The term Zionism is a relatively new term for a quite ancient yearning of the Jewish soul. It was first defined in 1896 by Theodor Herzl thus:
„Der Zionismus ist der Glaube, dass Juden nicht eines sicheren Ortes beraubt werden sollten, an dem sie in ihrer Heimat leben können.“
The key here is that Jews were being persecuted, slaughtered, and/or expelled everywhere they lived and had no safe place on the earth. Zionism was the longing for a place of refuge and safety from our persecutors, and the only conscionable place for that to exist, from both a Biblical rationale and a practical one, was the Promised Land, Zion, i.e. historical Israel.
This made perfect sense, as there were already Jewish people living there to welcome them home, a Jewish civilization already thriving in the ancestral homeland. They had been there, without interruption, since Yehoshua and Kalev led the Israelites back home ftom the Wilderness at the close of the 15th Century BCE.
But, wait. Weren’t there a few exiles since then?
Yes and no. Some Israelites were exiled from the Northern Kingdom in 721 BCE (2 Kgs 18:13-19:37), but only the elites – about 5% of the population according to Sennacharib’s records. Some Judeans were exiled from the Southern Kingdom between 606 and 586 BCE (Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah), but only from fortified cities. Nebuchadrezzar didn’t bother with the unwalled towns and agrarian regions. Thus, Israel was never without a Jewish remnant to hold our spot. Am Yisrael chai (The Nation of Israel lives)!
Does any other peoples have a competing claim to Israel?
Not a legitimate one! We were under Roman occupation from about 70 CE until the Split of Rome, but Romans never considered it “home” and are not indigenous. Rome called our land the Judean Province at first, but eventually renamed the whole region Roman Syria. Roman atrocities were committed off and on during this bleak chapter of Jewish history, but the Roman Empire was just too vast for any consistent direct control beyond the imposition of taxes and quelling revolts, e.g. the Bar Kokhba debacle of 132-135 CE. Israel continued to function as a confederation of semi-autonomous Roman provinces under occupation by pagan Rome and retained their Jewish identity, religion, and customs.  Am Yisrael chai.
In 390 CE, when Rome divided into two smaller powers, Israel came under the suzerainty of the Byzantine Empire, which was a Christian state. It was during this time that the name of Eretz Israel was changed from Syria to Palestina after our ancient and then extinct enemies the Philistines (Aegean Sea peoples from Crete). Not adept at Hebrew, the Byzantines were unaware of the irony of this name change, as the Hebrew word for the Philistines (פלשתים) means “invaders.” Jews were permitted to keep Shabbat and the Moedim, an in fact could not legally be compelled to violate them. B’rit Milah, however, was outlawed and punishable by death. Under the Theodosian and Justinian Codes of Law, Jews were barred from holding any government posts or military positions. Despite the anti-Semitic restrictions, Jewish culture was preserved. Am Yisrael chai.
The Islamic “Arab Conquest” saw an Islamic occupation beginning in the mid-630s. The change in power was welcomed at first, as anything was better than Byzantine rule… so we thought. But, in the 690s the tyrranical Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik erected an emblem of jihadi conquest upon the location of the Jewish Temple altar – the Dome of the Rock. Muhammedans slaughtered many and force-converted many more, but most Jews maintained their Jewish religion and customs while under occupation by the brutal Islamic caliphates. Am Yisrael chai.
It is critical to all discussions of indigeneity to Eretz Israel to bear in mind that Arabs are indigenous to Arabia, not Israel. The Arab grandpatriarch Ishmael chose the Paran Wilderness in the Arabian Peninsula to be his homeland in the mid-21st Century BCE (Genesis 21). The city where he lived out his entire adult life and where he and his mother, wives, and children were laid to rest is Mecca.
The Crusades brought a shift to Christian occupation, characterized by sadistic “conversion by the sword” tactics. Many Jews feigned conversion to Christianity, but in secret continued to live as Jews. They came to be called Crypto-Jews by those who continued to live out their Judaism openly. During this time, the Kol Nidre service associated with Yom Kippur developed as a way for Crypto-Jews to nullify their Christian vows before Hashem on the holiest day of the year. The Christians came in with a roar and went out with a whimper. Am Yisrael chai.
