Jewish Studies Zionism from Its Inception to 1948
Derek Penslar, Alexander Kaye
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0006


Zionism is a variety of Jewish nationalism. It claims that Jews constitute a nation whose survival, both physical and cultural, requires its return to the Jews’ ancestral home in the Land of Israel. Pre-1948 Zionism was more than a nationalist movement: it was a revolutionary project to remake the Jewish people. Zionism’s origins lay in a confluence of factors: physical persecution of East European Jewry, Jewish assimilation in the West, and a Hebrew cultural revival that rejected or transformed traditional Jewish religiosity. At the end of the 1800s, Zionism’s first adherents were concentrated in the Russian Pale of Settlement and Rumania, but under the dynamic leadership of Theodor Herzl, Zionism established itself as a global political movement. During World War I, Chaim Weizmann and the British government came to a meeting of minds about the desirability of a Jewish national home in Palestine. During the interwar period, Zionism’s fortunes waxed and waned. On the one hand, the Zionist movement claimed millions of supporters, and Palestine’s Jewish community, the Yishuv, grew from a handful of settlements and urban enclaves into a protostate. On the other hand, Arab opposition and British policy restricted Palestine’s capacity to absorb mass Jewish immigration, and in the diaspora many Jews opposed Zionism on religious or political grounds. Jewish support for Zionism became nearly universal during and after World War II, and Jewish volunteer fighters and financial contributions played a key role in Israel’s victory in the 1948 war. Zionist historiography was pioneered by activists and became a scholarly enterprise only in the 1960s. Until the 1990s the vast bulk of the literature was available only in Hebrew, but Israeli scholarship has become increasingly available in English translation, and the number of scholars in the English-speaking world who work on Israel has grown markedly. There is considerable overlap between scholarship on Israel’s origins, diaspora Jewish politics, the Zionist-Palestinian conflict, and the development of Palestinian politics and society. In the early 21st century, literature on the Yishuv has increasingly integrated Zionist and Palestinian history through what Zachary Lockman has called a relational paradigm. Having said that, one of the principles guiding the construction of this article is to keep it manageable rather than comprehensive. It therefore maintains the focus on books that pertain more or less directly to Zionism as an ideology, and as a political and social movement, rather than straying too far into the history of Palestine more generally.

General Overviews

Zionist historiography was first written by activists and ideologues who were directly involved in the Zionist Organization, a global body that changed its name in 1960 to the World Zionist Organization, and its constituent national chapters. Their work was heavily ideological and tendentious, but Adolf Boehm, president of the Austrian Zionist Federation (Boehm 1935–1937), adopted a more limited and professional approach in his comprehensive history. The transformation from ideological to reflective historiography began in the 1960s. Halpern 1969 combines elements of both activist and scholarly history, reflecting the author’s career as a Zionist functionary before turning to academia. Laqueur 2003 breaks Zionist historiography fully away from ideology and hagiography in what is in many ways still the finest overview of the Zionist movement to 1948. Lucas 1975 offers a deeply critical approach to Israeli nation building and Zionist–Arab relations, so much so that the book was largely overlooked, although from the perspective of later generations its analysis appears prescient. Sachar 2007 is mainly about the post-1948 period but provides a useful narrative of pre-1948 events. Shapira 2012 is less comprehensive but more engaging. Lisak 1989–2009 is a multivolume Hebrew work that brings together dozens of essays on all aspects of the history of the Yishuv. Stein 2003 provides the most detailed narrative in a one-volume English work on the history of the Yishuv, whereas Engel 2009 and Stanislawski 2017, respectively, compress the history of international Zionism, Zionist diplomacy, and Jewish state building into slim and elegant accounts.

  • Boehm, Adolf. Die Zionistische Bewegung. 2 vols. Berlin: Jüdischer Verlag, 1935–1937.

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    Originally published 1920–1925. An invaluable source for the institutional history of the Zionist Organization up to World War I and of the Zionist Organization’s first settlement experiments in Palestine.

  • Engel, David. Zionism. Short Histories of Big Ideas. Harlow, UK, and New York: Longman, 2009.

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    The best starting point for a newcomer to the subject. Engel, a specialist in East European Jewish history, covers the history of both international Zionism and Jewish state building in Palestine, with trenchant analysis and an up-to-date bibliography.

  • Halpern, Ben. The Idea of the Jewish State. 2d ed. Harvard Middle Eastern Studies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969.

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    Halpern, who worked as a Zionist publicist and administrator for the Jewish Agency for Israel before turning to academia, offers a rich analysis of the relationship between the Zionist project and international Jewish politics of the 20th century.

  • Laqueur, Walter. A History of Zionism. New York: Schocken, 2003.

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    Originally published in 1972, this is the first and in many ways still the best one-volume history of Zionism. Laqueur, a distinguished scholar of modern European history, places Zionism within the context of the ideological and political trends of the 20th century.

  • Lisak, Moshe, ed. Toldot ha-yishuv ha-Yehudi be-Erets Yiśra’el me-az ha-‘aliyah ha-rishonah. 4 vols. Jerusalem: Byaliḳ, 1989–2009.

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    A collection of long essays by sundry authors, this work offers readers of Hebrew detailed accounts of all aspects of the Yishuv’s history. Much of the material here is not available in any English-language work.

  • Lucas, Noah. The Modern History of Israel. New York: Praeger, 1975.

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    Before turning to academia, Lucas was an official with the Political Department of the Israeli national trade union, the Histadrut. This volume is particularly commendable for its analysis of the formation of Zionist political parties and of the Histadrut.

  • Sachar, Howard M. A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time. 3d ed. New York: Knopf, 2007.

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    Originally published in 1976. Presents a detailed yet accessible narrative of the Zionist project and a massive bibliography.

  • Shapira, Anita. Israel: A History. Schusterman Series in Israel Studies. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2012.

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    A fluidly written history of Israel, which includes several chapters on the pre-1948 period. Juxtaposes political and military history with a discussion of Zionist culture. Excellent overview for beginners to the field.

  • Stanislawski, Michael. Zionism: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

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    The most recent, brief account of the history of Zionism, suitable for beginners, with about half the book concentrating on the pre-1948 period.

  • Stein, Leslie. The Hope Fulfilled: The Rise of Modern Israel. Praeger Series on Jewish and Israeli Studies. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003.

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    The only English-language volume dedicated to the history of Jewish state building in Palestine from the 1880s to Israel’s establishment in 1948.

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