zionists see the inclusion of secular Jews in the redemptive process, not as something baffling, but something wonderful, a means to unite all Jews in a common mission and goal. It provides an open door to allow every Jew an opportunity to play a role in the greatest show in the history of the world. The redemption’s start among those that rejected Jewish practice is yet another example of the prophecy in Isaiah 55, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord!”
The writer holds a doctorate in Jewish philosophy and teaches in post-high school yeshivot and midrashot in Jerusalem.