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A homeland for the Jewish people was an idea that rose to the fore in the 19th century in the wake of growing anti-Semitism and Jewish assimilation, with many competing proposals considered. Jewish emancipation in Europe paved the way for two ideological solutions to the Jewish Question: cultural assimilation, as envisaged by Moses Mendelssohn, and Zionism, promoted by Theodore Herzl. In the late 19th century, Herzl set out his vision of a Jewish state and homeland for the Jewish people in his book Der Judenstaat. Herzl was later hailed as the founding father of the State of Israel. In the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the United Kingdom became the first world power to endorse the establishment in Palestine of a "national home for the Jewish people." The British government confirmed this commitment by accepting the British Mandate for Palestine in 1922. In 1948, the State of Israel was established as a Jewish state.
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Though the Jewish aspiration to return to Zion has been a part of Jewish religious thought for several millennia, the modern movement for the creation of a homeland for the Jewish people was largely perceived as a solution to the widespread persecution of Jews due to antisemitism in Europe.
The modern effort to establish a national homeland for the Jewish people began in 1839 with the petition by Sir Moses Montefiore to Sa'id, Khedive of Egypt, for a Jewish homeland in the region of Palestine.
The draft of the objective of the modern Zionist movement submitted to the First Zionist Congress of the Zionist Organization in 1897 read: "Zionism seeks to establish a home for the Jewish people in Palestine secured under public law." Numerous delegates sought to insert the phrase "by international law", which was opposed by others. A compromise formula was adopted, which came to be known as the Basel program, and read:
The Sykes–Picot Agreement of 16 May 1916 set aside the region of Palestine for "international administration" under British control. The first official use of the phrase "national home for the Jewish people" was in the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the final version of which referred to:
The phrase "national home" was intentionally used instead of "state" because of opposition to the Zionist program within the British Cabinet. The initial draft of the declaration referred to the principle "that Palestine should be reconstituted as the National Home of the Jewish people."
In 1919 the general secretary (and future President) of the Zionist Organization, Nahum Sokolow, published a "History of Zionism (1600–1918)". He also represented the Zionist Organization at the Paris Peace Conference. He explained:
Britain officially committed itself to the objective set out in the Balfour Declaration by insisting on it forming the basis of the Mandate of Palestine (which it could have avoided), which was formally approved by the League of Nations in June 1922, and which formalised British rule in Palestine which had started in 1917. The preamble of the Mandate declared:
After a wave of pogroms in Russia, Joseph Chamberlain offered Theodor Herzl to establish Jewish state in Uganda, East Africa. In 1903 Herzl presented the British Uganda Programm at the Sixth Zionist Congress in Basel.
In the late 1930s, the British Zionist League considered a number of other places where a Jewish homeland could be established. The Kimberley region in Australia was considered until the Curtin government (in office: 1941–1945) rejected the possibility.
With the support of the then Premier of Tasmania, Robert Cosgrove (in office from 1939), Critchley Parker proposed a Jewish settlement at Port Davey, in south west Tasmania. Parker surveyed the area, but his death in 1942 put an end to the idea.
In 1942, the Biltmore Program was adopted as the platform of the Zionist Organization, with an explicit call "that Palestine be established as a Jewish Commonwealth." In 1946, the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, also known as the Grady-Morrison Committee, noted that the demand for a Jewish State went beyond the obligations of either the Balfour Declaration or the Mandate and had been expressly disowned by the Chairman of the Jewish Agency as recently as 1932.
The United Nations Special Committee on Palestine said the Jewish National Home, which derived from the formulation of Zionist aspirations in the 1897 Basle program has provoked many discussions concerning its meaning, scope and legal character, especially since it had no known legal connotation and there are no precedents in international law for its interpretation. It was used in the Balfour Declaration and in the Mandate, both of which promised the establishment of a "Jewish National Home" without, however, defining its meaning. A statement on "British Policy in Palestine," issued on 3 June 1922 by the Colonial Office, placed a restrictive construction upon the Balfour Declaration. The statement excluded "the disappearance or subordination of the Arabic population, language or customs in Palestine" or "the imposition of Jewish nationality upon the inhabitants of Palestine as a whole", and made it clear that in the eyes of the mandatory Power, the Jewish National Home was to be founded in Palestine and not that Palestine as a whole was to be converted into a Jewish National Home. The Committee noted that the construction, which restricted considerably the scope of the National Home, was made prior to the confirmation of the Mandate by the Council of the League of Nations and was formally accepted at the time by the Executive of the Zionist Organization.
