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Zionism: the history of a contested word

These polarising terms should be shelved, and taken out only when we are discussing political philosophy, which most of the time, we are not.

lead Nathan Birbaum,(1864 - 1937) Austrian writer, Jewish thinker and nationalist. Wikicommons/ Zionist Archive. Some rights reserved.‘Objectivity has ceased to be a goal not only of popular writing on the subject but also of scholarship, and the line between intellectual engagement and political activism hardly exists today’

– Michael Stanislawski, Zionism: A Very Short Introduction, p.1

Written in German in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Theodor Herzl’s Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State) (1896) is widely considered Zionism’s founding document. It was in the same country, six years earlier, that the term was coined by Nathan Birnbaum, the founder of the first Jewish student association in Vienna, Kadimah.

The philosophy was barely fledged before it evoked an impassioned backlash from the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, where Reform Judaism was essentially founded, and the anti-Zionist Bundists in Russia, who, along with many other Jews, believed Zionism jeopardised the prospects of integration into their host nations.

This controversy has not ceased since. Jewish anti-Zionism has a diverse history, ranging from Satmar Hasidim, who perceived secular Zionism as an abomination and a forced pre-emption of redemption before God’s will, to many Iraqi Jews, who understood growing resentment in their own country as a response to Zionism. But anti-Zionism is not simply confined to Jewish infighting – it is now a staple of leftist thinking and movements. But anti-Zionism is not simply confined to Jewish infighting – it is now a staple of leftist thinking and movements.

Anti-Zionism is a negative ideology, and is therefore contingent on the definition of its positive counterpart. The word Zionism, however, is so ambiguous and varied in its meaning and so imbued with emotion, so firmly tied to identity, that invoking it stifles any productive conversation. 

Could you expect a Holocaust survivor who found succour in Israel to disavow Zionism entirely? Could you expect a Palestinian expelled from their home and prevented from ever entering it again to be anything but an anti-Zionist?

To move forward, we need to abandon these terms when it comes to discussing Israel-Palestine.

Ideology in flux

Zionism consists of many heterogeneous variants and has changed so dramatically over time that what was once considered Zionism is now considered anti-Zionism.

In the early nineteenth century, the dominant strand of Zionism was Labour Zionism, which sought the redemption of the Jewish people through a renewed connection with the land and the subsequent creation of a socialist haven. At the time, secular bi-nationalism was an acceptable and even mainstream Zionist belief, and there were even several visions for the realisation of this model, spanning from a joint Jewish-Arab commonwealth, to the division of Mandate Palestine into cantons. Mapam, who were the second biggest Zionist party before 1948, believed in a binational solution. Mapam, who were the second biggest Zionist party before 1948, believed in a binational solution.

Yet today, one of the main proponents of this model, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS), are, by their own definition and that of Israel, perhaps the most prominent anti-Zionist organisation around.  The State of Israel considers their goals and intentions so utterly anathema that they have a blacklist of groups who are active with BDS and their members are banned from entering the country.

For some, Zionism means the right to Jewish self-determination, a national liberation movement, but for others, it conjures violent dispossession and continued policies of occupation and colonisation. It is, of course, both, born out of a unique set of historical circumstances.

Yet there are also several positions in between, with no paucity of subscribers. On one side, you have liberal Zionism, which some take to be a paradox, and others consider a marriage of pro-Palestinian activism to their vision of a more just Jewish Israel. On the other extreme, you have a religious Zionism and neo-Zionism that uses Judaism to justify uncompromising expansionist nationalism. Like most philosophies, there was and is a war (in many cases, literally) for its definition.

J Street, an American liberal Zionist organisation, who ‘believe that the Jewish people have the right to a national home of their own’, were at the forefront of the (failed) battle to stop the demolition of Susya, a Palestinian village in Area C, gathering over 12,000 signatures. It was up against a government and the settler movement it supports, who are rigorous adherents to Neo-Zionism, which considers itself the true heir to the pioneering spirit that underpinned the foundation of the State of Israel in the first place. This was just one of many examples of two groups fighting completely opposing causes in the name of Zionism. This was just one of many examples of two groups fighting completely opposing causes in the name of Zionism.

