I recently read a book about Israel-Palestine that made me worried, but not for the reasons that it intended.
It was British comedian Mark Thomas’ well-meaning account of his walk along Israel’s barrier with the West Bank. It told an emotive, although seemingly un-researched, story of the very real suffering endured by West Bank Palestinians, but the book’s real impact for me was summarised perfectly in a single sentence on page 104, writing of an experience with the mayor of a West Bank settlement:
“Being a Zionist, he believes in a ‘Greater Israel’, that one day Israel will exist from the Mediterranean through to the River Jordan and possibly beyond.”
This, to me, was an astonishingly and dangerously inaccurate definition of what it means to ‘be a Zionist’. For this writer, who went so far as to spend an extended period of time hiking through the region (and who therefore should know better), all Zionists are revisionist Zionists, and Zionism is a credo focused on expanding the borders of Israel as far as possible, with no regard to the non-Jewish populations caught in its wake.
There are, of course, many kinds of Zionism and one cannot pretend that this sort of extreme Revisionist Zionism is not one of them. However, this is not the Zionism I know – and I am not the only one.
There are a great many Jews for whom the foundation stone of Zionism is the idea that an oppressed people who self-identify as a nation should have the right to live free and in peace. For these Zionists, being a Zionist requires them to be in favour of a Palestinian state. Or to put it another way: for the great number of Zionists who define their Zionism in the way I describe above, being in favour of a Palestinian state is not at odds with their Zionism, rather it is a logical and necessary consequence of it. I would be willing to bet that of the 78% of British Jews who favour a two-state solution to the conflict, many share this definition of Zionism – and not the ‘Greater Israel’ vision that Thomas outlines in his book.
The reason that this massive error in the defining all Zionists as settler extremists is so worrying is that it’s not just a mistake borne of apparent woeful lack of research in a single book; it’s reflective of what the word ‘Zionist’ has come to mean in wider society. When a prominent Scottish activist tweets that she is working to make Scotland a ‘Zionist-free zone’ to fear and disgust in the Jewish community, you can be assured that her narrow vision of a Zionist is the same extremist settler described in Thomas’ book. Due to a host of factors, the word Zionist has, for most of the world, come to be synonymous with the image of an ideologically-motivated, racist settler, and for those of us who are made to feel uncomfortable by that idea, it’s partially our fault.
For those of us whose Zionism necessitates being in favour of a Palestinian state, we are often reluctant to use the word ‘Zionist’ to publicly describe ourselves, knowing that it will alienate us both from non-Jewish lefties with their fixed definitions of what that word means, and the Jewish conservative establishment whose institutions have sought to create a monopoly on what Zionism is. (Spoiler: Zionists, like Jews, don’t fit into a stereotype and never have, and Ahad Ha’am, Albert Einstein and Yitzhak Rabin can tell you that being concerned about the freedom and dignity of Palestinians has never been inconsistent with being a Zionist).
It will be a dangerous development indeed for Israel-Palestine if those Jews who passionately believe in an Israeli state alongside a Palestinian one cede the word ‘Zionist’ for good due to our discomfort at what it has come to mean. The fact that society has come to narrowly define Zionists as territorial maximalists, ideologically-motivated settlers and racists presents a stark choice to those of us who do not define the Z word that way: do we allow the world to continue believing that being a Zionist necessitates a desire for ‘Greater Israel’ from the river to the sea and beyond, or do we speak up, both within our own communities and more widely, and say ‘I, too, am Zionist’?
(I look forward to your comments below. Please keep it respectful.)