Zionism? Post-Zionism? Just Give Arguments

I suggest we stop using labels like 'Zionist' and 'post-Zionist' instead of giving precise arguments. They are mainly used for mudslinging, and do very little to clarify the big issues.

Moshe Arens has written an op-ed in these pages claiming that the following culprits are "post-Zionists": Prime Minister Ehud Olmert because he has empathy for Palestinian suffering and because he thinks that without a Palestinian state Israel is finished, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni because she supports this agenda, and Education Minister Yuli Tamir because she has introduced the Palestinian nakba into history textbooks.

Both the secular and the religious right have been using the ploy of presenting themselves as the owners of the brand-name "Zionism" for quite some time, and utilize "post-Zionism" as a pejorative term that indicates a lack of pride and backbone as well as Jewish self-hate. The question is whether using such terms does anything to clarify Israel's existential issues.

"Zionism" used to denote the Jewish national liberation movement. Now that Israel is approaching its 60th anniversary, the word has no more current use than the term Risorgimento - the 19th century quest for a free and unified Italy. Zionism once expressed the idea that all Jews should live in Israel. This is now as anachronistic as the concept that a good Jew should wear khaki, a pioneer's kova tembel hat and work the land.

Demagogic use of "Zionism" and "post-Zionism" is common nowadays in two camps: the Israeli right, for whom "Zionism" is good and "post-Zionism" is bad, and critics of Israel from the West's extreme left and various Arab and Muslim countries, for whom "Zionism" has become a catchword supposedly synonymous with racism and colonialism. "Post-Zionism" means something good because it is somehow connected with abolishing the State of Israel.

I suggest we stop using labels like "Zionist" and "post-Zionist" in internal Israeli discussions instead of giving precise arguments. They are mainly used for mudslinging, and do very little to clarify the big issues. They obfuscate important points. It is true that the right has won several political campaigns by using emotionally charged labels and symbols. But now Israel is faced with truly hard questions, and clear answers must be found:

- What is Israel's best survival strategy? Arens says Israel's only viable survival strategy is to insist on some immutable right of Jews to live anywhere in historical Israel. He does not really explain how this will lead to Israel's security and prosperity in the age of ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads. Insisting that this is "Zionism" is historically inexact (what about Herzl, Nordau, Ahad Ha'am and Buber?), and doesn't provide an argument. It's just a way to shut off those who think otherwise.

- What kind of country should Israel be? Neither Arens nor anyone else on the moderate right has ever provided an intelligible answer to this simple question. What rights will the Arab majority of the greater Land of Israel have? How can Israel be both Jewish and democratic if we do not stop the occupation? Arens has always been a liberal gentleman at heart, and I doubt he simply subscribes to some form of Jewish supremacy. Hence neither he nor lavishly funded right-wing think tanks provide an answer, because liberal democracy simply cannot be combined with disregarding the rights of other religions and ethnicities.

Once we go beyond defunct labels, difficult questions must be asked. For example: are Israelis correct when they claim that the Law of Return giving every Jew the right to Israeli citizenship is inherently racist? Yuli Tamir, Amnon Rubinstein and Ruth Gavison have done hard work on this issue. They have shown in sustained legal and philosophical analysis that none of this implies racism. They have also pointed out similar laws that guarantee citizenship based on ethnicity in Germany, Greece and Ireland, and they show that this is consistent with international law.

Once we use arguments instead of throwing around labels, we can demand that Israel's critics do the same. They must stop using "colonialism" and "racism" as slogans to support the thesis that Israel has no right to exist under international law. Instead, they should argue precisely for whatever demands and criticisms they have.

They will have to explain why they consistently blame Israel exclusively for the current situation and refrain from addressing the failings of the Palestinian Authority to run its affairs properly and reign in terrorism. And they will have to explain why Israel is measured by a different standard than any other country in the world when it comes to (inexcusable) human rights abuses. Clarity of thought will not only help Israel sort out its internal issues, it will fortify its position in the world.

Carlo Strenger is Professor at the Department of Psychology at Tel Aviv University and a Member of the Permanent Monitoring Panel on Terrorism of the World Federation of Scientists.