Paul Gross

This is the wrong Zionist debate

Several years ago, I had cause to write an article defending Zionism for a British publication. I was studying for my Master’s degree in London and my university student union had just a passed a Zionism is Racism resolution. (The UN may have long ago disavowed this, but British campuses continue to peddle this hateful nonsense as a matter of routine.)

The piece, titled Don’t mention the Z-word, sought to expose the prejudice behind the accusation and to define what Zionism actually was.

Now living in Israel, I find that the word is once again being mis-used and confused. This time prompted not by prejudice but by politics. Only a few  days after announcing that their merged Labor Party-Hatnua faction would be called Hamachaneh Hatzioni – ‘the Zionist Camp’ – Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni had to confront  accusations from Likud and Jewish Home MKs (including the Prime Minister) that their list for the Knesset contained anti-Zionists. The press had reported quotes attributed to Merav Michaeli and Stav Shaffir, both prominent Labor MKs in the outgoing Knesset, endorsing avoidance of military service, and describing Israel’s national anthem ‘Hatikva’ as “racist” respectively.

The response was a clearly defensive campaign ad from the Zionist Camp, featuring Herzog, Livni and other high-profile candidates stating why they are Zionists. More impressive was a bravura performance from Shaffir on the Knesset plenum, lambasting the Netanyahu governments for the inequality and lack of community in Israeli society. Addressing that, she claimed, would be Zionist.

The truth is that Zionism is actually rather simple to define. It is essentially an ideology which understands that the Jews are a sovereign people, a nation, and that they have a right to a nation-state in their historical homeland. Within that broad definition one can have many arguments over the precise boundaries of that state (Ben-Gurion willingly accepted an Israel without the West Bank, preferring the assurance of a Jewish majority); the extent to which religion is involved (Herzl envisaged a Jewish state where religion would be completely relegated to the private sphere), and many other things.

Michaeli’s alleged support for draft-dodging can be critiqued – this is fair game in an election and it’s certainly legitimate to inquire whether she still believes this and how it fits with her party’s very clear support for the IDF – but it’s not in itself anti-Zionist. There are Rabbis close to certain Jewish Home MKs who have openly called for soldiers to refuse orders to evacuate settlements. Is that anti-Zionist according to the same logic with which they accused Michaeli? If not, why not? I’m opposed to refusing to serve or refusing orders on political grounds, whether the politics in question are left- or right-wing, but it’s in no way ‘anti-Zionist’.

As for Shaffir referring to the ‘Hatikva’ as racist, the first thing to say about such a comment is that it’s stupid. There’s nothing racist about a national anthem that relates exclusively to one particular national group. That’s kind of the point of a national anthem. It does seem likely however that she was rather hyperbolically using the word “racist” to point to the very real problem that 20 percent of Israel’s citizens simply cannot identify with their country’s national anthem. Again, I’m not personally in favor of changing the words of ‘Hatikva’ but, particularly give the vexed nature of Jewish-Arab relations in Israel, it’s a legitimate point to raise in a mature political debate and is not, in itself, anti-Zionist.

So ‘the Zionist Camp’ is not anti– Zionist, but neither is it the only or most Zionist option at the election – at least not objectively so. Zionism requires that now there is a Jewish state, that the state survives as a Jewish state. Herzog, Livni and their supporters do believe that the policies of the Right are leading Israel to a ‘one-state solution’ that would either end the country’s Jewish character, or render it an apartheid entity ostracized by the West and left to wither away in its pariah status. Of course, Netanyahu’s and Naftali Bennett’s cheerleaders believe the Left’s naiveté and desire for peace at any price would see Israel physically destroyed – or at least taken to the edge of an abyss from which only the return of the Right could rescue it.

So, though we can identify a concrete and simple objective definition of Zionism subjectively, one person’s Zionism is not another’s. This was the case at the birth of the movement, when Max Nordau asked Ahad Ha’am pointedly “are you a Zionist?” and it was clear that the two men defined the term completely differently;  Rav Kook’s Zionism was not Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s, Chaim Weizmann’s was different again. Zionism means something subtly different to Bibi and Buji, but neither of them could legitimately accuse the other of anti-Zionism, or even of non-Zionism.

How many times have we heard politicians from the Right refer to building settlements as “the Zionist response” to a terrorist attack? On the other hand, left-wing activists like the lawyer Talia Sasson, or the writer Gadi Taub have argued that settlements undermine Zionism and distort the original mission of the Zionist project.

Ultimately, the political debate is ill-served by accusations of anti-Zionism. In general the mudslinging and name-calling in this election has been unedifying and voters deserve better.

Personally I’d like to see the parties of the Left (and Center) that stress the importance of a two-state solution say what they’ll do, if they find (as I suspect they will) that there is no viable partner on the Palestinian side. And I’d like to hear from the Right just what exactly is their vision for a Jewish and democratic state that remains in control of the disenfranchised Palestinian population of the West Bank. (Something other than Bennett’s utterly nonsensical plan to annex Area C – which could only have been dreamt up by someone who had never seen a map of the West Bank.)

Back in the UK, there was a need to defend Zionism in its essential definition; that is, to defend the right of the Jewish people to a state in their historical homeland. Now I live in Israel and the Zionist discussion can be more nuanced; it can be about what sort of Jewish state we wish to see, and how we can get there. Let the election, and the political choices before us, be about that.

About the Author
Before moving to Israel from the UK, Paul worked at the Embassy of Israel to the UK in the Public Affairs department, and as the Ambassador's speechwriter. He has a Masters degree in Middle East Politics from the University of London. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem - though he writes this blog in a personal capacity. He has lectured to a variety of groups on Israeli history and politics and his articles have been published in a variety of media outlets in Israel, the UK, the US and Canada.
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