Zionism Defined: Is It Time to Retire the Word?

Shabbat

This past Shabbat, in synagogues around the world, the following words were chanted: 

And when you harvest your land, do not completely harvest the corner of your field, and do not gather all the leftover crops from your field. And do not completely harvest your vineyard, and do not gather every grape of your vineyard; leave them for the poor and the non-Jew: I am the Lord your God.” 

These verses in the Kedoshim Torah portion are rich with meaning and serve as a powerful reminder of the deep connections between the Jewish people and the land of Israel. They reinforce the idea of Israel as a sacred place that demands our respect and care, as well as our commitment to ensuring the wellbeing of all who call Israel home, be they Jew or non-Jew. It reminds us that whenever we follow this commandment, of caring for everyone in our society and caring for the Earth, wherever we are, it is all derived from our love for Israel, the place we love more than anyplace on Earth. 

It depends on whom you ask! 

Not a Zionist?

A couple of months ago I was taking to a friend, a Jewish friend of mine, and something she said rubbed me the wrong way, and I asked, “Wait – you’re not a Zionist?” 

No, she said; I’m not a Zionist. 

Of course, I got mad. If you are not a Zionist, this means you want Israel wiped off the map, all the Jews expelled, Palestine from the River to the Sea. 

But she quickly clarified. She said that she wanted to see two countries living side by side in peace, Israel and Palestine, based on the ’48 borders, with offsets. 

So, I told her, that’s the definition of Zionism. You’re a Zionist. 

Yes, she agreed, if she had to define herself, she’d be a “liberal Zionist.” 

But, she pointed out, labels inflame, they get in the way of understanding and common purpose. If she were to identify as a Zionist, she would have to clarify that she was not a “religious Zionist” (although she is religious), and not a Revisionist Zionist, both of which seek to expand Israel’s borders to incorporate land envisioned for a future state of Palestine. 

If you label yourself in a way that much of the world misunderstands because of your label’s complexity, people will approach you with misconceptions, and you make it more difficult to reach a consensus. Everyone will begin the conversation not liking you; or they will hate you so much that they will not even begin the conversation. Where is the value to that? Why could she not just say that she believes that both Israelis and Palestinians should live in peace in their own states? What does using the word “Zionist” add to the conversation? 

Zionism defined

Why bother?

Another friend of mine, the president of a synagogue, posted this on his Facebook page: “I am a proud Zionist. Because I understand what it actually means.”

Of course, all hell broke loose, and one FB acquaintance, a proclaimed Jewish anti-Zionist who we will call “Lev,” eventually sent a complaint to the board of trustees of the synagogue, demanding the president be fired for advocating genocide. Lev also filed a criminal complaint against my friend with the New York Attorney General on the same basis and wrote to the local library asking them to ban him. 

Before everything grew ugly, I joined the Facebook debate. I noted that all my friend was saying was that Israel had a right to exist, to which Lev replied, “Of course.”

This whole incident was very stupid, and it was all based on the word “Zionism.” My friend is a Zionist who believes Israel has a right to exist and opposes the excesses of the Gaza war; Lev is an anti-Zionist who believes Israel has a right to exist and opposes the excesses of the Gaza war. Their only disagreement was over the word “Zionism.”

Just this past week, many of Columbia University’s Jewish students wrote an open letter about the awful events at their school, in which they noted, “If the last six months on campus have taught us anything, it is that a large and vocal population of the Columbia community does not understand the meaning of Zionism.” 

I wondered: if these “anti-Zionists” students do not understand the meaning of Zionism, how can they understand the meaning of anti-Zionism?

When they say that they are anti-Zionists, are they really really opposed to the existence of Israel, or something else? 

This is not to say that there are no anti-Zionists who want to destroy Israel, because obviously there are, but there are certainly anti-Zionists who oppose what they define as Zionism (occupation of the West Bank, religious extremism, the Gaza War), and favor the idea of two states living side by side in peace, which is how I have always defined my Zionism. So in many cases, I think, my definition of Zionism is the same as someone else’s anti-Zionism. 

