article first appeared in Jewish Ideas Daily and is reprinted with their
There has never been agreement about Zionism. Not only is the idea of Jewish
nationalism controversial, the very word “Zionism” arouses unique passions, as a
recent controversy highlights. It was recently reported that the Jewish
Federation of North America had dropped the word “Zionism” from a planning
document. In a vehement denial, the Federation clarified that this was
not so: it was merely a single individual on a subcommittee who proposed
dropping the phrase “Zionist enterprise.” The proposal, the Federation
emphasized, went nowhere.
So, the word Zionism, uniquely among terms
related to nationalist movements, arouses attacks and defenses. But is
“Zionism” even a useful or relevant term in the 21st century? And what does the
answer to this question say about the state of the Jews and the Jewish state?
The term Zionism was invented in 1890 by Nathan Birnbaum in his periodical
(Self- Emancipation!) to describe a national-political
movement for the restoration of Jews to “Zion.” The term was popularized by
Theodor Herzl, then used to characterize movements ranging from cultural to
labor-oriented, from religious to secular.
The plasticity of the term is
not just a modern phenomenon. The term “Zion” appears in the Bible over
100 times. It referred originally to the Jebusite fortress in Jerusalem
conquered by David, then to a hill in Jerusalem. Most commonly, it was a synonym
for the land as a whole, especially in exilic times. Israel and Judah were the
names of the biblical-era kingdoms of the north and south, respectively, one
destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 BCE and the other by the Babylonians in 586
BCE. But, unsurprisingly, the exilic authors – like Birnbaum and his successors
– found “Zion” a more encompassing term to describe the national movement, since
it blends the religious, territorial, and national dimensions of the aspiration
to restore Jewish sovereignty.
Zionism was among the last European-based
nationalist movements. It had odd features, including the fact that it was based
initially only in a Diaspora. Even stranger was its success: A Jewish national
home was created. The name “Zion” was rejected, and the state was named
Israel; but the term for the national movement, Zionism, has remained. Thus the
neologism invented to describe a national movement was retained after the
nation-state was successfully created under a different name. The term Zionism
is now an anachronism, only slightly less so than “self-emancipation.” But what
could possibly take its place?
Most national movements do not have associated
neologisms. There is no specific term for Brazilian nationalism, at least one
known in the broader world. The Breton nationalist movement – Emsav – and
Kemalism, the “six-arrowed” national ideology of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the
father of modern Turkey – are equally unknown outside their countries’ borders.
But Zionism is known globally, and reviled globally.
Since the beginning,
Zionism’s enemies have made a uniquely concerted effort to wrest control of the
term from its proponents, to besmirch the brand. The infamous 1975 United
Nations General Assembly resolution declaring that “Zionism is racism” was the
culmination of over two decades of patient Soviet propaganda, eagerly consumed
and amplified by the Muslim, Arab and non-aligned worlds.
Zionism has become the paradigm of “extreme nationalism,” imperialism and
“settler-colonialism” in the eyes of intellectuals and activists
alike. The term “Zionist entity” so favored by Palestinian and Arab
spokesman is an explicit statement that the idea and reality of a Jewish state
are illegitimate. To defend Zionism is, in some circles, to defend an almost
mythically evil concept.
Attacks on Zionism are thus clarifying. Enemies
of “Zionism,” as a term and a concept, attack not just the actual state of
Israel but the aspirational aspect of Jewish nationalism and Jewish sovereignty.
That is, it attacks the very idea of a Jewish state as illegitimate, not simply
the manner in which the state conducts itself. If such attacks were founded in
uniform opposition to all nationalism, they would at least have some consistency
and intellectual foundation – but, of course, they are not.
It should be
said simply that attacks directed solely at Zionism and not at any other
national movement are anti-Semitism. When Jewish – not Breton or Turkish, Irish
or Iraqi – nationalism is deemed illegitimate and the actual state of Israel
condemned to extinction in the name of “historical justice” or some other
Orwellian euphemism, this is an especially pure example of anti-
So, too, is the relegation of Jews to a permanent Diaspora and,
thus, perpetual minority status. Whether or not such condemnations come from
Jews is irrelevant. Jews need not live in Israel or even support Israel,
but to deny the idea of a Jewish state is to deny Jews their past and
The sad reality is that defending the term Zionism – not
“Israelism” or some still newer neologism to describe the Israeli nation-state,
as opposed to the Jewish nation – defends the past and future of the Jewish
people, history and aspiration as well as the present reality. Equally sad is
that Zionism must always be on the defensive, always responding to yet another
attack or lie, always patiently explaining Jewish history and Jews’ rights to a
state in their own land.
But there is another prospective dimension. All
national projects are works in progress. The term Zionism must be retained; but
the content is continually reformulated, consciously or not. The challenge is to
make the process of reformulation conscious and explicit.
debate Zionism as it relates to culture, to the religious-secular divide, to
Arab minorities, and much more. But the term has not been much debated by
American Jews, many of whom caught between their knee-jerk defenses and
embarrassed evasions, or even vicious attacks, and whose understanding of the
diversity of Zionist movements and the state of Israel is minimal or, worse,
shaped by their enemies or equally ignorant media.
The opportunity is to
reinvent Zionism and reclaim it as a proud description of a multifaceted concept
that now, fortunately, has a state of its own. The first step to remaking
Zionism in the future is learning what Zionism meant in the past.