Zionism: The Need to Mainstream

EUJS Campaign: Theodor and I - Zionism & Young European Jews

This blog has been submitted as part of a wider campaign, which is being run by the European Union of Jewish Students (EUJS) entitled “Theodor & I – Zionism and Young European Jews”. Being launched on Yom Ha’atzmaut, the campaign seeks to start a discussion on Zionism, towards challenging the existing conversation surrounding the concept and ultimately highlighting the plurality of Jewish European identity and Zionism.

I recently wrote a blog post for the Times of Israel which, among other things, emphasised the need that there is for us, as Jewish people, to define the term Zionism effectively and bring it into the political mainstream as a way of increasing societal understanding of the term. The fact that Zionism has become a dirty word or even a slur in society’s vocabulary, serves to demonstrate how the term is so grossly misunderstood. For many young Jews in the diaspora, Zionism is an integral part of their identity and yet the (potential) dismay that would be met by such a declaration, to my mind, impacts on how young Zionist Jews talk about and feel about their identity.

Yet, Zionism is not exceptionalist nor hierarchical. It does not place the interests of Jews higher than that of others. Zionism merely posits that Jews have a right to self-determination in their ancestral homeland, in much the same way that any other nationality has. It is a movement which implicitly recognises Jews as a people and nation, not simply a religion, and promotes that Jewish people should be able to exert control over their own affairs.

What is true, however, is that the lack of societal understanding of the term, wilfully or otherwise, is a major hindrance in fostering conversation and dialogue to be had on Zionism. The externally-imposed binary on the discussion on Zionism – good or bad – limits the genuine space that there is for a nuanced understanding of the term to be had, and much nuance does exist. Among Zionists, for instance, many different views and opinions are propagated – one of the very reasons for this campaign in the first instance.

As my colleague Bini Guttmann wrote in his piece as part of the wider EUJS Theodor & I campaign, “Zionism is often equated with Israel advocacy” and this could not be more true. Quite apart from the misunderstanding that such a simplistic and absolutist assumption demonstrates with regards to the term Zionism, the supposition then is that all Zionists support all of Israel’s actions – which is clearly false. Many young Zionist Jews that I know are greatly supportive of Israel’s actions, yet many are not, and it often seems that this nuance and diversity of opinion to the discussion on Zionism is forgotten or ignored. Therefore, I believe that such a plurality of opinion is vitally important to the Zionist umbrella, not only from a democratic perspective but, also, as a promotion of dialogue to be had, formally and informally, amongst and between Zionists and those who would not describe themselves as such.

There is also a tendency to exclusively define and describe Zionism in relation to antisemitism. Yes, antisemitism is a necessary talking point in any discussion on Zionism, after all, the increased international sympathy and support towards Zionism that came following the horrors of the Holocaust undoubtedly played a role in the adoption of the 1947 UN Partition Plan and subsequent creation of the state of Israel. However, its monopoly over the discussion on Zionism must be challenged. Zionism is an inherently positive movement in many ways, not least in the way in which it promotes the principle that Jews, as a nation, should have the ability to govern themselves. Zionism promotes the ideals of sovereignty, of respect and of equal rights, and in practice is the enactment of a longstanding, accepted principle in international law of over a century. So, we must engage in conversation on Zionism to encourage dialogue and a plurality of opinions within this umbrella.

The need to define Zionism exclusively in relation to antisemitism strikes me as a defence mechanism against those who question Israel’s right to exist, those from the camp of “Zionism = bad”. Such a defence mechanism may indeed be an effective counter-argument against “anti-Zionists” and “anti-Zionism”, but when this argument is used by itself, it is rather static and does not progress discussion on Zionism, as it does not allow for greater meaning and nuance to enter the conversation. Thus, antisemitism should continue to play a central part in discussion on Zionism but should not characterise it. In doing so, this will help to encourage increased engagement with the concept more broadly, and will also allow for a greater plurality of voices and opinions when it comes to defining and discussing Zionism.

So what next? How can the conversation on Zionism not be consumed by antisemitism when much of the discussion on Zionism, in the first place, is hijacked with accusations of Zionism being a racist or colonialist movement? Yet, at the same time, surely in diversifying discussion on Zionism to begin with, by introducing to the conversation more of its inherently positive elements, then Zionism will be a more attractive concept to engage with, particularly among an audience with a limited personal experience and understanding of antisemitism. In my opinion, step one must be to bring others into the conversation. Widen the discussion. Teach Zionism in all of its variants so as to make it more accessible, to develop dialogue and foster understanding of the concept. It is then, and only then, that Zionism can be mainstreamed and more meaningful and nuanced discussion can take place.

Therefore, as I reflect on the current conversation surrounding Zionism this Yom Ha’atzmaut, it is clear that much needs to be done. The need to mainstream Zionism represents a necessary step to allow more young Jewish Zionists in the diaspora to feel comfortable in their identity, and to subsequently provide greater depth to the current conversation on Zionism. To me it seems that the discussion on Zionism, in its current form, ensures that Zionists are more occupied with justifying their ideological standpoint than they are about explaining and engaging others with it. And so, in order for the discussion to move forward, there must be an increase in societal understanding of the term. This would ensure that we could move past the deliberately obtuse and simplified pre-ambulatory discussion on Zionism, which in turn, would create space for a more meaningful and nuanced discussion to be had on the term, in which a plurality of views and opinions would be represented.

About the Author
Based in Brussels, Belgium, Ilan Selby is both the current Policy Officer at the European Union of Jewish Students and the European Affairs Officer at B'nai B'rith International. He is a double graduate from the University of St. Andrews in International Relations MA (Hons) and from King's College London in Conflict Resolution in Divided Societies MA.
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