Zionism as Nationalism

The “Imagined” Community of the Jewish People


The Jewish community of the 19th and early 20th centuries can serve as a case study in testing Benedict Anderson’s study of nationalism in his Imagined Communities. Many would conclude that European Zionist leaders forged a political movement that merely facilitated a national awakening of world Jewry, with the establishment of a sovereign Jewish state as its organizing principle. However, in the context of Anderson’s analysis, the sudden appearance of a global Jewish political consensus favoring a sovereign state may have actually been the materializing of an “imagined” Jewish nation, invented where one did not previously exist. Prior to mass immigrations to the US and Palestine, when Jews lacked formal communication networks and centralized authority, there appeared to be little semblance of socio-cultural unity. Still, it is yet to be seen whether an imagined sense of connectedness and common purpose — nationhood — existed or could exist prior to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. This paper will demonstrate that by the turn of the 20th century, the modern Jewish community did comprise a nation according to Anderson’s criteria.

Anderson explores the social origins of nationalism, eschewing what he believes a far too common tendency to equate nationalism with militant political ideology. Anderson is intent on discovering the historical birth of a community, its changing meanings over time, and grasping how a mature nation evokes emotional legitimacy. Anderson argues that nationalism is rooted in social conditions that give rise to imagined communities, which may or may not be politically mobilized. One should note that tangible social bonds are not understood as objectively more “real” or “good” than abstracted camaraderie, whose metaphysical foundations still generate very real outcomes. Anderson’s study assumes that nationalism is a modern development born in 19th century Europe, where historical and cultural developments cultivated it as a social phenomenon before a political one. He concludes that global exploration and improvements in mass communication harpooned the old social fabric of Europe, in which church Latin was inseparable from truth, power was concentrated in high centers, and cosmology and history were temporally indistinguishable. In its place, the wave of nationalist revolutions forever changed the world’s political complexion to the point where “nation-ness is the most universally legitimate value in the political life of our time.”[1]

Defining Nation:

Thinkers have notoriously struggled to delineate a universal definition for nation-ness, but counter-intuitively acknowledge its extensive impact without a consensus on what it entails. Anderson’s framework relies on nation-ness defined as “an imagined political community — and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.”[2] Heed the Anderson’s explanation of each feature, as they are all essential to this Jewish case study. Also remember that his definition is constrained by deeming nationalism a distinctly modern development. A nation is imagined because its members will never be acquainted with every other member, and so metaphysical social bonds form in place of physical ones. Note that the terminology of imagination is not correlated with falsity, but rather serves to emphasize Anderson’s claim that a nation is a psycho-social production, not a cultural-political discovery. Nations are considered communities since they are groups with certain shared characteristics, imagined with “deep horizontal comradeship” regardless of actual social structure. Nations are limited because they possess boundaries among peoples; none are “coterminous with mankind.” Important to this analysis, Anderson does not specify that nations have demarcated geographic borders. They are political since national imagination manifests itself for the pursuit of political ends. Finally, nations are said to be sovereign since they arose in a historical period when communities grappled with a new pluralism of power and ideas, fueling a lust for self-determined freedom. As the previously unchallenged legitimacy of the royal dynasty-Catholicism complex crumbled, people sought to replace the vacuum with national power manifested in a sovereign state.

The Zionist Awakening

The first look at modern (pre-Israel) Judaism adheres to Anderson’s insistence that nations are modern and political. Zionism, proposing statehood as essential for Jewish continuity, ought be analyzed from the vantage point that its leaders intentionally seeded a nation as the necessary byproduct to achieve statehood. Citing political self-determination as the only refuge from anti-Semitism, Zionists encouraged mass immigration to Ottoman Palestine, eventually deemed Aliyot (“going up”), simultaneously laying the foundations for a future state and nation in its to-be sovereign territory. Jewish settlers in Palestine had no trouble imagining themselves as part of larger community; they all arrived with the goal of establishing a Jewish state and committed themselves to build and work the land in service of that goal, with each member mindful of each other’s cooperative aims. Furthermore, Zionists solicited diaspora Jews to help fund the actual purchasing of land, sewing further imagination to facilitate the self-perception of Jews as being part of a connected community advancing statehood. By the 1890s, Theodore Herzl had convened World Zionists Congresses and began lobbying the Turks and world powers to embrace the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine.

A paramount move, not uncontroversial, was the decision to adopt Hebrew as the national language for the Jewish People before the assurance of a sovereign state. Despite religious pushback, linguists modernized the ancient language, only spoken previously during religious rituals, to befit the era. Little else is as powerful in constructing a national imagination than common language. Whereas the vernacular was elevated throughout Europe as a vehicle for discerning the church’s truth, sacred Hebrew was democratized in Palestine to become the language of politics, of culture, and of commerce. Finally, as Anderson considers bourgeoning “print capitalism” the key to “thinking the nation” in Europe, the same can be said for the Jews there. Jewish-produced Novels and newspapers, incredibly pervasive by the turn of the 20th century, bolstered imagination in its coverage of Zionism as well as creating a community of readers, where each realizes the others are simultaneously reading along with him.