The concept of a national homeland for the Jewish people in the British Mandate of Palestine was enshrined in Israeli national policy and reflected in many of Israel's public and national institutions. The concept was expressed in the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel on 14 May 1948 and given concrete expression in the Law of Return, passed by the Knesset on 5 July 1950, which declared: "Every Jew has the right to come to this country as an oleh." This was extended in 1970 to include non-Jews with a Jewish grandparent, and their spouses.
While nowadays the concept of a Jewish homeland means almost always the State of Israel under some variation of its current borders, in the course of Jewish history after ancient Israel and Judah there have been other proposals. While some of those have come into existence, others never came to be implemented.
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There has been ongoing debate in Israel on the character of the state, regarding whether it should enshrine more Jewish culture, encourage Judaism in schools, and enshrine certain laws of Kashrut and Shabbat observance. This debate reflects a historical divide within Zionism and among the Jewish citizens of Israel, which has large secular and traditional/Orthodox minorities as well as a majority of people who lie somewhere in between.
Secular Zionism, the historically dominant stream, is rooted in a concept of the Jews as a people that have a right to self-determination. Another reason sometimes submitted for such establishment was to have a state where Jews would not be afraid of antisemitic attacks and live in peace. But such a reason is not a requirement of the self-determination right and so is subsidiary to it in secular Zionist thinking.
Religious Zionists, who believe that religious beliefs and traditional practices are central to Jewish peoplehood, counter that assimilating to be a secular "nation like any other" would be oxymoronic in nature, and harm more than help the Jewish people. They seek instead to establish what they see as an "authentic Jewish commonwealth" which preserves and encourages Jewish heritage. Drawing an analogy to diaspora Jews who assimilated into other cultures and abandoned Jewish culture, whether voluntary or otherwise, they argue that the creation of a secular state in Israel is tantamount to establishing a state where Jews assimilate en masse as a nation, and therefore anathema to what they view as Jewish national aspirations. Zionism is rooted in a concept of the Jews as a nation, in this capacity, they believe that Israel has a mandate to promote Judaism, to be the center of Jewish culture and center of its population, perhaps even the sole legitimate representative of Jews worldwide.
Partisans of the first view are predominantly, though by no means exclusively, secular or less traditional. Partisans of the second view are almost exclusively traditional or Orthodox, although they also include supporters who follow other streams of Judaism or are less traditional but conservative and would not object to a more prominent state role in promoting Jewish beliefs – although not to the point of creating a purely Halachic state.
The debate is therefore characterised by significant polarities. Secular and religious Zionists argue passionately about what a Jewish state should represent. Post-Zionists and Zionists argue about whether a Jewish state should exist at all. Because Israel was created within the sphere of international law as the instrument for Jewish self-determination, these polarities are captured by the questions Should Israel maintain and strengthen its status as a state for the Jewish people, or become a state purely for "all of its citizens", or identify as both? And, if both, how to resolve any tensions that arise from their coexistence. To date, Israel has steered a course between secularism and Jewish identity, usually depending on who controls the Israeli High Court of Justice.
On 19 November 2008, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni addressed the United Jewish Communities General Assembly in Jerusalem. In her speech, she announced: "These two goals of Israel as a Jewish and a democratic state must coexist and not contradict each other. So, what does that mean, a Jewish state? It is not only a matter of the number of Jews who live in Israel. It is not just a matter of numbers but a matter of values. The Jewish state is a matter of values, but it is not just a matter of religion, it is also a matter of nationality. And a Jewish state is not a monopoly of rabbis. It is not. It is about the nature of the State of Israel. It is about Jewish tradition. It is about Jewish history, regardless of the question of what each and every Israeli citizen does in his own home on Saturdays and what he does on the Jewish holidays. We need to maintain the nature of the State of Israel, the character of the State of Israel, because this is the raison d'etre of the State of Israel."