What is Zionism?

Mar 10, 2024
Unknown woman holding David Star. Israel, Judaism, Zionism concept

One only needs head into the city on a Sunday in order to hear it: loud and vociferous condemnation of Israel and – together with it – the evils of Zionism as a political philosophy. But what is Zionism? I would imagine that many of those who so loudly condemn it would be hard placed to give it a definition.

Zionism is settler colonialism, they declare – although I feel comfortable in the assumption that those who identify as Zionists would disagree. Zionism is apartheid, as some placards would have you believe; others go further and equate it with Nazism. And while the Jewish community has been quick to condemn such associations as antisemitic, the question persists: what does Zionism actually mean?

The standard answer to that question, easily found online for those who are interested, is that Zionism represents the belief that Jewish people are entitled to national self-determination in their ancestral homeland. Like all sober definitions, it has much to recommend it, but it is only a piece of a larger picture that deserves consideration. After all, if Zionism is to be equated with Jewish nationalism in Palestine, why do so many Zionists live in the diaspora?

I attended two different Jewish day schools, both of which were in Sydney and both of which list Zionism as one of their values. My wife – although I did not know her at the time – attended two different Jewish day schools in Melbourne, both of which do the same. Like many other Jewish teenagers, we also attended Zionist youth movements: together with my two brothers and one of my sisters, I was in a Socialist Zionist youth movement. My wife, along with one of her brothers, went to a Revisionist Zionist youth movement, with her other brother attending a Religious Zionist youth movement instead.

I mention this information because I want to be very clear about something: a significant number of Jewish people in Australia have been engaging with Zionist philosophies – quite literally – since we were children. How many people who loudly decry Zionism on a weekly (if not a daily) basis even know that it comes in more than one variety?

When Zionism was given a name (a name invented by Nathan Birnbaum in the last decade of the 19th century), it already comprised a broad variety of different philosophies. Birnbaum’s contemporary, Theodor Herzl, presided over the first Zionist Congress in 1897, which sought to bring those different philosophies together that they might agree on shared values and forge a common path. In spite of those noble aims, there was no attempt made at flattening out their differences, and delegates to the conference maintained the distinct philosophies that set them apart from one another.

Those philosophies bespoke differences of opinion regarding where a Jewish state might be located, how statehood might be achieved, and in accordance with which values such a state would be run. One thing that all delegates agreed upon was the fact that statehood was necessary as a solution to Jewish persecution – a problem that worsened considerably in the early 20th century, and that ultimately culminated in a continent-wide genocide that left two thirds of Europe’s Jews dead.

To the revisionist Zionists, later led by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the only solution to Jewish persecution was mass migration. To some socialist Zionist parties – such as Poalei Tziyon (The Workers of Zion) – Jews had a future in Europe, and efforts needed to be made in improving their fortunes at home. While most Zionists were avowedly secular, a growing religious Zionist movement (known as Mizrachi) asserted the importance of a state run in accordance with religious law, while the cultural Zionists (who were less hung up on where the state would be) stressed Jewish values instead.

In addition to Zionist parties, the two largest Jewish political parties at the time were the Jewish Labor Bund (secular, anti-Zionist and in favour of socialist revolution) and Agudas Yisrael (religious, anti-Zionist and in favour of the status quo). Together with the diversity of Zionist political philosophies, these two organisations continue to exist, although the former has significantly softened its socialism and the latter its anti-Zionism.

One of the curious features of interwar Jewish politics is the degree to which Jewish youth were themselves highly politicised, with every Jewish party (Zionist and non-Zionist alike) having associated youth movements that provided something of a home away from home. There, embroiled in utopian discussions, Jewish children debated the different solutions to the problems that they faced at school and on the street – problems that were very real, and that required very real solutions.

After the establishment of a Jewish state in 1948, these different Zionisms came to be represented by different political parties. Just as nobody ever subscribed to every single Zionist philosophy, so too does nobody support every single Israeli political party – nor every Israeli government. To deride the actions of individual governments is a fairly normal part of parliamentary democracy, and we have throughout 2023 been witnessing significant protests in Israel against the government of Bibi Netanyahu.

Outside of Israel, things are in some respects more complicated. For Jews in Australia (a majority of whom identify in one way or another with Zionism), distance from Israel might make it harder to deride the actions of Israeli politicians. Many of us have family and friends who live in Israel and might adopt a more circumspect way of speaking about decisions made by their government. People are always very proud when Israelis take to the streets in the name of democracy, but might feel disinclined to do something of a similar nature here – especially since protests outside of Israel are sometimes motivated by an antipathy towards its existence.

What does Zionism mean in Australia? In Sydney, where I grew up, there are five different Zionist youth movements, differentiated from one another by politics and by religiosity. In Melbourne, where I currently live, there are six – plus an additional non-Zionist Jewish youth movement. Both cities also have several non-Zionist Jewish schools, mostly (but not exclusively) of the religious variety. Differences of political, social and religious opinion are a core part of what it means to be Jewish today, and what being Jewish has always meant.

Sadly, however, we are now witnessing the fruits of social media – a major factor, it turns out, in our own radicalisation. Based on what we say online, the algorithm feeds us news to flatter our opinions. As a result, we come to inhabit vast echo chambers in which our own views become increasingly self-evident and the views of others increasingly deranged. One needs only attend a rally to see what happens when people with strong opinions refuse to engage with anybody who disagrees with them.

For Jews in Australia, this is a frightening time. Those who know nothing of what Zionism is are emboldened to denounce it in language that indicates a refusal to engage, and a profound antipathy towards those with whom they ostensibly disagree. There is no avenue for anybody to publicly defend Zionism without facing intimidation or violence. There is no opportunity for dialogue.

Is being anti-Zionist therefore antisemitic? I can understand why people say that it is, and the truth is that they do often go together. When people complain that Zionists control the media or that Zionists are in league with one another to enforce their control over public discourse, antisemitism is being employed – perhaps even without the one using it being aware of the history of these tropes. When people deliberately invoke Nazism, or accuse Zionists of perpetrating another Holocaust, their intention is to cause offence.

Myself, I care little whether or not anti-Zionism is antisemitism. If I am to be totally honest, I do not think that it is. But while it might not in and of itself be antisemitism, it is every bit as harmful.

Anti-Zionism is a discriminatory posture, adopted without any comprehension as to what Zionism is, or any awareness of the fact that most Australian Jews identify as Zionists. For most Jews in Australia today – quite apart from their views regarding the current Israeli government (and most certainly apart from their views regarding the current regrettable war) – Zionism is a core part of their identity. Rather than constantly shouting at them for that, based on a lazy and disengaged view as to what Zionism is, what we need is conversation.

Why are so many Jewish people Zionists? Obviously, and ironically, you would have to actually speak with them to find out.

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