The History of Zionism:

Building the Impossible Dream | Dr. Daniel Polisar

Join Dr. Daniel Polisar, one of Israel’s leading experts on Zionist history, as he takes us on a journey through the heroic leaders, defining ideas, and political history behind the founding of the Jewish state in 12 captivating 30-minute lectures.


Lectures Streaming Wednesdays at 8:00 PM ET on:
May 26 | June 2 | June 9 | June 16 | June 23 | June 30
July 7 | July 14 | July 21 | July 28 | Aug 4 | Aug 11

The establishment of the State of Israel is one of the most remarkable achievements of the modern era. Never before had a people dispersed throughout the world, deprived of sovereignty for millennia, at times targeted and slaughtered, returned to its ancient homeland to build a thriving country. Who were the great leaders and thinkers that helped craft a modern Jewish nationalism? What moved them to build a new Jewish state for a people so long deprived of self-determination? How did the political situation of the Jewish people—in Russia, Europe, and the Middle East—change and evolve, and how did the Zionist founders and the new Israeli patriots interact with world leaders and confront their enemies, both on the battlefield and in the political arena?

Weaving together the political, cultural, and religious history of the Zionist movement, Dr. Polisar will illuminate the spirit of modern Jewish nationalism and the unfolding (and miraculous) meaning of modern Israel.

Registrants will be emailed a link to each live lecture on the day of each session, with an additional reminder sent approximately one hour before the stream begins. 

Every lecture will also be recorded and sent to registrants within 48 hours of each lecture’s conclusion.

This series is generously supported in-part by Gary and Lee Rosenthal.

1. The Impossible Dream: Founding a Modern Jewish State

Wednesday, May 26, 2021 | 8:00 PM ET

In 1807, Napoleon Bonaparte brought about the convening of a Sanhedrin—the supreme decisionmaking body of the Jewish people—which declared that the Jews possessed a shared religion but were no longer a nation with political aspirations. Coming after nearly two millennia of Exile, this proclamation seemed to signal the end of the age-old dream of re-establishing a Jewish state. Yet a century and a half later Israel was established as the national state of the Jewish people and today it is a robust democracy, an economic success story, a regional powerhouse, and a leading actor on the world stage. In this opening session, we will lay out the main puzzle this course will address: How did the Jews overcome seemingly impossible odds to establish a state whose accomplishments are routinely described as miraculous by even the most secular of people?


2. The Beginnings of Modern Jewish Nationalism: 1807-1895

Wednesday, June 2, 2021 | 8:00 PM ET

Not long after the Napoleon-inspired Sanhedrin had declared the end of Jewish nationalism, small but growing numbers of Jews around the world embarked on three separate efforts that laid the foundation for creating a modern state in the ancient homeland: reviving Hebrew as a language for addressing contemporary issues and for daily living; developing the case for the idea of re-establishing a Jewish state in the land of Israel; and bringing about the settling of the land by Jewish pioneers. This session describes these activities and the figures who led them from the early 19th century until the middle of its final decade.


3. Theodor Herzl and Launching the Zionist Movement: 1895-1904

Wednesday, June 9, 2021 | 8:00 PM ET

Though crucial elements of a nationalist revival were in place before Theodor Herzl decided in 1895 to devote his life to creating a Jewish state, there is little doubt that without this singular figure such a state would not have been established. This session focuses on how Herzl founded the Zionist movement and served simultaneously as the man of ideas who developed the vision and plans for a Jewish state, the institution builder who created an international movement capable of acting effectively during and after his lifetime, and the chief diplomat who paved the way for the decision of the world’s leading powers to establish a Jewish home in Palestine.


4. The Jewish Homeland in the Making: 1904-1929

Wednesday, June 16, 2021 | 8:00 PM ET

Following Herzl’s untimely death in 1904, efforts to settle the Land of Israel were accelerated, led by young idealists who played key roles in laying the foundations for a state that could serve as a light unto the nations. In parallel, his disciples and opponents alike continued his path of diplomacy, culminating in the League of Nations decision in 1922 to award Great Britain a mandate to establish in Palestine a national home for the Jewish people. This session focuses on how these parallel tracks led in a mere quarter of a century to the creation of a Jewish community in Israel that could serve as the nucleus for a future state.


5. The Arabs Attack, the British Retreat, and the Jews Keep Building: 1929-1945

Wednesday, June 23, 2021 | 8:00 PM ET

Faced with mounting Arab resistance to growing Jewish immigration, land purchases, and economic expansion, the British began retreating from their commitment to help establish a national Jewish home in Palestine. This session describes the escalating Arab violence, the evolution of a British policy of appeasement, and the efforts of the Jews to take responsibility for their own defense, prevent the British from reneging on the terms of the Mandate, and build their community and its institutions so that could serve as the basis for an independent state.


6. Israel Gains Its Independence: 1945-1949

Wednesday, June 30, 2021 | 8:00 PM ET

The conclusion of World War II brought about a changed geopolitical reality that opened up prospects for establishing a Jewish state with the backing of the leading powers—despite opposition from the British and from the Arabs of Palestine and neighboring countries. At the same time, the Jews of Israel, numbering not much more than half a million, faced overwhelming odds in founding and defending their state. This session examines how the Zionist movement and the outnumbered Jewish community succeeded, through extraordinary leaders and amazing tenacity, in gaining international support for establishing their state and in overcoming the odds to emerge victorious from the War of Independence.


