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The burden, and wall, of Zionism

Zionism has come to refer not to the many ways of building Israel, but to a litmus test. Any answer other than ‘I am a Zionist,’ is akin to being un-American in the 1950s.

I didn’t join a Labor Zionist youth movement at 14 because I thought of myself as a Zionist. Actually I shied away from group identities, bouncing among social cliques at school and staying away from team sports. My parents just didn’t know what to do with me one summer and they heard about a nice Jewish camp, not too expensive.

The Habonim-Dror camp turned out to be a tiny gaggle of barely 100 kids and counselors, some of them bona fide 60s leftovers in the mid-1980s, with a fetish for socialist values and arguments we felt sure were intellectual. When heated discussions went on too long, counselors let us skip team sports. In fact they let us skip for pretty much any reason. Things were a little crazy – one day each summer, the 17-year old campers held a “revolution” and tossed out the (delighted) counselors for 24 hours. There were not a few parental lawsuits.

I was hooked, and determined not to miss the year on kibbutz after high school. My fascination with the idea of Israel was growing and the social bonds were strong. Some of those people became friends for life and a few of us even moved here.

I don’t remember anyone asking me if I was a Zionist, or caring if I had said I wasn’t. We talked about terribly important substance – the socialist ethics of pooling our money to buy cigarettes that some wanted and some (only some!) hated; the concept of tikkun olam; learning the spectrum of left and right political parties in Israel, and how some of them opposed holding “the territories”; we learned about Berl Katznelson and Ahad Ha’am – but I don’t recall any fixation on the label “Zionism.”

An American is an American. A Frenchman is a Frenchman, or woman. Israel too has a dynamic debate about what makes a person Israeli: the declaration of independence says all its citizens are equal regardless of religion, race, or gender. The Right loves to point out that other countries also restrict borders, rights and privileges to people who embody the national identity.

But the parallel to other countries is inaccurate, because Israel has two definitions that further narrow who is in or out; who the state legitimizes and invests in, and who it tries to reject. One is the identity of “Jewish.” The other is “Zionist.”

Defenders of Israel’s Jewish identity argue that Western states are implicitly Christian; minorities and immigrants are supposed to accept that in exchange for the basic tenets of rights and freedoms guaranteed by formal laws. Israel does not have to be any different.

But Israel, by contrast, tries to formally define itself as Jewish. Instead of allowing “Israeli-ness” to develop into a blend of its (current) majority, fusing with its minorities like in France or America, Israel would like to narrow “Israeli” identity to the Jewish aspect – through a Basic Law proposal, an amendment to the Citizenship Law, Right of Return and draft laws. Maybe the current leadership isn’t interested in preserving the Jewish numeric majority, as witnessed by creeping annexation policies, so it hopes to anchor the character of the state through legislation. There are also unwritten codes, such as favoring army service for employment, or unequal resource distribution, to divide the favored from the marginalized.

Inside this first inner demarcation, there is yet another, even narrower, boundary being drawn: Zionism.

In over a century of the modern usage, the term has never meant one thing alone. Its myriad tributaries merged and parted like the waters of the world’s great rivers.  Like a political party in Israel.

But lately, Zionism has come to refer not to the many ways of building Israel, but to a litmus test. The test is your label: you are “Zionist” – no matter what you mean by that – or else you are post-, anti-, non-Zionist.

Israelis  participate in the march of the Flags on May 20, 2012, Jerusalem (Photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Israelis participate in the March of the Flags during ‘Jerusalem Day’ on May 20, 2012, East Jerusalem (Photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

This means two things simultaneously. First, inside Israel, any answer other than “I am a Zionist,” is akin to being un-American in the 1950s.

Self-anointed spokespeople of Zionism, Im Tirzu, use it as a symbol of total worship of the state at the expense of other rights. Their mission is to out those who think otherwise and they campaign to strip such people of their platforms. The pressure on Ben-Gurion University department of politics and government to disavow faculty members is the best example.

In the public domain, the distinction of Zionist or non-, post-, anti-Zionists is used to delegitimize people, and portray them as outside the consensus.

Yet that use of Zionism is solipsistic: it refers only to itself, having gutted this rich world of all substance.

There’s a second current meaning. For Palestinians, Zionism has equaled racism from the famous UN resolution onward – and before. For them Zionism is both the occupation from 1967 and their ongoing 65-year-old stateless wandering that began in 1948 (even the Jews wandered in Sinai for only 40 years). In the name of Zionism, Palestinians’ collective historic trauma was denied (understandably making their demand for recognition of their experiences more vociferous). To this day, they live as people in bondage, subject to military rule and stunted political growth.

Zionism to them is a symbol of all that they have endured, continue to endure, and the fact that their past and sometimes present is often ignored unless they turn to terrorism. Then Israel and the world (rightly, but inevitably) resist demands based on violence.

These days, when I meet Palestinians for the first time, they sometimes ask a few litmus questions of their own. Including: “Are you a Zionist?”

