Why Is Zionism Called Zionism?

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The word "Zionism" refers to Jewish nationalism, or supporting it, in the historic land of Israel.
The word "Zionism" refers to Jewish nationalism, or supporting it, in the historic land of Israel. Credit: Alex Levac
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

The word "Zionism" refers to Jewish nationalism, or supporting it, in the historic land of Israel.

Before 1948, "Zionist" meant support for the establishing of a Jewish nation state in Palestine. Since the State of Israel's establishment that year, it is taken to mean the preservation of the state as a Jewish nation-state.

Support for Zionism among Israel's Jewish citizens is close to universal, with the exception of a small minority of intellectuals, who have been calling themselves post-Zionists since the early 1990s. Post-Zionists argue that Israel's definition as a Jewish nation–state, when a fifth of the citizens are non-Jews, is inherently unjust, and Israel should be reconstituted as a liberal democracy devoid of nationalism. This view has failed to attract a wide following.

So how did the peculiar case of Jewish nationalism come to be called Zionism, not just "nationalism" like other people? This has to do with the particular circumstances in which Jews found themselves when nationalism took hold in the 19th century.

Today's people might have difficulty imagining this, but nationalism wasn’t always a thing. Contemporary countries are overwhelmingly nation states, and people mostly self-identify according to their nationality, but this is a recent development, starting in the late 18th century.

But before that, we must peer thousands of years into the past. The story of the word "Zionism" really starts, in the pre-Israelite period, before King David conquered Jerusalem from the Jebusites, according to the bible.

Simply, "Zion" was the name of Jerusalem’s acropolis in the pre-Israelite period, around 3,000 years ago.

That acropolis was in the part of the city that would subsequently be called “The City of David,” as 2 Samuel says: "David took the stronghold of Zion, which is now the city of David" (5:7).

Later, during the Babylonian Exile, starting in 586 B.C.E., "Zion" morphed into a poetic name for the city of Jerusalem as a whole. With time, it became a poetic name for the Land of Israel as a whole, appearing in songs and prayers of yearning for the return to the land throughout Jewish history.

Cuneiform descriptions of the Babylon Exile.

The case of the Jews

Before the advent of nationalism, the world was made up of empires that ruled various peoples who spoke different languages and held to different customs.

Often the ruling class was completely distinct from their subjects: think of the French-speaking Normans ruling over their Celtic and Anglo-Saxon subjects in historic England. Gradually though, as the Middle Ages gave way to modernity, a sense of nationhood began to take hold in Europe. Specifically, a growing number of Englishmen began to feel they shared an “Englishness.”

In the late 18th century, this gauzy feeling of shared past and destiny, which had recently brought about the American and French revolutions, was formulated in writing as an intellectual movement and an ideology in Germany. The leading figure in this movement, Johann Gottfried Herder, gave this movement the name 'Nationalismus', which was later translated into English as Nationalism.

The 19th century saw a flurry of national movements, that is, influenced by Herder and his followers, a number of European ethnic groups began to think of themselves as nations too and clamored for self-determination.

The case of the Jews was different: for the Jews, unlike the others, there was no geographic region in which they were the majority. Nor did they even speak the same language. Hebrew had fallen out of use as a common spoken tongue, and only remained as a language of religion and scholarship (sort of like Latin).

Lovers of Zion

Even so, a popular issue among the great intellectuals of the 19th century was the “Jewish question.” That is, are Jews a nation? If not what are they? And, what is to be done with them, now that Europe seems to be carving itself up according to national lines?

In some countries Jews were seen as an integral part of the nation, while in others they were seen as a nation within a nation. Some Jews embraced their local nationalities with pride; others joined anti-nationalist movements such as Communism and Anarchism, while yet others adopted a form of Jewish nationalism towards the end of the 19th century.

Two kinds of Jewish nationalistic movements took shape at this time. One advocated staying in Europe and formed Jewish organizations with that aim in mind, such as the Bund. The movement calling for Jews to leave Europe and settle in Palestine was much smaller, but they began to collect money and actually started tiny settlements in Palestine.

These people came to be collectively called hovevei tzion, that is, “lovers of Zion.”

Support for Zionism among Israel's Jewish citizens is close to universal.Credit: Alex Levac

In 1890, the Jewish-Viennese writer Nathan Birnbaum translated hovevei tzion into German as Zionismus, and later in the decade, this was translated to other languages, including English (1896).

In 1897, when Theodor Herzl founded the World Zionist Organization, he adopted the name and the rest is history.

But what does the word "Zion" mean?

We don't know. Scholars do not agree, but at least there is a multitude of theories to choose from.

Once it was commonly claimed that the name is pre-Semitic, and some strange foreign etymologies were proposed, such as the Hurrian word sheya (“water”) or the Elamite word tziya (“temple”).

Now most scholars agree the word is probably Semitic in origin: Archaeology indicates that Semitic peoples controlled the entire region for more than a millennium before the time of David.   

As for what it means, one theory holds that Zion originally meant “fortified place,” and is derived from the root ts-w-n, meaning “defense” in the Semitic languages Arabic and Ge’ez. However, there are no records of this root in Hebrew or any other Semitic language spoken in the region.

Another possibility is that the root in question is ts-y-n, which in biblical Hebrew appears in words for stone markers such as milestones, ritual pillars and the like. Perhaps, "Zion" started as a stone monument.

Yet another possibility is that the name derives from the root ts.y.y and that the “on” in the end is a suffix, known from many other biblical place names such as Hebron and Sidon. This root stands for “dry” and “thirsty” in Hebrew and other Semitic languages, which would mean that the name would mean “dry place” or something like that.

One snag with this theory is that Zion happens to be right beside a natural spring, the Gihon, which would make this a strange name. Possibly, Zion used to be the name of the desert region east of Jerusalem; later Jerusalem, as the area’s capital, assumed its name. Maybe.

And finally, yet another possibility is that Zion is derived from that same “on” suffix, but that the beginning of the name comes from a name of an animal, which once lived there, and which the Bible calls (in the plural) tsi’im. We don’t know what this animal is but some speculate these were wild cats. It seems that we will never know for sure.

Sand cats, indigenous to Israel: Could they be what the word 'Zion' actually meant thousands of years ago?Credit: Moshe Blank

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