A reflection on the meaning of “Zionism” today and why it matters
I am often asked whether or not I’m a “Zionist.”
In truth, the answer is not easy. True, I am deeply committed to Israel and its people and culture, which I consume madly and pass on to my children, and I teach Israel and visit there all the time. Yet I don’t think the label itself works for me, and inevitably I am asked why. This is a reasonable but also often a loaded question because of its frequent assumption of Zionism’s self-evident Truth. It reminds me of when a bridge club director saw my kippa and asked why I didn’t accept Jesus, as if the burden of proof was on me, as if Christ’s return and our salvation through him (or Zionism in this case) is a self-evident Truth whose skeptics must either disprove or accept.
I could and would support a moral Zionist movement that celebrated and nurtured Jewish cultures (Hebrew and others) while advocating for Jewish equality with Palestinians in the land, recognizing equal rights and power for both “nations” and all individuals, regardless of the arrangement that accomplished this goal. “Regardless of the arrangement” means that this is not about the debate between two states/one state/confederation. Any arrangement built on equality in power and access to resources and security is acceptable. “Both” meaning Jewish equality as well, i.e. Jews relinquishing their supremacy does not mean that they should then become the new oppressed subaltern, God forbid.
This is not really “cultural Zionism,” by the way. Ahad Haam’s project is important and attractive to me in many ways, but personally I feel uncomfortable both with its inherent anti-religious bias (hence the stark opposition of Mizrahi back in the day) and especially with its hegemonic assumptions about Hebrew culture, which today translates to modern Israeli culture and (in religious spaces) liturgical practice. One example. My niece was supposed to be named after our beloved grandmother, whose name was Tillie (Taibl), but the rabbi refused to do it. “We’ve come here to give her a Jewish name,” he said. And so they called her Yona, a name my grandmother wouldn’t recognize, despite them both meaning “dove.” The war against Yiddish and Ashkenazic culture in Conservative Judaism (and some brances of Modern Orthodoxy) among those who come from this tradition is a war I reject.
So why do I reject the label? After all, I am an historian of Zionism and therefore I tend to think of Zionism as an ever-changing, wide range of ideologies and beliefs. It seems unproductively pedantic, though, for me to insist that the range of beliefs of what Zionism once meant, or might have come to mean, be applied today. We should study these ideas to understand how we got here, and perhaps consider future roads that people have forgotten were once normative. But these ideologies are past. Martin Buber is not really a Zionist by today’s definitions. Hell, professing his ideas may get one branded an anti-semite these days. Will they come back? Maybe, but we have to operate in the world as it is.
It often seems so important to friends and strangers to prove that I define myself as a “Zionist.” Perhaps this is because they want me on that team. Perhaps it’s because my observant commitments make it harder to dismiss me as a self-hating Jew. Or, perhaps because knowing my beliefs and criticisms, they want Zionism to have room for these ideas also. The very question “are you a Zionist” is often loaded with gauging one’s Jewish legitimacy.
But words have meanings and these meanings are forged by the way people use them conventionally. They evolve. For example, I once fought to convince people that “myth” does not mean an untrue story. It means a sacred narrative that plays a defining role in a culture. Referring to the myth of the Exodus does not deny its veracity as desribed in the Bible, but rather to its role in Jewish culture. But this simply isn’t how people understand the word. It’s confusing to pretend otherwise, and so I have simply switched to using the phrase “sacred narrative.”
So what is Zionism today? I think two things really.
One, Zionism is what it is, it is how it has manifested in history in Israel. It is Israel’s choices. That means everything they have done, both the good and the bad, including (in the latter category) the expulsions and plundering of the naqba, the nation-state law, and of course the colonization and de facto annexation of the West Bank and ongoing and deepening oppression of non-Jews there. Whether this is an inevitable result of its settler ideology that sought to solve Jewishness through concentrated settlement, by creating a country for all Jews that would privilege them over non-Jews already there, or whether this is a perversion of a loftier ideology that might have developed much differently, is less interesting to me in this regard. It is what it is.
The other meaning is that Zionism is a form of Jewishness, a type of Jewish identity that like other denominations (Reform, Orthodoxies, etc.) selects from the vast corpus of Jewish texts, rituals, history, and traditions to construct a form of Jewishness and Jewish community to compete with the others. Actually, it always had this function, usually primarily so and sometimes exclusively so! My first book argued this at excruciating length with I think a sufficient source base and proof.
Today this manifests in a couple ways. One is basically secular. I think of the Jewish student who wears an IDF t-shirt to class. Why is she wearing this? She’s not trying raise money or support for the IDF or Israel. I think she’s trying to say, “Listen: I look, eat, talk and relax just like all of you. But I want you to know I’m different. I’m Jewish.” Such folks often know very little about Zionism or Israel beyond a vague sense that Israel is a great place and the Israelis are the good guys, even if it has some problems.
