Zionism—What Is It? Why Is It Getting Trashed?

A good illustration is this news tidbit, which tells of 232 Jewish immigrants from North America arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport one August day in 2015. They included 29 families with 75 children, 86 singles, and 59 lone soldiers. In Israel, “lone soldiers” are mostly young Jews—many of them from comfortable countries—who come as volunteers to serve in the Israeli army, often in elite combat units, and often remaining in Israel for life. At present there about 6000 lone soldiers in Israel. (A personal note—my nephew is one of them.)

Zionism today, then, is the unique centrality of Zion, of the state of Israel, in Jewish life. The phenomenon of idealistic immigration from comfortable countries (and, of course, from much less comfortable ones) to a besieged country in the heart of the Middle East has no parallel among the many other situations of a home country and a diaspora. For Israelis, Zionism means a high level of patriotism deeply grounded in Zion. For Diaspora Jews, it means—potentially, of course—feeling that powerful magnetic pull of Zion.

And what sort of state has Zionism created—a blot on humanity, the only country out of 196 deserving to be boycotted, a hellhole of racism, colonialism, and apartheid? In an article published about a year ago during the Gaza war, former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren gave a different and more accurate picture:

The population is annually rated among the happiest, healthiest and most educated in the world. Life expectancy in Israel, reflecting its superb universal health-care system, significantly exceeds America’s and that of most European countries. Unemployment is low, the economy robust. A global leader in innovation, Israel is home to R&D centers of some 300 high-tech companies, including Apple, Intel and Motorola….

...Today, Israel is one of the few states—along with Great Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the U.S.—that has never known a second of nondemocratic governance.

These accomplishments would be sufficiently astonishing if attained in North America or Northern Europe. But Zionism has prospered in the supremely inhospitable—indeed, lethal—environment of the Middle East.

In a region reeling with ethnic strife and religious bloodshed, Zionism has engendered a multiethnic, multiracial and religiously diverse society. Arabs serve in the Israel Defense Forces, in the Knesset and on the Supreme Court. While Christian communities of the Middle East are steadily eradicated, Israel’s continues to grow. Israeli Arab Christians are, in fact, on average better educated and more affluent than Israeli Jews.

So how did Zionism get such a bad name among the Western “elites”? A good guide to what happened is Joshua Muravchik’s book Making David into Goliath, which traces the rise of a dogmatic sympathy for the Palestinian Arabs, and concomitant demonization of Israel, particularly on the Western left with its strong Marxist predispositions. And beyond Palestinianism, “anti-Zionism” is a guise for good old antisemitism, to the tune of: “I have nothing against Jews, but their country is uniformly brutal, devious, and rapacious and has no right to exist.”

In Europe, by now, anti-Zionism has spread from the elites to general populations—where, no doubt, it resonated considerably with traditional antisemitism. In America, the “elites” haven’t yet succeeded—through the schools and universities, through the media—to spread anti-Zionism; but they’re trying.

Hence Zionism should indeed be mentioned, and it’s worth knowing what it was and continues to be: a great, inspiring human success story.