The history of the Jewish people begins with Abraham, and the story of Abraham begins when G-d tells him to leave his homeland, promising Abraham and his descendants a new home in the land of Canaan. (Gen. 12). This is the land now known as Israel, named after Abraham's grandson, whose descendants are the Jewish people. The land is often referred to as the Promised Land because of G-d's repeated promise (Gen. 12:7, Gen. 13:15, Gen. 15:18, Gen. 17:8) to give the land to the descendants of Abraham.
The land is described repeatedly in the Torah as a good land and "a land flowing with milk and honey" (e.g., Ex. 3:8). This description may not seem to fit well with the desert images we see on the nightly news, but let's keep in mind that the land was repeatedly abused by conquerors who were determined to make the land uninhabitable for the Jews. In the few decades since the Jewish people regained control of the land, we have seen a tremendous improvement in its agriculture. Israeli agriculture today has a very high yield.
Jews have lived in this land continuously from the time of its original conquest by Joshua more than 3200 years ago until the present day, though Jews were not always in political control of the land, and Jews were not always the majority of the land's population.
The land of Israel is central to Judaism. A substantial portion of Jewish law is tied to the land of Israel, and can only be performed there. Some rabbis have declared that it is a mitzvah (commandment) to take possession of Israel and to live in it (relying on Num. 33:53). The Talmud indicates that the land itself is so holy that merely walking in it can gain you a place in the World to Come. Prayers for a return to Israel and Jerusalem are included in daily prayers as well as many holiday observances and special events.
Living outside of Israel is viewed as an unnatural state for a Jew. The world outside of Israel is often referred to as "galut," which is usually translated as "diaspora" (dispersion), but a more literal translation would be "exile" or "captivity." When we live outside of Israel, we are living in exile from our land.
Jews were exiled from the land of Israel by the Romans in 135 C.E., after they defeated the Jews in a three-year war, and Jews did not have any control over the land again until 1948 C.E.
The Jewish people never gave up hope that we would someday return to our home in Israel. That hope is expressed in the song Ha-Tikvah (The Hope), the anthem of the Zionist movement and the state of Israel.
But for a long time, this desire for our homeland was merely a vague hope without any concrete plans to achieve it. In the late 1800s, Theodor Herzl and Chaim Weizmann founded Zionism, a political movement dedicated to the creation of a Jewish state. They saw a state of Israel as a necessary refuge for Jewish victims of oppression, especially in Russia, where pogroms were decimating the Jewish population.
The name "Zionism" comes from the word "Zion," which was the name of a stronghold in Jerusalem. Over time, the term "Zion" came to be applied to Jerusalem in general, and later to the Jewish idea of utopia.
Zionism was not a religious movement; it was a primarily political. The early Zionists sought to establish a secular state of Israel, recognized by the world, through purely legal means. Theodor Herzl, for example, was a completely assimilated secular Jewish journalist. He felt little attachment to his Jewish heritage until he covered the trial of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the French military who was (unjustly) convicted of passing secrets to Germany. The charges against Dreyfus brought out a wave of anti-Jewish sentiment that shocked Herzl into realizing the need for a Jewish state. Early Zionists were so desperate for a refuge at one point that they actually considered a proposal to create a Jewish homeland in Uganda. Alaska and Siberia were also discussed. But the only land that truly inspired Jewish people worldwide was our ancient homeland, at that time a part of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire known as Palestine.
During World War I, the Zionist cause gained some degree of support from Great Britain. In a 1917 letter from British foreign secretary Lord Balfour to Jewish financier Lord Rothschild, the British government expressed a commitment to creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine. This letter is commonly known as the Balfour Declaration. Unfortunately, the British were speaking out of both sides of their mouth, simultaneously promising Arabs their freedom if they helped to defeat the Ottoman Empire, which at that time controlled most of the Middle East (including the modern states of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq, as well as significant portions of Saudi Arabia and northern Africa). The British promised the Arabs that they would limit Jewish settlement in Palestine mere months after the Balfour Declaration expressed support for "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people."
