A few weeks ago, just before leaving for Israel on a family vacation, I was accused of being a Zionist. “Your trips to Israel have tilted you to Zionism.” It was a loaded statement that presumed that Zionism is something dirty. I wasn’t sure whether to be insulted, or to laugh, but it ended up providing me with a chance to think through my views. Over the course of the 10 days I spent in Israel, the statement was in the back of my mind. I decided half-way through the trip that once I returned home, I would put my thoughts into words about whether I considered myself a Zionist.
Am I a Zionist? Yes. I emphatically support the right of the Jewish people to their homeland, and to their self-determination. I am moved by the ways ordinary Israelis have translated that dream into a vibrant culture. I am not ashamed of that. I would characterize myself within the camp of Liberal Zionism, with a concern for democratic values and human rights. As such, this label does not prohibit me from supporting the rights of Palestinians to the same thing. In fact, the same reasons that I support Zionism are why I support a Palestinian state too.
If my experiences have “tilted me towards Zionism,” I accept that, but such a statement fails to recognize that my views are more nuanced, and reflect a deeper understanding of the issues. My support for Zionism is not rooted in Christian Zionism. I do not believe that Jews must be in the Holy Land for Jesus to return. Nor does my support for Zionism mean I view either side through a pair of rose-colored glasses, making me oblivious to the short-comings of both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority. Just as I remain highly critical of the corruption of Fatah, in failing to advance the hopes of its people, I am equally critical of many of the policy choices of Israel’s current government, that not only threaten its claims to democracy, but to Zionism itself.
In some ways, the question of whether I am a Zionist is a bit strange, since I am not Jewish, although I have strong affinity with Judaism. I work with Jewish students, advising Hillel at my university. I partner with Jewish federations on a variety of issues. I feel very comfortable worshipping in a Reform temple. I have made three separate trips to Israel, spending 36 days in the past two years exploring the religious and historical sites, enjoying and learning about Israeli culture, all the while working to understand the complex narratives that define the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And let’s be honest, you are reading this in The Times of Israel, an Israeli newspaper. So yes, I have a strong connection to Israel, but that connection is not tied to some sense of an ancestral homeland.
My sense of belonging or identity is not tied to any one place. I am an American, who has lived in New York, Vermont, Virginia, Colorado, and Illinois. As an Italian-American, my ethnic roots are in Italy, but I have no deep sense of longing for it. While my descendants came to America seeking a better life, they did not have the experience of a two thousand-year diaspora, nor of a yearning to return to their homeland.
While I do not have a personal reference-point for relating to Zionism, I have studied its origins and understand its underlying principles. The initial immigration of Jews to the land known as Palestine can be easily romanticized, as the Zionist pioneers arrived in Jaffa and began purchasing land, building farms, and developing communities. From the very beginning, however, the proponents of Zionism ran into the problem that the land they were connected to was not uninhabited. There were Christian, Muslim, and Druze Arabs, living in hundreds of villages scattered across the land. Those Arabs had largely been neglected by the Ottoman Empire. The historical record suggests that there was little if any sense of a Palestinian nation, but the reality is that Arabs have lived there for hundreds and hundreds of years. Palestine is their home. They might not have the same five thousand year claim to the land as the Jews, but it is their homeland nonetheless.
I conceptualize Zionism through the same lens in which I approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I am a proponent of a two-state solution in which Israel’s right to self-determination is assured, alongside the right of Palestinians to their own self-determination. If Zionism is essentially the right of the Jewish people to their homeland and to self-determination; then it is very hard to deny the same desire of self-determination to Palestinians. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not claiming that the Palestinian dream is a Zionist dream. It isn’t. But it is a human desire to determine one’s future. At its best, Zionism should be sympathetic to such human yearnings. It should reflect the deepest of human desires. If Zionism means that Jews have a right to self-determination, then the same right should not be denied to Palestinians.
It is essential that both sides acknowledge the rights of the other. It is when the Zionist ideal gets taken to an extreme that it becomes problematic and obstructs peace. When Zionism becomes the need to live in “the heart” of the Jewish story in “Judea and Samaria” – in the middle of the Palestinian West Bank – it challenges the very idea of the other’s self-determination.
Extremism is in no way limited to Israeli-settlement ideology. When Palestinians refuse to acknowledge the right of the Jewish people to a homeland and when they consider places like Haifa to be “Israeli-occupied Palestine,” they are de-legitimizing the idea of a Jewish state. When their leaders encourage and reward terrorism, and then celebrate the death of Israelis, then there is no real recognition of the other’s right of self-determination. In a conflict that has persisted since 1948, it is easy for both sides to fall to extremes and I refuse to be lumped into an understanding of Zionism that fails to acknowledge the need to move forward, and to work for mutual self-determination.
My understanding of Zionism was challenged two weeks ago when I spent two nights in an Arab village in the Galilee. My family enjoyed two wonderful days with a family who opened their home to us. I felt enriched by the culture, by the people, and by their tie to the land — to the same land that Israelis claim as their home. This brought me back to the problem the earliest Zionists faced when arriving on the shores of Palestine. The land was not uninhabited. It reinforced for me how complex the issues are.
This experience was immediately contrasted, however, over the next several days, when we spent time with Israeli friends in Haifa, celebrating Shabbat and Chanukah, socializing, and then spending the next week immersed in Israeli culture in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. In doing so, I witnessed the results of the Zionist ideal first dreamed by Theodor Herzl.
In the end, my accuser was correct. My experiences have tilted me towards Zionism.
Special thanks to Christine, George, and Zach for their input and careful reading of this essay.