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The impulse and development of Zionism was almost exclusively the work of Ashkenazim--Jews of European origin; few Sephardim were directly engaged in the movement in its formative years. (In 1900 about 9.5 million of the world's 10.5 million Jews were Ashkenazim, and about 5.2 million of the Ashkenazim lived in the Pale of Settlement.)
The first writings in what later came to be known as Zionism appeared in the mid-1800s. In 1840 the Jews of Eastern Europe and the Balkans had been aroused by rumors that the messianic era was at hand. Various writers, most prominently Rabbi Judah Alkalai and Rabbi Zevi Hirsch Kalisher but including many others, were impressed by the nationalist fervor of Europe that was creating new nation-states and by the resurgence of messianic expectations among Jews. Kalisher wrote that Jewish nationalism was directly akin to other nationalist movements and was the logical continuation of the Jewish enlightenment that had begun in France in 1791 when Jews were granted civil liberties. Alkalai consciously altered his expectations from a miraculous messianic salvation to a redemption by human effort that would pave the way for the arrival of the messiah. Both authors urged the development of Jewish national unity, and Kalisher in particular foresaw the ingathering to Palestine of many of the world's Jews as part of the process of emancipation.
Another important early Zionist was Moses Hess, a German Jew and socialist comrade of Karl Marx. In his book Rome and Jerusalem, published in 1862, Hess called for the establishment of a Jewish socialist commonwealth in Palestine. He was one of the first Jewish thinkers to see that emancipation would ultimately exacerbate anti-Semitism in Europe. He concluded that the only solution to the Jewish problem was the establishment of a national Jewish society managed by a Jewish proletariat. Although his synthesis of socialism and Jewish nationalism would later become an integral part of the Labor Zionist movement, during his lifetime the prosperity of European Jewry lessened the appeal of his work.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress