As a prophet, Theodor Herzl, Zionism's primary architect and founding father, seems to have failed in his understanding of the future and where his philosophy would lead. Far better prophets were the founding fathers of American Reform Judaism, who rejected Jewish nationalism and looked forward to living as equal citizens in a diverse and open society.
In Der Judenstaat ("The Jewish State"), published in 1896, Herzl proposed to solve "the Jewish Question," by which he meant the question of anti-Semitism. Convinced that anti-Semitism was a consequence of the Diaspora, he was certain that gathering Jews in a new homeland in Palestine would remove this source of trouble.
"The Jews, once settled in their own State, would probably have no more enemies," Herzl wrote. "We shall live at last as men on our own soil, and die peacefully in our own homes."
In fact, rather than being an integral part of Jewish tradition, the Zionist enterprise really was a rejection of it. As Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg wrote in The Fate of Zionism, "Modern Zionism did not arise to carry out an imperative of the Jewish faith that God had designated the Holy Land as the ultimate home of the Jews. The Jewish religious imperative had always been defined as forbidding the Jews to take direct action themselves to re-create their kingdom; their return had to wait for God's miraculous intervention. Indeed, from the very beginning to this day, the majority of Orthodox Jews of the world have not accepted Zionist ideology...The movement that Herzl launched side-stepped the inherited Jewish faith to propose that not faith in God but rallying against anti-Semitism was the tie that bound Jews together...they...were overwhelmingly secular; they wanted to redo Judaism and make of it a national culture in Hebrew."
The original Zionist slogan, "A people without land for a land without people," ignored completely the indigenous Arab population of Palestine. Robert S. Wistrich of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, one of the world's leading experts on anti-Semitism, points to Herzl's total failure to consider Zionism as a fresh incitement to anti-Semitism, what he sees as "perhaps even a fatal flaw of Zionism."
Rather than speaking out of the Jewish tradition, Herzl was deeply influenced by the nationalist movements sweeping Europe in the late 19th century. According to historian Norman Davies, writing in Europe: A History, "Political Zionism differed from other manifestations of European nationalism mainly in the fact that its sacred national soil lay outside Europe. Otherwise, it possessed all the characteristics of the other national movements of the day."
In an important article, "Re-Thinking Zionism," in the April 24, 2004 National Journal, Paul Starobin asks: "Was Zionism a monumental mistake-for the Jews, that is? I wonder. One core aim of Zionism-to restore the lost self-respect of the European ghetto Jew-was achieved with the successful establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948 and the nation's rise as the reigning military power in one of the toughest blocks in the world-the Arab Middle East...But the other core purpose-to provide a sanctuary and refuge for Jewish people in the shadow of the Holocaust-looks like a tragic and, to a certain degree, self-inflicted failure. For Israel has turned out to be one of the least safe and most stressful of all places for a Jew to be...Jews are fleeing Israel in a growing reverse exodus. One destination, somewhat improbably, is Russia, to which an estimated 50,000 Jewish emigres to Israel have returned; another, not so surprisingly, is America, which already houses an Israeli Diaspora numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Meanwhile, the Jewish Diaspora in the United States and elsewhere is helping to keep Israel afloat with its philanthropy: Israel annually receives some $1 billion in private donations from outside sources. The general idea of Zionism was that Israel would support the Diaspora, not the other way around. …