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A look back at the start of the Zionist movement and its founder

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Since October 7, the term Zionism has been everywhere in the news. It's been used to support Israel in its war against Hamas, a refrain to remind everyone why Israel exists and why it must be protected. Some use the term Zionism to describe what they view as Israel's collective punishment of civilians in Gaza and Israel's appropriation of Palestinian territories, what they often call settler colonialism. Zionism has been defined and redefined again and again. These definitions are often built on competing historical interpretations. And today, NPR's history podcast Throughline takes us back to the late 19th century to meet the father of the modern Zionist movement. Hosts Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei take it from here.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, BYLINE: On August 29, 1897, a meeting of around 200 people was held in a room in a city on the Rhine River.

DEREK PENSLAR: The room was a - kind of a public meeting room in a small city in Switzerland - Basel, Switzerland.

ARABLOUEI: This is Derek Penslar.

PENSLAR: I am a professor of Jewish history at Harvard University.

ARABLOUEI: People had come from all over the world for this meeting.

MICHAEL BRENNER: Including America, including from North Africa, but mainly, they were from Eastern Europe.

ARABLOUEI: This is Michael Brenner.

BRENNER: I am a professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and at the University of Munich in Germany.

ARABLOUEI: The meeting was about a controversial concept, Zionism, or the idea that Jewish people should have a nation in their ancestral homeland in the biblical land of Zion. So on the morning of August 29, after opening remarks, the meeting's organizer stepped up to the podium, a Jewish Austro-Hungarian man named Theodor Herzl.

(APPLAUSE)

PENSLAR: The room goes crazy. There's 15 minutes of applause. Women faint. Men kiss his hand. It's absolute pandemonium.

(APPLAUSE)

ARABLOUEI: In Europe, in the 1800s, a time where the idea of modern nation-states was becoming more popular, some Jews began coalescing around the idea that there was no reason to wait for a Messiah, that Jews could form their own state in their holy land now, by moving back there in large numbers.

BRENNER: Let me distinguish between two major ideas of Zionism. One is a Zionism born out of despair, the reaction to antisemitism. Another one is Zionism born out - let's call it enthusiasm, meaning we want to revive Jewish culture. We want to revive the Hebrew language. We want to create something new on the basis, on the foundation of a religious idea, but transform it into a secular idea.

ARABLOUEI: Despair, enthusiasm - these terms can also be used to characterize the contradictory situation for European Jews in the 19th century.

BRENNER: The 1800s are a time when we see the integration of Jews into many European societies.

PENSLAR: It's a time where Jews can live in fancy neighborhoods, and they can buy nice houses and send their kids to good schools. There's a lot of Jewish mobility and integration.

RUND ABDELFATAH, BYLINE: There was also a sharp rise in antisemitism.

PENSLAR: So you can have a German Jew in their very German home with German furniture, going down to eat breakfast and opening up the newspaper and reading all about what the antisemites have been saying in parliament about how terrible the Jews are.

ARABLOUEI: In 1894, a Jewish army captain in France, named Alfred Dreyfus was arrested and charged with treason.

PENSLAR: It became the trial of the century. He was innocent. He'd been framed.

ABDELFATAH: It became major news all over Europe, and it had a deep personal impact on a seasoned journalist covering the trial for a Viennese newspaper.

ARABLOUEI: That journalist was Theodor Herzl.

BRENNER: What Herzl notices in Paris is it's not about the person, Officer Dreyfus. The people go on the street and shout against the Jew Dreyfus and then the Jews. And he realizes, if even in Paris, in France, the country where the ideas of liberty and fraternity and egalitarianism started, if even their Jews are victims of antisemitism, then we'll be safe in no other, in no place in the world.

ARABLOUEI: Dreyfus was wrongly convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment at a penal colony. This shocked Herzl.

PENSLAR: He kind of went into a tailspin.

ARABLOUEI: And started pouring himself into researching and writing, to figure out...

PENSLAR: How do we solve the problem of antisemitism? And he comes up with the idea, which is that there has to be a Jewish state. In 1896, he publishes a pamphlet called "The Jewish State."

ABDELFATAH: Read here by a voice actor.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR: (As Theodor Herzl) Next year in Jerusalem is our old phrase. It is now a question of showing that the dream can be converted into a living reality.

PENSLAR: And that's the beginning of the Zionist movement as we know it.

ARABLOUEI: Herzl began sending his pamphlet, "The Jewish State," to all his friends and colleagues, but the reaction was pretty cold.

BRENNER: Most Jews from his own surrounding in Vienna and German Jews and French Jews whom he sent it to, they weren't very enthusiastic because they thought antisemitism would go away, and he thought, no, it's here to stay.

ABDELFATAH: The following year, Herzl held that first-ever Zionist Congress in Switzerland.

BRENNER: Herzl wrote something quite prophetic in his diary after the first Zionist Congress. He said...

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR: (As Theodor Herzl) At Basel, I founded the Jewish state. If I said this out loud today, I would be greeted by universal laughter.

BRENNER: And that was 1897.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR: (As Theodor Herzl) In five years, perhaps, and certainly in 50 years, everyone will perceive it.

BRENNER: People will take me seriously. So if you think 50 years from 1897 was 1947, the state of Israel is founded in 1948.

CHANG: That was Michael Brenner and Derek Penslar speaking with Throughline hosts Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei. You can hear the whole episode on the Throughline podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rund Abdelfatah is the co-host and producer of Throughline, a podcast that explores the history of current events. In that role, she's responsible for all aspects of the podcast's production, including development of episode concepts, interviewing guests, and sound design.
Ramtin Arablouei