Opinion |

Why I'm Not a Zionist - and Why You're Not, Either

Zionism ended on May 14, 1948. All the infantile 'I've had it with Zionism' virtue-signaling is no substitute for seriously contending with the very immediate problems facing Israel

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Graffiti of Theodor Herzl, Ma'aleh Adumim, 2017
Graffiti of Theodor Herzl, Ma'aleh Adumim, 2017Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Zionism was born this week, 135 years ago, in a provincial town in Romania.

On January 11, 1882, delegates from across the land arrived in Focani for the first conference of activists promoting Jewish resettlement of the historical land of Israel.

Few have heard of the Focani Conference, which was one of the launching points for Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion). That's mainly because Theodor Herzl, as a successful journalist, was so much better at public relations, and it was his congress, 15 years later in Basel, that would go down in history as "The First Zionist Congress."

People gather in the streets of Tel Aviv to celebrate after radio broadcasts announce that the United Nations plans for the partition of Palestine and the New Jewish State, November 30, 1947.Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

I was reading about the Focani Conference this week, when it struck me that the State of Israel, now in its 70th year, has by now been around longer than Zionism, which existed for 66 years, between 1882 and the declaration of Israels independence in 1948.

On that Friday afternoon, when the British Mandate ended and David Ben Gurion announced in the old Tel Aviv Museum the founding of Israel, Zionism ended, having fulfilled its purpose of establishing a Jewish nation-state.

As I was reading, one of the periodical flurries of indignation was taking place in the wake of another ridiculous statement from the government. This time it was the the Ministry for Strategic Affairs's publication of a blacklist of 20 boycott-supporting organizations whose members may be barred from entering Israel.

Im not going to dwell here on the dual ironies of the government claiming Israel is a functioning democracy while denying entry to its critics, and the wailing from those who want to boycott an entire country and visit it at the same time. Ive scant expectations of either side making any logical or moral sense. But the by-now-standard reaction from the opponents of every latest wheeze by the government still mystifies me.

Ex-Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters is an active member of the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment movementCredit: STRINGER/REUTERS

Every new statement or law or policy from a government minister nowadays results in another wave of tweets, Facebook statuses, blog-posts and op-eds in serious newspapers pronouncing the "death of Zionism" and offering laborious explanations why the writer is "no longer a Zionist."

It's mystifying because very few of the writers are over 70 and therefore could never have been Zionists to begin with.

Ive had a few conversations in recent months with some of the "ex-Zionists", and in every case, their problem isnt with a movement that was born 135 years ago.

Their problem is with the latest racist law going through the Knesset, deportation of African asylum-seekers, discrimination against non-Jewish citizens and non-Orthodox Jews, the killing or arrest of a Palestinian teenager in the West Bank, the ongoing iniquities of the occupation and the gradual erosion of Israeli democracy.

"I no longer believe in Zionism" seems to have become just another way of saying "I'm thoroughly pissed-off by the policies of successive Israeli governments and have lost any hope of it changing in the foreseeable future."

Israeli border police question an African asylum seeker, Tel Aviv, December 17, 2017.Credit: Meged Gozani

I get it. "The death of Zionism" is fashionable in some circles. It fits in a handy tweet and "Why I stopped being a Zionist" as a headline is clickbait. But its meaningless.

Despite the -ism in its name, Zionism was never an ideology, it was a program. For the 66 years of its existence there were heated debates over Zionisms justification, objectives and the best means for achieving them. They ended on May 14, 1948, when an independent Jewish state was established on part of the ancient homeland.

The implications of Israel's establishment and its historic role as an exclusive haven for Jews need to be addressed. But these are contemporary questions of security, borders, human rights, immigration policy, state and religion, not a debate on the validity of Zionism. That was resolved nearly 70 years ago and has no relevance today.

