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Politicians tell 'The Jerusalem Post' what Zionism means to them
After an election season in which parties questioned each other’s patriotic cred, politicians tell ‘The Jerusalem Post’ what the word means to them.
‘Who is a Jew?” is a question that has plagued Israel since its establishment, but in last month’s election, a different question came to the fore: Who is a Zionist? It all began when Labor and Hatnua merged into an electoral list they called the Zionist Union – though they then quickly backtracked, not wanting to scare off Arab voters. Still, a party spokesman said at the time that they’re “not embarrassed of our Zionism, nor of our wanting equality among all religions in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence,” and eventually they settled back into the Zionist Union name.

Meanwhile, Bayit Yehudi and the Likud led a campaign dedicated to undermining the “Zionist” in Zionist Union. They pushed back particularly on a quote from Zionist Union chairman Isaac Herzog, in which he said: “I think that the expression ‘Jewish state’ is completely misleading, in that it creates a sense that one nationality has more rights.”

One Bayit Yehudi primary candidate pointed out that Herzog’s father, Chaim Herzog, would be ashamed of his son, noting that the elder statesman was Israel’s ambassador to the UN who tore up its decision to declare that “Zionism is racism.”

Another soundbite that circulated throughout the election was something new Zionist Union MK Yossi Yona said a decade ago – “I don’t connect to that word, Zionist; it doesn’t express who I am.” He clarified ahead of the election that he considers himself a Zionist, and – when he made that comment in 2005 – he simply meant that he doesn’t believe in a messianic or extreme nationalist version of the word.

Bayit Yehudi also slammed a quote by firebrand Zionist Union MK Stav Shaffir from a book about the 2011 social protests, which she helped lead, in which she called “Hatikva” a “racist song.”

But the Left fought back, with many of the Zionist Union’s candidates saying those on the Right with annexationist tendencies – especially Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett, who proposes to annex Area C and give citizenship to the Palestinians who live there – are not Zionists. Without separating from the Palestinians via a two-state solution, they said, Israel will become a binational state.

Shaffir gave a speech in the Knesset in January about how she defines Zionism that went viral on social media.

“Real Zionism means dividing the budget equally among all the citizens of the country... taking care of the weak... solidarity, not only on the battlefield, but in everyday life,” she said. “To look out for one another – that is what being Israeli means. That is Zionism...and you are destroying it,” she told the Right.

If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote the national anthem, she posited, it would not be called “Hatikva” – “The Hope” – but instead “The Despair.”

Shortly after the election, Shaffir was feted like a rock star at the J Street conference, where the former social protest leader told attendees to “Occupy Zionism and reclaim it.”

The definition of Zionism is pretty simple, even somewhat vague.    

Encyclopedia Britannica’s website: “Zionism: Jewish nationalist movement that has had as its goal the creation and support of a Jewish national state in Palestine, the ancient homeland of the Jews.

Though Zionism originated in eastern and central Europe in the latter part of the 19th century, it is in many ways a continuation of the ancient attachment of the Jews and of the Jewish religion to the historical region of Palestine, where one of the hills of ancient Jerusalem was called Zion.”

Merriam-Webster: “Zionism: An international movement originally for the establishment of a Jewish national or religious community in Palestine and later for the support of modern Israel.”

Historically, Zionism included the secular Left and Right – David Ben-Gurion and Ze’ev Jabotinsky – and the religious – Rabbi Yitzhak Yaakov Reines and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. There were Zionists who only wanted to live in what is now Israel, while others thought Jordan should be thrown in there, too, and others advocated founding a Jewish state in Uganda, instead. The definition of Zionism contains – and contained – multitudes.

Nowhere does the definition of Zionism mention what exactly Israel’s borders should be or how the budget should be distributed among its citizens.

There is plenty of space within those definitions for politicians on the Left and Right to give their own take on what Zionism entails, and that is what The Jerusalem Post asked the president, Knesset speaker and leaders of all Jewish parties in the Knesset to do. These are the answers we received.

President Reuven Rivlin

When I am asked what Zionism is, I think of the Declaration of Independence, the proclamation of the Jewish dream, and the expression of its very fulfillment.

It is a carefully designed document, which expresses the values of Zionism, uttered, formulated and codified in a moment of religious and civil sanctity, in which the Jewish people saw the realization of a two-millennia-old dream.