7. The Miraculous State Takes Shape: 1949 to 1967

Wednesday, July 7, 2021 | 8:00 PM ET

Even after its against-all-odds victory in the War of Independence, the State of Israel’s future was far from assured. It faced the challenge of uniting a populace marked by clashing ideological beliefs, creating the institutions and traditions needed for effective democratic governance, absorbing massive waves of largely impoverished immigrants, and facing the threat of an increasingly powerful and motivated Arab world seeking a “second round” intended to destroy a Jewish state whose creation was seen as a historic aberration. This session describes how, in less than two decades, Israel overcame these challenges, established a stable government buttressed by a diverse society, and laid the foundations not only for surviving in a dangerous neighborhood, but for thriving.


8. Six Days that Transformed the Middle East: 1967

Wednesday, July 14, 2021 | 8:00 PM ET

In June 1967, as a consequence of regional developments more than a decade in the making, Israel was forced to go to war against its three most powerful neighbors, led by Egypt’s Nasser, the wildly popular champion of pan-Arabism. Within six days, Israel dealt a devastating blow to its enemies, not only redrawing the map of the Middle East but shaping the strategy of all the key players in the region through today. The story of that conflict, its causes, and its consequences is the centerpiece of this session.


9. The War of Attrition, the Yom Kippur War, and the Testing of Israeli Resilience: 1967-1977

Wednesday, July 21, 2021 | 8:00 PM ET

Following its victory in the Six-Day War, Israel had little respite as Egypt launched a protracted War of Attrition and, a few years later, carried out an attack on Yom Kippur, together with Syria, whose early successes appeared to threaten the very existence of the Jewish state. Though Israel reversed its losses and forged a remarkable victory, the effects of the war on the nation’s morale and its international position—as reflected especially in the UN resolution equating Zionism with racism—brought about the greatest crisis in the country’s history. This session tells the story of how Israel faced these challenges and emerged stronger.


10. Israel Becomes a Regional Power: 1977 to 1991

Wednesday, July 28, 2021 | 8:00 PM ET

The year 1977 was a watershed for Israel as the country saw its first handoff of power after three decades under the rule of the Labor Party, and shortly afterwards hosted a historic visit by Egypt’s Sadat, which paved the way for a peace treaty with the strongest and most implacable of Israel’s foes. This session focuses on these two transformational events and on the decade and a half that followed them, in which Israel became a regional power increasingly accepted by its immediate neighbors and capable of acting against more distant and powerful foes who threatened its existence through weapons of mass destruction.


11. Seeking Peace Through Deterrence, Defense, and Diplomacy: 1991-2021

Wednesday, August 4, 2021 | 8:00 PM ET

As we look back on the many miraculous moments leading up to the birth of the modern State of Israel, few are more remarkable than the events surrounding the United Nations vote on partition. It is a tale of President Truman overriding George Marshall thanks in part to the president’s friendship with the Jewish Eddie Jacobson; of the Soviet Bloc joining the West in a rare moment of unity; and many other astonishing events. But what seems supernatural is also a story of statesmanship: of the efforts of Chaim Weizmann, Abba Ebban, and others who toiled on behalf of Zionist diplomacy. In a concluding lecture, we will look back at the partition vote, and use it, and all we learned during these lectures, to look ahead and ponder the Jewish political future.


12. Israel’s Economy and Society Transformed: 1949 to 2021

Wednesday, August 11, 2021 | 8:00 PM ET

Israel was founded largely by Socialists who believed the country could combine social justice with growth in a manner that would enable it to overcome its massive economic challenges and serve as a model to be emulated around the world. Over the three-quarters of a century since its establishment, Israel has in fact been a remarkable success story economically, but instead of doing so as a model of Socialism, it has established itself over the last generation as Start-Up Nation, a model of innovation and individual initiative. In parallel, the country has continued to function as the national state of the Jewish people and its society is marked by a very high level of social solidarity. This rare combination is one of the secrets of the country’s vibrancy and continued success.


  • We kindly suggest a donation of $100 to support Tikvah’s important educational programming on Jewish and Zionist ideas. The Tikvah Fund is a 501(c)(3) charity classified as a private operating foundation.

  • If you make a donation of $250 or more, we will send you a complimentary signed copy of Jews and Power, by Ruth Wisse. Lord Acton famously proposed that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” In Jews and Power, Ruth Wisse provides an analysis of Jewish history that suggests the exact opposite. For centuries, the Jewish people survived without a sovereign homeland, a political center, or a Jewish national defense force. How did this experience of exile shape the political outlook of the Jewish people? How has the founding and success of Israel reshaped the Jewish political imagination? And how should American Jews think about the meaning of Jewish power today?
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About Daniel Polisar

Dr. Daniel Polisar is co-founder and executive vice president of Shalem College, Israel’s first liberal arts college. He previously served as president of the Shalem Center from 2002-2013 and also served as its director of research, academic director, and editor-in-chief of its journal, Azure. Dr. Polisar has testified before the Knesset Constitution Committee on Israel’s character as a Jewish state, and since 2005, he has served on the board of Metzilah, the Center of Zionist, Jewish, Liberal and Humanist Thought. In 2006, he was appointed by the prime minister to be the first chairman of the National Herzl Council, responsible for commemorating the legacy of Theodor Herzl, a position he held for three years. Dr. Polisar received his B.A. from Princeton University in Politics and his Ph.D. from Harvard in Government. His research interests include Zionist history and thought, the history and philosophy of higher education, and Israeli constitutional development.