Madeleine Ferris

Untangling Zionism: Navigating rhetoric with nuance

During the rise in protests against Israel on university campuses, many myths concerning Zionism have come to light; In February 2023, an anti-Israel protest at the University of Birmingham was held as part of a “Day of Action.” A large banner at the center of the protest was proudly inscribed “Zionists Off Our Campus.” Slogans like these are not uncommon at anti-Israel marches, and are often accompanied by accusations against Israel of crimes against Palestinians. This rhetoric has gained particular traction during the current war in Gaza.

Now more than ever, we must unpack these accusations and the vocabulary used to describe Zionism. Word-choice is important, and the rhetoric present at rallies and equally at quiet dinner-table discussions should be considered. We have a collective responsibility to address malignant rhetoric in mainstream society, and be vigilant of our word-usage, which can have real-life implications for Jews and Palestinians.

What is Zionism?

There is an inextricable link between mainstream Jewish identity  and the movement for the repatriation of Jews in their ancestral homeland, known as Zionism. In the late 19th century, this ideology sought to establish a Jewish refuge from widespread antisemitism. This was built off of an almost universal shared yearning to return to Eretz Yisrael, or the Land of Israel, that has been prevalent in Jewish thought since the partial Babylonian and Roman expulsions in the 6th century BCE and 70 CE respectively. The long history of Jewish persecution in the diaspora, culminating in the Holocaust, compounded this national and religious dream.

Soon after the UN formed, the international body upheld the promises made by its predecessor and sanctioned multiple binding laws acknowledging the Palestine region’s significance to the Jewish people and their right to form a sovereign state there. After multiple failed UN and British attempts to broker a peaceful delineation of land to both Jews and Palestinians, those colonial authorities abandoned the region and Israel’s independence was declared.

Three years after the Holocaust, seven of Israel’s neighbouring Arab countries allied with many of the local Arab population to initiate a war protesting the newly formed Jewish state. As a response to losing the war, each of those countries expelled virtually all of their Jewish populations, some 800,000 Jews, which Israel willingly absorbed.

For these three reasons, religious, nationalistic and pragmatic, mainstream Zionism has evolved into an expression of commitment to defending the country against existential threats and building its prosperity and resilience.


In the past few decades, the “anti-Zionist” movement, committed to denying the legitimacy of Jewish claims to the land, has gained influence in western societies. Whilst the ideology was not inherently antisemitic before Israel’s creation, (when Jewish anti-Zionists and Jewish Zionists debated hypothetical solutions to how and where Jews could fit in the world), contemporary anti-Zionism has become a thinly-veiled attempt to strip Jews of the right to self-determination. In the age of identity politics, it has become common for the ignorant to adopt the movement’s extreme beliefs as a way to voice opposition to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

While finding fault with Israel’s implementation of its policies towards Gaza, settlement-building, or various responses to Palestinian terrorism are all valid, relevant and worthy of discussion, it is inappropriate to use such critiques as a justification for promoting the dismantling of the Jewish state. Few advocate for the dissolution of lawfully democratic nations, let alone countries like China, Russia, or Iran, despite their numerous human rights violations and the failings of their respective governments.

If, however, the object of these sensationalist claims is to affect real change in Israeli society, then the opposite is occurring. These careless words cause Israelis and Jews alike to lose faith in the world that fails to recognize their precarious position in the Middle East. This in turn removes motivation to follow suggestions from the international community, who are perceived to be antagonists.

Unfortunately, these ahistorical anti-Zionist prejudices have developed three popular myths surrounding Zionism, all of which have heightened during the ongoing war. They now declare that Zionism denies Palestinian rights by definition, that Israel is committing genocide, and that Zionism has created an oppressive society similar to South African Apartheid. None of these accusations reflect reality.

 Does Zionism negate Palestinian human rights?

No. Zionism is simply the Jewish indigenous civil rights movement, and is disconnected from individual government policies. The protection of Palestinians who choose to live peacefully within Israel is part and parcel of political Zionism and has been since the start. The 1947 UN declaration called for the establishment of two states for two nations with full-fledged rights. Israel accepted this declaration, and its 1948 Declaration of Independence instilled equal rights for the Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel. The Arab League rejected it all.

