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What Zionism Does (Not) Mean

By Ruth Gavison

This article first appeared in the Huffington Post and appears with permission of the author.

Yes, I am a Zionist. Wholeheartedly. If at all, I am now more explicitly Zionist than I was in my younger years. I am sorry and troubled that it has become so hard for so many to describe themselves in these terms. I believe this is not only the case because of the excesses of Israel and some versions of Zionism, excesses and interpretations that taint this attachment for all. It is also because of the success of those who have always argued that Zionism, if not racism, is at least a separatist, nationalist creed, which by definition cannot be committed to either universal values or to the obligation to treat all of Israel’s citizens with equal respect and concern.

Zionism is an ideology, a political creed. Its meaning today is continuous with its meaning from its inception, in the late 19th century, with the important adaptations that need to be made by developments since then, including the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel. It has never been a unified political creed. There have always been streams within Zionism. It is also important to remember that Zionism was a significant yet a minority voice among ideological and political groupings within the Jewish people in modern times. Many of the internal criticisms made against Zionism by Jews are still advocated today.

The Core of Zionism

I accept Gideon Shimoni’s analysis according to which Zionism presupposed some answers, all contested, to the important questions facing Jews in modern times:

  • Jews are a people. A group with an ethnic-cultural identity, not only a religion;
  • Living exclusively as a minority among other nations is bad for both Jews and Judaism; Jews need to enjoy effective self-determination;
  • Jews should strive to create a political community where they are a majority, and can enjoy some control over their political fate, physical safety as individuals and as a collective, and over their sustaining culture(s);
  • Jews are as entitled to such self-determination as much as other peoples;
  • The place where this effort should be conducted, and where political independence should be revived, is Zion, that is Eretz Yisrael.

I believe that all and only people who adhere to all these statements can be called Zionists. I will not here elaborate further what they mean and why they are justified. The establishment of Israel and the present realities mean that today the last tenet can no longer be contested. Being a Zionist today means that one believes that these statements are still true for the Jewish people, so that the struggle to secure the continuation of the availability of political independence for Jews who want it, in Israel or abroad, is still important and required.
Against the background of much contemporary discussion, I want to say a few things about two other groups of statements. The first is additional characteristics of Zionism that I find central, and that for me are as critical as the first group to justify why I am a Zionist. I do not support versions of Zionism that do not include a commitment to these statements and I believe that these commitments are compatible with Zionism and for me required by it and by its rationale. The second group will illustrate the kinds of claims often made in the name of Zionism that I do not accept, and at times reject as emphatically as I endorse Zionism.

What Zionism Means To Me

Zionism is a movement for national liberation. It seeks to permit Jews to enjoy the benefits of self-determination in a part of their ancient homeland. It is based on seeing the Jews as a people like all peoples. Like all peoples, they should be permitted to strive for a combination of a commitment to humanity and universal values and to the promotion of their own physical, material and spiritual and cultural needs. Such a combination, for me, is an important reading of the Jewish tradition itself. Thus Zionism for me, and for many of its founding persons, also means a striving to develop the social and political conditions under which:

  • Jews may join the national home, and in it they can live whole lives, being Jews both in their homes and in their public life;
  • A model society (hevrat mofet) is created, reviving the lofty ideals of Israel’s prophets concerning social justice for all, as well as a society committed to knowledge and progress;
  • The Jewish state should also be a model of acting in fairness and dignity toward all the inhabitants of the state, Jews and non-Jews alike;
  • Jewish political independence will be achieved with peace and prosperity in the whole region; striving for peace should be a central pursuit of Zionism, but its absence should not undermine the Jewish national home;
  • Cultural and religious pluralism within Judaism, as well as openness to other cultures, will be welcome and encouraged.

What Zionism Is NOT

The following are claims often made in the name of Zionism, that do not follow from its core, and which I vehemently reject:

  • Zionism does not mean, and should not mean, that only Jews should be allowed to live in the Jewish state as equal citizens;
  • Zionism does not mean, and should not mean, that the political authority of the Jewish state should apply to the whole of Eretz Yisrael. A Jewish state will not be just or stable without a Jewish majority; Palestinians also have the right to self-determination in part of their homeland;
  • Zionists do not have to come to live in Israel, or to stay in Israel;
  • Zionism does not entail accepting without criticism or endorsing all the decisions and policies of Israel’s elected government.

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