"Zionism" is a term that has led many lives, which accounts for the confusion – sometimes intended, sometimes inadvertent – that frequently accompanies its use.
The word has been attached, after the fact, to the emigration of organized groups of Jews from Europe to Palestine in the 18th and 19th centuries. Those population shifts, however, occurred for reasons only loosely associated with what eventually came to be called Zionism. The most important reason was expedience – a way to escape government-sanctioned persecution in Russia and other European countries.
In the latter 19th century, a collection of mini-sovereignties in Germany coalesced into the German nation-state and a similar development on the Italian peninsula produced the nation-state of Italy. An analogy to that process was the idea that the Jewish people were a nation spread among secularized (not religiously observant) Jews, who no longer could look to Judaism as the source of their common identity. Several small groups of European Jews attempted to promote the idea and to take the first steps toward organizing a Jewish homeland but they found little success.
The notion that Jews should have their own national homeland was given the name "Zionism" in 1891 by Nathan Birnbaum, an Austrian publicist. But giving the idea a name did little to win it acceptance.
In 1894, the Dreyfus Affair (the fraudulent conviction for treason of a Jewish officer in the French army) stirred up a wave of anti-Semitism in France that pushed Zionism toward the mainstream among European Jews. Two years later, Theodor Herzl, a Viennese journalist, published "Der Judenstaat" (The Jewish State), which set out a plan for developing a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The following year, the first Zionist Congress met in Basel, Switzerland.
Enthusiasm for Herzl's program came almost exclusively from secularized Jews, especially secularized Jews who had embraced schemes for utopian socialism. Religious Jews commonly opposed Herzl's project because they saw it as an idolatry that proposed to replace God with a human invention (the state) as the center of Jewish life.
In the early 20th century, the Zionism that was gaining acceptance among non-religious Jews was a proposal for a homeland for Jews in Palestine. Zionists were divided on the question of whether the homeland could or should be governed by a Jewish state. Before the end of World War I, the alternative to a state was a homeland within the Ottoman Empire that then controlled Palestine. After World War I, the alternative to a state was a homeland within the British Mandate for Palestine.
From before the time of the Crusades, Jews and Arabs had lived side by side in Palestine, sometimes benefitting from commerce between the two groups and at most times at least tolerating each other. From 1900 on, growth in the Jewish population through the immigration of European Jews and the rise of Arab nationalism (focused primarily on the Ottomans as the enemy), strained the tolerance that had endured for centuries. It took an organization of governments to destroy it.
On November 27, 1947, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state. War (between the states just conjured into existence) broke out within days. On May 14 of the following year, the managers of the Jewish side of the war declared the existence of the State of Israel. The new state's Arab neighbor, the Kingdom of Jordan, invaded Israel the following day. Although Israel and Jordan eventually reached a peace settlement, there has been no peace between Israel and the Arab world since the day Zionism became a government program.