However, the presence of an unselfconscious national imagination independent of the Zionists’ deliberate campaign would have been minimal at best. Jewish life was remarkably focused on the personal journey. Highly regimented bodily, worship, cultural, calendrical and ethical procedures were aimed at fostering piety, physical and emotional purity, and study of religious law. Though Jewish law concentrates on how an individual can live meaningfully and holily, its meanings are markedly unselfish. The Torah values Mitzvot (commandments) based not on how actions can redeem the individual but rather on the good done for others, which helped to foster local social bonds. During the pre-Zionist era, there were numerous smaller settlements scattered throughout Europe (and the world) in which only Jews lived. Residents were generally socially acquainted with the entire population of their town and needn’t rely on imagined social bonds. But, these people lacked means, and perhaps interest, in conceiving themselves and town as part of a larger collective Jewish community. Whereas local social bonds were concrete, comprehending an abstracted, distant nation was another thing entirely. Jewish communities around the world were often isolated from one another without reliable communication or a common language. In many ways, they were culturally alien. Judaism’s leadership was completely decentralized and autonomous: divine truth did not hinge on the decrees of a Pope-like figure, rather local Rabbis illuminated scripture and religious law (Torah and Talmud). Though Jews surely identified with their ancient Israelite ancestors, without a modern international religio-political regime, there was little reason for a Jew to imagine himself as a member of a global Jewish nation on a regular basis. Accordingly, as modern Jewry lacked organic broad collective imagination, the only way to consider it a nation would be to accept the forged imaginings employed by Zionism. But such a strategic top-down “awakening” of national consciousness without organically imagined social bonds is precisely what Anderson rebuffs.

A Nation Born In Antiquity

But for the sake of argument, what if the constraints of a nation being modern and political in nature are shed? A collective imagined consciousness becomes quite apparent, rooted in Judaism’s ancient national origins and religious philosophy. A spirit of compassion and togetherness is reinforced in daily prayer (requires minimum of ten participants) as well during the weekly Sabbath and holidays, amounting to a social imagination. During festivals, families come together to illuminate Jewish history, imagining themselves the successors of the ancient Israelite nation, aware that every other Jew is doing the same. That history revealed in the Tanach (Jewish bible) reflects quite a different world-view than how Anderson describes the New Testament’s, the erosion of which is deemed the most catalytic wind in forming the nationalist storm. Take the binding of Isaac, the theological precursor to crucifixion: the two events lack both temporal and causal linkage. Anderson asserts that this simultaneity of time supplanted the notion of causal history to comprehend the divine in a Europe widely-perceived as approaching the end of days. The Old Testament (and rest of the Hebrew bible) independent of its New foil, tells a narrative in a context not dissimilar to the pluralist-nationalist environment of 19th century Europe. Christian thought largely centered on the life and divinity of one man as an allegory for an abstracted humanity. But ancient Jewish history revealed in scripture can be distilled as an epic with mythic origins, romanticized rule, and momentous trials of a divinely ordained, cosmically exceptional Israelite nation. Texts underscore a society with many specified peoples alongside the Israelites, who are charged to be a “light unto nations.” Indeed, Hebrew texts don’t serve merely to reveal divine truth or decree law. For 2000 years, they have glorified Israelite nationhood and imbued the texts’ reading collective, the Jewish people, with imagination of belonging both to the community of the story and of each other in a pluralist context.

Though these texts were considered sacred with circulation was widespread in independent Judea in the time of Christ, they reached new prominence after the fall of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. Out of the ashes of a Judaism focused on centralized cult sacrifice, the Rabbinic movement emerged to reorient the religion and steward the nation. The goal was to allow diaspora Jews to practice religion in the absence of a sovereign Temple, which was the seat of (semi)-autonomous Jewish self-rule. Rabbis leveraged these existing holy texts to cultivate community but expounded on them in the Talmud so that Jews could endure as a nation in in the colossal presence of the Roman Empire and elsewhere in the diaspora — without political autonomy. An important current running through rabbinic Judaism was the insistence that eventually Jewish self-rule would resume in the Land of Israel. Numerous prayers and hymns romanticize and yearn for restoration of a sovereign nation and that the scattered communities of the diaspora would one day return as one. This framework did prove effective and modular as Jews endured and often flourished under various regimes worldwide, retaining their national imagination even if it not coupled with political authority. The national imagination sewn by both sacred text and rabbinic conventions is immensely resonant. Permitting this as evidence, it is clear that the Jews constituted an unselfconsciously imagined community long before modern Zionists appeared.


