“Zionism,” the Hellenistic misapprehension of what Jews believe

This article was written together with Roger Froikin

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We are tired of others defining us, Jews. We are dissatisfied with non-Jews trying time and again to tell us what we should believe in or not believe in. Moreover, we are fatigued of others interpreting our essence through their eyes, with modern day spectacles and using terms that are foreign to us, to our culture and to Hebrew, the only language that can and has defined the Jewish belief system.

Yes, I am referring to yet again, to the much discussed, used and abused term “Zionism.”

According to Merriam-Webster, the origin of suffix “ism” as in the term “Zionism” is “Middle English-isme, from Middle French & Latin; Middle French, partly from Latin – isma (from Greek) & partly from Latin.” None of these languages are even remotely related to Hebrew, the only language that has and should continue to define anything that is part of the Jewish world.

A Hellenistic and thus a heathen name has, unfortunately, been given to and is used to define a noble Jewish concept. A magnanimous several millennia old Jewish/Hebrew idea that expresses the strong connection that only Jews have had to Eretz Yisrael has been adapted by those who call themselves friends of the Jews, those who support the right of Jews for a Homeland in the Land of their forefathers

Make no mistake, we appreciate that support. We know that many have gone out on a limb to fight for Jewish right to make Herzl’s political movement an ongoing reality. Thank you.

We are not letting, however, Hellenism and foreign cultures define us. We cannot. Moreover, they cannot.

For generations, Jews have taught their children that the difference between Hellenism and Judaism was that the Hellenists, though they contributed to science and culture, were mostly interested in extolling sports and the beauty of the body and physical prowess and a narcissistic view of life while Judaism emphasized the intellectual pursuits, Torah, and community.

The problem is that this definition of Hellenism is not what so frightened or sages.  What they feared most was not that Jewish boys would go out and be sports fans, but that Hellenistic thoughts and definitions would invade and replace Jewish thoughts, conceptions, and definitions of Jewish history and literature and even of the Torah.

Hebrew is a Semitic language and cannot easily be translated into a European language because it constitutes a very different construction.  When one thinks in Hebrew, when one reads Torah in Hebrew, one thinks, subconsciously, in terms of word relationships and metaphorical meanings which add many dimensions to the text, Reading Torah in translation to Indo-European languages, losses all those constructive relationships subtle meanings, a loss of all of its essence.

It is noteworthy to mention that in the 4th century C.E., seventy-two Jewish scholars were coerced by the Greek King of Egypt, Ptolemy II Philadelphus to translate the Torah into Greek. This mistranslation is known as the Septuagint. Until today, we Jews mourn each year this this tragedy.

So, some might say, fine, learn Hebrew and read it in Hebrew.  But there is a problem our Sages recognized.  If we view the world through Hellenistic concepts, we also may misunderstand the meaning originally intended in the Hebrew.  If we learn Hebrew from an Indo-European language with its own history, we can be prone to misconstrue the text and its concepts.

Therefore, as the Sages feared, Hellenism’s invasion of Jewish culture changed our Jewish thinking patterns, changed how we defined even what was ours.

“Zionism” and what we see is being done to it today is but one example of that.

Furthermore, we see some social media activists coming up with their own definition of the word. Moreover, they call upon others to do “Zionist” as if doing those “things” would define us Jews and what our beliefs stand for.

You know what?

You can call yourselves what you want. We cannot stop you. You are welcome to continue to use the Hellenistic use and interpretation of “Zionism.” Keep it as yours, Latin and Greek are your languages, not ours. The suffix “Ism” is part of your cultural heritage, not ours.

Hebrew is ours and we are proud of it. We are no longer “Zionists” because that twisted term that endeavors to describe what you believe we are is yours, not ours.  From now on, in our lexicon Roger and all Jewish males are a “Tsioni”  ציוני   and all Jewish females, a “Tsionit.”   ציוניתFrom now on, we will call our few millennia longing for Tsion ציון  (which you call “Zion”) “Tsionut,” ציונות.

We, as Jews, have earned it. For over two thousand years of sanguineous history, it is only we who have prayed in Hebrew towards Tsion. It is only we who, during all those years of suffering and pain, pledged in Hebrew “Next year in Jerusalem.” It is only we, Jews, who, while in exile from our Homeland, mourned in Hebrew we remembered Tsion and it is we, Jews, who vowed in Hebrew under the Chuppah, at the height of our joy never to forget Jerusalem.

Yes, we Jews cannot tell the world how to define what are Jewish concepts best expressed in Hebrew. We cannot tell them to stop trying either.  What we can do, however, is have the confidence and the right to define what is ours and in our own terms.   A slave people, a people colonized and persecuted by others for 2000 years might have to allow outsiders define us and impose their ways on us, but no more. That needs to come to an end, and as a free people, we, the Jewish people must reclaim what is ours, our property, our culture, our language, and our own definitions of ourselves, and that is “TSIONUT”


About the Author
Bat-Zion Susskind-Sacks is an English teacher and a pro Israel advocate. She lives in Israel and has recently published her first novel, "On A Wing From The Holy Land."