Am I? I accept the historic fact of Jews settling from the late 19th century onward in their ancient homeland, fleeing persecution which culminated in the Holocaust, and I know we established a state by force against the native population. I don’t justify that violence but nearly all states are born in conflict and suffering, which is apparently inevitable. Like numerous other states, I believe Israel must recognize that history, that damage, and find ways to redress the suffering of the people it has harmed.

I flatly reject ongoing aggression against Palestinians. I fundamentally recognize human rights of all. Someone asked me if I support Palestinian rights: I do not. Human beings are born with rights – one does not get to ‘support’ or ‘oppose’ them. I support my country recognizing those rights and ensuring that all people under its control can realize them.

In the internal Jewish debate, I hold some positions that some might accuse of being non-, anti-, or post-Zionism. I also moved here from the U.S., took citizenship, have paid taxes for 17 years, and work on political campaigns for Israeli parties who call themselves Zionist when I generally support their programs. One fellow even told me that an article I wrote here on +972 Magazine helped him make the decision to move to Israel. The labels turn out to be meaningless and irrelevant.

In short, Zionism has been reduced to a wall: a ghetto wall separating Jews from other Jews, that we have built ourselves and a eight-meter high concrete separation wall, separating Jews from Palestinians.

It is a burden.

Why I oppose recognizing Israel as a Jewish state
How a Zionist can oppose the Jewish state
Denying ‘Israeli nationality’ only perpetuates discrimination

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    1. Kolumn9

      “We established a state…”

      Yep, you are a Zionist according to my definition. Severely moreso than most American Jews who think they are. I doubt any Palestinian would read your article and think otherwise.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Rab

      That’s interesting. Zionism prior to the 1930s meant to the Arabs that here was another minority they could attack at will. They launched attacks against that minority regularly. Then they launched wars against that minority and lost. Now, according to the author, for the Palestinians Zionism is somehow defined as racism? Actually, their anti-Zionism is bigoted. And let’s not play games, they didn’t shout “itbah al Zioni” but rather “itbah al yahud.”

      And if today Zionism is defined by the Palestinians as occupation, let’s not forget they could already have a second state (Jordan being the first) if they had accepted Israel’s multiple offers (Clinton recently acknowledged that Barak offered the Haram al Sharif minus the Western Wall to the Palestinians) and in 1937 and ’47 the Yishuv’s consent to partition.

      The litmus test, as the author describes it, applies to a historic understanding of Zionism which most of its critics choose to ignore. Zionism was proven correct about Europe in the Holocaust, and then proven right again after 1948 for the Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim lands that disgorged them in such alarming numbers that around 1% (one percent) remained living there.

      Zionism didn’t only offer refuge for these multitudes of Jewish refugees (as it would do later for Ethiopian and Russian Jews), it offered them a home and the right to self-determination. This right was hard-won in wars where at times some of the new immigrants, refugees in some cases, didn’t even have time to see their new country before going out to war and, at times, getting killed. And many established Israelis were killed and maimed as well. These sacrifices are the fault of the Arab hatred of Zionism, whether on a religious basis, a nationalistic basis or simply on the idea that somehow the land belongs to them even if it didn’t previously and even if they lost what they had in a war they launched.

      The problem that critics of Zionism face today is that they are participants, willing or unwilling, in the same war on Jews that existed a century ago and that persists to this day. What was a war on a Jewish minority is now a war on Zionism because it has become a catch-all ideology supporting Israel’s existence.

      There are many gradations to this type of participation in assisting Israel’s enemies, but the fact is that every time Israel is or will be significantly weakened in any way, there is no possible outcome in which members of the Israeli public won’t be harmed. Just look at the rest of the Middle East if there is any doubt about what I’m saying. There is no model anywhere in the Middle East or in Muslim countries of a peaceful transition to democracy or of equitable treatment of minorities. Especially when considering the history of this current Israeli-Arab conflict, it is impossible to expect a peaceful outcome if Israel’s enemies overcome Zionism.

      So, as most Israelis understand, you can be a far-left Zionist and that’s fine, but once you cross the line into a supporter of those who wish to destroy Israel, then you have determined that war should be waged on your countrymen. When their sons go to serve at the border and your ideology helped to drive or support the enemy who fires at them, or when they get on a bus or go to a cafe (or in Sderot and Western Negev, merely exist anywhere) and something explodes around them, a very clear line is demarcated by Israel’s enemies. If your efforts have contributed in one way or another to their attacks, even if it in providing justification in endless unfair criticism of Israel, then why shouldn’t the parents, brothers, uncles, aunts, lovers, spouses, children and average people who sympathize with these unfortunate losses say that a line has been crossed? That you are on the side of the enemy?

      Reply to Comment
    3. Samuel

      Well said Rab

      Reply to Comment
    4. shachalnur

      Almost a century ago a Zionist wrote about a wall,and the people, allegedly,running Israel today are followers of this man.

      I’m not sure Zionism “has been reduced to a wall”,more like it was a wall from the start.

