Beginning his lecture at Hamilton on Nov. 10 Jacob Stoil asked the audience, “What is Zionism?” Stoil, the visiting instructor of peace and conflict studies at Colgate University, received a range of answers ranging from “Jewish liberation,” to “homeland,” “statehood,” and “safety.” Unsurprised by the diversity of responses, Stoil noted that the origins of Israel interest him so much because to fully grasp the origins of the Jewish state, one must dive into “the intellectual history and context” of the complicated and multifaceted origin story. Stoil’s lecture was co-sponsored by Hamilton’s Hillel and the Hamilton Israel Public Affairs Committee.
In order to begin unraveling the complicated tale of Israel’s origin as a Jewish State, Stoil posed another question to the audience, asking when Zionism began. Again, unsurprisingly, the answers ranged from the late 6th century up until the late 19th century. Stoil explained that the first major shift came about in 1808, when the followers of a Lithuanian rabbi who felt that “every Jew should come and live in Israel” began to immigrate to the area, at that time controlled by the Ottoman empire.
At that same time, other “rabbis around the world were independently suggesting the same thing to their followers,” Stoil said. Notably, a Bosnian rabbi inspired by the nationalism of Greece felt that the Jews should copy the Greeks and create their own state. This rabbi sent letters throughout the global Jewish community “basically saying: my followers are going, and so should yours.” This lead to a trickle of non-European Jews coming to Israel and re-establishing the cities, motivated by religious expression.
Stoil noted that “this period of history is rarely mentioned because it is incongruous to our preconceptions.” He explained that the Jewish communities building up cities on Ottoman territory were extremely religious, and that “part of their duty was to be fundamentally apolitical,” a notion that is contradictory to our modern notion of Zionism.
Stoil claimed that the key to ascertaining the origin of Israel as a Jewish state was to understand that there are “many forms of Zionism,” such as “political, cultural, spiritual and labor.” However, political Zionism, the idea that there “needs to be a national home” clearly was the winner of this period.
This form of Zionism used the idea that if “you were British living in Austria, Austrians didn’t try to kill you because Britain would get mad, because you have a state,” and if “Jews had their own state, people would stop killing Jews.” This inspired 25,000 to 35,000 Jews to move from the Russian empire settle on unnamed territory in the Ottoman Empire in 1880. However, this group struggled mightily, facing “malaria, malnutrition and raids.” In 1903 though, “something changed as pogroms spread throughout Europe.”
These pogroms were exposed to Jewish communities around the world through the use of the new telegram, which “enforced the idea of a strong homeland” because the pogrom demonstrated that Jews could not “rely on outsiders” and they “must be able to protect themselves.”
This lead to hundreds of thousands of Jews migrating to Israel, “only it was no longer the loose Ottoman empire governing, now it was the British” in control, who had made the mandate of Palestine, saying that “someday this will become an independent country,” but with no specifications of when, how, or for whom, said Stoil. However, during World War I the British realized they needed the assistance of the United States, and “to get America into the war, they needed to give something to the Jews” because of the popular conception that Jews controlled the media and banks in the states.” To achieve this, Britain made the Balfour Declaration, stating that “Britain would look favorably on establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.” While to the Jews this seemed to be a major world power recognizing their right to a state, Stoil claimed that the declaration “literally said nothing” as it did not require Britain to do anything. Thus, “they created a thrice promised land, to the Jews, the Arabs,” whom Britain had also promised Palestine to in exchange for support, “and Britain.” Eventually, this lead to a three-way war, from which Britain quickly withdrew. All the while, thousands of more Jews had emigrated to the area and were displaced due to laws banning “the sale of land, and transfer of property to Jews.”
Ultimately, the U.N. partitioned the land to decide who controlled what territories, but “never decided who would control the area where all the territories connect.” “When you have two warring peoples” said Stoil, “and you leave them to work out the details, you can guess how they’re going to work out the details.” Stoil claimed that “this was never meant to be a workable plan,” which explains the continued fighting over the area that we see today.
“So to end, why Israel, why a Jewish state?” asked Stoil. “The answer to that is not a simple one, it could start way back with Jewish religious visions for the land, it can continue to those visions becoming socialist, then political, then religious again.” In fact, Stoil suggested that all different types of Zionism “could be valid” as explanations, “but all of them are only valid when employed together.”