Ask any proclaimed Zionist when the movement began and they will likely tell you it occurred in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897. That is incorrect.
Zionism 1: Fleeing – Europe Zionism
In 1882, Jews – many of whom were leaders and intellectuals – were looking for a way to escape the antisemitism in Europe. Almost 17 years prior to the World Zionist Congress in Basel, on a cold January day, 56 delegates from 29 different European towns – including my great-grandfather, David Kahana – gathered in Focsani, Romania, to discuss their common dream of finding a new home for the Jewish people. This meeting has been dubbed the Focsani Congress, which in the eyes of many, was the first Zionist Congress, before the leadership of Theodor Herzl.
These delegates were welcomed by Mosheh Halevy Goldring, a respected leader and visionary, who presided over this historic convention. He called it the Union for the Agricultural Settlement of Israel and he presented the attendees with a bold plan to organize group immigration to Palestine and Syria and establish farming communities there. He argued to the group that immigration was the only way to solve the Jewish problem in much of Europe, where they faced persecution and poverty. He inspired everyone with his passion and conviction and urged them to join him in this noble endeavor.
Going back to the Focsani Congress, my great-grandfather and his friends listened with rapt attention and hope, as Mosheh and others of the Congress laid out the details of the movement that would later be known as Hovevei Zion or Hibat Zion.
This Congress was focused on finding the Jewish people a better place to live. Indeed, Liviu Rotman, a Romanian historian, notes: “it was late in 1881, a year when a strong wave of antisemitism began in Europe, especially in the east,” specifically in Czarist Russia, where pogroms were looming on the horizon. Several antisemitic acts had occurred in Romania, as well, he notes. As such, he explains, “the movement of returning to Palestine” was popular because “it was seen more and more as an emergency measure, a solution to the serious issues that the Jewish population was facing, the physical danger faced by Eastern European Jews.”
Zionism 2: Nation-State Zionism
Years after this “first” congress, Herzl has introduced the world to an evolved type of Zionism: the nationalist idea of creating a Zionist state – national colonization – for the Jewish people in the ancient land of Israel. He believed in creating a place for the Jewish people that would be very different from what he and many others saw in the European shtetls. He spoke of work and industry and rallying upon an ideal.
Herzl was the product of the Haskalah movement, the Jewish Enlightenment founded in Odesa, Ukraine, around the 1770s. This was an intellectual revolution for the Jewish people that would clear the path for the great Jewish scientists, philosophers and secular political leaders to follow. The movement emphasized learning, writing and speaking of Hebrew well before any Zionist Congress and cleared the way for a secular and proudly Jewish national identity.
The Zionist Congress also wrestled with a contradiction we see today. The paradox of European Jewish success and leadership juxtaposed against ongoing antisemetism: pogroms, the Dreyfus Affair and the rise of Fascism. Therefore, the Zionist Congress focused largely on the need for a political nation-state for Jews – not religious. And the antisemitism that increased – exponentially in Europe – following this Zionist Congress only strengthened the point that Jews needed their own political state.
Zionism 3 or full circle? But where are we now?
Picture the bustling streets of Tel Aviv today, a global leader in LGBTQ+ pride, secular life, and science and technological innovation become a religious city. Where the men dress in the style from 200 years ago and the women are resigned to the back of the bus dressed in full coverings. A city where, like many currently are becoming in Israel, if you drive on Saturday you get stones thrown at you. A city that no longer has one of the largest Pride parades in the world, celebrating human happiness.
As you look closer, you may see the subtle signs of change. The lines between religion and state are being blurred. Religious laws and customs become more deeply ingrained in the fabric of society. The once-secular institutions are becoming infused with a sense of religious fanaticism. We cannot run a Start-Up-Nation with laws written from the bronze age. It is impossible. You either live in the era of animal sacrifice and public stonings, or you live in the era of humanism and civil liberties. You cannot have both.
Nowadays, Israel is at a crossroads and its future hangs in the balance.
The recent internal tensions in Israel ignited by the proposed judicial overhaul and other laws of this largely religious government have caused anxiety amongst secular Israelis. And it is not just law, but demographics. The ultra-Orthodox population in Israel, which numbers around 1.175 million, has an annual growth rate of 4.2% and is expected to make up 30% of the population in the not-too-distant future.
The lines between religion and state will blur more and more, as religious laws and customs become more deeply ingrained in the fabric of society. The once-secular institutions will then be infused with a sense of piety and the voices calling for greater religious influence will grow louder by the day. In another 75 years, if these new laws pass and the population continues to grow, will Tel Aviv cease to be an international, diverse, open and secular city?
Maybe this is Israel’s destiny as a Middle Eastern country where religion and state cannot be separated. Could Israel become like Iran or Saudi Arabia?
Hundreds of thousands have been demonstrating for months since this new coalition government came into being. These largely secular Zionists do not see how they fit into a religious state and they do not want one.
In contrast, surveys show that America is becoming more and more secular, as is most of Western Europe. Certainly, with some arguable exceptions (abortion rights as an example), there is a clear separation between religion and state in the United States, as well as in France and other Western countries.
Back in Romania, my great-grandfather and his fellow Jewish friends were not dreaming of a nation, but simply a better life for their families. Are we at that point again? Jews should be able to decide to live in the best way possible and in the best place possible without compromising on their beliefs, secular or religious. But maybe this is no longer in Israel.
The writer is an Israeli-American businessman, philanthropist and thought leader. He is known for rescuing Jews from war-torn countries like Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Ukraine, and bringing them to Israel. He is the founder of Jews Plan B. He will take part in the Jerusalem Post Annual Conference in New York, on June 5. For more information, visit: www.jpost.com/AC23.