The second form of Zionist identity is more classically “religious,” which itself manifests in different forms nearly all of which include devotion to the assumptions of ethno-nationalism grounded in divine mandate for Jewish supremacy in one form or another. Like all denominations, they have their preferred “prooftexts,” which they refashion for themselves. For example, liturgy that prays for the messianic redemption with language of “Zion” is claimed to be self-evidently referring to the secular State of Israel. Those who pray but reject its new meaning are attacked as hypocrites or fake. Similarly, Rachel Havrelock has just written a particularly important work about how the “Book of Joshua” is an especially popular source for both religious and secular Zionists.
Thus to be a Zionist, as the word is generally used, means either a secular Zionist identity with a general connection to the State of Israel as described above – Israelis are the good guys, they are maligned and under attack, even if imperfect we support them and their “right to exist” in an ever expanding sense that means protection against consequences for their choices – or else it is a “religious” Zionist identity that understands the project as religious fulfillment. Or some combination.
I am certainly not a Zionist by either of these definitions, and I find it hard to defend my taking the title “Zionist” simply because I can locate an historic definition – a road not taken – that would suit me. When it comes to (1) Zionism as it has manifested and evolved, this is something I certainly oppose. When it comes to (2) Zionism as a form of Jewishness, whether secular, moderate religious or even kahanist, I suppose I am a non-Zionist. Zionism has nothing to do with my Jewish identity or religious meaning. That said, I’m a religious pluralist, and therefore by nature admit the equal potential authenticity of any form of religious expression, INCLUDING Zionism. I don’t know what God really wants, I’m doing the best I can, like everyone else. We’ll find out after 120 years. I will oppose such a movement only insofar as it seeks to impose its will on outsiders, whether other types of Jews, or non-Jews.
However, and this is the main point, this raises an interesting issue when all of this is combined. There is a conflation between these categories with a lot of secular American Zionists. Zionism to them means some form of Jewish pride that is disconnected from the reality of what is actually happening on the ground.
In contrast, Jewish “anti-Zionism” is either – like with Haredim – opposition to this allegedly heretical form of Jewishness, or – as with advocates for Palestinian rights and a moral Jewish community in Israel – opposition to what is happening on the ground there. But Zionists don’t tend to hear either of those things! They do not hear a Jewish identity that seeks to separate from Zionist assumptions, and they do not hear a Jewish or political critique of Zionism for the way it’s evolved in practice. They hear an attack on their Jewish identity totally separate from Israel itself! A rally for Palestinian rights – or a poster calling for equal rights for everyone ruled the by IDF – thus becomes “antisemitic.” A Jewish advocate for equality, or for a Jewish identity not tied up with Zionism, thus becomes self-hating and dangerous.
This view is unfortunately nurtured by institutions that should know better, some of whom deliberately conflate this vague Zionist identity with specific beliefs about Israel, obscuring at times the reality on the ground, or else defending with mythology or other values that they feel trump equality.
Moreover, this is especially complicated because so many Diaspora Jewish organizations have collapsed these categories themselves, whether with careful religious integration or secular integration. Nearly every Jewish institution – most obviously Hillels – publicizes that they “Support Israel” or “Stand with Israel.” Many synagogues integrate these declarations and prayers into the services themselves, sometimes with flags. Our day schools – which sing Hatikva at most events – encourage kids to study there for a year or more, and many to enlist in its army. Rallies that were supposed to be against antisemitism in the past month – antisemitism defined as such (correctly!) because Palestinian advocates assumed Jews were representatives of Israel – were actually rallies for Israel, even exclusively so. One can see why casual but proud Jews – let alone Palestinians and other outsiders – might assume this conflation. (Shout out to my Skokie community that assiduously avoided this conflation for the most part.)
Since it is unacceptable to deny Haredim or anyone else the right to their *religious* opposition to the nationalization of Judaism, and it is equally unacceptable to deny people the right to fight for equality and human rights, this disconnect can only be overcome by widespread education of the meaning of these terms and what is hoped to be accomplished by their advocates.
And in this regard, it is vitally important to separate political action against the State of Israel from “attacks” on Jewish individuals because they “believe in” Israel, even as we denounce those who would ascribe to Israel clear antisemitic mythology, such as conspiracies of control over global media, other countries leadership, the world economy, etc. Advocating for Palestinian rights, emphasizing only some of the story, is not antisemitic. Demanding a Jewish student affirm or denounce Israel in order to run for student government is antisemitic.
Unfortunately, either instinctually or for nationalist purpose, this distinction is instead increasingly obscured, and words like “anti-Zionism” assigned ever more elastic meaning and ever more expansive assumptions. As a result, Jews who might potentially feel no more discomfort from those who identify as “anti-Zionist” than a Reform or Orthodox Jew feels toward each other instead experience anti-Zionism as an attack on their very essence, i.e. as antisemitism. If we understand these terms better, we can nurture the potential to bridge that gap, often placed between people who share a deep commitment to the future of Israel/Palestine, the people who live there, and maybe a lot of other values too.