In 1894, a French Jewish officer, Alfred Dreyfus, was unjustly accused of treason, eventually convicted, and sentenced to life in prison. A young journalist from Vienna, Theodore Herzl, covered the events, witnessing boisterous rallies in the streets, hearing crowds chant “Death to Jews!” a reflection of the increasingly vicious anti-Semitism that characterized Europe at the time. Three years later, in 1897, Herzl organized the first Zionist Congress, a meeting of two hundred delegates from seventeen countries, to discuss the creation of a homeland for the Jewish people. It was a bold project, one that would be the salvation for a population soon to face near annihilation at the hands of Nazi-controlled Europe and one that would face constant internal and external challenges. Ultimately, though, Zionism would transform the identity of a people tied together by religious tradition and history into a unified nation.
This, however, is not how Zionism might be described today. Rather, you might hear the words racism, expansionism, imperialism, and settler colonialism associated with the movement. As we come together this week to celebrate the biblical liberation of the Jewish people, I wanted to take this opportunity to address an issue that is too often misrepresented.
The false portrayal of Zionism in much of the media today, and by leaders in the Arab and Muslim World, stands in stark contrast with the goals and values of the movement. Whether it’s in a tweet by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, on a sign at an anti-Israel protest on a college campus, or codified via a UN General Assembly resolution (later overturned), Zionism has been consistently maligned and berated for its so-called racist ideology. But this is not the true philosophy of Zionism nor the spirit of the movement, and both Israel’s detractors and its supporters need to be reminded of that.
The Zionist movement is neither simple nor monolithic. It’s important to note that not every Jew is a Zionist, and not every Zionist is a Jew, even within Israel today. Many different strains of the ideology emerged in the late 1800s and early 1900s and they continue to shape Israeli society and politics. Herzl’s political Zionism sought the creation of a liberal and socially progressive state for the Jewish people by way of the international community and public international law. Ahad Ha’am, another Zionist thinker, dreamed of a spiritual center where Jewish culture and ideas could thrive and spread. Labor or Socialist Zionism, whose long list of influential leaders include Nachmann Syrkin, A.D. Gordon, and David Ben Gurion, combined socialist ideals with those of Zionism, seeking to create a strong Jewish nation in the land of Israel via the self-reliant labor of the working class. And this is just to name a few.
But Zionism, at its core, is the simple desire for a homeland for the Jewish nation, the desire of the Jewish people to freely determine their own fate after centuries of persecution and helpless wandering. And it is based on this fundamentally just philosophy that I comfortably and proudly call myself a Zionist.
The troubling perception that Zionism is akin to racism and settler colonialism, or that Zionism exists to deprive the Palestinians of a state continues to pervade the current discourse in international media and in anti-Israel rhetoric. This is not the Zionism I know. To equate Zionism to racism is to unjustly single out Jewish nationalism and to maliciously twist the history and purpose of the movement. Similarly, comparisons of Zionism to settler colonialism misunderstand its historical context and goals. European colonialism sought to conquer land in the name of an empire and to rob that land of its resources. Zionism, while initially supported by the British Empire, sought refuge for a homeless people, themselves victims of Europe. Early Zionists had foreseen that the walls of the ghetto would soon begin to rise and understood that the Jewish reality in the Diaspora was untenable. They saw that general disunity and assimilation had weakened Jewish identity and culture. And so they sought a new beginning and prosperous future in a desert historically inhabited by Jews for 3,000 years.
Still, I believe that a true Zionist should empathize with other nations seeking independence and the right to self-determination. After all, Zionism intended to liberate a people, not to occupy another. Like the Jewish nation, the Palestinian nation deserves the right to a state and is granted so under international law. Zionists acknowledged this right in their acceptance of the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan, which proposed a Jewish State alongside a Palestinian Arab state, a plan the Arab states vehemently rejected. Israel has since acknowledged this right through several rounds of negotiations starting with the Oslo Accords. While the future of current negotiations is uncertain, and while I do not agree with many of the current Israeli government policies in the West Bank, I continue to believe that there is a space for both nations to thrive. It is as a Zionist, that I support a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the majority of Israelis agree on this point.
In the Spring of 2013, I had the privilege of studying for a semester at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Living in the heart of East Jerusalem continuously shaped and reshaped my understanding of the often-difficult realities on the ground and my own identity as a Zionist.
As I took in each new experience, my Zionism appeared in a myriad of unexpected places. At a Purim fair on Ben Yehuda Street where I saw children in all forms of costume running around happily, I was reminded that the Zionist dream saw a prospering nation espousing the family values so evident on this most joyful of days. While visiting Yad Vashem, I was confronted with the hatred and loss that inspired Herzl in France over a century ago. Even when witnessing instances of discrimination or racism—decades of conflict between cultures has almost ensured its existence—I was reminded that there is still much work to be done. Israel was meant to be a “light among nations,” and there are areas that it shines as brightly as ever despite constant challenges, but other areas which need attention and reform to truly reflect the values of “freedom, justice, and peace” as stated in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
Today, the word Zionism and the movement it represents is laced with negativity and associated with decades of war and occupation. But as any Zionist will tell you, this perception could not be farther from the true spirit of Zionism. Still, many supporters of Israel are hesitant to label themselves Zionists, to align themselves with a movement with such a marred reputation. We have allowed the world to define the Zionist movement when it was not theirs to define, and we have allowed Israel’s detractors to undermine its purpose and values. It is not a perfect movement. It must be questioned and nurtured. It must be forced to evolve and to take accountability for the consequences of its history. But Zionism still matters. If Israel is to grow as a democracy and reach the utopian potential that Herzl and his contemporaries dreamed of, it needs Zionism. So I’m taking it back.
A version of this article was published in The Tufts Daily on Wednesday February 26, 2014.