What is Zionism?


Israel is one of the most complex societies in the world and great patience is needed to understand it. For instance, to answer the question, “Why do most of Israel’s citizens want their country to be Jewish, but they don’t want it to be religions?” would require much explanation. Most Christians are confused as to why this debate exists at all within a country Christians consider the Jewish homeland. It is hoped that this long article will help the interested reader begin a journey to understanding.

The Roots of Zionism:

It is important to remember that, for centuries, Jewish citizens of many European countries were required to live in segregated communities away from the rest of the town’s citizens. These communities were often walled off from the rest of the town and gates locked the Jews into their communities after sundown. These communities were called “ghettos”.

French Jews were the first to be allowed to leave the confines of the ghettos beginning in 1791. Shortly thereafter, other countries in central Europe began to allow their Jews to leave ghetto life.

Whereas Jews previously had only been allowed to work in petty trade and banking (a job thought to be unworthy of “gentlemen”), Jews now had a powerful incentive to enter mainstream European society. Soon, they were rising rapidly in areas of academia, medicine, the arts, journalism, and other professions once closed to them.

It cannot be overstated how dramatically this rapid assimilation of Jews into European society changed the nature of how Jews related to their fellow countrymen—and to their Jewishness. In the ghettos it was relatively easy to follow historical, traditional Judaism, which for nearly 2,000 years had developed structures designed to maintain the integrity and separateness of Jewish community life from the powerful, national secular culture. However, suddenly, Jews all over Europe were being allowed to participate in that same, secular culture.

Most non-Jews had never had much contact with Jews. Increasingly, however, non-Jews began to see the Jews’ rapid success in their society as an economic threat, and this threat began to fuel much anti-Semitic resentment.

In the mid-nineteenth century there arose a type of ethnically-based nationalism throughout Europe which gave further rise to a new kind of anti-Semitism.

Before the mid-nineteenth century, European anti-Semitism was based mainly on Christian antagonism toward Jews because of the latter’s refusal to convert to Christianity. An individual Jew could usually avoid persecution by converting, as many did over the centuries. However, the emergence of ethnically based nationalism radically changed the status of the Jew in European society. The majority gentile population began to see Jews as a separate people who could never be full participants in any European nation’s history because Jews were not really French, German, etc., but only Jews.

The vast majority of Jews in Western and Central Europe responded to this perceived danger by trying to become even more identified with the European cultures in which they lived. This led to a deep secularization of Judaism.

Zionism: A new philosophy of Judaism:

A minority of Jews believed that Jews would always be outsiders within any society regardless of how accepting their fellow countrymen were. Their thinking was this: If a nation was determined by its ethnic makeup, Jews were, by definition, a nation of people without a nation.

What is the true root cause of anti-Semitism according to Zionists? Zionists determined that anti-Semitism was caused by the very statelessness of the Jewish people. If it is statelessness that causes anti-Semitism, the answer was to create a Jewish entity (or nation)—somewhere outside Europe—but one that would still be modeled after the European ethnically homogeneous nation-state. In other words, a European-style nation of Jews outside Europe.

Judaism No Longer Jewish:

After more then half a century of freedom from the ghettos, West European Jewry had become disconnected from traditional, historical Judaism and its culture and ritual. Thus, Zionism envisioned a purely political (ie. non-religious) solution to the Jewish problem: a state of Jews rather than a Jewish state.

Two kinds of Judaism:

In contrast to western European Jewish life, the bulk of eastern European Jews (mainly on the western fringe of the Russian Empire) still lived in the “Pale of Settlement” (ghettos) where there was no emancipation. East European Jews had lived for centuries in what was called kehilot, semi-autonomous Jewish Municipal Corporations that were supported by wealthy Jews.

Life in the kehilot was governed by a group of powerful, educated religious scholars who strictly enforced adherence to the ancient Jewish legal code.

It was inevitable that eastern Jews would eventually learn of the freedom their western brethren were experiencing. As this knowledge spread east, many eastern Jews began to find their life of enforced conformity to a Jewish legal system tedious and burdensome. As a result, liberal stirrings began to be unleashed in the kehilot.