But the word prevents accommodation and reconciliation. People hate Zionists. Is it worth fighting for our right to use that word when talking to people who don’t like it? Aren’t there more important principles to fight for that the correct use of a word, even one that has historically meant so much to us? 

The Origins of Zionism 

Back when everyone agreed on what it was, Zionism was a Jewish nationalist movement that originated in eastern and central Europe during the late 19th century with the goal to create a Jewish state in the ancient homeland of the Jews, or, if that were proved impossible, a Jewish state somewhere. Most famously, Alaska and Uganda were proposed. Less famously, Northern Australia, Suriname and Madagascar. And an island off the coast of New York state, near the border with Canada.  

The original Zionists never anticipated a separate state for Palestinians, because the Arabs of Palestine didn’t identify that way back then, and because the original Zionist, Theodor Herzl, imagined that the Jews and Arabs of Palestine would live together and thrive in peace. Who wouldn’t love a bunch of Jews moving into the neighborhood, he mused? Maybe he should have anticipated this. 

My Own Private Zionism

But now, what is it, what is Zionism? Well, when we “good” Zionists want to distinguish ourselves from those “bad” Zionists, we talk about “my Zionism.” 

As in, “My Zionism does not stop me from recognizing Palestinian suffering.” 

Or “My Zionism … is cultural, not territorial.… For me, the source of its unique sacredness is the people, not the land.”

Or this, from an interview with Bret Stephens of the New York Times: “[I]ntrinsic to my Zionism is the belief that … Israel should not be in the business of ruling others.” 

Of course, many people who identify as Zionists, such as Bezalel Smotrich and others, see it differently. In their formulation, Zionism would focus on the Jews, and ignore Palestinian suffering (in fact, hasten it, to create refugees and free the land for Greater Israel); their Zionism would certainly recognize the sacredness of the land; and their Zionism would indeed see Israel in the business of ruling others. 

So many anti-Zionists define Zionism almost exclusively in terms of the worst things that the worst leaders of Israel have ever done, or even what the worst Israelis have ever said they might wish to do. 

Note the following, from the blogger Michael Bond: “JUDAISM is a religion which promotes supremacist delusions and exonerates racist crime. ZIONISM is an ideology of conquest, colonialism and exploitation. Neither of these two statements define me as anti-Semitic.”

His Zionism is not my Zionism, I will tell you that!

Depending on who is talking, Zionism means an ideology of conquest and war, an ideology of peace and compassion, an ideology of racial superiority or an ideology of racial equality, or it most accurately refers to a national liberation project that achieved its goals almost eighty years ago.

This all leads to cognitive dissonance out there, and well-meaning people who want to understand throw up their hands. 

“Zionism seems perfectly reasonable?” writes one striver for truth, on Reddit. “This seems like a good thing, Israel seems necessary to me. Jews have been second class citizens for a millennium and were fairly recently killed in a genocide. So yeah, they should have their own state where they can live freely. And the location seems appropriate, considering their historical ties to the land. And they need not kick out/genocide their Palestinian neighbors to do so, they can just… live next to them? … [But] baggage comes from Israeli politics. Where the ‘most Zionist’ essentially want to enforce a strong Jewish majority and oppress others, which may or may not stem from a sense of racial superiority.”

No wonder he’s confused! People who are just a little bit Zionist are OK, he concludes, but people who are really really Zionist are awful. So Zionism is bad, but a little bit of it is tolerable. And this is from someone who is really trying to understand! 

Does Zionism Mean Israel Has a Right to Exist, or to Thrive, or Something Else?

Since a state in our historic homeland has already been established, which was Zionism’s original goal, I hear most often that Zionism is the belief that Israel has a right to exist under international law. 

