When Theodor Herzl began to advocate for the reestablishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, many Jews agreed with his ideology but considered his idea impractical. The Ottoman Empire ruled Palestine, which was a desolate wasteland, and Jews were dispersed across many nations. Moreover, a large part of world Jewry opposed Herzl’s Zionism for fear that non-Jews would suspect them of dual loyalty.
Yet Zionism prevailed, because it is based on principles that are more than 3,000 years old. Abraham was told by God to leave the land of his birth and travel to the land that God would give to him and his descendants. The Jewish people entered the Land of Israel as one nation thousands of years ago after being emancipated from 200 years of slavery. They ruled the land for over a thousand years as a theocratic monarchy.
Exiled over 2,000 years ago, the Jews spread around the world, but never forgot their homeland in the Land of Israel. Although foreign Christian and then Muslim conquerors exiled almost all remaining Jews from the land, the Jews always sought to return.
For the duration of the Jewish exile, there was always a strong, albeit small, Jewish community in the Land of Israel. These Jews ensured a continuous Jewish presence in the land. Most Jews, however, never thought there was a chance of returning to the Land of Israel without a messiah to bring them home.
It wasn’t until a few forward thinkers, with Theodor Herzl in the lead, began envisioning a modern Jewish state that Jews began to believe that a return to Israel was possible.
Herzl’s Zionism injected a healthy dose of practical strategy into the idea of a mass Jewish return to the Land of Israel. Using a combination of emigration to Palestine; the establishment of Jewish cities, farms and towns; and the founding of a shadow government, modern Zionists began to lay the foundations of a Jewish state.
As Zionist leaders travelled the world seeking support for the establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, the Zionists in Israel carried out the hard work of making the land inhabitable for the millions of Jews who would come to Israel once a Jewish state was founded.
While Herzl was initially rejected by the majority of world Jewry, as time went on, Jews began to see Zionism as a more pragmatic than ideological project. Zionist leaders doing the political work and Zionists on the ground constructing a national home demonstrated that a Jewish state was a real possibility.
Slowly, world Jewry began to come around. After the Holocaust exposed the dangers of not having a Jewish state, over 90% of American Jewry became dues-paying members of different Zionist organizations.
The Zionists who labored to create a Jewish state served as a model for the future leaders of the State of Israel. They demonstrated that ideology does not have to be replaced by practical strategy and that practical strategy should always be grounded in the Jewish people’s traditional ideology. Zionists never lost sight of the Land of Israel as the Jewish people’s historic homeland and never allowed ideology to interfere with their practical labor.
One example of the proper balance of ideology and pragmatism was the Zionist movement’s decision to accept the U.N. partition plan in 1947. The plan gave the Jewish people only a small portion of the land they claimed as their homeland. There were many reasons for the Zionist leadership to reject it, including a real fear for Jewish safety in such a small country and the forfeiture of most of the Jewish homeland—including its heartland and capital of Jerusalem.
But Zionist leaders decided to be pragmatic. They recognized that they were not going to be able to meet their maximalist ideological goals, so they accepted the first realistic opportunity to found a Jewish state in close to 2,000 years.
It is easy for leaders to avoid difficult decisions by standing behind a shield of ideology, but as David Ben-Gurion and the other founders of Israel showed, leadership requires practical compromises. Moving towards either extreme will destroy the balance that has led to Israel’s success.