Zionism in Russia:

Added to the unrest being felt in the various Eastern Europe kehilot, life in Tsarist Russia was becoming increasingly totalitarian. In 1825 Tsar Nicholas I, attempted to centralize control of the empire and “Russify” all its peoples. He enacted oppressive measures against the Jews: drafting a large number of under-age Jews for military service, forcing Jews out of their traditional occupations (such as the liquor trade), and generally repressing the kehilot.

Facing severe economic hardship and social upheaval, tens of thousands of Jews migrated to the cities, especially to Odessa, on the Russian coast. In the new environment of city life, these highly literate Jews began to clamor for the easing of the Tsarist dictatorship just as they had begun to dream of the kehilot without strict enforcement of Jewish law. The seeds of Socialism and the coming Communist Revolution were being sown among these liberal-minded Jews, especially the young.

In 1855 the relatively liberal-minded Tsar Alexander II ascended the Russian throne and it soon seemed that the prospects for Russian Jewry might improve significantly. Alexander II ended the practice of drafting Jewish youth into the military and granted Jews access, albeit limited, to Russian educational institutions and various professions previously closed to them. The consequence was a thriving class of Jewish intellectuals, the maskalim (enlightened ones), who emerged in cities like Odessa, just as they had in Western and Central Europe after leaving the ghettos. The maskalim believed that Tsar Alexander II was ushering in a new age of Russian liberalism which, as in the West, would eventually lead to the freedom all Russian Jewry desired.

The hopes of the maskalim and of Russian Jewry in general were misplaced. Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, and severe pogroms began (a violent riot directed at destroying the Jews and their homes). These pogroms devastated Jewish communities throughout the “Pale of Settlement”.

The new Tsar, Alexander III, enacted oppressive policies against the Jews and denied police protection to those Jews who remained in the countryside. As a result, a flood tide of impoverished Jews entered the cities where they joined various movements that sought to overthrow the Tsar.

The openly anti-Semitic policies pursued by the new tsar and the popularity of these policies among large segments of the non-Jewish population posed serious political, economic, and spiritual dilemmas for Russian Jewry. On the economic level, the Tsar’s anti-Semitic policies severely limited Jewish economic opportunities and undermined the livelihood of the Jewish masses. Many impoverished East European Jews, therefore, left the Russian Empire altogether. Between 1881 and 1914, an estimated 2.5 million Jews left the empire, 2 million of whom settled in the United States. This was the period written about in the play and movie, Fiddler on the Roof.

For many Jews, especially the maskalim, however, the pogroms and the anti-Semitism of the new Tsar not only meant economic hardship and physical suffering but also a time of deep spiritual pessimism. Before 1881, Jews had been abandoning the strict confines of the kehilot  en masse and rebelling against religious orthodoxy, anxiously awaiting the expected freedom for all Russians. The 1881 pogroms and their aftermath shattered not only the faith of the maskalim, but also their belief that the non-Jewish Russian intellectuals would take an active role in opposing anti-Semitism. Most of the Russian intelligentsia were either silent during the pogroms or actually supported them.

Having lost their faith in God and in the inevitable spread of liberalism, large numbers of Russian Jews were forced to seek new solutions. Many flocked to the revolutionary Socialist and Communist movements opposing the Tsar, while others became involved with the Bund, a cultural society that sought a return, within Russia, to the Germanic-Hebrew culture and language of Yiddish.

During this same time, a small (but growing) number of Jews were attracted to an ancient, biblical, ideal which was being newly re-formulated: Rebuilding the Jewish nation-state in Israel’s ancient homeland of Palestine.

Chaim Weizmann:

Weizmann was a Jewish chemist who had moved to Britain and, eventually, developed the explosives so useful to Britain’s winning WW I. Lord Balfour of Britain asked Weizmann what the government of Britain might do to reward Weizmann for his help in the war effort. Weizmann replied that he wantedBritain’s help in establishing a homeland for his people, the Jews.

Weizmann’s request led to the British government passing the Balfour Declaration in 1917. This Declaration was a classified statement of policy establishing the position of the British government as supporting a Jewish national home in Palestine with the condition that nothing should be done which might prejudice the rights of existing communities there. The declaration was made in a letter from Lord Balfour to the most prominent leader of the British Jewish community, Baron, Lord Rothschild.

