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Israel summary

Daniel Gordis

A Concise History of a Nation Reborn

4.1 (73 ratings)
30 mins
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    The Zionist movement began as a response to persistent anti-Semitism in Europe.

    By the end of the nineteenth century, Jewish people were deserting Eastern Europe in massive numbers. Between 1882 and the start of the First World War, 2.5 million Jews fled places like Poland, Romania, and Austria – even though they’d been living and building communities in these countries for centuries.

    Throughout Europe there were ever-present restrictions; laws dictated what Jewish people were and weren’t allowed to do. Then there were the pogroms – attacks against Jewish communities that, if not spurred on by the authorities, were ignored by them. Yet, even under these unfavorable conditions, a number of Jewish people were able to achieve esteemed positions in society. In places like Germany, however, this success only had the tendency to make the non-Jewish population more resentful – leading to more attacks and an increase in anti-Semitic propaganda. As a result, millions of Jews continued to wonder if there was something better somewhere else. 

    The key message here is: The Zionist movement began as a response to persistent anti-Semitism in Europe.

    The idea for a Jewish homeland in Palestine took hold in the nineteenth century. In the 1880s, the founder of Hungary’s National Anti-Semitic Party proposed the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine as a possible solution to the so-called “Jewish problem.” In fact, this proposal, made by an anti-Semite, may have inspired the founder of the Zionist movement – a man named Theodor Herzl.

    Herzl was born in Hungary in 1860. He cherished intellectual and artistic pursuits, especially writing and theater, and went on to study at the University of Vienna. There, he read a book by the respected intellectual Eugen Karl Dühring called The Jewish Problem as a Problem of Race, Morals and Culture. The book claimed that Jews had been harmful to European society and argued for a move back toward segregation. Herzl despaired over the fact that someone as intelligent as Dühring would take such a position.

    Indeed, during his studies and later as a writer in Paris, Herzl could not escape the anti-Semitic attitudes of his fellow Europeans. As a reporter, Herzl wrote about the Dreyfus affair – the case of a French military officer of Jewish descent who was falsely accused of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment. It was clear that even supposedly democratic institutions were not immune to anti-Semitism. All of this led to Herzl writing something that would kickstart the Zionist movement and change the course of history.

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    What is Israel about?

    Israel (2016) offers a big-picture historical overview of the small but mighty country. From its improbable beginnings to its controversial wars with neighboring Arab states, Israel’s evolution is a story of change, tragedy, and victory. 

    Who should read Israel?

    • History buffs interested in Europe and the Middle East
    • News junkies eager to be more informed about a controversial subject
    • Anyone curious about the modern political landscape

    About the Author

    Daniel Gordis is Senior Vice President at Jerusalem's Shalem College, as well as a frequent contributor to Bloomberg View and the Jerusalem Post. His writing has also appeared in the New Republic, Foreign Affairs, and the New York Times. His many books on the politics and culture of Israel include We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel.

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