Ian Joseph

What has Zionism Become?

Against the background of intense pro-Palestine/anti-Israel student protests on campuses across the USA, I think it’s important to discuss what modern-day Zionism has become after the initial aims of Zionism were achieved. This is especially important in light of the antisemitic and anti-Zionist comments reported from many of the demonstrations.

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Zionism was originally a political movement, founded in the late 19th century, for the re-establishment of a Jewish homeland in the area defined as the land of Israel, inspired by the original ancient Jewish kingdoms of Judea and Israel which existed for a few hundred years, two thousand years ago. Today, after realizing the initial objective of Zionism, it can be broadly defined as the the development and protection of a Jewish majority nation in what is now Israel.

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There are a number of contentious arguments as to the legitimacy of the original aim of Zionism, I will not go into them, simply because Israel is an established fact on the ground, a prosperous first world member of the nations of our planet. There are multiple valid arguments for and against the establishment of such a state in the area of what was mandatory Palestine, but I don’t believe there is anything to be gained by rehashing old, tired arguments for and against the legitimacy of the state of Israel.

I would rather prefer to examine the premise of what Zionism is today, namely the maintenance and growth of a Jewish majority nation in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean in the area of what was mandatory Palestine. It is important to understand exactly what is meant by anyone’s claim to be a proud Zionist who then lives according to his/her claims of Zionistic behaviors and beliefs.

The first question to consider is “Where exactly is Israel?” What are its borders? Without clearly defined borders it is impossible to discuss the rule, legitimacy, treatment of minorities and nature of the country. I will take the stance, which some will dispute, that Israel is all the territory ruled over by Israel and in which its citizens live and have the full rights of all Israeli citizens. As such, it is all the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, excluding Gaza and including the Golan Heights. This is regardless of the legal status and international recognition of Israel. It is a de facto status whereby legal international recognition is a separate question. Rather, it is the territory that Israel regards as its own and behaves as if it is the sovereign in those areas. So for the purposes of this discussion I will assume, until proven otherwise,  that the Israel of modern day Zionism is Israel pre-1967 plus Eastern Jerusalem plus the West Bank plus the Golan Heights.

There are those who would maintain that as the borders of Israel are disputed, have not been formally defined or formally recognized, that one cannot argue, as I do, that the state of Israel is de facto the territories I define above. I would argue that legal status and the actual behavior of the state are two separate matters. Israel behaves as if the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem and the West Bank are integral parts of the state. Israel enables, encourages and supports the transfer and settlement of Jewish Israelis to all those territories, financially, politically and through the provision of all the basic infrastructure services needed to live and develop the areas. Israel has formally annexed East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights in the face of broad international rejection. So from a perspective of how the state has informally recognized the status of those territories one can only consider them a part of Israel until there is a status change and Israel no longer occupies, rules over or controls them.

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The second question, with which the state of Israel has wrestled from its founding to the present day, is “Who is a Jew?”. What defines someone as a Jew is an important question to answer in the context of a state that professes a desire to maintain a Jewish majority. And, make no mistake, a real Jewish majority is not 51% or even 60%, rather it is 75% or more. For the purposes of Israel’s Law of Return, those eligible to immigrate to Israel are those who are Jewish as recognized by a rabbi in the diaspora, someone married to a Jew or someone who has at least one Jewish grandparent. Within the state, however, one can only be registered as a Jew in the state population registry, if recognized as such by the Orthodox Jews who control the state Jewish religious matters. For the purposes of this discussion, Jews are those recognized as such and registered as Jewish in the Israeli governmental national population registry.

Around 15 million people live in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Of that about two million live in the Gaza Strip. The state of Israel today has approximately 13 million residents. Of that 13 million, about 400,000 are non citizens, Palestinian permanent residents of Jerusalem, about 500,000 are Jewish Israeli citizens residing in the West Bank, about 2.1 million are Palestinians (Arab) citizens of Israel, about 2.7 million are Palestinians resident in the West Bank, about 6.7 million are Jewish Israeli citizens living in the areas not defined as the West Bank, and about another 550,000 are Israeli citizens who are neither Palestinian nor Jewish. About 80%  of the non Jewish Israelis are the result of the Russian aliya which brought a large number of non halachic Jews to Israel under the law of return and a substantial of Christian’s living in Israel.

As can be seen from the above number, of the total residents of the area which I call Israel, 7.2 out of 13 million are Jews giving a 55% Jewish majority. These are approximate numbers which could be adjusted up or down depending on the source, but the overall ratios will remain substantially the same. In other words Israel is barely a Jewish majority country, but would be more accurately defined as a binational state. The only way it is able to define itself as a Jewish state is by denying 3.2 million Palestinians living in east Jerusalem and the West Bank equal civil and political rights.

As for the question of who is a Jew: While the state of Israel is the only country in the world that maintains a population registry of its Jews and non Jews, many Jews are self defined as secular and do not practice any religion or adhere to any Judaic practices apart from family dinners during the Pesach Seder and a few other cultural, non religious practices. If one excludes those who are Jewish in name only, then Israel has a Jewish minority.

So… given that Israel is only able to maintain the facade of a Jewish majority nation, the question then becomes “What is modern day Zionism in the state of Israel?”. Is the continued pretense of a Jewish majority state only achievable at the expense of dominating and oppressing a large percentage of the non Jews? Or is it something else? Is it actually possible to have a Zionist state in the territories controlled by Israel without blatantly obvious discrimination between Jews and non Jews? What indeed is the future of Zionism in a territory where Jews barely have a slim majority?

About the Author
Born and educated in South Africa, a graduate of Jewish day school and Habonm Dror, Ian Joseph served in the IDF as an officer in combat units, and currently resides in North Carolina and Cyprus. Ian holds an MBA from Shulich School of Business in Toronto, is certified as a Master Instructor by the American Sailing Association and is currently retired from IBM. Among other pursuits Ian edits a weekly newsletter of Israeli news items, teaches sailing around the world and certifies sailing instructors.