Since the 1994 Oslo Accords, there have been six failed attempts to negotiate peace: the 2000 Camp David Summit, 2001 Taba Summit, 2003 Road Map for Peace, 2007 Annapolis Conference, 2014 Kerry Framework, and Trump’s 2020 Peace to Prosperity Programme. All were accepted by Israel and rejected by the Palestinians; ultimately failing to end the conflict and actualize a Palestinian state. If Zionism precludes Palestinian nationalism, why would Israel engage with or consider the creation of Palestine?

In response to these failures and an uptick in terrorism, right-wing coalitions that oppose further land concessions to Palestinians and promote a militant approach to Israeli security, rather than advancing the peace process, have gained influence in Israeli politics. These parties operate under the broad banner of Zionism, which many in the outside world interpret as revealing an immoral underlying facet of the ideology. This may not be a fair assessment, since it is unclear whether these politicians would enjoy the same popularity if the existential threat of terror attacks did not constantly loom over Israel.

Regardless of the power these parties currently wield, Zionism continues to be a diverse and ever-growing ideology that cannot be honestly defined by its extreme political fringes; these characters do not represent Zionism.

Is Israel an Apartheid state?

Also no. Apartheid was a system of legalised racial segregation in 20th century South Africa where the Black majority was deprived of political and civil rights and the society was segregated based on racial criteria.

Since the infamous UN Durban conference in 2001 gave credence to this false accusation, Israel and its advocates have repeatedly been forced to defend against the charge. Israel’s construction of the separation barrier effectively cemented the myth in anti-Zionist discourse that the concrete barrier was simply a means to enforce oppression.

This narrative conveniently forgets the rest of the story. The barrier was erected in June 2002 at the height of the Second Intifada when Palestinian terrorists murdered over 1,000 Israelis. For over twenty years, it has impeded West-Bank residents from carrying out further murders in Jewish communities.

Though, due to Israeli prejudices, it is true that the process of passing through the barrier is arduous for Palestinian non-citizens who attend school or work in Israel. However, this experience is not tantamount to apartheid. Israelis and Palestinians live on both sides of the barrier. It is not a racial divider, but a temporary security measure.

Additionally, the fact that Palestinian/Arab-Israeli citizens enjoy full civil and political rights, shows that there is no legal disparity between Israeli citizens of different religions, ethnicities or dual-nationalities.

In a similar vein, some East Jerusalem residents who are permanent residents are in a precarious situation due to their lack of direct political representation and inability to obtain an Israeli passport. This is an important issue within Israeli society which must be addressed. But again, this still does not constitute a formal anti-Arab policy that could be legitimately compared to apartheid. Instead, the desire to blaspheme Israel has caused anti-Israel advocates to locate a real issue within Israeli society and sensationalize it, to become a basis upon which to call the foundations of Israel’s existence into question.

Is Zionism genocidal?

Israel is home to over two million Palestinian citizens, constituting 21.1% of the population. The majority of these citizens are Muslim, but many are also Druze and Christian. If Zionism and its product, the State of Israel, were genocidal, one would expect to see a dramatic decline in the birth rate, quality of life, and population growth in all of Palestinian society much like the current genocides against Uyghurs in China, the Rohingya in Myanmar, the Tutsis in Rwanda, or the Jews during the Holocaust. Not only has the Arab Israeli birth rate reached that of Jewish Israelis, but the Palestinian populations in Gaza and the West Bank have consistently grown since 2002.

Central to the definition of genocide are “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group.” There are countless examples scattered throughout the history of the country and ideology disproving this accusation.

Anti-Zionism is a hateful ideology that exploits ignorance. While Zionism can be entirely compatible with Palestinian nationalism, vilifying it in support of Palestine only widens the gap between Israelis and Palestinians who have become stuck in an existential battle of whose claim is more legitimate, resulting in an ever-more-violent and hateful status quo.

More of a nuanced and honest approach will be needed to address both sides of the conflict in the future. Both Israelis and Palestinians must take responsibility and be held accountable for their actions, without resorting to extremes and hateful accusations, which serve only to create greater chasms in society.

About the Author
Madeleine was born in England and moved to Israel after completing her undergraduate degree at both King’s College London and University of Toronto. She is now studying for her Masters degree at the Hebrew University in Human Rights and Transitional Justice.