Though Zionism is often qualified with an appended adjective, it seems be changing as a catch-all term too. A joint 2015 Yachad-Ipsos Mori survey found that while 90% of Jews in the UK believe in Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, just 59% would identify themselves as Zionists, down from 72% in 2010. In the past, these two items would have been synonymous. The survey goes on to observe that ‘people who are critical of Israel’s current policies should not describe themselves as Zionists even if they are fully supportive of Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state’ and that ‘this apparently rapid change in the use of the term merits further examination.’ It is no longer clear in the Jewish community whether the term Zionism means support for Israel’s government, or simply a belief in its right to exist; the anxieties surrounding this definition seem to have encouraged many to drop this association altogether.

But with the settlement enterprise ineluctably entrenched in the Palestinian OPT, and Israel shifting further to the right, can a voice of diaspora protest, alongside near indifference within Israel itself, claim to act as a representative voice for their hijacked Zionism? In other words, has the battle for the soul of Zionism already ended?

To what extent can you disentangle an ideology from its practical realisation?

Many claim that the bona fide resurgence of anti-Semitism, notably in France, where a Holocaust survivor was brutally murdered just last month and from where there has been a mass exodus of Jews, Zionism, in the form of a national home and haven for the Jewish people, is as relevant as ever.

Yet in the fiftieth year of its short seventy-year history, the occupation, which has surely been a turning point in public opinion on Israel (and therefore Zionism), cannot be interpreted as a temporary malaise, but a fundamental feature of Israel as a state, bound up in all the human rights abuses this includes.

The separation of ideology and its political manifestation seems practicable for many proponents of communism, who detach ideology from the atrocities of its realisation which have transpired on almost every occasion. The brutality of Stalin and Mao, it is claimed, are a perversion of this vision. Can Zionism attempt to redeem itself through abstraction?

Certainly, liberal Zionists believe it can. Israel’s Declaration of Independence espoused certain values of ‘complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex’ and ‘guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture’. The modern state of Israel, according to them, is a deviation from this founding vision, and it must be saved – for the sake of both Israelis and Palestinians.

But if Zionism derives much of its validity from the historical circumstances of Jewish persecution, and the language employed by its proponents is not only one of ‘rights’, but ‘needs’, then it seems wilfully selective to de-historicise Zionism. Reification, however, renders Zionism untenable by introducing the indigenous Palestinian population into the equation. As Ari Shavit argued in his best-selling book My Promised Land when discussing the expulsion of Palestinians from the town of Lydda, the action and legacy of expulsion is something that every Zionist must reckon with – it is inextricable from the ideology that produced it. As Ari Shavit argued… the action and legacy of expulsion is something that every Zionist must reckon with – it is inextricable from the ideology that produced it.

There is a glaring blind spot to the Zionist invocation of ‘need’ when it comes to the right of return: the Palestinian population who were expelled in 1948 and their descendants often would’ve benefited from such succour.

In Syria, where the Palestinian population numbers at around half a million, most Palestinians have been caught up in the bloody civil war. Chris Gunness, the head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), claimed that 95% of the 438,000 Palestinians are in ‘critical need of sustained humanitarian assistance’. The humanitarian ‘need’ in this situation pales in comparison to the brutal shelling of Yarmouk by regime forces. Today, just hundreds of Palestinians remain in what was one of the biggest diaspora communities of Palestinians in the world.

Just before and during the Gulf War, 400,000 Palestinians fled Kuwait for several reasons, all of which were rooted in this existential category of ‘need’. Even in times of peace, the situations of Palestinians – denied citizenship and therefore basic amenities, living in refugee camps, and often subject to political (and frequently racialised) violence – highlights the inherent contradiction of managing a state on ethnic lines: can you have a Jewish and democratic state, which, as part of its national logic, denies the right of return to the indigenous population, but extends the right of return to Jews who often aren’t in need?

That doesn’t mean that they never will be, and sometimes they certainly are, but these contradictions at the heart of Zionism must be unpacked. It certainly seems unreasonable to abstract Zionism in order to avoid confronting such questions.

Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism

This discussion has implications for ongoing debates today. The flaring (and ostensibly contradictory) arguments that ‘anti-Zionism constitutes anti-Semitism’ or that ‘anti-Zionism is being deliberately conflated with anti-Semitism to stifle criticism of Israel’ are both true and absurd in equal measure; they required more precise terminology to test their validity.

