Most scholars of Zionism say that not one, but multiple Zionisms, paved the way for the movement toward the creation of the State of Israel. Since the late 19th century, there were different, and at times competing, forms of cultural, labor and religious Zionism.
However, the common study of political Zionism has not engaged in a purely power-based approach to understand the sequence of relevant events before and after World War I. There has been no meticulous effort to explain how the powerless Jews became empowered, and by whom, to what end.
Instead, in Israeli schools it is mainly taught that self-propelled Zionist leaders found ways to persuade powerful world leaders as they finagled a state. The efforts of Zionist lobbyists are shown as independent, without recognition that the implications of the Zionist agenda would go to serve the interests of the powers who gave them voice.
According to this, the following simple truth of power relations is unacknowledged: The path of political Zionism was dictated by the great powers that dominated the region. In other words, the attitude of political Zionists and the small nation that they led was always molded by the interests of the great powers, whose extension they were.
Zero attention has been given to a great-power distinction between two Zionisms: German-Ottoman Zionism, as opposed to Anglo-American Zionism. Since World War I, Zionism's very essence has been shaped according to Anglo-American designs, though this is not thoroughly recognized. The original concept , which was enabled by German-Ottoman cooperation, became distorted and is now not remembered.
Despite popular claims about American neutrality until April 6, 1917, World War I tells a story of a tremendous power struggle between the U.S. and Germany that started years before the war. While establishing dominance in their own continent, Americans sought to continue the British tradition of maintaining a balance of power in Europe. Germany presented the only formidable threat to American hegemony worldwide.
The advent of steam and steel allowed the Americans to build transcontinental railroads and unite the country. Germans were set to do the same from Berlin to Baghdad. Modernity coincided with the German rise in power to facilitate an unprecedented connectedness between Europe, Asia and Africa. The Anglo-Saxon United States of America was at risk of being overshadowed by a German-led United States of Europe, Asia and Africa.
The Germans were looking to oversee a federal government that would expand their sphere of influence. Just as the Anglo-Saxons in America had their western frontier, the Germans in Europe had their eastern frontier. Unlike the brutal civilizing process that was imposed on the tribal Native Americans known as "Indians," the civilizing process that was envisioned by the Germans for the nomadic Arabs, through Ottoman enabling, was to be gentler. In this civilizing project, the Jews had a role to play under German direction. For instance, the modern city of Beersheba was built by the Ottomans under German supervision in 1900, to allow for a railway station to be operated and protected there, and to gradually familiarize the Bedouins with city life.
In this context, Theodor Herzl's Der Judenstaat (1896) is seen as the articulation of a pragmatic ambition to join efforts with the Ottomans and introduce a German-styled state. Even though the modern Zionist movement was first manifested by Russian Jews, who suffered from persecutions and developed a yearning for a cultural and physical Hebrew existence, Herzl's work reflects the first political harnessing of modern Zionism by a great power. The idea of a Jewish nation was supposed to inspire Jews to move, but once they arrived at their destination, they were not expected to obsess over Jewish nationalism; rather Herzl expressed an expectation that they would toil to create an optimal state as part of the civilizing process. His state-centrism was unmistakable.
The idea was to create a state, not to claim land. Tasked with cultivating desert and swamp land, the Jews were primarily asked to construct – houses, roads, bridges, and means of communication – rather than a label. They were to come as Jews to be a positive European influence, not to convert European power into Jewish ideology. In Herzl's vision, the state's flag was not to borrow symbols from Jewish tradition such as the Star of David, but show seven golden stars to mark the state's regulation of a seven-hour workday.
German-Ottoman Zionism was dedicated to laying infrastructure for advanced institutions of government. The state's mission was to maximize the use of resources and modernize the surroundings. Herzl dismissed "theocratic tendencies" and rejected Hebrew in favor of a language that would prove "to be of greatest utility for general intercourse" toward state efficiency. In his writings, anti-Semitism was the trigger that would mobilize Jews in order to civilize areas – in the Middle East, but South America was also a possibility – where other Europeans did not wish to go, in conditions that did not appeal to other Europeans.