The Declaration was later incorporated in what became known as the British Mandate for Palestine.

An important agreement that today’s Arabs refuse to believe ever happened:

Following WW I, Britain and France created several new countries in the Middle East and Faisal, known as “the Sheikh of Sheikhs”, was placed as head of the newly created nation of Iraq in exchange for agreeing to side with the British against Britain’s enemies. In 1919, Weizmann met with Faisal (known today as Faisal I). The two men signed an agreement establishing relationships between the Jewish and Arab (Moslem) people. Faisal encouraged Weizmann to do whatever was necessary to bring as many Jews to Palestine as possible. At that time, Palestine was virtually a barren land with few inhabitants, and Faisal knew the presence of Jews would bring great benefit to the entire area, including the Arab people.

The Jewish Community under the Mandate:

In response to this open door, Weizmann traveled the world, speaking to Jewish communities, trying to convince his fellow Jews to move to Palestine and renew the land. Most listened to his passionate words, but didn’t seePalestineas a viable alternative to their comfortable, European lifestyles.

However, those who did heed Weizmann’s call came to Israel in waves of aliyah (Jewish immigration to Israel—literally a “going up”) and brought with them a great asset: Their organizational expertise, which allowed for Zionism to move from movement to institution. Despite the fact that there existed deep ideological differences among Zionist members, the World Zionist Organization (WZO) was established with an executive office in Palestine. What is important to this discussion (as you will see, below) is that the Zionists implemented the language of the British Mandate, something religious Jews had seemingly waited 2,000 years for God to do.

Jewish Palestine became governed by a centralized organizational structure whose architect was David Ben-Gurion, later to become Israel’s first Prime Minister.

The earliest immigrants were former intellectuals who came to Israel to form socialist-style collective communities and who worked the land as a way to prove their right to live in it. Later immigrants were small-time merchants and industrialists with money to invest. They were not attracted to the lifestyle that existed in the collective communities.

These later immigrants avoided the countryside and moved to cities where they established the first semblance of an industrialized urban Jewish economy.

Within five years, the Jewish populations of Jerusalem and Haifa doubled.

Although the Arabs benefited from the Jewish presence (as Faisal had predicted), Arabs saw their mostly passive way of life threatened by the sheer passion of these new arrivals who were quickly transforming the land and building flourishing cities. In August 1929, the Arabs turned violent, killing and wounding many Jews.

The inability of Ben-Gurion’s military force (Haganah) to protect Jewish civilians caused the rise of several militant armed underground organizations. Eventually, both Zionist factions came to realize that the conflict between Arab and Jewish nationalisms was irreconcilable and therefore the country needed to prepare for an eventual military confrontation. The two sides differed, however, on the need to make tactical compromises in the short term to attain Jewish statehood at a more favorable time in the future. One group was adamant that statehood be immediately declared over all of historic Palestine—on both banks of the Jordan River—the other side, led by Ben-Gurion, still operated within the confines of the British Mandate. Ben-Gurion determined that timing was the key to the Zionist’s eventual success. This was because the fledgling pre-nation of the 1930s lacked the necessary military or economic power to carry out the more radical (some say “biblical”) vision in the face of Arab and British opposition.

Another development resulting from the 1929 riots was the growing animosity between the British Mandate Authority (the British soldiers in the land) and the Jewish people. The British often stood idly by while Arab bands attacked Jewish settlers. This strengthened Zionist anti-British attitudes.

The year 1929 saw the beginning of a severe economic crisis in Germany that launched the rise of Adolf Hitler. Although both Germany and Austria had long histories of anti-Semitism, the genocide policies preached by Hitler were unprecedented. When in January 1930 he became chancellor of the Reich, a massive wave of mostly German Jewish immigration to Palestine ensued. Between 1929 (the year of the Arab massacres), and 1936 (the year the Palestinian Revolt began), the Jewish population of Palestine increased from 170,000, to 400,000.

The immigration of thousands of German Jews also accelerated the pace of industrialization and made the concept of a Jewish state in Palestine appear more and more likely.

