A Reluctant Zionist

Most articles about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict take a side. This piece is different. The future of Israelis and Palestinians is together.
Dr. Ilan Zvi Baron
17 December 2010

I am a Zionist. This is not a confession. I was born after the Six Day War, even after the Yom Kippur War. I was alive when Israel invaded Lebanon the first time, and I although I was conscious of there being problems during the first Intifidah, what I remember most clearly is the Gulf War and Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles being launched into Israel. Did any of this make me a Zionist? Am I a Zionist because I fear the gentile world and am beaten down by a history of violent persecution directed toward Jews from a time before Jesus was born? These are some of the reasons that others are Zionists, but they are not my reasons. I am a reluctant Zionist. 

I grew up in a secular household; but my mother was born in Israel and my paternal grandfather was directly involved in bringing refugees and weapons to the Zionist militias in Palestine after the Second World War. Israel was a common subject around the household, although rarely in an ideological fashion. I attended a Zionist summer camp, but the Zionism that we learned was always influenced by concerns for social justice, human rights, and socialism. We were young Zionists, but we did not want to harm anyone.

The innocence of Zionism led to not-so-innocent ethnically determined labour and land policies in Palestine, and ultimately to a civil war. Zionists may have been innocent, but Zionism certainly was not.

I was not alone thinking about Zionism in this way. Zionists since the late 19th Century never portrayed Zionism as a violent or aggressive ideology. Zionism in Eastern and in Western Europe was in the late 1800s and early 1900s a belief rooted in an innocent desire to escape the horrors of the pogroms, of systematic and institutionalized anti-Semitism, of always being a second class of citizen. This innocence is not a moral escape hatch, but it is important. 

The innocence of the Zionist ideology goes hand in hand with how the modern state, and its accompanying ideology of nationalism, has come to present itself as a savior from human chaos. The organization of the world into sovereign nation-states has always been a political project framed according to a specific understanding of identity and security: too many identities leads to insecurity, but if we can keep these identities and their respective interests bound within autonomous units we can limit the possibility for war both inside and between states. Order comes from the state, and from the state comes the possibility to live a stable and productive life. This story is, of course, a fiction, but this fiction underpins modernity’s faith in the state, in sovereignty, and in a belief that national allegiance can bind people together peacefully. 

The Zionists learned this story, and they learned it so well that by the time they realized that there would be resistance to their plan, it was too late. The innocence of Zionism led to not-so-innocent ethnically determined labour and land policies in Palestine, and ultimately to a civil war, and then the first of (too) many Arab-Israeli wars. Zionists may have been innocent, but Zionism certainly was not.

However, the guilt of Zionism was not because there is anything uniquely wrong in the Zionist ideology. Zionism represents a highly accurate product of modern political possibilities: a product based on the model of the nation-state, of sovereignty, national self-determination, and even international law. There is nothing unusual about Zionism and in these terms it is deeply curious why Zionism has become such a problem for the Middle East, for Europe, North America, and possibly the globe. To the extent that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can animate violent political activism across a multiplicity of countries in virtually every continent, excluding Antarctica (at least to my best knowledge), it has become a truly global issue. This globalisation of the Zionist-Palestinian conflict, represented by its virtually constant presence in the news media, is curious insofar as Zionism is nothing other then the logical product of modern European political thought and practice.

Yet, the great tragedy of Zionism is that it has not been able to come to terms with how the history of political thought that it grew out of was always deeply troubled, with inherently violent undercurrents that cannot be ignored. The violence the Zionists perpetrated on the Palestinians is not so different from the type of structural violence perpetrated by other states over time. Israel is, unfortunately, not unique in its violence. There is another tragedy in Zionism: that the persecuted have become the persecutor. Are the Zionists, or rather, is Israel solely to blame for its violent security policies. No, the Palestinians deserve a lot of the credit for the mess both they and the Israelis are in. But I am not a Palestinian, I am a Zionist who has to come to terms with how Zionism has led to the current situation. My conclusion is not that Zionism is by itself guilty, but that modernity is guilty. However, since we are all moderns, we should be able to do better than what we are currently doing. Modernity is no excuse, but then again, I cannot escape the history of my people. I just wish that my people were not now in a position of exercising violence against another people.

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