People discussing the Israeli-Palestinian issue must choose whether they are Zionists or not, whether they reject Jewish self-determination or embrace Jewish supremacy. This is the way things are and have always been, but it is not how things have to be in the future
Some people believe that Zionism is no longer relevant. Its historic purpose was for Jews to immigrate to the holy land and found a sovereign state there; and this mission, by and large, has been accomplished. This, however, is the view of a minority within a minority. For both its supporters and its opponents, Zionism is not only relevant; it has become the ultimate criteria for acceptance or rejection of people, groups and even positions.
The Old Testament tells of a civil war between Jews, in which one faction took control of the crossing over the Jordan River. In order to tell friend from foe, all who passed were forced to pronounce the word Shibboleth. Those who pronounced it in the rival faction’s accent were killed. Although the sanction is milder (in most cases), today, the closest thing to a Shibboleth is one’s allegiance or opposition to Zionism.
Fervent Zionists often say that they can accept any heretical position, as long as it falls within the Zionist camp. For them, labeling someone as non-Zionist is the ultimate pejorative. Anti-Zionists, for their part, often see anyone identifying with Zionism as beyond the pale. But what is much more worrying is that both sides of this debate agree not just on Zionism’s importance, but also on its meaning and implications.
Zionism is associated with two ideas. First, Jews have the right of self-determination as a nation. Second, Jews should enjoy supremacy over all other groups within a Jewish state. Remarkably, Zionism’s adherents as well as its detractors believe that these notions are inextricably tied together. Zionists will argue that anyone who believes all Israelis should be equal, without any preference for Jews, is thereby rejecting Jews’ right for self-determination. And anti-Zionists warn that anyone who endorses Jewish self-determination is legitimizing discrimination of non-Jews.
You are damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. But you are also damned if you neither do nor don’t. If you believe both in the right of Jews for self-determination, and in full equality within Israel, you will be shunned by all sides. They will ask: are you a Zionist or are you not?
One can point to Israel’s declaration of independence, which formally embraces both notions. Alternatively, ways can be shown in which equality and Jewish self-determination can be combined. Nonetheless, the way this debate is structure is not arbitrary. The connection between Jewish self-determination and Jewish supremacy is historically and factually valid.
From the first moment Zionists came to the Holy Land and “discovered” Palestinians there, to their dismay, they have been convinced that predominance is the key to attaining their national goals. This has been enshrined in myriad Zionist and Israeli policies ever since. Palestinians, on their part, were certain that Jewish self-determination would spell their ruin. And these mutually reinforcing beliefs have proven both of them to be correct.
Maybe it could have been different. I would certainly like to think so. But I have no doubt things can be different now. Jews are a majority within Israel. The country will always reflect their national character, and will always express their symbols and national identity. A variety of policies can be changed, in terms of symbolism as well as regarding concrete distribution of resources, to end discrimination and give a prominent place to Palestinian national identity, without casting aside the Jewish one.
Jews, as a group, will lose their privileged place. But in this process of iconic and material redistribution, most Jews can actually benefit, because right now the Jewish cultural and economic capital is concentrated in the hands of a small minority within the Jewish population. Democratizing Jewishness should and can be a part in democratizing the country for both its national groups.
Does this make me a Zionist or a non-Zionist? I don’t think so. It does, however, make me an incurable optimist. Tar me in feathers for that, and not for some Shibboleth that stands in the way of serious debate.