After World War I, Palestine was assigned to the United Kingdom as a mandated territory by the newly-formed League of Nations. The Palestinian Mandate initially included the lands that are now Israel and Jordan, but all lands east of the Jordan River were later placed into a separate mandate known as Transjordan (now the nation of Jordan). The document creating the Palestinian mandate incorporated the terms of the Balfour Declaration, promising the creation of a national Jewish homeland within the mandated territory. Many Arab leaders were initially willing to give Palestine to the Jews if the rest of the Arab lands in the Middle East were under Arab control. However, the Arabs living in Palestine vigorously opposed Jewish immigration into the territory and the idea of a Jewish homeland. It is around this time that the idea of Palestinian nationality (distinct from Arab nationality generally) first begins to appear. There were many riots in the territory, and the British came to believe that the conflicting claims were irreconcilable. In 1937, the British recommended partition of the territory.
The Holocaust brought the need for a Jewish homeland into sharp focus for both Jews and for the rest of the world. The Jews who tried to flee Nazi Germany were often turned back due to immigration limitations at the borders of every country, including the United States, Britain and Palestine. Many of those who were sent back to Germany ended up in death camps where they were systematically murdered.
The British were unable to come up with a solution that would satisfy either Arabs or Jews, so in 1947, they handed the problem to the newly-founded United Nations, which developed a partition plan dividing Palestine into Jewish and Arab portions. The plan was ratified in November 1947. The mandate expired on May 14, 1948 and British troops pulled out of Palestine. The Jews of Palestine promptly declared the creation of the State of Israel, which was recognized by several Western countries immediately.
However, the surrounding Arab nations did not recognize the validity of Israel and invaded, claiming that they were filling a vacuum created by the termination of the mandate and the absence of any legal authority to replace it. The Arabs fought a year-long war to drive the Jews out. Miraculously, the new state of Israel won this war, as well as every subsequent Arab-Israeli war, gaining territory every time the Arabs attacked them.
Today, approximately five million Jews, more than a third of the world's Jewish population, live in the land of Israel. Jews make up more than eighty percent of the population of the land, and Jews are in political control of the land, though non-Jews who become citizens of Israel have the same legal rights as Jewish citizens of Israel. In fact, there are a few Arab members of the Knesset (the Israeli parliament).
About half of all Israelis are Mizrachim, descended from Jews who have been in the land since ancient times or who were forced out of Arab countries after Israel was founded. Most of the rest are Ashkenazic, descended from Jews who fled persecution in Eastern Europe starting in the late 1800s, from Holocaust survivors, or from other immigrants who came at various times. About 1% of the Israeli population are the black Ethiopian Jews who fled during the brutal Ethiopian famine in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Jews continue to immigrate to Israel in large numbers. Immigration to Israel is referred to as aliyah (literally, ascension). Under Israel's Law of Return, any Jew who has not renounced the Jewish faith (by converting to another religion) can automatically become an Israeli citizen, somewhat similar to the way Ireland gives automatic citizenship to second or third generation descendants of Irish citizens. Gentiles may also become citizens of Israel after undergoing a standard naturalization process, much like the one required to become a United States citizen.
Israel is governed by a legislative body called the Knesset (literally, "Assembly"), made up of 120 members. Under the Israeli electoral system, each party presents a list of candidates, and voters vote for the list rather than for individual candidates. The party receives a number of seats proportional to the number of votes it received, thus a party getting 10% of the vote will get 10% of the available seats. As a result, no Israeli party ever has a majority of the seats in the Knesset, and governmental business is conducted by coalition building. This system can give minority groups a significant amount of power, because their support may be needed to gain a majority. Israel also has a president, elected by the Knesset, and a Prime Minister, formerly elected directly but this system is in flux.
Most Jews today support the existence of the state of Israel, though not necessarily all of the policies of its government (as one would expect in any democracy). There are a small number of secular Jews who are anti-Zionist. There is also a very small group of right-wing Orthodox Jews who object to the existence of the state of Israel, maintaining that it is a sin for us to create a Jewish state when the messiah has not yet come. However, this viewpoint does not reflect the mainstream opinion of Orthodoxy. Most Orthodox Jews support the existence of the state of Israel as a homeland, even though it is not the theological state of Israel that will be brought about by the messiah.
This page barely scratches the surface of all there is to say about Israel and Zionism. There are entire sites devoted to these subjects. Here are a few that are worth checking out:
The Times of Israel is a good news source for information about Israel. I've been following it for a while now, and I find it to be rather well balanced between the right-wing Jerusalem Post and the left wing Haaretz (which are also excellent Israeli news sources).
If you are interested in the history of Zionism, you may want to read the founding treatise on the subject, Theodor Herzl's The Jewish State (Kindle).