If we cannot grant Zionism a distinction from its practical manifestation, then anti-Zionism must be subjected to the same scrutiny. Efraim Perlmutter’s openDemocracy article argued that article 20 of the PLO charter is anti-Semitic:

‘The Balfour Declaration, the Mandate for Palestine, and everything that has been based upon them, are deemed null and void. Claims of historical or religious ties of Jews with Palestine are incompatible with the facts of history and the true conception of what constitutes statehood. Judaism, being a religion, is not an independent nationality. Nor do Jews constitute a single nation with an identity of its own; they are citizens of the states to which they belong.’

Do the cultural and religious ties of Jewish people give them a right to the land? No, but that doesn’t excuse a denial of the existence of those ties and their importance to Jewish identity. Indeed, Israel was the homeland of the Jewish people at several intervals in history. The exclusive negation of national rights for Jews is anti-Semitic, especially in a world where nation states still construct and legitimate our identity and that such a state already exists.

The exclusive negation of national rights for Jews is often construed as anti-Semitic – and it certainly can be – especially in a world where nation states still construct and legitimate our identity and where such a state already exists, and where Israel itself is often singled out for interrogation of its legitimacy. Yet this position ignores the historical contingency of national rights; it presupposes that all national rights were allocated justly, and did not simply emerge from circumstance. It just so happens that Jewish national aspirations today are built on the ruins of another people, and the absence of a resolution to this conflict, at least partially, explains such negation.

However, what Perlmutter failed to mention was that this article, along with many others which were deemed inconsistent with the principles of Oslo Accords, was repealed in 1998. Indeed, the Oslo Accords have established a framework by which the right of Jewish national self-determination does not inherently contradict the same right for Palestinians. ( This doesn’t mean that the PLO are immune from anti-Semitism; we just need to look as far as earlier this month to Abbas’s comments apportioning blame for the Holocaust to the ‘social function’ of Jews.) In fact, a two-state solution, which accommodates the national rights of both Israelis and Palestinians separately, remains the preference of both parties in uniquely adverse conditions.

Hamas, who are the predominant self-proclaimed anti-Zionist actor within Palestine, still call for the destruction of the State of Israel. Although they too have altered their charter, their foundational charter, which calls for the killing of Jews based on a fundamentalist understanding of religion in article 7, and refers to one of the most infamous anti-Semitic forgeries, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, in article 32, goes beyond anything conjured up by the PLO. It is dubious to what extent their new charter, which does not nullify their 1988 charter, changes the substance of this violent anti-Semitism, and it has yet to recognise Israel as a legitimate entity.

Returning to the relationship between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, Perlmutter is right to identify that ‘the real problem is that anti-Semitism has become an integral part of Palestinian and Arab nationalism. Therefore the real question becomes how does one support the Palestinian cause without being infected with Palestinian anti-Semitism.’

In fact, this problem runs deeper than Palestinian nationalism. Although Zionism certainly exacerbated anti-Semitism in the Middle East, it predates the establishment of the State of Israel, and was also abetted and enforced by colonial politics and culture. The infamous relationship between the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and Nazism is a fertile example of this combination in play: his alliance with the Nazis was a statement against the interference of Britain and France in the region, as well as the role of Israel, as was the case in Iraq, but this did not inoculate him from anti-Semitism.

In the Middle East, anti-Semitism is commonplace, and this also has ramifications in the UK. A poll conducted by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) in September 2017 found that Muslims disproportionately held anti-Semitic attitudes, though it made a concerted and careful distinction between holding an anti-Semitic belief and being anti-Semitic. The poll found that 55% of Muslims held anti-Semitic attitudes, as opposed to 30% of the general population, while 27% of the Muslims surveyed believed that “Jews get rich at the expense of others”, compared with the national average of 12%.  

The centrality of anti-imperialism to leftist discourses and movements today, especially those tied to identity politics, can generate such ludicrous claims from people as intelligent as Judith Butler that ‘Hamas, Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive […] are part of a global Left’. The anti-Semitism of these groups is therefore downplayed or ignored, and they (and their anti-Semitic, homophobic, and sexist beliefs and violent actions) are given credence and legitimacy in progressive circles. If anti-Semitism is a part of pro-Palestinian movements (in the same way that Islamophobia is also associated with certain forms of Zionism), that doesn’t prohibit involvement with these movements; it simply means there must be a robust and assiduous effort to distinguish support for Palestinian rights from many of their representatives.

