'Zionist,' Now an Empty Brand

Avi Shilon
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David Ben-Gurion at his home in Sde Boker in 1968.
David Ben-Gurion at his home in Sde Boker in 1968. Happily accepted American Jews' money while discouraging them from further interest in Israeli politics or society.Credit: Fritz Cohen / GPO
Avi Shilon

Last week, Labor MK Stav Shaffir gave a three-minute speech in which she justified her Zionism. Her remarks – which have already been dubbed the “who is a Zionist?” speech and, like a clichéd Internet article, have been shared thousands of times on the Web – were aimed at Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett.

Bennett, meanwhile, hasn’t stopped saying that his rivals aren’t Zionists (“Bougie, bro, this isn’t Zionist,” he wrote on Facebook, referring to Labor chairman Isaac Herzog by his nickname). And we haven’t even mentioned Likud MK Miri Regev, who declared that “Ben-Gurion is turning over in his grave at the sight of Zionist Camp’s slate.”

Just two years ago, the election campaign revolved around the slogan “Where’s the money?” This slogan indeed seemed to capture the issue dearest to the hearts of most Israelis. So what caused this surprising regression into a debate over the issue of who is a Zionist, as if we were still in the 1950s?

The main reason is that we aren’t having a real discussion about Zionism, much less experiencing its revival; rather, what’s happening is the exact opposite. The farther politicians get from an understanding of the historical motivations for Zionism, the harder they fight over the label “Zionist.” This development is doubtless influenced by the reserving of Knesset slots for journalists and other celebs who excel at shouting slogans on television.

The speech by Shaffir, who is considered a productive MK, actually exemplifies the hollow use of the term “Zionist.” It’s hard to argue with her claim that Zionism – that of Ben-Gurion, in her words – is interpreted today as transferring money to enterprises in the Negev and the Galilee. But can someone who entered politics when she was only 26, and whose resume includes studying in London, a long trek around the world and participating in protest demonstrations, really feel authentic solidarity with ordinary workers? However talented she is, there’s something grating about her pretensions of spreading her aegis over the weak while she herself chose to skip over even a nodding acquaintanceship with the burden of an ordinary paycheck from unrewarding work.

This isn’t just a matter of personal taste. A fundamental component of Zionist ideology was its commitment to doing. Recoiling from verbiage and flowery rhetoric, however correct they might be, constituted a major element of the persona of the new Jew. Politics was seen as a public activity that took place alongside, or after, self-realization.

Bennett, too, obviously makes the mistake of not understanding Zionism when he prides himself on it because of his commitment to the entire Land of Israel. After all, had it not been for the fact that from 1937 on, Ben-Gurion led the pre-state Jewish community onto the path of compromise, it’s doubtful that the podium from which Bennett spoke in the Knesset would ever have existed.

These are just a few examples of how the term “Zionist” has turned into a label devoid of all content. And one of the first to understand the dangers of glorifying the term “Zionist” was the man whose name so many are bandying about today.

Immediately after the state was established, Ben-Gurion sought to dismantle the World Zionist Organization. His provocative statement – “What is a Zionist now? I don’t know” – outraged many. But one of his goals was to warn against the current trend: making do with the label “Zionist” without understanding it properly, while neglecting the Zionist act itself.

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