Identity or Designation: What’s Going on with “Zionism” and British Jews?

It’s happened again. My Facebook feed and Twitter account are ablaze. It’s about Israel. Maybe that’s because of who my friends are (let’s face it – it’s mostly because of who my friends are #Zionistbubble), but this time it isn’t about Israel itself. It’s about what British Jews think about Israel, and most specifically the recently-released survey of British Jewish attitudes about Israel, funded by Yachad and carried out by academics and independent pollsters.

Most of the conversation thus far has been about one cluster of findings, namely those around attitudes to the political decisions of Israel. My left-wing friends are cheering the seemingly greater-than-expected prevalence of their views among British Jews, whilst my right-wing friends are on the defensive and/or questioning the methodology. (For what it is worth, as far as I can tell, the survey is robust. The exact percentages can of course be quibbled with, but the broad thrust of the findings seems valid).

But I want to talk about another finding. According to the similar-though-not-the-same 2010 JPR survey, 72% of British Jews self-define as Zionists, with 21% saying they are not Zionists and 7% unsure. This 2015 survey shows a major shift. Only 59% now say they are Zionists, with 31% saying they are not and 10% unsure.

The latest report on British Jewish attitudes to Israel has made headlines in the Jewish press.
The latest report on British Jewish attitudes to Israel has made headlines in the Jewish press.

And yet, as the authors of the report discuss at some length, these “non-Zionists” (those who say they are not Zionists and those who say they are unsure, totalling 41% of British Jews) are hardly your classic anti-Zionists. 75% agree ideologically with Zionism (that Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state). 67% feel emotionally attached to Zionism (saying that they take a deep pride in Israel’s achievements). And almost half — 46% — place Israel as central to, or important to, their own Jewish identity. Indeed, 36% of the non-Zionists agree with all three.

So what is the explanation for this? Well, 43% of the non-Zionists believe that there is a contradiction between being a Zionist and criticising Israeli government policy (for what it is worth, 85% of self-defined Zionists disagree). But this cannot be the full explanation. There are clearly now a body of British Jews who have all of the attitudes, feelings and behaviours of Zionists, who say you can be an Israel critic and a Zionist, but still reject this label. The authors venture that one possible explanation is the extreme pejorative connotations of the term “Zionist” in some of the discourse, but say there needs to be more research.

I want to venture my own explanation, which comes both from my experience as my professional role as Head of Israel Engagement at UJIA (a British, Jewish Israel Charity) and from the many informal conversations I have had with Jews young and old about Israel over the past few years. I believe that we are seeing a new split in the community. We already know, and this survey confirms, that there is a right/left or hawk/dove split. But these findings hint at something more.

Let me describe two Zionisms. The first I’ll call “Zionism-as-identity”. This is a Zionism of profound, deep and enduring commitment to the collective Jewish experience and to its manifestation as Jewish national life in Israel. This is a Zionism that emerges from a set of life-changing Jewish experiences, meaning-creating conversations and reflections, character-defining encounters and so on. It’s a Zionism that is wrapped up in Jewish identity.

The second I’ll call “Zionism-as-designator”. This is a Zionism of unreflective box-ticking, of political and sometimes emotional conviction without much ideological or intellectual buttressing, of views and behaviours but not deep Jewish experiences or values. This is Zionism as a placeholder for agreeing with certain statements, rather than an animated and animating force in one’s Jewish life. It is Zionism only weakly connected to Jewishness.


Both of these are caricatures, pastiches even. But I fear that the Zionist discourse is drifting towards the latter and away from the former, and as such Zionism is being weakened. Because it is what Zionism actually is – the soul of Zionism if you like – that is under unprecedented threat, and for me the threat is when Zionism becomes designator and stops being identity.

For me, Zionism holds a deep and enduring significance to my Jewish identity. It provides not just a topic of passing interest but an empowering set of convictions and a framework with which to navigate the ephemeral world of my Facebook feed or the conversation down the pub.

My great fear is that Zionism-as-designator is fickle and, comparatively, feeble. When placed in a context of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and vicious anti-Zionism, it weakens to the point of retreat – who wants to call themselves a Zionist if the word is constantly associated with ‘Nazi’, ‘Apartheid’ and ‘colonialism’? When confronted by the few but loud voices denying it the right to make any critique of Israel, it opts out.

But I also want to say something to those on the “left”. Yachad, and other left-wing organisations, are increasingly playing a role in shaping and framing the debate about Zionism and Israel here in the UK Jewish community. Yet on Yachad’s website, one is hard-pressed to find the Z-word except in the context of working with or having members from Zionist youth movements. Instead, the rubric is “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace”, which is great as far as it goes, but ironically subtly frames the whole discussion as a battle over the question of what it means to support Israel rather than what it means to be a Zionist.

To be clear: any organisation can self-define as it wishes. But if the discourse is to move beyond mere designation – bundles of beliefs/behaviours – and into the realm of identity – of commitments, duties, hopes, emotional and intellectual engagement – then I fear that the left is missing a trick. The educational space of left-wing Zionism-as-identity needs to be filled.

Zionism is too important to the Jewish people to give up on. Zionism is too profound an idea to be reduced merely to a tick-box list of attitudes about Israeli politics. As educators, let’s embrace Zionism and let’s create strong Jewish and strong Zionist identities, not just strong advocates for Israel or strong activists for change.

About the Author
Robin Moss is Head of the UJIA Centre for Israel Engagement and a former movement worker for LJY-Netzer. He's also a keen Limmudnik and an Officer (Trustee) of Liberal Judaism.
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