Recently I, as president of the European Union of Jewish Students (EUJS), was invited to a conference to speak on a panel on Zionism and our relationship to Israel as European Jews. The first question I got was on BDS on European Campuses. And so it continued for the next hour and a half: We discussed everything from antisemitism to refugees to the ascendant far-right. What we didn’t talk about, however, was the supposed topic of the panel – Israel & the Diaspora. When young Jews in the audience and I mentioned this disconnect, all we got were blank stares: Wasn’t the discussion we had just had how we are supposed to talk about Israel & Zionism?
The episode I just described is not meant as a criticism of the event itself – it is instead an example of one of the many ways the conversation we are having on Zionism within Europe’s Jewish communities is flawed: We tend to define our Zionism as opposition. As opposition to antisemitism, as opposition to the Shoah, as opposition to not being entirely accepted in Europe’s civil society. When I researched for this article, I looked at some writing of European Jews on Zionism: Almost all of them frame it in the context of antisemitism and the Shoah.
And all of these causes are important: Israel is the most important answer to the horrors of the Shoah. Israel is very often vilified in antisemitic ways. But that should not be the only reason why we believe in the right of the Jewish People to self-determination in our historic homeland. Neither should it be our only discourse on Zionism.
This problem also manifests itself in another way: The Zionist tent in Europe is a narrow one. Zionism is often equated with Israel advocacy, which – in turn – means defending the actions of the current government. Some young Zionist Jews in Europe agree with politics in Israel. Others do not. But for those who don’t, the space gets narrow quite soon. In most mainstream Jewish debates in Europe, there is very little space for dissenting opinions from among the zionist camp. But this is the political reality of many young European Jews!
I experienced this backlash myself last year after I co-authored an op-ed criticizing the cozying up of Israel and Jewish organizations to far-right leaders and groups who are cynically pandering to our communities. This is a very dangerous trend: It leads some to turn away from Zionism and into the arms of those that oppose Israel. We must make sure instead that our tent is as broad as possible and incorporates critical voices.
Another issue that we often encounter is people negating our stake in this conversation. They say, “Why don’t you move to Israel and talk about Zionism then?” And yes, it is true, we do not know the realities of living in the World’s only Jewish State. And yes, it is true, in order to have this conversation comfortably, we in the Diaspora need Israel. But Israel also needs the Diaspora. Because Israel is more than just another country but rather aims to be the nation-State of all Jewish People, our opinions matter. Because we are the future – and in many cases the present – of the European Diaspora.
It is not just because I’m from Vienna – one of the birthplaces of political Zionism, but also the site of many of Zionism’s fiercest early battles, that I think that we need to reshape how we talk about Zionism. We need to make sure that we create a space where we can speak of Zionism in its own right – detached from the horrors of the past and our daily struggles but also detached from platitudes and common-places about “Israel the Startup Nation.” We need to reinvigorate the debate between all strands of Zionism from Labour Zionism to cultural Zionism to religious Zionism.
Recently a survey done by the Fundamental Rights Agency of the European Union and the European Commission, in cooperation with EUJS – showed that for 74 % of young European Jews “supporting Israel” is part of their Jewish Identity. So young Jews want to shape this debate and want to redefine how Diaspora Zionism looks like in the 21st century. And in many cases, they are already doing it in their communities! That’s the reason that EUJS is launching its “Theodor and I” project, giving young European Jews a platform to talk about Zionism and Israel’s future. We will be publishing a number of writings of Jewish Students in Europe where they are defining their Zionism – in what will hopefully be the kickoff to a much deeper engagement with the topic.
Debate has always been an integral part of Jewish history. Spanning from ancient sages in our religious texts to early Zionists in Basel up to today’s Knesset: This is how we as a people thrived. So let’s make sure this much-needed debate returns to political Zionism’s birthplace: Europe.