The nineteenth-century emergence of Zionism was intimately connected to the idea that the Jews served a uniquely crucial role in the world. This notion is rooted in theological anticipations, both Jewish and Christian, of a messianic future. From it the 1860s took on distinct overtones of economic and geo-political transformation, and spread in various ways into the secular realm. In this paper I will show how ideas of Jewish purpose feature in both Jewish and non-Jewish Zionist thinking, from Joseph Salvador and Ernest Laharanne in 1860, through George Elliot, Theodor Herzl and Bernard Lazare, to the religious Zionism of Abraham Kook and the secularised ‘light unto the nations’ rhetoric of David Ben-Gurion.
Adam Sutcliffe is Professor of European History at King’s College London. His most recent book is What Are Jews For: History, Peoplehood, and Purpose (Princeton University Press, 2020). His co-edited volumes include The Cambridge History of Judaism, volume VII (1500-1815) (CUP, 2018) and Philosemitism in History (CUP, 2011). He is currently working on a history of the idea of empathy in historical writing and pedagogy.