Defining Zionism: The Belief That Israel Belongs to the Entire Jewish People

Given the ways in which the word 'Zionism' is thrown around both in Israel and outside of it, and the vast permutations it’s gone through over the past decades, perhaps it's time we try to define it realistically.

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“Zionist” is a concept that’s basically simple, clear, easy to define and understand, and there should be no difficulty defending its definition. But over the past 20 to 30 years, this simple concept has turned into one of the most confused and complicated notions of identity, and its overuse has made it impossible to agree on what it means.

The right likes to use it as a type of whipped cream to improve the taste of dubious dishes, while the left treats it with fear, as if it were a mine liable to explode in its hands − which is why it always feels the need to neutralize it with some strange adjective, as in “sane Zionism” or “humane Zionism.” In the dispute between the “national camp” and the “peace camp,” Zionism is used as an offensive weapon that is batted from one side to the other.

Abroad, critics of Israel use Zionism as a kind of poisonous potion to exacerbate every accusation against the state. Many critics believe that the solution to Israel’s future lies in the de-Zionization of its identity. Among Israel’s sworn enemies, “Zionist” is a demonic epithet, a term of denunciation that replaces the word “Israeli” or “Jew.” Hamas members speak of the captured Zionist soldier, and Hezbollah and Iran speak of the criminal Zionist entity, not about Israel.

So it’s about time that we try to define the word “Zionist” realistically. First of all, we must remember that from a historical perspective, the concept emerged only at the end of the 19th century. It’s meaningless to try and describe Yehuda Halevi as a Zionist, or any other Jew who immigrated to the Holy Land in centuries past. In the same fashion, we can’t use the terms “socialism” or “socialist” for periods before the middle of the 19th century, and describe Robespierre, for example, as the “socialist” of the French Revolution, which occurred at the end of the 18th century. These concepts only have significance from the time when they emerged in a specific historical context, and tossing them around freely as labels for anything we choose is a clearly anachronistic act.

If so, how would we define who is a Zionist, starting from the emergence of the Zionist movement as inspired by Theodor Herzl and his associates? Here is the definition: A Zionist is a person who desires or supports the establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, which in the future will become the state of the Jewish people. This is based on what Herzl said: “In Basel I founded the Jewish state.”

The key word in this definition is “state,” and its natural location is the Land of Israel because of the Jewish people’s historical link to it. Thus my grandfather’s grandfather, for example, who came to the Land of Israel from Thessaloniki in the mid-19th century, cannot be considered a Zionist. He came to settle in the Land of Israel, not to establish a state here. This is also the rule for the ancestors of Neturei Karta and other Hasidic groups that came to the Land of Israel as far back as the 17th and 18th centuries, and who remain loyal to it. Not only were these Jews not interested in establishing a Jewish state, but they include some who saw − and still see − the State of Israel as an abomination and a desecration of God’s name.

A Zionist, therefore, is a Jew who supported the establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, and not necessarily one who actually settled in the land. Herzl himself and many Zionist leaders never settled in the land, yet you wouldn’t hesitate to call them Zionists. Even today, the members of Zionist federations worldwide are considered Zionists by us and by themselves, even though they don’t live in Israel.

Anyone who believes that only a person who lives in Israel can be a Zionist is essentially saying that today, there are no Zionists outside the State of Israel, and that’s not the case. And what about those born in the Land of Israel − are they considered Zionists based on their place of birth alone?

A Zionist is a person who wanted or supported the establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel. What kind of state? Well, every Zionist had his own vision and his own plan.

Zionism is not an ideology. If the definition of ideology, according to the Hebrew Encyclopedia, is as follows − “A cohesive, systematic combination of ideas, insights, principles and imperatives that finds expression in the particular worldview of a sect, a party or a social class” − then Zionism cannot be considered an ideology, but merely a very broad platform for various ideologies that may even contradict one another.

Ever since the State of Israel was founded in 1948, the definition of “Zionist” has been revised, since we don’t need to establish another state. Therefore, its definition is as follows: A Zionist is a person who accepts the principle that the State of Israel doesn’t belong solely to its citizens, but to the entire Jewish people. The practical expression of this commitment is the Law of Return.

The state’s affairs are indeed managed solely by its citizens − people who have an Israeli identity card, of whom 80 percent are Jews, while 20 percent are Israeli Palestinians and others. But only a person who supports and affirms the Law of Return is a Zionist, and anyone who rejects the Law of Return is not a Zionist.

Nevertheless, Israeli Jews who reject the Law of Return and declare themselves non-Zionists or post-Zionists ‏(whether from the right or the left‏) are still good citizens who are loyal to the State of Israel, and retain all their civil rights.

From this it emerges that all the big ideological, political, security and social questions over which we do battle day and night have nothing to do with Zionism. They are similar to the questions that many other peoples, past and present, have had to struggle with, and still struggle with.

Moreover, Zionism is not a word that’s meant to replace patriotism, pioneering, humaneness or love of one’s homeland, concepts that are found in other languages as well. Hebrew is rich enough to endow every position or action with the appropriate word. An Israel Defense Forces officer who serves in the standing army for many years after his compulsory service, for example, is no greater Zionist than the kiosk owner eking out a livelihood, though we would certainly see him as a greater patriot. A person who volunteers to help needy children is no more a Zionist than a stockbroker, although he may be a greater humanitarian.

To be a Zionist is not a badge of honor, or a medal a person wears on his chest. Medals are connected to actions, not to support of the Law of Return.

Nor is there any connection between the size of the country and Zionism. If the Arabs had accepted the partition plan in 1947, the State of Israel within the partition borders would have been just as Zionist as it is within different borders.

If the State of Israel had conquered and annexed the east bank of the Jordan and repealed the Law of Return, it would have ceased being Zionist even though it would be three or four times the size. The state was Zionist when it controlled the Gaza Strip, and it was just as Zionist after it withdrew from it. Many countries have seen changes in the size of their sovereign territory, but their core identities remained intact.

With regard to the Law of Return, which some see as discriminating against Israel’s Palestinian citizens, this is the answer: The Law of Return is essentially the moral condition set by the countries of the world for the establishment of the State of Israel. The United Nations’ partition of Palestine-Eretz Israel in 1947 into a Jewish state and a Palestinian one was on condition that the Jewish state would not just be a state for the 600,000 Jews that lived there at the time, but would instead be a state that could resolve the distress of Jews all over the world, and would enable every Jew in the world to consider it home. Would it be moral for the hundreds of thousands of Jews who immigrated to Israel on the basis of the Law of Return to shut the door they entered through behind them?

Moreover, it’s almost certain that there will be a similar law in the Palestinian state that I hope will be established, speedily and in our days. It would behoove that state to legislate a law of return that would enable every exiled Palestinian to return to the Palestinian state and obtain asylum and citizenship.

But neither the Israeli Law of Return, nor a similar law in the future Palestinian state, contradict general immigration laws that set specific entry criteria, as is customary in every country of the world.

Liberating the concept of Zionism from all the appendages and addenda that have adhered to it would not only clarify the ideological and political arguments we have among ourselves, and thus prevent these disputes from being mythologized, but it would also force critics abroad to clarify and focus their positions.

A portrait of Theodor Herzl, father of Zionism, at the site of the declaration of Israel's independence.Credit: David Bachar

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