Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, has long been treated by much of the world as a kind of ideological disease. “Zionism is racism” is not merely a cliché in a now-defunct UN resolution, but is today a time-honored trope of the far left. If we hear less of the specific charges against Zionism it is only because the anti-Zionists have done such a thorough job in turning the word itself into a pejorative.
Unfortunately, the continued demonization of Zionism has made headway in more mainstream circles. I imagine, though I have not seen any studies confirming it, that even mainstream Americans react negatively to the word “Zionism.” Such negativity has been internalized by Jews (although not by Israel’s staunch Christian allies). While many pro-Israel Jews would, if pressed, still admit to being “Zionists,” few advertise it. We’ve thrown in the towel.
Notwithstanding its supposed malevolence, Zionism is in its simplest form the belief that Jews have the right to a state in the land of Israel. Just as it was in the 19th century and at Israel’s founding, Zionism is a big tent, encompassing a range of perspectives, from those who want to normalize the Jewish condition in a pluralistic, secular democracy to those who pine for a theocratic Torah state. Those who malign Zionism either don’t understand it or outright reject Jewish self-determination.
Is now the time to reclaim “Zionism?”
Some of the earliest anti-Zionism came from Jews before Israel ever became a state. Many ultra-Orthodox Jews opposed it on theological grounds. Jewish leftists opposed it because they believed it was their duty to give up their religious beliefs and ethnic solidarity as a vanguard for others. And numerous mainstream Jews in the diaspora opposed it for fear that the creation of a Jewish state would imperil their own status.
While the earliest forms of external anti-Zionism sprung from Nazi racist ideology, it was the Soviets who later popularized the campaign. Soviet anti-Zionism was based on opposition to ethnic nationalism, which was seen as an ideological deviation from the Communist ideal of a classless society.
During the 1950s Soviet anti-Zionism used “Zionist” as a term to describe spies, saboteurs and other criminals. Zionism became a form of treason against the state, punishable by death.
Anti-Zionism was also a mainstay of Soviet propaganda in the Third World and the Muslim world. The culmination of this anti-Zionism was the ‘Zionism is racism’ resolution passed by the UN General Assembly in 1975.
There are a number of explanations for the campaign to de-legitimize the Jewish state and its national philosophy, Zionism, but none are more potent than the collective power of 21 Arab states in the UN. The Arab world, armed with the oil weapon, has the ability to set the terms of discussion. The Arab nations’ domination of the UN trickles down into other venues of the left and defines the discourse.
Given the Jewish community’s numerical disadvantage on the world stage, it is exceptionally difficult to reclaim the terms of the debate. For example, efforts to portray the West Bank as “disputed” rather than “occupied” inevitably fall flat and make make the people behind them look as though they support permanent occupation.
But perhaps there are some words worth fighting for, even if we take short-term losses. Zionism is core to who we are as Jews. There’s simply no other word with currency that describes Jewish national aspirations. Giving it up deprives us of our ability to define ourselves and gives in to those who oppose Israel’s very right to exist.
Moreover, many young Israelis are now going back to the basics and recapturing the Zionist spirit. Abandoning the term “Zionism” would be abandoning them.
To be sure, the ideological heirs of the leftist Jewish anti-Zionists — “post-Zionists” in Israel and the West — make combating anti-Zionism even more difficult. Like their forbears, they embrace a utopian and highly implausible belief that if Jews give up nationalism they will be accepted and secure. Jewish post-Zionists give anti-Zionism a respectable patina. But we should remember that the early Zionists also faced Jewish anti-Zionism, and prevailed.
Rebranding Zionism would be no mean feat. But it would be a nonstarter if only one or two organizations attempt such a campaign.
What just might work is bringing together the panoply of Jewish organizations, together with the government of Israel, in a well-orchestrated reclamation project. It would be a major coup if groups from the right-wing Zionist Organization of America to the left-wing Americans for Peace Now would put aside their ideological differences for a moment and state loud and clear in a joint statement that they are proud Zionists.
College students would be another place to start. If pro-Israel students wear pins and T-shirts advertising their own Zionism, hold programs explaining the true nature of Zionism and write letters and op-eds, much of the rest of the pro-Israel community would surely follow.
In order to neutralize the insidious effort to de-legitimize the Jewish state, we should start with ourselves. If we don’t stand up for Jewish national liberation, no one else will. If we can muster the strength, we’ll be far more likely to convince others.
David Bernstein is the executive director of The David Project.