Zionism: Empty Sentiment or Exclusionary Ideal?

When Rebecca Long Bailey, firm ally of Jeremy Corbyn, claimed she was a Zionist at a Jewish Labour event last month, the British Jewish community laughed and shook their heads. How ironic for the woman mired in accusations of antisemitism to use this strong a word to identify herself.

And yet on March 4th, when Binyamin Netanyahu claimed at a press conference that the 575,500 people who voted for the Joint List did not represent Israel and should not be counted as real voters, the British Jewish community was silent.

In recent months we have seen British Jews stand up time and again, and rightly so, to criticise Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party’s handling of antisemitism. The Zionists of Britain have never been louder, never been more vocal than they were in the run up to the December 2019 General Elections.

And yet when the Prime Minister of Israel so callously declared 15 potential members of government as people who “are against Israel and against its soldiers” those same firm defenders of “the only democracy in the Middle East” are silent. Yes, Israel is a democracy. So why aren’t we scrambling to hold onto it as leaders like Netanyahu struggle more and more to redefine it?

British Zionism is a funny old thing. We are taught from a young age that Israel is our promised homeland. Jewish youth groups paint images of idealistic young Jews working the land, singing songs that tell the story of our centuries old longing, and yet when it comes down to it, there is very little talk about what living in Israel is really like.

Nobody talks about the right of return, how as Jews we can get up and leave our birth countries and start wonderful new lives in Israel. But that on the next hill over lives a family who can trace their roots back through the ages, ancient roots buried deep in Jerusalem soil, and yet they are seen as merely residents, not citizens. And those are just the lucky ones. We know that as Jews we can travel the length and width of the country, from the far off hills of the Golan to the sand dunes of the Negev Desert, all in the blink of an eye. So why aren’t we talking about how citizens of Ramallah, Bethlehem, and the Gaza Strip to name a few, struggle to even get visas for the urgent medical care they so desperately need?

Was Rebecca Long Bailey, a front and centre face in the Labour Antisemitism scandal, in the right when she called herself a Zionist? Was Lisa Nandy, chair of Labour Friends of Palestine right when she followed suit? Or is Netanyahu, the man whose devoted followers call “Bibi, king of Israel”, the man who wants to redefine democracy to include only those who agree with him, even really a Zionist?

It is very easy, as a diaspora Zionist, to only see the good in Israel. Netanyahu’s speeches in English differ greatly from the ones he gives in Hebrew, and the English language Israeli news hesitate to report on the top news stories in the Israeli papers, for fear of making Israel’s leadership look bad.

It is extremely easy to believe in the Zionist ideals we are fed in the diaspora. But that only leads to even greater disillusionment when we come to Israel and our eyes are opened. As a young British Jew who spent four years in a Jewish high school, and an additional 10 months in an English speaking gap year program in Israel, I constantly struggled to define Zionism for myself. What place did I, a left wing progressive, have in the Zionist movement, and what place did my Zionism have in the left wing progressive movements?

As British Jews, as Zionists, we have an obligation to answer these questions. We have an obligation to ourselves and to our Arab Israeli neighbours to be loud, to be vocal. Not just when the racism of the antizionist movement is directed at us, but when the racism of the Zionist movement is directed at those just like us, people fighting for self-determination in their own land.

In the wrong hands, Zionism can be many things. It can become the pseudo Zionism of British Labour leadership, of people who have moulded it into empty words they can use to appease their Jewish voter base. It can become the poisonous Zionism of Binyamin Netanyahu, an exclusionary word, one that is used to incite fear and spread racism.

It is up to the diaspora Jews, to the people who don’t know where they fit, to the people ready to look beyond the inspirational songs and the motivational images, to define it for themselves. Because if we don’t start now, those around us will continue to warp it to fit their own definitions until we no longer know what it stands for ourselves.

About the Author
Shira Silkoff is a proud LGBT Olah Chadasha from the UK, who left behind her comfortable London life in 2017 in favour of the promised land. But promised to whom exactly? Her strong left-wing opinions have often left her wondering what Israel means to her, and she hopes to share her discoveries with the world at the same time as she stumbles upon them herself.
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