This article offers a new perspective on the early stages of Zionism, adopting the ethno-symbolic approach to the study of nationalism. Scholars who follow this approach assert that in order to achieve a complete understanding of nationalism, we must address its cultural pre-modern dimension. I argue that in the case study of Jewish nationalism presented here, this approach offers us a more nuanced understanding of early Zionism. First, the article explores the formation of the Zionist conception of the Jewish past and shows that this developed in the second half of the nineteenth century before the inception of political Zionism. Second, the article demonstrates that political Zionism was deeply connected with cultural issues. Two key issues that generated much internal debate and conflict during the early years of the Zionist movement are presented as examples: the schism between ‘East’ and ‘West’, and the debate over ‘the people versus the land’. Exploring these political conflicts from a cultural perspective highlights the strong connection between the Zionist movement and the pre-modern Jewish past.
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© 2021 Association for the Study of Ethnicity and Nationalism and John Wiley & Sons Ltd.