World War II and Zionism:

In May 1939, the British published a White Paper (a government report outlining policy) that marked the end of Britain’s commitment to the Jews that had been promised under the Balfour Declaration. The White Paper provided for the establishment of a Palestinian (Arab) state within ten years and the appointment of Palestinian ministers to begin taking over the government as soon as “peace and order” were restored to Palestine. 75,000 Jews would be allowed intoPalestine over the next five years. After that, Arab leadership would determine if more Jews would be allowed. All further land sales would be severely restricted. The 1939 White Paper met a mixed Arab reception.

The Jewish Agency rejected it emphatically, branding it as a total repudiation of the Balfour Declaration. In September 1939, at the outset of World War II, Ben-Gurion, then chairman of the Jewish Agency, declared: “We shall fight the war against Hitler as if there were no White Paper, and we shall fight the White Paper as if there were no war against Hitler.”

A brief period of close British-Jewish military cooperation ensued, and there was talk (which never came to fruition) of establishing a Jewish division within the British Army. However, the British did train Jewish commando units, the first elements of the famous Palmach. They also gave Jewish volunteers intensive training in sabotage, demolition, and partisan warfare. Ironically, this training proved indispensable in the young nation’s efforts after the war to force the British to withdraw from Palestine.

By 1943, as news regarding Nazi persecution of Jews in Europe increased, the underground Jewish army stepped up harassment of British forces in an attempt to obtain unrestricted Jewish immigration.

The Holocaust and Zionism:

The impact of the Holocaust on world Jewry cannot be exaggerated. The scope of Hitler’s genocidal efforts can be quickly summarized. In 1939 about 10 million of the estimated 16 million Jews in the world lived in Europe. By 1945 almost 6 million had been killed, most of them in the nineteen main concentration camps. Not only had 6 million Jews perished, but the Allies, who by 1944 could have easily disrupted the operation of the death camps, did nothing.

In this spiritual vacuum, Zionism again emerged as the only viable Jewish response to anti-Semitism. For much of world Jewry (who had suffered centuries of persecution), Zionism and its call for a Jewish national home and for the radical transformation of the Jew from passive victim to self-sufficient citizen, residing in his own homeland, became the only possible response to the Holocaust. Zionism unified the Jewish people, entered deeply into the Jewish spirit, and became an integral part of Jewish identity and religious experience.

Prelude to Statehood:

The British position in Palestine at the end of World War II was becoming increasingly untenable. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish Holocaust survivors were trying to get to Palestine. The British were rerouting ships bound for Palestine to temporarily housing in refugee camps in Europe. In May 1946, the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry unanimously declared its opposition to the White Paper of 1939 and proposed, among other recommendations, that the immigration to Palestine of 100,000 European Jews be authorized at once.

The British Mandate Authority rejected the proposal, stating that such immigration was impossible while armed organizations in Palestine—both Arab and Jewish—were fighting the authority and disrupting public order.

By now, British adamancy against immigration radicalized the Jewish people. Under Ben-Gurion’s direction, the Jewish Agency decided in October 1945 to unite with Jewish dissident groups in a combined rebellion against the British administration in Palestine.

The combined Jewish resistance movement organized illegal immigration and kidnapping of British officials in Palestine and sabotaged the British infrastructure in Palestine. While the British concentrated their efforts against the various underground armies, some of these groups carried out terrorist attacks against British forces, the most spectacular of which was the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in July 1946. However, the bombing of such an important location within the heart of Jerusalem led Ben-Gurion to sever his relationship with the most radical groups.

By 1947 Palestine was a major trouble spot in the British Empire, requiring some 100,000 troops and a huge maintenance budget. On February 18, 1947, the British Prime Minister informed the House of Commons of his decision to present the Palestine problem to the United Nations (UN). On May 15, 1947, a special session of the UN General Assembly established the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), consisting of eleven members.

On August 31, UNSCOP reported that a majority of its members supported a geographically complex system of partition into separate Arab and Jewish states, the internationalization of the city of Jerusalem, and an economic union linking the three members. Backed by both the United States and the Soviet Union, the plan was adopted after two months of intense deliberations as the UN General Assembly Resolution of November 29, 1947. Although considering the plan defective in terms of their expectations from the League of Nations Mandate twenty-five years earlier, the Zionist General Council stated its willingness, in principle, to accept partition.

