There is a crisis of Zionism, but it’s not, as Peter Beinart wrote in his book by that name, that Zionism is at risk of “failing the test of Jewish power.”
The deeper crisis is that the word has become toxic in some circles, including among American Jews. Israel’s enemies have always used the word Zionism pejoratively. Now, it’s taking on that same meaning with Israel’s friends.
In his latest findings, pollster Frank Luntz warned against using the word to influence Democrats. “If you are at Berkeley or Brown and start outlining a Zionist vision, you don’t get to make a case for Israel because they’ve already switched off,” he said. “You can’t make the case if you use that word.”
The findings confirm what he discovered in a 2014 poll carried out after the summer war with Hamas. Some 41% of the opinion elite in America found the term Zionism “unfavorable” in 2014.
If people simply “switch off” when Zionism is invoked, as Luntz says, that’s a bigger problem than if they openly disagreed with its tenets. One can win or lose an argument, but there is no way to win when the issue can’t be raised.
So Zionism – the ideology that asserts the Jewish right to a state in Israel – must be avoided when speaking to people about Israel. One can talk about women’s rights or humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, but not the Israeli claim to its ancestral homeland. The driving force behind Israel’s greatest achievements has effectively been shut out of the conversation.
Losing the term, of course, is more than rhetorical. It suggests that people are no longer comfortable with Israel’s claims to the land, but don’t know how to express that discomfort. In other words, this is not only a crisis of Zionism. It is a growing crisis of legitimacy.
This crisis is not a product of the current Israeli government’s failure to address peace with the Palestinians. No Israeli government could make peace with the Palestinians under the current circumstances. It’s true that the majority of US Jews vote Democrat while Israel’s leader would be at home in the Republican party. But that does not explain the aversion to the word Zionist. Any potential leader would be Zionist.
Distaste for the word Zionism is a stand-in for distaste for Israel. If left to fester for long, it could devolve into open hostility to Israel, as it has in many parts of Europe. And that’s why it’s time to reclaim the term and to bring it back into popular discussion. It’s time to assert support for Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, as persuasively as possible, and as often as possible.
Zionism gave hope to millions of Jews trapped behind the Iron Curtain. It brought thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. It provided the inspiration to generations of Israelis who toiled to build a modern country from the ground.
Zionism is more than a term. It is the expression of the Jewish spirit in the Land of Israel. And it is currently in crisis.