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

Among “elite” circles Zionism is a dirty word these days. When American Jewish reggae star Matisyahu was barred from performing at a Spanish music festival, it was on grounds that he was a “Zionist.” It was only after the Spanish government condemned this blatant case of discrimination that the festival reinvited the singer.

Blackballing Zionism, though, is not only a European phenomenon. Republican pollster Frank Luntz has been warning Israel that it is rapidly losing support among Democratic “opinion elites.” Almost half of them, he says, consider Israel a racist country. And as The Times of Israel reports:

Still more drastically, Luntz said the word “Zionism” could play no part in messaging designed to repair relations with US Democrats. There has to be an “end to the [use of the] word Zionism,” he said. “You can’t make the case if you use that word. If you are at Berkeley or Brown and start outlining a Zionist vision, you don’t get to make a case for Israel because they’ve already switched off.”

 So, Zionism is that bad?

 The term Zionism, of course, comes from the word Zion—which refers to a mountain in Jerusalem and also to the Land of Israel in general. The first words God ever says to Abraham—the first person identifiable as a Jew, then living in what is now Iraq—are: “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee….” (Genesis 12:1).

The land—then called Canaan—is, of course, Zion, the Land of Israel. The attachment to Zion is not just “in” the Jewish DNA; it virtually is the Jewish DNA.

Zionism as a political movement began, however, in the 19th century. It was basically an intuition, which kept cropping up among deep-thinking Jews in various parts of Europe, that: European antisemitism remained virulent and incurable; Jews in Europe were in danger; and the only real solution was to return to Zion and establish a Jewish homeland there.

The idea was considered revolutionary, extravagant, even insane. And yet, for the Jews who were gripped by it, it was a powerful force. And in the early 1880s they started coming to Zion, to Ottoman-ruled Palestine, largely from Russia, Romania, and Galicia along with smaller numbers from Yemen. They settled in cities like Jerusalem and Jaffa, but more importantly—and more Zionistically—they founded colonies out in the desolate, barren land and turned them into flourishing farms.

It wasn’t for the fainthearted; malaria, harsh work conditions, and corrupt Ottoman overseers took their toll. But by 1914, just before World War I, there were about 90,000 Jews in Zion who formed a distinct community. This community suffered privation and Ottoman persecution during the war; but by the time it ended in 1918, Great Britain had wrested Palestine from the Turks and, led by a pro-Zionist prime minister and foreign secretary, pronounced itself in favor of a Jewish national home.

No, almost forty years earlier when the Zionists started coming, the land had not been empty; a preexisting Jewish population had been there, and an Arab population. When the Palestinian Arabs realized how serious the British (seemingly) and the Jews were about the Jewish national home, a violent conflict erupted that continues to this day.

Over the next two decades the Jewish population in Zion grew dramatically—and especially after the Nazis gained power and large numbers of German and Austrian Jews started arriving. What was taking shape was the phenomenon now known as the state of Israel—a Hebrew-speaking society with a vibrant Hebrew culture, universities, military forces, and so on. By 1939, at the brink of World War II, the Jewish community in Zion numbered about 400,000. Just at that point, with millions of Jews in Europe desperately needing to flee to it, the British authorities almost totally banned further Jewish immigration.

In November 1947 the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The Jewish side accepted the offer; the Palestinian and Arab side turned it down flat. The state of Israel was declared on May 14, 1948; immediately finding itself at war with invading Arab armies seeking to destroy it, it prevailed in the war.

Zionism, then, was a movement to create a Jewish homeland (as it turned out, a state) in Zion that succeeded. If so, what does Zionism mean today?

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.