We can all have an intense discussion and come to the conclusion that Zionism was a mistake, but that wont wish away Israels existence or solve any of its problems. There are nearly 200 sovereign states around the world, the majority of them even younger than Israel. Agonizing over the controversial circumstances leading to their formation are fascinating exercises in history, but they wont change the fact that each of these countries now exist in their current state.

Many of those on the left who are now denying they are Zionists would probably approve wholeheartedly of the intellectuals of Brit Shalom who, in the 1920s, called for a bi-national Jewish-Arab state in Mandatory Palestine and accused the rest of the Zionist establishment of perverting Herzl's vision. The enlightened German-born professors who founded both Brit Shalom and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem claimed to be the "true Zionists."

Members of the ruling Likud party vote on a resolution calling on Israel to move to annex the West Bank and build more settlements. December 31, 2017Credit: Meged Gozani

In an alternative history, where Brit Shalom had found sufficient support among Arabs and Jews for their aspirations and we were living today in bi-national state, todays ex-Zionists would have been proud to call themselves Zionists.

But events worked out differently, and the Zionist program took a different course. Brit Shalom disbanded in 1933, after failing to find either Jewish or Arab interlocutors. I suppose todays "ex-Zionists" could claim that Zionism "died" then. But it still has no relevance to todays issues.

Like most phenomena on the left, the renunciation of Zionism is mirrored on the far-right.

12 years ago, in the wake of Israel's disengagement from the Gaza Strip and the dismantlement of settlements there and in Northern Samaria, there was a wave of "anti-Zionism" among fundamentalist settlers. The Zionist state had uprooted Jews from their land and had to be replaced by a truly God-fearing Jewish kingdom. Similar cries were heard during the pullback from Sinai in 1982 and the early years of the Oslo process.

People of little faith. All they had to do was wait a few years for the emergence of the current government and the return of "their" kind of Zionism to the land.

Which begs the question of leftist ex-Zionists: When the pendulum swings back and, one day. the left regains power in Israel and a solution with the Palestinians is finally reached and the occupation ends, will you become Zionists once again?

But the fact that the dominant political ideology today in Israel is right-wing nationalism says nothing about Zionism. When Zionism actually existed, they were a minor and often ostracized stream, not much more influential than Brit Shalom. Jabotinsky's Revisionists felt so marginalized by the Zionist mainstream that they left the World Zionist Organization and set up their own New Zionist Organization.

Israelis on the beach in Tel Aviv watch a military show marking Israeli Independence Day, April 26, 2012.Credit: Jack Guez

In 1947, when the United Nations was about to vote on the partition of Palestine to two Jewish and Arab states, it wasnt just the Arabs who were against. The United Zionists-Revisionists of America published a full-page ad in the New York Times, denouncing the UN resolution as "the end of the great Zionist dream." One of those who drafted and signed the ad was "Dr B. Netanyahu." Those pronouncing today the death of Zionism will be heartened to learn that Bibis father announced its demise 70 years before them.

Announcing that youve had it with Zionism, whether from left or right, is infantile virtue-signaling – a substitute to seriously contending with the very immediate problems facing Israel. The only way you can abandon Zionism is if you are at least 85 and were politically active when Zionism was still relevant.

Of course we can, and probably should, have the discussion of what true Zionism is - the nativist nationalism of Israels current political leaders or, as Barack Obama put in September 2016 in his eulogy of Shimon Peres: "Justice and hope are at the heart of the Zionist idea."

But its no more than a historical conversation, a distraction from present problems. Sure, a 'World Zionist Organization' still exists, but it's only function since 1948 has been to provide salaries for political cronies. They are about relevant to life in Israel as The Flat Earth Society.

I'm Jewish and Israeli and believe we can fix Israels massive problems and injustices, but Im not a Zionist, in the same way I'm not a Pharisee, a Roundhead or an Abolitionist. I may have been had I lived in the relevant period in history, but I can't belong to, or leave, a movement whose purpose ended long before I was born.



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