The Empty Debate on Zionism in Britain

If Zionism still exists, then it is not a creature of committees, federations and six-point platforms – it is the ongoing challenge of building and maintaining a country and society that conforms to the highest global standard.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Who is a Zionist? Once upon a time the answer to this question was simple. A Zionist was someone who believed there were moral justifications and a need for a Jewish sovereign state in the historical Land of Israel. If you recognized this, you were Zionist and all the rest was just nuance. But the definition of a Zionist has become hopelessly murky in the more than six decades since Israel's establishment amid the never-ending debate over Israel's definition, borders and values.

Is there one Zionism for those who choose to build their lives in the Jewish state, sharing in its sacrifice and dangers, and another for those who prefer to sympathize from afar? Can Zionists by proxy criticize the policies of an elected Israeli government – or should they offer unconditional support or remain silent? Do Jews in London or New York have a duty to sound the alarm when they fear Israel is veering off course? When do they run the risk of giving succor to the enemies of Zionism?

The latest fracas roiling the Jewish establishment in London has to do with the refusal of Britain's Zionist Federation to accept Yachad – the young, self-described "pro-Israel and pro-peace" movement – as an affiliated member, and purports to focus on these core issues. But does it, really? This controversy could just as easily be about internal communal politics: a clever but cynical PR stunt by a start-up group and the frantic attempt of an increasingly marginal veteran organization to retain exclusive control of the "Z" brand.

For those of you who haven't been following, the basic outline of the story is quite simple: In In less than two years of existence, Yachad, a small but articulate group of Jewish leftists has succeeded in establishing itself as an ideological hub for British Jews who love Israel and firmly believe in its core values, but at the same time fear its policies are jeopardizing any chance at peace with its neighbors, not to mention the Palestinians living in it.

For some people, whether or not they sympathize with these sentiments, the idea of a Jewish group openly criticizing Israel in the not always Zio-friendly English environment is anathema – after all, hasn't Israel got enough enemies here? If Jews living outside of Israel can't bring themselves to support it unquestioningly, they should surely keep their reservations to themselves. Others have realized that for a community where many members, especially of the younger generation, are despairing of Israel, it is useful to have a forum where they can air their frustrations.

Last week, the United Kingdom's Zionist Federation, a venerable organization and the oldest of its kind in the world, announced it was rejecting Yachad's request to become an affiliated member. According to the federation's detailed statement, its "Constitution Committee" had "found a number of examples where [Yachad] was found lacking in its overall support for Israel" and following this "non-recommendation," a majority of the federation's member-organizations voted against accepting it as an affiliated member.

The bureaucracy of Zionism

On your behalf, I tried to read and understand the Zionist Federation's statement explaining its deliberations and each time found my forehead hitting the keyboard around the third paragraph. Forget building the Land of Israel, apparently Zionism means hacking through a thicket of committees, applications, vetting procedures and complying with something called "the Jerusalem Programme."

I have lived in Jerusalem for three-quarters of my life and spent most of my journalistic career covering its affairs, but this is the first time I have heard of a Jerusalem program that is supposed to define who is a Zionist. I think it's safe to assume that the vast majority of Zionists, living in Israel and around the world, are unaware of its existence.

The Jerusalem Program, according to some online digging, is the platform of the World Zionist Organization containing the six foundations of Zionism that was adopted in 2004. I will spare you the details: It is a bland and unobjectionable document, and putting aside the delicious irony that it is named after a city where the majority of residents do not consider themselves Zionists, is irrelevant to any real debate. The Jerusalem Program, just like the Zionist Council, the World Zionist Organization and the various Zionist Federations are no more than historic relics of a historic organization and are of no importance to Israelis and Jews – other than those employed by these bodies or who derive some sort of importance from serving as their lay-leaders. They are not what Zionism is about.

Love or hate it and despite the many faults of the Jewish state, going by the results, Zionism is a success story. Creating a largely thriving and partly democratic country against such adversity is surely an unparalleled achievement. None of the other nations established over the last 70 years come even close. Perhaps Israel's greatest achievement is that when we find it lacking, as it woefully is, it is because we compare it to much older and larger countries, with centuries of history, experience and exponentially richer resources.

Some Zionists feel that it is unfair to compare Israel to western nations and that the unrelenting criticism in international forums and media is hopelessly biased. None of its neighbors and nearly all the developing countries do not even come close to Israel on any scale of human rights and democracy, its defenders argue. This, of course, is rank hypocrisy – these Zionists want Israel to belong to the best western clubs but resent it being judged by the same standards. Even they realize that, by those standards, Israel is a dysfunctional society fighting an uphill battle – one that it often loses – against racism and corruption.

Defining Zionism – on the ground

If Zionism still exists, then it is not a creature of committees, federations and six-point platforms – it is the ongoing challenge of building and maintaining a country and society that conforms to the highest global standards, across the board. Zionists, whether in Israel or abroad, don't need to be "affiliated." I suspect Yachad's shrewd director Hannah Weisfeld understood this, and applied for her organization to be recognized by the Zionist Federation assuming it would be turned down, and knowing it would provoke a long-overdue debate. A canny ploy and, judging from the publicity it has generated, a successful one. However, it has everything to do with communal politics and little to do with the lives and beliefs of Israelis and Zionists.

The future of Zionism will be determined by Israelis engaged in the daily struggle of building their society and extricating it from racism, bigotry and hatred. Diaspora Jews, on the right and left, have an opportunity to play an influential supporting role. They don't need a "Zionist" stamp of approval or label to makes their voices heard.

The Jewish Museum in London. Can Britain's Jewish community be critical of Israel or does it need to keep a stiff upper lip?Credit: AP

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