However, the League of Arab States (Arab League) Council, meeting in December 1947, took a different view. The League said it would take whatever measures were required to prevent implementation of the resolution. At this, the Jewish people in Palestine began purchasing weapons wherever they could be found, determining that conflict with the Arabs was inevitable. The British forces in Palestine worked against the Jew’s attempts to arm itself.

In mid-March the Jew’s military prospects changed dramatically after receiving the first clandestine shipment of heavy arms from Czechoslovakia. The underground went on the offensive. In the meantime, Ezer Weizmann (Israel’s future first President) was eventually able to convince U.S. President Truman to reverse himself and pledge his support for the proposed Jewish State.

Declaration of Independence:

On May 14, 1948, Ben-Gurion and his associates proclaimed the establishment of the State of Israel. On the following day Britain relinquished the Mandate at6:00 P.M. after ordering a complete withdrawal of its troops from Palestine. The United States announced de facto recognition ofIsrael. Soviet recognition was accorded on May 18; by April 1949, fifty-three nations, including Britain, had extended recognition. In May 1949, the UN General Assembly, on recommendation of the Security Council, admitted Israel to the UN.

The day after Israel proclaimed the establishment of the State of Israel, the Arab nations surrounding Israel began a massive invasion of the country. Seven months later, Jewish forces were in control of all the area that was to define Israel’s territory until the war of June 1967. This was an area significantly larger than the original area designated by the UN partition plan. The only part of Palestine remaining in Arab hands was limited to that held by the Arab Legion of Transjordan and theGaza area held byEgypt at the cessation of hostilities. The area held by the Arab Legion was subsequently annexed by Jordan and is commonly referred to today as the West Bank.

Jerusalem was divided. The Old City, the Western Wall and the site of Solomon’s Temple, was in Jordanian hands; the New City lay on the Israeli side of the line.

Problems of the New State from 1948-67:

The War of Independence was the most costly war Israel has fought; more than 6,000 Jewish fighters and civilians died. At the war’s end in 1949, the fledgling state was burdened with a number of difficult problems. These included reacting to the absorption of hundreds of thousands of new immigrants and to a festering refugee problem on its borders, maintaining a defense against a hostile and numerically superior Arab world, keeping a war-torn economy afloat, and managing foreign policy alignments.

The Constitution:

A proposed constitution was never (and, to this day, has never been) ratified. However, on February 16, 1949, a Parliament and Supreme Court were established; again, without a constitution.

On May 28, 1948, Ben-Gurion’s provisional government created the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

Ingathering of the Exiles:

One of the first legislative acts of the new government was the Law of Return, which stated that “Every Jew has the right to come to this country as a new immigrant.”

Israeli officials estimated that, as of May 15, 1948, about 650,000 Jews lived in the area which was to become the State of Israel. In 2011, the population of Israel is around 7 million.

In the late 1950s, a flood of 400,000 mainly undereducated Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian, and Egyptian Jews immigrated to Israel following Israel’s Sinai Campaign. At least two-thirds of the newcomers were of Sephardic extraction (from Portugal and Spain), as opposed to the Ashkenazi (originally from Eastern Europe).

By the end of the first decade, about four-fifths of the Sephardic population lived in the large, mostly development towns and cities where they became workers in an economy dominated by Ashkenazim.

1967 and Afterward:

By the spring of 1967, Egyptian President Nasser’s prestige was wanning, escalating Syrian-Israeli tensions. The emergence of Levi Eshkol as prime minister set the stage for the third Arab-Israeli war. In 1963, Ben-Gurion stepped down and the more cautious Levi Eshkol became prime minister, giving the impression thatIsraelwould be less willing to engage the Arab world in hostilities.

The Soviet Union, wanting to involve Egypt as a deterrent to an Israeli initiative against Syria, misinformed Egyptian President Nasser on May 13 that the Israelis were planning to attack Syria on May 17. In response, Nasser put his armed forces in a state of maximum alert and closed of the Strait of Tiran.