      After joining Haboniem dror at fifteen and spending a year in a kibbutz,I ended up years later in a student protest against the Lebanon war in the 1980’s at Ramat Aviv University.

      I remember a group of right-wing supporters,with Israeli flags pointing forward ,marching into the demonstration,military style.

      Everybody ,including the police ,could see it coming,and nobody did anything to avoid this sick provocation.

      The wall was always there,and the ultimate separation of those inside that wall,and the rest of the (Jewish)world was only a matter of time….. and timing.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Samuel

      It is all well and good for Jews of American descent to ignore Jews of European descent. American Jews were never persecuted for being Jews. At most, some may have experienced some mild anti Jewish prejudice.

      But us Israeli Jews who are descendants of European Jews are aware that barely a three generations ago, being Jewish in some parts of Europe, even before Nazism, made one’s life miserable and sometimes threatened our very existence.

      So, for Jews like us, the threat of persecution again if Israel would give up the idea of a Jewish majority state, is a very real threat. For some American Jews it may be just a nice intellectual exercise.

      I for one, don’t want us to relearn old lessons the hard way. Particularly since when I look around how minorities are treated in the Middle East, it does not flush me with confidence. I don’t see too many Dahlia Shnedlins in the Arab world with enough influence to imbue me with confidence that my rights would be looked after as a human being if the tables would be turned on us.

      Reply to Comment
      • William Burns

        I can certainly see why you would be afraid of being treated like a Palestinian is now.

        Reply to Comment
      • Liz

        Where do you think American Jews originally came from. Yes – that’s right. Europe. And why did they leave? At least in part because of persecution of Jews.

        Reply to Comment
        • Erica

          Are you serious? you REALLY think all American Jews came from Europe?

          You’re a total Moron, for starters!

          Reply to Comment
    6. Samuel

      We are a funny people. We over intellectualize everything. Take for instance the position that Israeli military historian van Creveld takes about the use of drones against terrorists:

      ” … you have to kill them yourself, in order to call yourself a warrior’?”

      “Well, yes,” the historian replied. “Otherwise you are a butcher. That’s exactly the difference between a soldier and a butcher. A soldier puts his own life at risk, a butcher doesn’t.”

      Personally, I agree with what General Patton said:

      “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”

      One thing most of us agree on. War is ugly but we are not the ones who insist on war. Hamas does. And since they do, they have no right to complain when we make them die for their coutry. Nor have their supporters.

      Reply to Comment
      • shachalnur

        Martin Van Creveld;

        …..”We have the capability to take the world down with us.
        And I can assure you that will happen before Israel goes under.”

        Don’t you just love listening to this over-intellectualized Dutch Butcher’s wet dream,in case the world refuses to kneel to 1897 Zionism?

        Reply to Comment
    7. Samuel

      Zionist threats ,Zionist threats ,everywhere Zionist threats.

      In your head ,and even in your soup.

      What a sad raison d’etre.

      Reply to Comment
      • shachalnur


        Reply to Comment
        • Samuel

          What? You want me to give a source to what appears to be in your head?

          Uhhh, OK, if you say so.

          Reply to Comment
    8. Average American

      Zionism is Israel because Zionism created Israel and Zionism runs Israel today. Zionism says The Land Of Israel is far bigger than the current Israel. Zionism says The Land Of Israel encompasses Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, half of Iraq (to the Euphrates), Jordan, a quarter of Saudi Arabia, and the Sinai (to the River of Egypt). Zionism says The Land Of Israel is for The Jews Only, and other people who are already there are expected to make way for The Jews to take over. It’s a Jewish Lebensraum. That is Zionism. That is Israel. I say no thanks, I don’t want to support that with my tax dollars and the lives of our soldiers.

      Reply to Comment
      • IlonJ

        “Zionism says The Land Of Israel is far bigger than the current Israel. Zionism says The Land Of Israel encompasses Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, half of Iraq (to the Euphrates), Jordan, a quarter of Saudi Arabia, and the Sinai (to the River of Egypt). ”

        Wow! Behold …

        Mr Average American, a world renown authority on Zionism?!


        Reply to Comment
    9. Erica

      I have no problem whatsoever to say, very proudly, in fact, that
      And yes, I too am an American-Born Israeli citizen — no I did not take it – it was bestowed upon me (same as you Dahlia). I left, and DO NOT pay taxes to, Israel, b/c I unequivocally REJECT ongoing aggression against Palestinians – both with and without Israeli citizenship (what a joke of a concept the latter is)- along with other undemocratic policies of the Israeli government – with or without regard to Palestinians. Zionism is indeed racist – not only against non-Jews in Israel but also amongst the Jewish population in Israel. along those lines, are you really dismissing the “settling” of non-European Jews in Israel and their dispossession as a result of it? Would love to have a conversation w/ you about this, as there is far too much to discuss rather than simply posting a comment. Just curious: How DO you respond to Palestinians – and non-palestinians for that matter – when asked if you’re a zionist?

      Reply to Comment