Throughout recorded history, there has always been a Jewish presence in the land of Israel. The basis for Jews to return to self-sovereignty in Israel appears in the Torah and Jewish tradition repeatedly. Moses is instructed by God to go before Pharoah and demand the freedom of the Jewish people to return to Eretz Israel. After the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, the Jews were expelled and exiled to Babylon. Nearly one hundred years later, Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon and issued a proclamation allowing all Jews to return to the land that had been taken from them, as foretold by prophets like Ezekiel.
Once most Jews were exiled into the Diaspora, Israel, and especially Jerusalem, became revered in Jewish tradition. Mass movements to return to Israel occurred throughout history, from a Jewish uprising in Kurdistan in 1160 to a large-scale emigration of Jews from Yemen in 1868. Prayers for Passover and Yom Kippur conclude with, "Next year in Jerusalem", and daily prayers include many references to the land of Zion.
Two ideological phenomena spurred Jewish action and created the Zionist movement as we know it today- nationalism and the Enlightenment.. Nationalism as an ideology began in the late 1770s with the rise of the modern nation state and the push for popular sovereignty, including rights for all citizens. France was the first country to grant Jews legal equality, and other European countries quickly followed. However, the other side of nationalism threatened Europe's Jews. Despite the rights they were granted, anti-Semitism flourished and violence against Jews continued. This led to the realization that whether or not Jews were literally ghettoized, they would also be outsiders in Europe. Jews in Middle Eastern countries did not fare much better. After the 1871 Odessa pogrom, Judah Leib Pinsker published a pamphlet, Auto-Emancipation, arguing that Jews could only be truly free in their own country.
One incident that highlighted the persistence of anti-Semitism in Europe was the Dreyfus Affair, in which a Jewish officer in the French army was falsely convicted of treason. This event inspired Theodor Herzl, an assimilated Jewish journalist from Austria, to write Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State) and seek political recognition for a Jewish homeland.
Theodor Herzl is considered the founder of modern Zionism. He posited that Jews would face anti-Semitism wherever they were a minority and that the only way to create a Jewish state would be to secure legal sanction for Jewish immigration to Palestine by the Ottoman and, after World War I, the British authorities. The movement sought support for their goal from other world governments as well.
These efforts culminated in a few major moments in Zionist history. One was the First Zionist Congress, which was convened as a symbolic parliament in Basel, Switzerland in 1897. This conference created a central authority that could organize the movement and speak on behalf of Zionists around the world. Herzl worked with Baron Rothschild, one of the wealthiest men in England, to secure from UK Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour a statement declaring that the government "[viewed] with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object…"
Meanwhile, many Jews were moving from Europe to Palestine in waves called aliyot.