When the war broke out, the actual fighting was over almost before it began. On June 5, the Israeli Air Corps destroyed nearly the entire Egyptian Air Force before its planes had a chance to take off. King Hussein of Jordan, misinformed by Nasser about Egyptian losses, authorized Jordanian artillery to fire on Jerusalem. Subsequently, both the Jordanians in the east and the Syrians in the north were quickly defeated.

The June 1967 War was a watershed event in the history of Israel and the Middle East. After only six days of fighting, Israel had radically altered the political map of the region. By June 13, Israeli forces had captured the following territory: The Golan Heights from Syria; Sinai and the Gaza Strip from Egypt; and all of Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan. The new territories more than doubled the size of pre 1967 Israel, also placing under Israel’s control more than 1 million Palestinian Arabs. InIsrael, the ease of the victory, the expansion of the state’s territory, and the reuniting ofJerusalem—the holiest place in Judaism—permanently altered political discourse.

In the Arab camp, the war significantly weakened Nasserism, and led to the emergence of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the leading representative of the Palestinian people and effective player in Arab politics.

Israel’s political leaders have long been eager to establish a State which would be recognized on its own merits by the rest of the nations of the world.Israelis proud of what it has accomplished in such a short period of time and considers this proof that it should stand among the world’s other progressive countries. The idea thatIsraelshould be a “Jewish” or “Religious” state has been considered byIsrael’s Zionist leaders a negative concept which actually works against these goals.

Upon winning the 1967 war, Israel suddenly found herself in possession of most of the geography containing its ancient biblical sites. These included Temple Mount in Jerusalem and the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, two of the most important sites for religious Jews. However, in order not to upset the Arab population, Moshe Dayan, then Minister of Defense, made a unilateral decision to give control of the Temple Mount to the Arab religious authorities, and to share the Cave of the Patriarchs with them as well. This decision caused enormous difficulties for religious Jews and has sharply divided the entire nation of Israel to this day. For many, Dayan, the “war hero”, is considered a traitor.

The wars of 1973 and the Lebanon War of 2006 were major political and emotional setbacks for Israel and her people. Israel’s lack of preparedness and the ease with which Israel was confused by the attacks stunned the nation and emboldened radical Islam worldwide. The national mood in Israel was shock and disbelief as Israelis realized, for perhaps the first time in their Zionist history, they were not invincible. These wars became a wakeup call for Israel and for the IDF. The political ramifications of the wars have yet to be worked out.

The conflict among today’s Israelis:

The Zionist says to the religious Jew, “For 2,000 years you prayed that God would return us to the land of our ancestors. How did that work for you! In one generation, we Zionists accomplished what you prayed for with only our determination to return, with our passion to remain against all odds, and with our own, two hands. Your religion was, and still is, impotent.”

The religious Jew says to the Zionist, “Zionism has become an idol, our nation’s Messiah. Our school children know the names of Israel’s Zionist leaders, but have only a vague notion of who Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joshua, and the prophets are. They have little respect for the God of our people and for His laws. How do you think you can convince the rest of the world that Zionism’s accomplishments are proof that the Jew has a right to the land when Zionism is little more than 100 years old and the Arabs have lived on the land for centuries? You have to take them a lot further back than the beginning of Zionism! God and the Bible must be central to our lives and to our argument that we have a right to live on the land God gave us.”

The Bible says:

Why are the nations in an uproar and the peoples devising a vain thing?

The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against His Anointed, saying, “Let us tear their fetters apart and cast away their cords from us!”

He who sits in the heavens laughs. The Lord scoffs at them.

Then He will speak to them in His anger and terrify them in His fury, saying,

“But as for Me, I have installed My King upon Zion, My holy mountain.

I will surely tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to Me, ‘You are My Son. Today I have begotten You. Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Your inheritance, And the very ends of the earth as Your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron. You shall shatter them like earthenware.'”

Now therefore, O kings, show discernment; take warning, O judges of the earth.

Worship the Lord with reverence and rejoice with trembling.

Do homage to the Son, that He not become angry, and you perish in the way. For His wrath may soon be kindled. How blessed are all who take refuge in Him!”


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