The burden, and wall, of Zionism

Zionism has come to refer not to the many ways of building Israel, but to a litmus test. Any answer other than ‘I am a Zionist,’ is akin to being un-American in the 1950s.

I didn’t join a Labor Zionist youth movement at 14 because I thought of myself as a Zionist. Actually I shied away from group identities, bouncing among social cliques at school and staying away from team sports. My parents just didn’t know what to do with me one summer and they heard about a nice Jewish camp, not too expensive.

The Habonim-Dror camp turned out to be a tiny gaggle of barely 100 kids and counselors, some of them bona fide 60s leftovers in the mid-1980s, with a fetish for socialist values and arguments we felt sure were intellectual. When heated discussions went on too long, counselors let us skip team sports. In fact they let us skip for pretty much any reason. Things were a little crazy – one day each summer, the 17-year old campers held a “revolution” and tossed out the (delighted) counselors for 24 hours. There were not a few parental lawsuits.

I was hooked, and determined not to miss the year on kibbutz after high school. My fascination with the idea of Israel was growing and the social bonds were strong. Some of those people became friends for life and a few of us even moved here.

I don’t remember anyone asking me if I was a Zionist, or caring if I had said I wasn’t. We talked about terribly important substance – the socialist ethics of pooling our money to buy cigarettes that some wanted and some (only some!) hated; the concept of tikkun olam; learning the spectrum of left and right political parties in Israel, and how some of them opposed holding “the territories”; we learned about Berl Katznelson and Ahad Ha’am – but I don’t recall any fixation on the label “Zionism.”

An American is an American. A Frenchman is a Frenchman, or woman. Israel too has a dynamic debate about what makes a person Israeli: the declaration of independence says all its citizens are equal regardless of religion, race, or gender. The Right loves to point out that other countries also restrict borders, rights and privileges to people who embody the national identity.

But the parallel to other countries is inaccurate, because Israel has two definitions that further narrow who is in or out; who the state legitimizes and invests in, and who it tries to reject. One is the identity of “Jewish.” The other is “Zionist.”

Defenders of Israel’s Jewish identity argue that Western states are implicitly Christian; minorities and immigrants are supposed to accept that in exchange for the basic tenets of rights and freedoms guaranteed by formal laws. Israel does not have to be any different.

But Israel, by contrast, tries to formally define itself as Jewish. Instead of allowing “Israeli-ness” to develop into a blend of its (current) majority, fusing with its minorities like in France or America, Israel would like to narrow “Israeli” identity to the Jewish aspect – through a Basic Law proposal, an amendment to the Citizenship Law, Right of Return and draft laws. Maybe the current leadership isn’t interested in preserving the Jewish numeric majority, as witnessed by creeping annexation policies, so it hopes to anchor the character of the state through legislation. There are also unwritten codes, such as favoring army service for employment, or unequal resource distribution, to divide the favored from the marginalized.

Inside this first inner demarcation, there is yet another, even narrower, boundary being drawn: Zionism.

In over a century of the modern usage, the term has never meant one thing alone. Its myriad tributaries merged and parted like the waters of the world’s great rivers.  Like a political party in Israel.

But lately, Zionism has come to refer not to the many ways of building Israel, but to a litmus test. The test is your label: you are “Zionist” – no matter what you mean by that – or else you are post-, anti-, non-Zionist.

Israelis  participate in the march of the Flags on May 20, 2012, Jerusalem (Photo: Oren Ziv/
Israelis participate in the March of the Flags during ‘Jerusalem Day’ on May 20, 2012, East Jerusalem (Photo: Oren Ziv/

This means two things simultaneously. First, inside Israel, any answer other than “I am a Zionist,” is akin to being un-American in the 1950s.

Self-anointed spokespeople of Zionism, Im Tirzu, use it as a symbol of total worship of the state at the expense of other rights. Their mission is to out those who think otherwise and they campaign to strip such people of their platforms. The pressure on Ben-Gurion University department of politics and government to disavow faculty members is the best example.

In the public domain, the distinction of Zionist or non-, post-, anti-Zionists is used to delegitimize people, and portray them as outside the consensus.

Yet that use of Zionism is solipsistic: it refers only to itself, having gutted this rich world of all substance.

There’s a second current meaning. For Palestinians, Zionism has equaled racism from the famous UN resolution onward – and before. For them Zionism is both the occupation from 1967 and their ongoing 65-year-old stateless wandering that began in 1948 (even the Jews wandered in Sinai for only 40 years). In the name of Zionism, Palestinians’ collective historic trauma was denied (understandably making their demand for recognition of their experiences more vociferous). To this day, they live as people in bondage, subject to military rule and stunted political growth.

Zionism to them is a symbol of all that they have endured, continue to endure, and the fact that their past and sometimes present is often ignored unless they turn to terrorism. Then Israel and the world (rightly, but inevitably) resist demands based on violence.

These days, when I meet Palestinians for the first time, they sometimes ask a few litmus questions of their own. Including: “Are you a Zionist?”

Am I? I accept the historic fact of Jews settling from the late 19th century onward in their ancient homeland, fleeing persecution which culminated in the Holocaust, and I know we established a state by force against the native population. I don’t justify that violence but nearly all states are born in conflict and suffering, which is apparently inevitable. Like numerous other states, I believe Israel must recognize that history, that damage, and find ways to redress the suffering of the people it has harmed.

I flatly reject ongoing aggression against Palestinians. I fundamentally recognize human rights of all. Someone asked me if I support Palestinian rights: I do not. Human beings are born with rights – one does not get to ‘support’ or ‘oppose’ them. I support my country recognizing those rights and ensuring that all people under its control can realize them.

In the internal Jewish debate, I hold some positions that some might accuse of being non-, anti-, or post-Zionism. I also moved here from the U.S., took citizenship, have paid taxes for 17 years, and work on political campaigns for Israeli parties who call themselves Zionist when I generally support their programs. One fellow even told me that an article I wrote here on +972 Magazine helped him make the decision to move to Israel. The labels turn out to be meaningless and irrelevant.

In short, Zionism has been reduced to a wall: a ghetto wall separating Jews from other Jews, that we have built ourselves and a eight-meter high concrete separation wall, separating Jews from Palestinians.

It is a burden.

Why I oppose recognizing Israel as a Jewish state
How a Zionist can oppose the Jewish state
Denying ‘Israeli nationality’ only perpetuates discrimination