How Zionism Became a Dirty Word

The draconian combination of imperialistic religiosity and extremist nationalism is in danger of making Israel a racist state, no cause for celebration on Independence Day.

Uzi Baram
Uzi Baram
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Israel Independence Day 2012 celebrations.
Israel Independence Day 2012 celebrations. Credit: Shiran Granot
Uzi Baram
Uzi Baram

I recently read an article decrying how, in all the Independence Day newspaper supplements, there was no talk of aliyah as a supreme value and national duty. I could have easily moved on, but something about this argument nagged at me and I began examining the transitions I have made over the past 20 years.

At the start of my time in the Knesset, I served as chairman of the Committee on Immigration and Absorption. I dealt with refuseniks and gave speeches in Israel and abroad on the subjects of aliyah and Zionism. Perhaps it was my upbringing at my Jerusalem home, in school and in the youth movement that caused me to take a classic Zionist stance. Not to mention that I was still a pure political dove, devoid of nuance.

Today the word “Zionism” only emerges from my mouth in response to a direct question. But I persisted in my self-review and realized that it’s not just the word “Zionism.” Even a commonly accepted phrase like “the Jewish national homeland” makes me uncomfortable now. Years ago, I would hang an Israeli flag on my balcony out of a sense of real imperative. And I was a very studious participant in the Independence Day torch-lighting ceremonies at Mount Herzl.

My rebellion against the national symbols didn’t happen all at once, or by conscious decision. Rather, it was the result of a gradual and ongoing process.

Of course, I’ve changed. I’ve become cynical and more critical of the rhetoric spouted by our leaders. But, spurred by the feeling that many others have experienced a similar metamorphosis, I continued to ponder it and its implications.

As soon as Zionism became a figure of speech of the settler-right movement, as soon as dispossession and occupation received a Zionist seal of approval, I began to cringe at the term and the implications that came with it.

This is no minor thing. Terms like “Judaism” and “national homeland” have been part of the language of Labor movement leaders throughout the generations, and something traumatic had to happen for a Zionist like me to end up feeling this way. When MK Yariv Levin (Likud) and his cohorts say that legislation is needed to prioritize the Jewish over the democratic, I feel that Judaism is being weighed against a value that, for me, is equally important – democracy – and I know what the hidden intentions of the idea’s proponents really are. Their Judaism is an imperialistic Judaism, one that is dismissive of the Arab minority that lives in Israel. And Avigdor Lieberman, who does not come from a religious-Jewish background or motivation, openly and shamelessly offers his seal of approval.

It’s not just to Judaism and Zionism, but also to the state of Israel, that my attitude is changing. This is my country and nothing can shake that. But having come to see that the Israel as represented by the government does not genuinely want to achieve peace with the Arab world, my respect has declined for the government and decision makers, who’ve changed Israel’s image from a peace-seeking country to one that is cloaked in fears, as depicted by our leading spokespeople.

I’ll admit I find the growing power of religion and the religious a cause for dismay. Zionism arose out of a struggle against ultra-Orthodoxy and the “regimes of separation.” The first pioneers saw themselves as Zionists and Jews striving to establish a national entity in the Land of Israel – they did not view religion as a major factor, and gave preference to universal values.

It’s true that the composition of the population and traditional attitude of Mizrahi Jewry (Jews of Middle Eastern descent) gave a push to Israel’s religiosity, and as a democrat I must come to terms with the way society has changed on the religious front. But the draconian combination of imperialistic religiosity with extremist nationalism means Israel is liable to slide into severe racism, to which some rabbis will always offer their stamp of approval.

It’s no wonder I feel this regression in my attitude toward the major national symbols. The interpretation being given to them deeply upsets me and is not something I can just accept.

Foreign Minister Avigdor LiebermanCredit: Emil Salman

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