Susan M. George
Nonprofit executive and proud left-wing Zionist who sings and acts sometimes

Reclaiming Zionism on the Left

Last month at the 125th anniversary of the World Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, Israel’s President, Isaac Herzog, spoke about the need to “reclaim Zionism” and the Jewish and democratic values it embodies, saying:
“We must breathe new meaning into the term ‘Zionism.”

When Zionists are portrayed as the enemy, this is the time to own our Zionism, not run away from it. When those who support Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state are unjustly targeted, not only does it harm Jews, it can undermine the movements, political parties and societies where extremist anti-Zionism is allowed to proliferate.

Finding a path forward in California
Anti-Zionist extremism is not about criticizing Israel’s policies, but rather a series of direct attacks on Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state. Before I provide examples in California and outline a constructive path forward, let’s unpack some of the obstacles we face here.

I recently attended an informal and friendly meet and greet with a small group of Jewish Democrats in San Francisco. Someone commented, “we don’t use the word, Zionism.” I have heard this sentiment from a handful of Jewish Democrats who are active in California politics. They believe that openly identifying as a Zionist is an obstacle to building effective relationships and coalitions in more progessive spaces. 

As an enthusiastic progressive Zionist, I have a different take. When Zionists are shamed or harassed due to their personal connection to Israel, position on the conflict or the actions of the Israeli government, it’s not time to react, it’s time to reframe the narrative. These challenges can serve as an opportunity for Jewish Democrats to build relationships by talking openly about what Zionism is, what Zionism means to them personally and how anti-Zionism can often be a cover for antisemitism

If there had been time, this is what I would have said to my colleagues at the San Francisco cafe. Now, I look forward to reconvening for a deeper and more productive conversation.

This is what anti-Zionist hate looks like
Interestingly enough, about fifteen months earlier, the Jewish-owned cafe where we met was vandalized with large antisemitic grafitti: “Racist Pigz”, “Zionist Pigz” and “Free Palestine” and two weeks earlier a Chabad Jewish preschool in San Francisco was defaced with: “Israil Terror” and “Death to Israil” [sic].

A few more examples in California of a much longer list are:

    • the Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC) tweeted “Help us kick Zionism out of the Bay Area”; 
    • the U.S. Palestinian Network asserted that “Zionists have no place in the classroom”; 
    • Diners in LA were verbally abused and physically attacked by members of a convoy of pro-Palestinian activists shouting, “Who is Jewish?” “Dirty Jews, f*#k Israel, Israeli pigs” and more;
    • anti-Israel activists in the California Democratic Party have made multiple attempts to remove platform language in support of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state” and add language for a legally nonexistent unilateral Palestinian right of return;
    • Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) executives openly traffic in hate speech against any person or organization that supports Israel’s existence; 
    • AROC attempted to install a mural at the San Francisco Public Library containing the debunked Soviet-era antisemitic trope “Zionism is racism”;
    • the AROC-supported K-12 “liberated” ethnic studies model curriculum that attempts to paint Zionists as the enemy of social justice is gaining traction in California public schools; and
    • the LA People’s City Council retweeted to their 40,000+ followers its support of a Boston Mapping Project advocating for the dismantling of “Boston’s Zionist NGO circuit” and 79% of the NGO’s identified with addresses are mainstream Jewish organizations.

The need for productive engagement
Standing strong in our Zionism in California Democratic politics is what Progressive Zionists of California (PZC) does. When we began this work in 2017, we were often maligned by anti-Israel activists on social media and at live events. But as we continue to engage with a wide spectrum of Democratic Party voices on what Zionism is, our impact has grown.

PZC’s influence was especially apparent in May of 2021 during the Gaza-Israel conflict, when anti-Israel rhetoric reached a fever pitch on social media and on the streets of Los Angeles and beyond. PZC’s messaging played a significant role in helping to humanize the conflict and correcting the record on the flurry of disinformation campaigns.

By showing up as ourselves with our Zionism intact, PZC helps educate and build goodwill with those willing to engage. We know there will always be those for whom Israel’s destruction is the only solution and while they are the outliers, their voices are unfortunately magnified due to support from extreme anti-Zionist organizations.

The sudden surge last year in hate rhetoric and incidences of violence over a conflict taking place thousands of miles away is a reminder of how quickly the climate can change for Jews when antisemitism rises. We must be vigilant and responsive.

Defining a path forward
So then, in light of the many ongoing challenges, how can we build strong partners in stemming the tide of extreme anti-Zionism in the California Democratic Party and adjacent spaces? Here are three important steps Jewish Democrats can take:

    1. Ensure political and legislative leaders understand what extreme anti-Zionism is and the harm it will bring to Jews and the party if it is not addressed; 
    2. Be proactive in defining what Zionism is and what it means to us, rather than letting it be defined by anti-Zionists and extreme right-wing Zionists; and
    3. Build broad and more diverse coalitions of individuals and organizations to help educate younger and more vulnerable populations.

Zionism as responsibility
In his address in Basel on reclaiming Zionism, Herzog continued:

I believe that the meaning of Zionism is chiefly: responsibility. Responsibility for our deep-rooted Jewish identity as individuals; responsibility for our cohesion as a diverse, opinionated people, whose deep and binding connection to its ancestral Land, Zion, finds expression in the name ‘Zionism’; responsibility for the existence and prosperity of the Jewish and democratic State of Israel…responsibility for the fact that we are part of the family of nations, in an effort to help solve the greatest challenges of humanity, bequeathing tikkun olam to the whole world.”

Zionism is more than a responsibility, it is an abiding connection to and expression of our deepest values made real in the world. It is also a work in progress. This seems particularly fitting for our work in California Democratic politics.

Let’s do it together!

About the Author
Susan George is the Executive Director of Progressive Zionists of California (PZC), a California 501c4 nonprofit. She has served as an elected assembly district delegate to the California Democratic Party for two terms and was an elected Democratic National Convention delegate in 2016 and 2020. Susan lives and works in San Francisco with her partner Matthew.
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