Herzl did not shy away from identifying the Kaiser and the Sultan as the ultimate sponsors, though their position as beneficiaries remained under-pronounced. According to Herzl, this "model state" was to be "an experiment for the good of humanity" and would enact "protection and equality before the law" for all dwellers in a spirit of toleration. As long as the territory was under Ottoman control, the Sultan appreciated the prospects of an improved Ottoman economy, and the Kaiser had no reservations about the involvement of Jews from rival powers. Herzl clarified that the state would be neutral, and from a German perspective it was advantageous to halt the flow of Jews westward to the U.S. by opening up avenues for Jews to migrate eastward. In confirmation of his Germanic outlook from Vienna, Herzl even passed criticism on the American style of occupying land in their "newly opened territory," for being violent.
Seeing that the healthy modernization of Ottoman-ruled areas meant an increase in German power, the Anglo-American imperial union was highly motivated to counter the trend. Thus, the insidious effect of Christian nationalisms within the Ottoman Empire is almost self-explanatory. Through control of education and the press, American missionaries instilled national identities in the Bulgarians who were to govern in European Turkey, and in the Armenians who were to govern in Asiatic Turkey. British politicians such as William Gladstone and James Bryce collaborated by publicly raising narratives of intra-Ottoman turmoil, such as the Bulgarian agitation and the Armenian question. In the Armenian case, a once peaceful ethno-religious group named Haik changed drastically into a group that functioned as a great-power pawn, and was called Armenian because of the name's political appeal in Anglo-American culture. The Anglo-American exploitation of Armenians to disrupt the German-Ottoman plans for progress led to disastrous results in World War I.
For the Jews in Palestine, the Anglo-American triumph in World War I indicated that Zionism would turn into something completely different from Herzl's German-Ottoman initiative, whose unique qualities would be forgotten. Prior to World War I, the initial reaction in the U.S. to the German-Ottoman fostering of Zionism was to disseminate anti-Zionist information through the American Jewish Committee. The war presented opportunities for Anglo-American power to draw up the new fate and faces of Zionism.
The Balfour Declaration officially started the Anglo-American endeavor to nationalize the Jewish experience in Palestine, and called attention to the leadership of Chaim Weizmann who was credited for the supposed solicitation of the declaration. Weizmann, who was based in Britain, had been known as Herzl's main opposition, and later became Israel's first president.
Between World War I and Israel's statehood, Zionist organizations such as the Jewish Social Democratic Labor Party (Poale Zion) and the HeHalutz youth movement in the U.S., and the British-empowered Labor branch in Palestine and later the mandated Jewish Agency, along with promotions on the pages of The New York Times, all placed David Ben-Gurion in a position of leadership that made him appear as the natural prime minister of the new state in 1948. Ben-Gurion, along with Yitzhak Ben-Zvi who later became Israel's second president, arrived in Palestine from the U.S. during World War I to lead the Jewish Legion to fight against the Turks on behalf of the British.
THE JEWISH STATE VS. THE STATE OF JEWS
The same American Zionist organizations that became instrumental in voicing the new Zionist identity are the ones who published Herzl's work under the significantly mistranslated title of The Jewish State. What Herzl – in German – intended to be "The State of Jews" in the sense that it was to be an exemplary state built by the Jews for all the people in the land, was altered and covered-up by the English book-title, which suggests an insistence on the state itself having a Jewish character and destiny. This misrepresentation of Herzl's work signaled the abandonment of his thinking, and the dawning of the divided and ruled existence for Israelis and Palestinians, who are defined by their two irreconcilable national identities. As Israel celebrates its 68th year of independence amidst sorrow and uncertainty, even so-called "New Historians," such as Benny Morris, use a language that further entrenches the notion of helpless Israeli-Palestinian division when ruling out options for conflict resolution. A fresh take would look past the dominant bi-national terminology and remember Herzl's focus on the commitment to the quality of the state as an apparatus for better living.
Herzl's name and image have been incorporated into the general Zionist narrative in Israel, but his precise philosophy has been mostly decontextualized and reduced to the slogan "if you will it, it is no dream." Hope lies in recalling what "it" he had in mind.
* Scholar of international politics