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Distorting the Word ‘Zionism’

By Steven Zipperstein

No doubt, nostalgia plays a role in the insistence of some, like myself, in continuing to describe ourselves still as Zionists. There remain with us the edgy, sensuous stirrings of Israel’s youth, the emotional entanglements of the Six Day War, memory of that astonishingly reluctant handshake that seemed to promise so much on the White House lawn on Sept. 13, 1993. And for so long we lived with the sense that for all their shortcomings, Barak or Olmert, or someone else, perhaps, might actually make it work, that the moment would arrive when Palestinian resolve and Israeli good sense would coalesce into an agreement transcending the accumulated toxins and terrors, the exasperating pockmarks of both peoples.

Zionism’s plummet as a compelling idea — beyond, that is, the political or religious right — isn’t merely the byproduct of insidious propaganda or of the bullying of leftwing academics. With globalism, the shading-over of national borders, the souring of identity politics and, of course, the steady coarsening of the Israeli political scene, the term has stumbled into something worse than obsolescence: it has, for increasingly large numbers of young Jews, too, the clammy feel of something small and clannish, something Spartan and ever-defensive.

And words count: Just look at what U.S. conservatives have managed to do with the word “liberal.” Just look at what a few thousand Jewish pioneers in turn of the century Palestine did in anointing themselves the New Yishuv, the new settlement, in contrast to the — in fact then far larger, not much older — Old Yishuv of religious migrants whom they flung, so to speak, into history’s dustbin.

But it is more than nostalgia that makes it important for the term Zionist not to meet with a comparable fate. This isn’t because as an ideology it was once pure and then, with the ascendance of the political right, was hijacked: So much of the underbelly — glorification of land, blindness to the anguish of its neighbors, the melding of the nationalist and the messianic — that have surfaced so gruesomely in recent decades were apparent, in one way or another, from the outset. Still, however tarnished — and what ideology isn’t? — Zionism remains pertinent if only because its antonym continues to mean the denial of the existence of the State, not mere disagreement with its policies, or with its post-’67 boundaries, but with its very creation as a political entity. Israel continues to be widely disparaged as an exercise in original sin, as something to be wished away. Israel’s emergence in the wake of Jewry’s mid-20th century horrors can’t blandly be dismissed as the stuff of nationalist propaganda: it is a crucial historical fact. A political entity now in its sixties emerged out of the graveyard, and the continued resonance of anti-Zionism testifies to the reality – absurd and, in view of the compounded tragedies of the Jewish past, not inconsequential — that its very existence continues to be a matter of concerted, principled contestation.

What Zionism sought to create, as many of its original adherents saw it, was a place for Jews as Jewish as England is English. (England’s imprint on Zionist dreams tends to be overlooked, but it was profound.) And in much the way that Englishness infuses the food, the literary canon, the tendency to wait in queues, the obsession with springtime gardening, the love of Blake or theatrical cross-dressing, Jewishness, too, would impose certain cultural boundaries onto that place wrought by the Zionists. This would mean some difference from others, but not a difference sufficient to give rise to xenophobia. It would mean that the Jewish State would constitute an antidote to cosmopolitanism — that term current before globalism — with its intrusions, its familial tics and blessings, an alternative to the individualism, the anomie of a borderless, or homeless world. It would mean one place in the world where Jews were not in the minority, where others would be, but where the consequent exclusions would not amount to much more than the sense of difference, of apartness, that Jews or Moslems might feel in an English village deep in Sunday rest.

Some feel wronged, bruised by exclusion of this sort, but the consequent good justifies the bad. Whether good or bad, no one contests England’s continued hegemony over its lands, the continued, albeit ever-mild Anglicanism of its mores, its continued existence within agreed-upon boundaries. Once the day comes that the reality of Israel ceases to be contested, the term Zionist may then be put on the shelf, too. Until then, for Jews to discard it means numbness to the implications of sovereignty, to what it is that cosmopolitanism proved so incapable of thwarting.

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