Is that your Zionism today? 

I also believe that France, Italy and Ethiopia have a right to exist under international law. Why isn’t that an ideology? Why is there no word for that? Because it is fact, not an ideology, like the idea that a cat is a mammal. It’s a fact. In the 19th century, the existence of Israel was a legitimate matter for debate, but it is not anymore. Insisting that the existence of Israel is an ideology rather than a fact acknowledges Israel’s existence as a legitimate subject for debate, which doesn’t help Israel. 

Some people say that Zionism now stands for the belief in Israel’s right to further cultural and economic development, but that’s not really an ideology. What would you call someone who believes in France’s right to cultural and economic development? Nothing at all. Of course a country that exists will seek to develop culturally and economically. There is no reason why Israel, a country that exists, should have a special word for that. 

Some people insist that now that the world has recognized Israel as a state, Zionism means the project to get the world to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, specifically the Arab world, and, even more specifically, the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. 

However, as Abbas said, when asked to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, “I don’t have to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Israel can call itself whatever it wants. If Israel wants to call itself the ‘Jewish state of Jews,’ it can do so.”

Our Zionism cannot mean pleading for the world’s approval to let Israel define itself as it wishes. It can already do that. It is a Jewish state because it is a state, and states can make those kinds of decisions. Does the Islamic Republic of Pakistan demand that the prime minister of France recognize it as an Islamic state? Does the Islamic Republic of Iran? 

Finally, some people say that Zionism is the eternal flame of love that the Jewish people have for our biblical homeland under our scriptural sources. That’s religion, though, not a political ideology. Zionism can still be a part of our religion, it can still refer to our love for our homeland, but it doesn’t need to be part of the public debate, or the way we refer to our own political beliefs. 

Words

In the 18th century, if you were part of the “Patriot Movement,” you believed that the American colonies should declare independence. 

During the Enlightenment, being “pro-life” had nothing to do with banning abortion. 

I agree with the 18th century Patriot Movement and the 17th century pro-life movement, but I do not define myself according to those ideologies because both long-ago achieved their goals, and because no one would understand what I meant unless I explained it. 

If Zionism is all things to all people, and to call yourself a Zionist means you need to explain what your Zionism means to you, then Zionism, as a word, no longer has the public-facing value that it once did. 

Give Up Your Zionism

If something doesn’t help us, don’t do it. Don’t write intemperate Facebook posts in a moment of anger. Don’t demand the cancellation of a Palestinian valedictorian’s graduation speech, giving ammunition to those who claim that powerful Zionists seek to silence Palestinian voices. Don’t write a letter to Columbia University demanding a tuition reimbursement. That last one doesn’t give anyone ammunition for anything, but it’s a waste of valuable time.  

Continuing to use the word “Zionism” doesn’t help if the word means nothing, and it doesn’t help if it means everything. 

So What Do We Say Now? 

A lot of times words change because of some high-profile campaign by some high-profile group or individual, and everyone must change their vocabulary. 

This is not a proposal to police language, to cast a word that you may love into the dustbin and to say to the nation and the world and to all of you that this word is no longer allowed, and to correct and shame you if you say it. Go ahead and love your Zionism in your heart and continue to express that love here, using this word that we all understand. It is just a suggestion for how we might better communicate our political views out there, in the world.

So let me suggest that we begin by just saying what we believe. Don’t call yourself a Zionist on the web, don’t use it in conversation. And if anyone asks if you are a Zionist, say that you prefer to talk about ideas rather than labels and add, for example, “I just believe that Palestine has a right to live side by side in peace with Israel, under international law,” or words to that effect. I’m not proposing a world without your Zionism, just a conversation without the word. 

^^^

This article is by Steven S. Drachman, who wrote a book and gave a Ted talk about innovative solutions to the Israel/Palestine problem. All of his innovative solutions are moot post-10/7.

Image by Cottonbro Studios / Pexels

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