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Are you a Zionist?

On the delegitimization of Israel through language

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Are you a Zionist? Among many Progressives and intellectuals all around the liberal world, being called a Zionist today is similar to being called an imperialist or a colonialist. Very often, this is also meant as another way of blaming someone for being a plain racist. However, for many of those who hold these views, a “Zionist” can also simply be a supporter of the existence of the State of Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish people. Therefore, for many, especially among the younger generations and the educated elite, the support of the existence of the State of Israel, the only nation-state of the Jewish people in the world, almost automatically casts you into the realms of political unacceptability.

The problem with this terminological predicament is that in fact there is no other way of describing political affiliation, support or sense of belonging to an Israeli nationhood. I use “an” Israeli nationhood and not “the” Israeli nationhood, for indeed – like in many other states, even nation states  – there are many ways to associate yourself as an Israeli, one of them could theoretically be a post-Zionist Israeli, another can be Arab-Israeli, Palestinian-Israeli, Druze-Israeli, Mizrahi-Israeli (referred to also as Arab-Jews by some) – and the list goes on. One can also support or feel closely affiliated with a culture without being its country-of-origins’ citizens of course. One can be a Francophone, for instance, an Anglophile, or a Russophile. When we hear that someone “is a proud American”, we may refer to him as an American patriot. Somehow, however, despite the fact that all of these mentioned states and state-cultures have been involved in terrible acts of repression against other peoples, imperialist violence, racism and what not, none of these titles seem to boast quite the same kind of venomous odour as the title “Zionist” seems to possess.

Zionism was the name of the Jewish national movement that rallied around the hope to create a Jewish sovereign political entity in the plot of land that is commonly referred to in European cultures as Palestine. This same plot of land was referred to in earlier periods as Judea. This same plot of land was known both for Christians and Jews as Zion—a place of longing and of messianic religious hopes and wishes for thousands of years. Hence the name Zionism (which originally came from the German word Zionismus).

There were other forms of Jewish nationalism, that did not center around the Land of Israel, and some also had titles of their own, for example – Territorialism, which was a movement that thought that the Jews should not turn exclusively to the Land of Israel as the only site for a viable sovereign future Jewish entity. The Territorialists believed the Jews must find any suitable place they could find for their goal, so to find the quickest solution to the growing problem of extreme lack of safety and lack of equal opportunities Jews faced across Europe, and especially in the Russian Empire.  The Bund – short for “The General Jewish Workers’ Union (“bund” in Yiddish), in Lithuania, Poland and Russia” was another form of national expression for many Jews in Eastern Europe, that offered a national solution for the Jews through the political language of socialism, trying to assimilate within local politics in Eastern Europe. However, there is no doubt that Zionism was the most successful Jewish national political movement, a fact that is manifested by the result of its members’ actions that eventually led to the establishment of the State of Israel.

Jewish nationalism is not the only national movement that had a unique name for its national fight for what it saw as its homeland. The Italian national movement for example was called the Risorgimento, a name depicting the national revival and national wars fought by Italian nationalists for the unification of Italy. But no one nowadays goes around calling Italians, Italian nationalists, or Italians patriots, Risorgimentists, do they?  We refer to British national interests, American interests, Syrian interests, Lebanese interests, Egyptian interests. However, when the discussion centers around Israel, instead of talking about Israeli interests we would very likely hear of Zionist interests. Why is that?

According to an increasingly wider segment of liberal societies, the only way of referring to someone who is an Israeli patriot – and even just your common Israeli national – is by what for them is the pejorative title Zionist. By this equivalence between the word Zionist and the denominators for patriotism, the political legitimacy of the State of Israel is undermined through language.

And yes, of course, many Israelis and Jews around the world do identify themselves as Zionists, especially when asked specifically if they are. This is the only option given to them to describe themselves as patriots, as loyal to their country – in the case of Israelis, or as associated with its interest – in the case of non-Israeli Jews, and especially after October 7th – as deeply sympathizing with Israel’s people. Naturally – this signifies the support of the very existence of the State of Israel. Also, for many this is an act of reclaiming this title (“Zionist”), in an attempt to push it away from the unacceptable political conversation.

However, I believe that this response allows this essentially-hostile language to erase the legitimacy of a possibility of Israeli patriotism, and of Israeli nationalism as a legitimate political force. The language that refers to Zionism as reference to any type of Israeli sense of nationalism encourages the rejection of including the State of Israel as a legitimate entity in the world. It achieves this in a very sophisticated way, which makes too many people misjudge the true implications of the constant pushing away of Israel from normative discourse.

The term Zionism and Zionist should gradually be pushed back to its historical meaning. Granted, the historical World Zionist Organization still exists, as well as the Zionist Congresses, which convene once every four-five years. There are also Israeli political parties that use the term Zionism in their official names. However, these shouldn’t confuse us. These are not entities of the Israeli State and Israel is not Zionism. Zionism realized its purpose on the day Israel was established and recognized internationally as an independent state. When people, be they scholars, journalists or in day-to-day conversations, use the word Zionist when they in fact mean Israeli, they help delegitimize the existence of independent Israel, and delegitimize Israeli nationhood and patriotism.

Jews, Israelis, and rational speakers should stop participating in this game of charade and insist on the term Israel, Israeli nationalism\ patriotism\ interests, etc., when referring to national solidarity with the State of Israel. Zionism is not the appropriate term to use when referring to Israel also because some 20% of Israel’s population is Arab (or Arab-Palestinian), and a significant percentage of Israel’s Jewish population (many in the Ultra-Orthodox communities, but also in other parts of the population) does not consider itself as Zionist at all. Israel is just like any other state – for better and for worse. We should treat it that way, starting with the language we choose to adopt when speaking about it.

About the Author
Rhona Burns is a historian of ideas (Ph.D.), currently a Fulbright research fellow at Harvard University's Center for Jewish Studies, an expert on Jewish nationalism, and a researcher of nationalism at large. She is Israeli, and until September 2023, lived in Jerusalem and Haifa with her family (she was born in 1987, married, and a mother to a child). In the past, she has published critiques, op-eds, short stories, and poetry in many news outlets in Israel, including Haaretz, Maariv, Local Call, +972, The Jerusalem Post, and others (mostly in Hebrew). Over the years, she has also worked as a newspaper editor and high-school teacher in Israel.