Why is Zionism equated by some with racism? Why is anti-Zionism anti-Semitic in nature? I contend part of this has to do with mistaken definitions. A friend of mine believes that the fact that each side defines the term Zionism differently is okay because they each see it differently, but I have to disagree. Not only because there is an official definition and it needs to be used, but because I recognize that when you have two sides having discussions about different things using the same words, the result will be as disconnected and disastrous as you can imagine. As a former English major and lover of word choice, I have to insist. Otherwise, the repercussions are enormous.
So let’s start with Zionism. Many, especially in the Middle East, interpret Zionism as meaning support for a state of Israel only for Jews. But that is not what it means. Zionism is defined by Merriam-Webster and other sources as “an international movement originally for the establishment of a Jewish national or religious community in Palestine and later for the support of modern Israel.” This does not mean only for Jews; it is recognized, though, that in order to maintain its democratic nature, the country has to preserve a Jewish majority. Today, about 21% of Israel’s population is Arab. (This is the major argument against a single state solution as demographics would change the nature of the country; the number of Palestinians in the territories and in East Jerusalem already outnumber Israel’s Jewish population.)
Those who believe that part and parcel of Zionism is ridding the state of Arabs have no problem calling themselves anti-Zionistic. The building of settlements, evictions and takeovers of individual homes in the Old City and the destruction of houses or villages in other regions certainly doesn’t do anything to dispel that idea (although the steady growth in numbers over time should). But for Zionists to hear someone say he or she is anti-Zionist, we understand that the person is against the existence of a country that is a homeland for the Jews, that is against a state that actually and already and legally exists. We cannot but take this as promoting a stance against Israel’s very existence, and since it is a homeland for all Jews, no matter where in the world they reside, it is viewed as anti-Semitic. The Anti-Defamation League does a good job of explaining how being anti-Zionistic is a prejudice against the right of the Jewish people to have a state. In Israel’s eyes, that denial is tantamount to not accepting its right to exist.
Unfortunately, as I wrote in Thoughts on the Israeli Palestinian Stalemate, those that conflate Pro-Palestinian with anti-Israel (and those who conflate pro-Israel with anti-Palestinian) are making it worse. Peace is not a zero-sum game. One side doesn’t have to lose for the other to win. Both sides deserve self-determination and sovereignty. And, I would argue, actually reaching a place of peaceful coexistence between the two peoples would be a win-win for all. As an aside, while aligning the cause of the Palestinians with other causes makes sense, attaching it to condemning Zionism does not. The t-shirt sold at the Netroots Nation conference (and now found on a number of sites online) equating Zionism with racism ratchets up the hateful talk.
Until people are schooled in definitions, this will get worse. It needs to be made clear why jumping on the anti-Zionism bandwagon is unnecessary, unproductive and even hateful; otherwise we will see more and more hate directed towards Israel and towards Jews, especially as more and more acts of global violence targeting Jewish people or property surface every day. While not all Jews live in (or even support) Israel, all seem to be fair game for those acting with hate in their hearts.
So, definitions need to be understood. Remove the term anti-Zionism. And stop using the word Zionism as a means to explain a pro-Palestinian position. Find the words that advance a cause and not ones that shut down progress. And then speak them to each other.
Like author Yossi Klein Halevi has done. Sometime after I wrote about his book, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, and the meeting he had with Palestinian academic Mohammed Dajani Daoudi, Klein Halevy met with a group of Palestinians in Beit Jalla to discuss the book, and his purpose behind it, that is, to allow both sides to arrive at an understanding that will serve as a basis for productive conversations to ensue (do watch the conversation on youtube). An invitation to dialogue where understandings about perceptions are explained is far more productive than putting stakes in the sand over differently defined terminology and never getting past that.
This is surmountable. It is time to move forward. Just say the word.