Occupation under the Ottoman Empire (1517-1917) was relatively mild. Jews were permitted to resettle Jerusalem and several other culturally-important cities (Hebron, Shechem, Safed, and Gaza) under the more benign sultans and were even given back Goshen – the territory of Egypt we hadn’t controlled since Solomon’s Kingdom divided about 930 BCE. The degree to which we thrived or struggled, however, varied from one sultan to the next. In the 1620s, for instance, sultan Muhammad Ibn Farouk systematically tortured the 3000 Jews living in Jerusalem at the time, using Sura 9:29 (Quran) to justify his anti-Semitic actions. Foreign settlers were imported into Israel alongside the Jewish population so that we would not hold a majority population. Though Ottoman censuses reflect a Jewish population of only 5% of the total, the phenomenon of the Crypto-Jew and the aliyot events of the 1600s to early 1900s makes it certain that the actual number was considerably higher – some suggest as much as 20% at one point. By the dawn of the 20th Century, though, due to the frequency of anti-Semitic massacres under the Ottomans, we constituted just over 1% of the population. Am Yisrael chai... but just barely.
With the dismantling of the Ottoman regime following World War I, Israel came under control of the British. They proposed a two-state solution to the dilemma of the mixed population then in the land, offering as an Arab state the trans-Jordan region and as a Jewish state all the land west of the Jordan River, including the Sinai Peninsula. Both agreed to the Balfour Declaration, but breaches on the Arab side delayed the creation of the Jewish state another 30 years. Mission accomplished. Am Yisrael chai.
- Theodor Herzl, Der Judenstaat (1896); translation: “Zionism is the belief that Jews should not be deprived of a safe place to exist, which is only possible in their ancestral homeland.”
- b. Megillah 11b; b. Sanhedrin 95b; “Annals of Sennacharib” (inscription, 694 BCE).
- Oded Lipschits, The Fall and Rise of Jerusalem (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2005).
- Flavius Josephus, Antiquitates (93-94 CE).
- Andrew Sharf, Byzantine Jewry from Justinian to the Fourth Crusade (New York, N.Y.: Schocken Books, Inc., 1971), 20-1; Theophanes (ca. 758).
- Ibid.; Amnon Linder, The Jews in Roman Imperial Legislation (Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 1987), 281.
- Baladhuri, Futuh al-Buldan (ca. 892); Raymond Ibrahim, “The Historical Reality of the Muslim Conquests,” Jihad Watch (1 Mar 2012; online: https://www.meforum.org/3182/history-muslim-conquests); Nuha N. N. Khoury, “The Dome of the Rock, the Kaʿba, and Ghumdan: Arab Myths and Umayyad Monuments,” in Muqarnas, Vol. 10, Essays in Honor of Oleg Grabar, (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1993), 57-65; Yisrael Shalem, “The Early Arab Period – 638–1099” (Ingeborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies, Bar-Ilan University, Mar 1997).
- A. Hajjej, W. Y. Almawi, A. Arnaiz-Villena, L. Hattab, and S. Hmida, “The Genetic Heterogeneity of Arab Populations as inferred from HLA genes,” PLoS ONE 13(3): e0192269 (9 Mar 2018; online: doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0192269).
- Joshua Levy, “How the Crusades affected Medieval Jews in Europe and Palestine,” My Jewish Learning (n.d.; online: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-crusades/); David Malkiel, “Destruction or Conversion: Intention and Reaction, Crusaders and Jews, in 1096,” Jewish History 15, no.3 (2001): 257-80.
- “Like Father, Like Son: The Ottoman Governor who Tortured the Jews of Jerusalem,” HaAretz (24 Jan 2019; online: https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/MAGAZINE-like-father-like-son-the-ottoman-governor-who-tortured-the-jews-of-jerusalem-1.6871713).
- Ekrem Buğra Ekinci, “Jewish Community in Ottoman Empire,” Daily Sabah (13 Oct 2017; online: https://www.dailysabah.com/feature/2017/10/13/jewish-community-in-ottoman-empire).