Somewhat differently, anti-Zionism can provide a convenient excuse and space to express anti-Semitism. While the line between the two beliefs can be abundantly clear, Israel today is often incorporated into an older and deeper scourge of anti-Semitism. The 2001 World Conference Against Racism in Durban, which marked a notable shift in the stigmatisation of Zionism, was notoriously rife with unequivocal classical anti-Semitic literature, such as people handing out The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and leaflets of Hitler, entitled ‘What if I had won?’ Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that ‘there was horrible antisemitism present – particularly in some of the NGO discussions. A number of people said they’ve never been so hurt or so harassed or been so blatantly faced with an antisemitism.’

Yet the claim that anti-Zionism is being conflated with anti-Semitism is also true. Despite the self-evident connection which many Jews have to Israel, its government has deliberately attempted to conflate Jews with Israel, calling for migration to their true home whenever a crisis strikes. As such, after the synagogue shooting in Copenhagen in 2015, Netanyahu proclaimed that ‘Israel is the home of every Jew ... Israel awaits you with open arms’. There are consequently incredibly close ties between organisations such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Israeli Foreign Ministry (MFA) because anti-Semitism legitimates the State of Israel. Israel’s government has deliberately attempted to conflate Jews with Israel, calling for migration to their true home whenever a crisis strikes.

Indeed, the MFA, alongside the covert Ministry of Strategic Affairs, the only ministry which you incidentally cannot find further information about via the Israeli government website, has made a concerted financial, strategic and even legal effort, under the conceptual framework of ‘new anti-Semitism’, to attack BDS as anti-Semitic. Events such as the Global Forum for Combatting Antisemitism seem to be more about challenging BDS than anything else.

This is not to say that the BDS Movement, the main non-violent embodiment of anti-Zionism, is devoid of problems: it has not been firm enough in opposing anti-Semitism within its ranks, and in fact, has often indulged in grotesque anti-Semitism. Just look at the violent anti-Semitism of the BDS Movement at the University of Witwatersrand. The movement is also deliberately vague about its aims. Some of the staunchest defenders of Palestinian rights, such as Norman Finkelstein and Noam Chomsky, have therefore criticised the movement for demanding the right of return, which would mean an end to the Jewish character of the State of Israel.

However, it is the biggest non-violent movement in support of Palestinian rights, and to deny it breathing space is therefore to invalidate Palestinian non-violence. If Palestinians have a right to protest (which they clearly do) and if violence should rightfully be condemned, then there at least should be an engagement with BDS as a movement.

In previous debates on the subject on openDemocacy, Mary Davis was right to identify that certain types of boycotts fail to distinguish between civil society and the government and therefore constitute a sort of collective punishment. The Israeli government is taking bolder steps to blur the boundaries between Israel and the West Bank, ignoring EU recommendations to distinguish settlement goods from those produced in the main body of Israel.

More significantly, a new law recently bypassed the Knesset which required each piece of new legislation to include a clause about implementation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, an abandonment of any pretence that the occupation is temporary.

Netanyahu is spearheading a campaign to make a distinction between Israel-proper and the OPT, and therefore a distinction between complicity and non-complicity, increasingly difficult. He is polarising the debate further by making it impossible for those who support targeted boycotts of settlement goods or companies directly involved in the occupation. 

Conclusion

A broad church of competing movements which have changed over time, all of which are construed and misconstrued many times over, a unique set of historical circumstances in which liberation was colonisation, and the weaponisation of Zionism/anti-Zionism/anti-Semitism for diverging political interests means it is almost impossible to conduct a debate on these terms.

An Israeli professor told me that he was gently encouraged by Palestinian groups to preface his contributions to public discussions by identifying himself as an ‘anti-Zionist’, almost as a prerequisite to be given a platform, while, in an attempted overture to the Jewish community amidst Corbyn’s refusal to celebrate the Balfour Centenary, the Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry told the Jewish community that Jeremy is a ‘Zionist’.

These badges are ultimately meaningless, and often hinder discussion about methods and solidarity between those attempting to address the most critical situations in the conflict: the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the occupation of and settlement on the West Bank.

For so many, identification as a Zionist is a red line: the person in question is immediately considered racist. Yet so many of these so-called Zionists are at the forefront of the fight for justice for Palestinians. Similarly, anti-Zionism is also loaded with nasty connotations of anti-Semitism. These polarising terms should therefore be shelved, and taken out only when we are discussing political philosophy, which most of the time, we are not. It is too charged, and too ambiguous, to lead to any productive dialogue.


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