When I made aliyah in 2006 immediately after the conclusion of the Second Lebanon War, I was surprised to discover that not only did my American family and friends question my decision to move to Israel, but so did many Israelis. “Because I’m a Zionist,” I would answer them when they asked me what brought me to Israel at the age of 28 – with a law degree in tow and no family to lean on. While some of them would nod their heads in respect, far too many of them would look at me with blank faces, flabbergasted that people like me still actually exist. “There are still Zionists today?” they would respond, temporarily crushing my vision of being surrounded by like-minded people who believed that Israel was the Jewish homeland, and therefore home, even when for me home had hitherto always been America.
Before long, I was able to anticipate which Israelis would respond with pride and awe at my decision and which Israelis would respond with bewilderment and at times even contempt. Their questions no longer caught me off guard, and I quickly learned to surround myself with those who appreciated my willingness to give up on the comforts of life in America and to throw my fate in with the building of the Jewish state. I was long used to my American friends and family not “getting it” when I spoke to them about Zionism, but Israelis living in the Zionist state and rejecting Zionism was not what I expected to meet on the streets of Tel Aviv or in the workplace.
Alas, not only do many Israelis shy away from using the word “Zionism” to define their ideological beliefs, so do countless Jews in the Diaspora. My ten years in Israel were followed by nearly two years in America where, for far too many “progressive” or far left Americans, “Zionist” has become a dirty word. Some even falsely equate Zionism with the dirtiest of words: “Nazi,” “Racist,” and “Fascist,” among others. In an increasingly polarized America where identity politics drive people’s beliefs, progressive American Jews are getting the message from their otherwise like-minded peers that identifying with Zionism is shameful and in direct conflict with their other progressive values. Many in the Black Lives Matter movement have conflated the struggle for civil rights for Black Americans with the Palestinian struggle, making use of the words “genocide” and “apartheid” to describe Israel’s actions against the Palestinians. Linda Sarsour, one of the organizers of the Women’s March and for many a leader in today’s progressive movement, has described Zionism as “creepy” and “incompatible with feminism.” Some far left-leaning Americans have even gone so far as to deride Zionism for being a nationalistic movement in a post-nationalism era, while at the same time they incongruously champion the Palestinian nationalistic movement.
In today’s climate where you are either for the progressive cause or against it, nuance is entirely lacking, particularly when Israel is the topic of discussion. On countless occasions I have shared with American acquaintances my Zionist identity only to be met with awkward silences. These acquaintances have heard in the word “Zionist” something completely different than what I intended. But I will persist. I will not shy away from sharing with others that I am a Zionist. I am proud to be one, and I will do everything I can to counter the ongoing process of making it taboo.
Zionism is not synonymous with the oppression of the Palestinian people. On the contrary, it was the great Zionist thinkers of their time who accepted the United Nations partition plan in 1947 granting the Palestinians a state of their own (David Ben Gurion); who made peace with Egypt by returning the Sinai Peninsula (Menachem Begin); who signed the Oslo accords initiating the peace process with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (Yitzchak Rabin); who offered the return of more than 90% of the West Bank in exchange for peace (Ehud Barak); and who disengaged from the Gaza Strip, granting full autonomy to the Palestinian people in the narrow enclave by the sea (Ariel Sharon). And Israel’s “Zionist” army, the Israel Defense Forces, takes extraordinary efforts to prevent harm to civilians in its clashes with terrorist organizations such as Hamas which cynically hide behind their civilian population.
Zionism is not synonymous with racism. Zionism is rooted in the unfortunate but well-founded belief that Jews will not be safe anywhere in the world but in the Jewish state. The Law of Return, therefore, grants any Jew in the world the right to gain citizenship in the historic homeland of the Jewish people. This Law of Return includes, of course, Ethiopian Jews, who were clandestinely airlifted by the Government of Israel in 1984 from Sudan, and again in 1991 from Addis Ababa, bringing them home to Israel. The Law of Return also extends to converts to Judaism of any race or ethnicity. And Israel’s preferential treatment to Jews in its citizenship laws does not amount to racism; on the contrary, as civil rights lawyer, Alan Dershowitz, stated, “[a] world that closed its doors to Jews who sought escape from Hitler’s ovens lacks the moral standing to complain about Israel’s giving preference to Jews.” Anyone who spends time in Israel will immediately notice that Israel’s citizens come in all different colors and ethnicities. Indian Jews, Ethiopian Jews, Yemenite Jews, Druze, Arab Muslims and Arab Christians are just the tip of the iceberg in Israel’s vibrant and diverse society.
Zionism is not synonymous with colonialism. Jews have had a continuous presence in the land of Israel for at least 2000 years, and those who were driven out of Israel by empires and conquerors across the millennia were simply returning home to the only state in the world committed to protecting the Jewish people.
Zionism is not synonymous with apartheid. While this word is casually used by many, the definition of apartheid–a policy or system of segregation or discrimination on grounds of race–does not apply to Zionism in any sense of the word. In its Declaration of Independence, Israel’s founders made clear that the state will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex. And it has. Arab citizens of Israel have equal voting rights, serve in the Knesset, serve in the High Court of Israel, and participate fully in the democratic institutions in Israel. While Israel’s minorities may regrettably suffer from discrimination, so do minorities in virtually every country in the world, yet none of them are accused of being an apartheid state.
Zionism is not synonymous with fascism. The Zionist ideology has always been rooted in democratic principles, and its founders established a state ruled by democratically elected leaders in which freedom of expression, freedom of the press and freedom of conscience have reigned and will continue to reign supreme.
Israel is by no means perfect. It is located in a hostile neighborhood posing unique challenges and the country and its citizens have flaws like any other country in the world. But none of those imperfections rise to the level of undermining the ideology upon which the country was founded. Zionism was and still remains an ideology rooted in creating a just and model society. No one, not even my fellow Jews, are going to make me feel ashamed of that. We as Jews the world over need to proudly and vocally reclaim the word “Zionist,” refusing to let outsiders define the ideology for us and instead defining it for ourselves. And for me, Zionism means not only that the Jewish people have a right to self-determination in their homeland, the State of Israel; it also means the never-ending effort to achieve a more perfect society to serve as a model for other societies all around the world. I am a Zionist with my chin held high, and I’m not afraid to say so.
Kimberly Salzman is Director of Israel and Overseas Operations at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. The views she expresses in this editorial are her own. The Jewish Federation supports Zionism—Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish, democratic state.