Today, if I were able to impact the formulation of that text, I would stress the driving forces behind the establishment of the state – the prayers, yearning, pioneering – were rooted in a Zionism that longed for Zion, and was not merely running from the flames of Europe, compensation for the Holocaust. Our rebirth was earned and well-deserved; the sacred and historical duty of the Jewish people, who return to their homeland, to their independence. Zionism is for Zion, and that is the essence of it to me.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein

Zionism is, first and foremost, the great process in the last century to return the Jewish people’s sovereignty in the Land of Israel by establishing an independent state. Zionism won, but the battle is not over yet.

Zionism, for me, is an organic part of my life. The path I followed from the days of Soviet rule was full of obstacles and struggles. In order to see the light in dark situations, especially when I was a Prisoner of Zion in a labor camp under difficult conditions, I – and all those who acted tirelessly to bring my release – needed persistence and great faith.

A significant moment for me was the day [in 1987] on which I was released from prison, which turned out to be the date of the establishment of the State of Israel.

When I stood at the national ceremony on the eve of Independence Day as Speaker of the Knesset, I could not help but remember where I was on that night not so many years ago. That is, in short, an expression of the Zionist story of this era.

MK Isaac Herzog
Zionist Union Chairman

Zionism, to me, is first of all a home and a great faith that I grew up with and was educated on, and on which I based my children’s education. As is written in the Declaration of Independence, Zionism is “the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign state.”

That right is expressed in our daily struggle for the image of the State of Israel and its striving for security, a diplomatic horizon, social justice and equal rights for its citizens, regardless of race, religion or gender.

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett
Bayit Yehudi Charman

My Zionism is first of all derived from the Torah. In my eyes, Israel is not only a shelter state for the Jewish people; it is the homeland of our fathers, and that is how David Ben-Gurion saw it, too. It’s not about security.

Our right to the land comes first.

That was expressed in my parents’ aliya to Israel [from the US], which came 100% from Zionism. They were not religious at the time, but they were Zionists.

I think Zionism is learning about every corner of our land through our feet, with hikes and journeys through the mountains and rivers. Of course, Zionism is military service and a Jew’s ability to defend his people with his own strength, without needing help from other countries.

There is a lot of Zionism in innovation and hi-tech that we see today. Our technology fulfills the mission of the Jewish people, tikkun olam (repairing the world) in the medical field, through water and food technology. We export that and save millions of lives throughout the world.

I made a decision almost 10 years ago, after leaving the hi-tech field and fighting in the Second Lebanon War, to dedicate my life to the State of Israel and promote Zionism.

MK Yair Lapid
Yesh Atid Chariman

Zionism means I believe in our right to this land. It means aching with every expression of anti-Semitism from Paris to Mumbai but knowing that the State of Israel wasn’t founded to end anti-Semitism, it was founded so we can tell anti-Semites to go to hell.

Zionism means that the Torah contains not only our history but also our geography, our politics and our psychology.

Zionism means that Hebrew is the language in which I thank God and in which I cheer on our national teams.

Zionism means that despite the rockets from Lebanon and rockets from Gaza, despite seeing my children sit in a bomb shelter huddled with a grandmother who fled from Poland, despite the terrorists who blew themselves up in our streets; I always feel lucky to live here and I’m never truly happy anywhere else.

Zionism means that Israel isn’t only a place but also an idea. It’s why I believe that Tel Aviv is the most exciting city in the world and the Western Wall Tunnels the most powerful spiritual experience in the world. Zionism means that I’m not objective, but I’m also not objective about my wife and children.

Zionism means that while throughout history others invest in wars, we invest in the minds of our children. It means not living by the sword but keeping it ready under our pillow.

Zionism is natural to me, just like it is natural for me to be a father, a husband, and a son. Zionism isn’t measured by your kippa or the neighborhood in which you live or even by the party you vote for.

Those who established this state refused to make do with mere survival. They attempted to establish a better, wiser, more humane and more moral state here in our land. They were willing to die for this cause. I’m willing to dedicate my life to it.

(Adapted from a column Lapid wrote for ‘Yediot Aharonot’ in 2009)

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman
Yisrael Beytenu Chairman

Zionism is an idea and Zionism is an action, but for me, Zionism isn’t just those two things, but the story of my life. The action that shaped my life was when I realized the Zionist idea and made aliya. Since then, I invested most of my years in Zionist action, as someone who is part of the country’s leadership and made it his goal to keep Israel a Zionist and Jewish state and as someone who has done a lot to bring more Jews to Israel and to help the people who made aliya. Therefore, Zionism is not just a word or a slogan to me. It’s a way of life that I will continue to live and fight for until my last day.
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