Who is a Zionist?

One afternoon ten years ago or so, a young woman peeked in through the open door of my office, and asked if she can take a few minutes of my time for a talk. Back then, when I was the Executive Director of the Hillel Jewish campus organization at the University of California Davis, nothing pleased me more than to chat a bit face-to-face with a Jewish student. Rachel was quite a rare bird even then: wise beyond her years, beautiful in an uncommon way, and very Jewishly involved and active in our old Hillel House. A triple-combo such as this, did not present itself at my door very often.

So of course I said “Yes, come on in.” She sat opposite me, and after a short exchange of pleasantries and inquiries regarding this and that, she came to the point: She was majoring in International Relations, and lately in her class there was a discussion about “Zionism.” The general view expressed by most students, which her professor did not make any real effort to dispute, was that Zionism equates Racism. The main reason given to that equation was not of the “usual stuff,” as she put it; i.e. Israel’s treatment of, and struggle with the Palestinians, the occupation of the West Bank, the settlers’ atrocities and movement, and so on and so forth. Rather, it was the existence in Israel of the “Law of Return,” and the basic fact that – which she had found so difficult to argue against at class – only Jews are allowed to immigrant to Israel, no questions asked, and can automatically become citizens of the country. That to her fellow students, and apparently to her professor as well, was the crux of the matter, and a discriminating policy and law par excellence. She had tried to challenge the majority opinion, but when asked point blank by her classmates to explain how/why was it not racism, was unable to find a satisfactory answer. Even worse, when asked whether she was a Zionist herself, she had remained mum. She thought I might be able to help her come up with an answer.

Tall order. For years – long before Ruth Dayan, of all people, had pronounced Zionism dead two years ago – that I’d been grappling with that same question. And “Dear Rachel” – I thought to myself but did not say – the fact that I was older than you, was born in Israel and fought in some of its wars, did not make it any easier on me to come up with a good answer. As a matter of fact, it made it even more difficult. Since for her, I assumed rightly or wrongly, to say or to admit that she was not a Zionist, was less complicated than for me. Not to mention the fact that I was then sitting in a chair, and occupied a position that carried with it quite a lot of responsibilities and commitments, in exactly these regards: Israel, Zionism, Judaism, etc.

My opinion was, I believe I told her, that not every Jewish person is automatically a Zionist. And that being a Zionist means that you have in you a deep belief in Israel being a Jewish, democratic state, created specifically for the Jewish people. And that furthermore, the “Law of Return” – while by the book might indeed looks discriminatory in nature – was not a racist law at all, since its core idea was not to discriminate against any other people on the basis of race, religion, color, sexual orientations and the like, but rather to enable the Jewish people, who collectively had suffered like no other people throughout history – culminating, of course, in the Holocaust – a safe and secure home of their own.

We talked some more about it. And I admitted to her that I have questions, and doubts of my own regarding this issue. And that I was not sure at all that Theodor Herzl, the “Visionary of the State,” the originator of the Zionist Movement, would have liked very much the way things had turned out to be, had he lived to see them as they are today. I further agreed with her that since Israel was already created, and was already in existence some 55 years (by then), and was regarded as a nation among the nations, what was/is there to be a Zionist for anyway? Were those zealot settlers, abusing every law of the land, international and national, Zionists? Was the Israeli army, with its checkpoints, roadblocks and fences a Zionist army? Most certainly not, we both agreed then. Seeing what they had done in his name, Herzl – a secular Jew, a Journalist and writer – was probably had been turning in his grave in perpetual motion.

But when all was said and done, I told her, if you are a Jew living outside of Israel, and if you firmly believe – warts and all – that Israel is the Jewish state, and that the dream of a secure, democratic state living in peace is not yet achieved (or destroyed, for that matter), then you must be a Zionist as well. And that being a Zionist is, to a large degree, something that you feel deep inside you, more than anything else. She accepted that answer. I constantly wonder if I still do.

About the Author
Hillel Damron was born in Kibbutz Hephzibah to parents who survived the Holocaust; he was an officer of elite paratroop unit who was wounded in battle; studied film and became a director of TV documentaries, video shorts and a feature film. Damron is the author of three novels, short stories and a political blog; winner of Moment Magazine’s 2011 Memoir Contest and is the past executive director of the Hillel House, at University of Davis, California.
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