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FOR A LONG TIME, studies of Zionism were focused on the development of Zionism, its history, its ideas, its internal struggles, and debates as par of Jewish history. It was only recently that the question was raised whether Zionism was like or unlike other national movements. At first, this question prompted more descriptive or propagandist writing, but in time, it became possible for students of Zionism to approach their subject from a comparative vantage point. (1) Although this kind of work is just beginning, today it is considered legitimate and instructive to try and place Zionism among the national movements and, as in general studies of nationalism, to seek to find both unique characteristics and recurring patterns in the various movements. (2)
The comparison of Zionism with European nationalism does not yield ready results, since there is no one model for nationalism by which Zionism can be tested. Nor has there been one concept of Zionism accepted by all in the course of its history. For some it was primarily political, for others cultural, social, or religious. Nevertheless, the questions raised and considered through the comparative approach can be useful. A common form of comparison resembles a stock-taking operation. Is the Zionist claim based on common territory, language, and descent, like the movements of the Czechs or Hungarians, for example? Answers vary. Some say there is a myth of common descent from the ancient Hebrews, there is a homeland, Palestine (generally known to be the land where Jewish national identity was formed), and there is a common language, Hebrew, the language of the bible, which has been preserved as the language of religion and prayer. It is further claimed that these three elements fulfill the same role as in other national movements. Against such claims, some find it easy to emphasize the fact of the dispersion of Jews all over the world, the variety of languages and cultures in which Jews live and function, and the visible ethnic differences between the various dispersions. All these would lead to the conclusion that Zionism differed profoundly from the "normal" national movements characterized by a recurring pattern: an ethnic group, recognized as such and bound to a place and to a local language or dialect, at some point demands for itself the political right of national self rule. Th debate on whether Zionism fits the pattern is not resolved. (3)
Another example of commonly asked questions is whether the ideology of Zionism revealed the recurring combination of a wish for modernization with a romantic yearning for reviving the past. This combination of conservative and revolutionary aims was indeed typical of many national movements, though it appeared in a variety of manifestations; for example, the idealization of village life and mentality as an authentic remnant of the ancient and original nation, untainted by outside influences, was a motif prevalent in European national movements, notably in the German and the Czech. (4) Is it comparable to the Zionist idealization of agricultural wo as the outstanding feature of the return to the land? There were those who thought so and tried even in their life style to imitate Tolstoyan peasants or, more logically, Arab fellahin. (5) But mainstream Zionist ideology regarde agricultural work as embodying and symbolizing not only the return to the homeland, but also, and mainly, the economic and psychological recuperation of the Jewish people. Moreover, the image of the new Jew, cleansed of Diaspora dust, was not meant to sink into rustic ignorance, but to develop as a technologically advanced, modern, self conscious, educated laborer. (6)
One can continue endlessly with comparisons of this kind. One of the most interesting is that of the role of religion in national movements. It shows, for example, that, as a rule, religious establishments were opposed to popular national movements because of their rebellious and revolutionary character, because they threatened the undivided loyalty of the people to the churches, and because they posed new and non-religious ideals of self-sacrifice. The Irish Catholic church, for instance, opposed the violent national movements, their terrorist activities, and the risings. It condemned the martyred rebels of 1916, whom the people hailed as national heroes. On the other hand, in most national movements, including those of the Irish and Jews, the religious feelings of the masses usually merged with national feelings to strengthen the national cause. It was only when nationalism won the hearts of the people, however, that the religious establishments themselves tended to adapt their political view to that of their flocks and to patronize the national movements, while also attempting to inspire them with religious symbols and feelings. In Zionism, too, most rabbis opposed Zionism on doctrinal grounds, but some came over to work for a vision that combined religious and political revival and redemption. (7)
Comparisons of this kind certainly enrich historical research, but, in the end, the basic comparison of Zionism with other movements rests on a deeper and wider basis--the belief (or disbelief) in the uniqueness and chosenness of the Jewish people and the divine purpose for which it exists. The tension between two opposite interpretations of Jewish history is the root of the extreme diversity among Jewish thinkers and the existence of so many streams in the Jewish national movement. At one end, there is the claim for uniqueness, which leads to the conclusion that the existence of Judaism is more important than the …