Finally, anti-Semitism significantly contributed to a collective Jewish imagination. In examining the rise of nationalism among the populous communities of Europe, Anderson explains that the old principles of legitimacy vested in European dynasties were fading despite the continual retreat of the Vatican. Mounting Protestant challenges on Rome’s religious hegemony diluted catholic divine ordination, upon which royal dynasties had been so dependent. Generations of strategic intermarriage among monarchs only muddled the “nationality” of the ruling class. Capitalizing on a budding power vacuum, Europeans coalesced and began to self-identify based on collective commonality. Jews remained apart from these emerging nationalities, which proved inhospitable. In discovering who they were, nationalists unsurprisingly highlighted what they were not. Anxious of cultural others, nation-states acted exclusionary if not persecutory toward Jewish populations. Anti-Semitism, while certainly destructive in many ways, was very productive in fostering imagined social bonds. Besides the homogenous villages described, much of European Jewry was committed to assimilating themselves within urban society, some willing to do so at the expense of their cultural heritage. But discriminatory laws, social norms, as well as organized violence (pogroms) repeatedly reminded Jews of their irreconcilable otherness. Jews were quite aware that their relegation to second-class social status was for no reason other than their status as Jews. The world’s Jews were engrained with the notion that their Jewishness, though damning, was their lone commonality, and increasingly imagined themselves as part of a larger Jewish community. Indeed, a wave of anti-Semitism was the impetus for the founding of the modern Zionist (political) movement. However, note that anti-Semitism was by no means a strictly modern phenomenon despite its spike in the 19th century, and for this reason, its hypothetical permissibility in Anderson’s framework is tenuous.


Up to this point in the analysis, neither of the described conceptions of the Jewish community would yields a nation. The first lacks necessary unselfconscious imagination, while the second has ancient origins and lacks political motivation. However, taken together, the Jewish People possessed both a national imagination sourced in its history as well as modern political drive, purposefully activated by the Zionist movement. Still, the impermissibility of imaginings endowed by millennia-old religious traditions needs to be resolved in order to accept a combined interpretation. The passages that this analysis examines don’t shed much light on why Anderson restricts nationalism to modern communities. His first paradox in a series of “perplexing” observations about nationalism, is the one area helpful in this predicament. There is alleged tension between “the objective modernity of nations to the historian’s eye [and] their subjective antiquity in the eyes of the nationalist.” Though not further elaborated on by Anderson, this reflects the belief that nationalist antiquity is subjective and thus incompatible with an objective social science. However, this course has introduced a social science faction that gives a large amount of credence to the subject’s perspective. In fact, strict Interpretivism would contend that social scientists should only admit their concepts and meanings in their analyses. The beliefs and practices taken from the subject’s point of view do yield considerable insight about their nature, whether for social, cultural, or political studies. To ignore such concepts because they are “subjective” (literally: of the subject) would be dismissing an enormous amount of usable evidence undiscoverable by social scientist alone. To this end, the so-called subjective history of the Jews should not be excluded, for there is at least one segment of philosophers that would value this material, since it details the very existence of a national imagination while relying upon their own meanings.

There is one final criterion to settle: the sovereign nature of nations. Anderson treats national sovereignty as meaning the expression of political authority vested in the nation’s state. The Jewish people didn’t wield any political authority until 1948 and hence would have merely comprised a community, not a nation, given the criteria of Anderson. To allow the Jewish collective to resonate as a nation, it needs to have wield sovereign power. Partha Chatterjee, who writes in direct response to Anderson, offers a nuanced interpretation of sovereignty. Resolving that Anderson and many others have taken the claims of nationalism as a political movement “much too literally,” she allows for nations to enjoy sovereignty before they politically engage. She describes two domains of sovereignty, one “material” and another “spiritual.” The former has jurisdiction over the outside (e.g. economics, statecraft, and discovery) while the latter retains impenetrable authority over closely held cultural identity.[3] Thus, even before Zionism bore the fruit in the form of state-like authority, the Jewish people still had impermeable domain over their spiritual-cultural imaginations, emblematic of a nation.

To summarize, arguments outlined in this paper have established that modern Jews did constitute a community with limited membership. Citing interpretivism, the unselfconscious imaginings evoked from national tradition are admissible. The writings of Chatterjee indicate that the Jews did possess sovereignty. And the Zionist Movement consciously activated a national imagination to further its political agenda. Based on these premises, one concludes that the modern, pre-Israel Jewish community exemplified nation-ness according to Anderson’s specifications. Zionists harnessed a national imagination that had been cultivating for thousands of years in the pursuit of a sovereign political entity — a Jewish state.


[1] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections On The Origin And Spread of Nationalism, (London: Verso, 1991), 3.

[2] Ibid, 6.

[3] Partha Chatterjee, “Whose Imagined Community?” In Gopal Balakrishnan and Benedict Anderson, Mapping the Nation, (London: Verso, 2012). 216–217.


Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections On The Origin And Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1991.

Chatterjee, Partha. “Whose Imagined Community?” In Balakrishnan, Gopal, and Anderson, Benedict. Mapping the Nation. London: Verso, 2012.