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Jewish World Review Dec. 23, 1999 /14 Teves, 5760

Jonathan Tobin

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Movement of the Millennium: The Zionist Top 10 -- HISTORIANS BEGAN REFERRING TO the 20th century as the “American century” almost as soon as it began. From a global perspective, it is hard to argue with that appellation. But, the most successful modern political movement of the millennium — Jewish or non-Jewish — has been Zionism.

The movements and ideologies that arose at the turn of the last century all largely failed. Both communism and fascism rose and fell amid the millions of corpses created by these inhuman forms of intellectual idol worship. Yet, Zionism was the one variant of nationalism, the other “ism” that was on the rise a century ago, that completely achieved its goals in a way no other group can claim to have done.

The Zionists, who on Jan. 1, 1900, were a completely marginal movement of a dispersed and powerless people, accomplished something that virtually no one on that date would have believed possible. They didn’t merely recreate Jewish national sovereignty in the land of Israel, they transformed Jewish life everywhere.

So, here are the “All-Century Zionist Top 10” — the most important and influential Zionist Jews of the century:

1. David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973)
Ben-Gurion was the essential man of 20th-century Zionism. A ruthlessly pragmatic politician and statesman, he led Israel to independence and guided it with a strong hand during its formative years. By conviction, he was a believer in Labor Zionism, the mixture of socialism and Zionism that largely formed the modern State of Israel. But, as Israel’s first prime minister, Ben-Gurion was able to rise above ideology and make the decisions that enabled the nation to survive as the exiles were ingathered.

2. Theodor Herzl (1860-1904)
The founder of modern political Zionism didn’t invent the idea, but he gave it new life and leadership. A quintessential assimilated Diaspora Jew, still, he came to understand that without their own country, the Jews of Europe were doomed. He died tragically young, long before it appeared that his dream would become reality. Yet, without his timely vision, Jewish history would have been very different.

3. Ahad Ha’am (pen name of Asher Ginsberg)(1856-1927)
In contrast to Herzl’s strictly political Zionism, this writer and philosopher promoted a revival of Jewish cultural and spiritual values. His idea that a Jewish homeland would nourish the Diaspora as opposed to ending it was both prophetic and influential. Given the fact that most Diaspora Jews chose neither complete assimilation nor aliyah, Ahad Ha’am’s legacy looms larger than ever today.

4. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935)
The first Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of modern Eretz Yisrael, Rav Kook helped bridge the gap between secular Zionist settlers and Orthodox Jews. Twentieth-century religious Zionism owes much to his belief that modern Zionism marked the beginning of divine redemption. Today, his emphasis on Jewish unity is more relevant than ever.

5. Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky (1880-1940)
This writer and activist helped formulate much of the foundation of Zionist thought, especially the notion of Jews defending themselves. Jabotinsky is the patron saint of Israel’s right wing, but his ideas on liberal democracy and about how Israel would function and survive deeply influenced his opponents as well as his followers. In fact, although he was the leader of a minority when he died, the reality of Israel would reflect his priorities as much, if not more than those of the Labor Zionists who hated him.

6. Menachem Begin (1923-1992)
Even without having been a prime minister and signing the peace treaty with Egypt, Begin would deserve his place on this list for singlehandedly averting a fratricidal Jewish civil war between the Haganah and the Irgun Zvi Leumi during the pre-state underground struggle against the British. In the eyes of future historians, his championing of the cause of Sephardic Jews and his decision to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel should also outweigh his decision to pursue the disastrous Lebanon War.

7. Shimon Peres (1923- )
In the 1950s, before his long career in high office, Peres helped build Israel’s defense industry. Peres was originally a Labor hawk, but his vision of a “New Middle East” profoundly affected the life of the state and the peace process that he helped guide. Israel’s fate in the 21st century may largely depend on whether or not he was an accurate visionary.

8. Louis Dembitz Brandeis (1856-1941)
This U.S. Supreme Court Justice articulated the notion that — despite the fears of anti-Zionists — it is possible to be both a good American and a good Zionist at the same time. Brandeis played a crucial role in Zionist and Jewish history because he legitimized Zionism among America’s Jewish elite. He transformed it into a mainstream American movement. That would pay handsome dividends later on as America and Israel forged a unique strategic partnership.

9. Henrietta Szold (1860-1945)
This Baltimore native founded Hadassah, the women’s Zionist movement. An educator, she not only helped found Hadassah Hospital, but also guided the You th Aliyah program in its infancy. Not least among her enormous contributions to Jewish life was the fact that she was the first prominent American Zionist to make aliyah.

10. Natan Sharansky (1948- )
This prisoner of Zion who ultimately became a minister of the State of Israel is a symbol of the resistance of Soviet Jews, a cause that mobilized the Diaspora to a new Jewish activism in the 1970s and ’80s. Once in Israel, he became the leader of Yisrael Ba’Aliyah, a party devoted to the interests of the nearly 1 million Jews who followed his example and made aliyah from the former Soviet Union.

Honorable Mentions
A scientist as well as the pre-eminent leader of political Zionism during the pre-state era and Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann (1874-1952)did more than anyone else to achieve the Balfour Declaration. But the British ultimately betrayed his hopes by turning on Zionism just before World War II as the Holocaust began.

Also worthy of mention is the leading ideologue of Labor Zionism, Beryl Katzne lson (1887-1944), who combined a love for the land of Israel with socialism. Yitzhak Rabin (1922-1995) played a crucial role in Zionist history as a general and political leader who embraced peace. However, his status as a martyr because of his tragic assassination has elevated his reputation to one that a more objective era may not sustain.

And Golda Meir (1898-1978) was America’s favorite Jewish grandmother. But will she be remembered more for her fundraising to finance the War of Independence or for her tragic blunders as prime minister during the Yom Kippur War?

No matter who you place in your own version of this list, the fact remains, the Zionists — left, right and center, religious as well as secular — were the men and women who gave us the 20th century’s most miraculous success.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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