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Dazed and Confused – The Trouble with Defining Zionism

March 5, 2013 – 6:40 pm59 Comments
Media coverage of the Zygier Affair has highlighted the confusion over defining Zionism

Media coverage of the Zygier Affair has highlighted the confusion over defining Zionism

By Philip Mendes
When I was growing up, I was told by my parents and others that Zionists believed that all Jews should live in the State of Israel. This was confirmed by my Aunt and Uncle leaving Australia to live in Israel in 1974 and never returning. I didn’t hold this view because I was content living in Australia, and considered myself an Australian not an Israeli. So I assumed that meant I wasn’t a Zionist.

Conversely, I was told by far Left activists at Melbourne University that anybody who supported Israel’s existence was a Zionist. I always believed Israel had the same right to exist as any other nation state irrespective of concerns about specific policies towards the Palestinians so I assumed this meant I wasn’t an anti-Zionist.

When I became involved in Israeli-Palestinian peace advocacy in the late 1980s, these discussions became more complicated. Some leaders of the Australian Zionist movement said that Zionism meant supporting a Greater Israel including settlements that dispossessed Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Given that I totally opposed these proposals, they suggested that I was an anti-Zionist.

However, anti-Zionist fundamentalists said that Israel was a racist colonialist state that should be destroyed by military force. They said I was not only a Zionist but a very right-wing Zionist for opposing this allegedly progressive political agenda.

It’s easy to get confused. Eventually, I settled on a relatively simple philosophical interpretation. In my opinion, Zionism had won the historical battle with Bundism and other Jewish or universal ideologies for providing an effective solution to the Jewish problem. The creation of the State of Israel in 1948 represented the achievement of the core aims of Zionism, but equally it meant that Zionism as an ideology no longer really mattered. So I could sit safely in neutral space as a non-Zionist. But to some Zionists and anti-Zionists, the ideology clearly did still matter.

People continued to provide varied definitions of Zionism. The 2008-09 Jewish Population Survey conducted by the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation at Monash University ambiguously defined Zionism as “You feel connected to the Jewish people, to Jewish history, culture and beliefs, the Hebrew language and the Jewish homeland, Israel”. Other than perhaps the reference to “Hebrew” and “Jewish homeland”, this was arguably a broader definition that even a Bundist could endorse.

Others, who called themselves Zionists but had no intention of moving to Israel, told me that Zionism involved political, financial and/or emotional support for Israel. This definition provoked two further questions:

  1. Was this support for a particular Israeli political perspective – that of Greater Israel or that which favoured a two-state solution?
  2. And could a non-Jew be a Zionist, given that Zionism seemed to mean Jewish nationalism?

The recent discussions about the Zygier Affair and associated issues such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign have provoked me into further rethinking about the meaning of Zionism. Mostly, this relates to the misrepresentation of the term by anti-Zionist fundamentalists. For example, my recent mild reflection on the question of divided loyalties in Eureka Street provoked one reader to suggest that I was involved in some sort of “Zionist apologetic” – whatever that means.

Some of my earlier activities opposing the BDS campaign also provoked similar unintelligent labelling. Anti-Zionist fundamentalist Antony Loewenstein responded to my factual criticism of the BDS as involving the ethnic stereotyping and demonization of all Israeli Jews by calling me a “self-described Left Zionist Jew who uses McCarthyist smears to monitor public criticisms of Israel”.

Actually I have never used the term “Left Zionist Jew” anywhere. Loewenstein just made it up. As for the spurious charge of McCarthyism, Loewenstein and other anti-Zionist fundamentalists clearly don’t like having their views critically analysed and challenged. Some people call this freedom of speech, which is a hard concept for BDS advocates to digest, given the whole purpose of their movement is to silence and censor those with whom they disagree.

Regardless, what Loewenstein and the Eureka Street reader seem to be implying is that any supporter of Israel’s existence must be a Zionist and indeed an evil person, and that it is ridiculous to suggest that one can be both a leftist and pro-Israel. None of this suggests much insight into the ideological diversity of political movements such as Zionism (varying from the secular Marxist Hashomer Hatzair to the religious right-wing settlers’ movement), or the fact that the Left incorporates egalitarian agendas on a wide range of issues from welfare spending to industrial relations to gender concerns around family violence and abortion to foreign policy. What it does tell us is that Zionism has a symbolic binary meaning for these fundamentalists that bears little resemblance to its practical meaning for those who term themselves Zionists or in some cases non-Zionists.

Which brings us back to the question of what Zionism means for at least some Jews, and the vexed question of divided loyalties. About a month ago, the Australian Jewish News featured a dazzling photo of members of Zionist youth groups who were about to commence a one-year stay in Israel. One of the groups held up a banner stating “We are going home”. This statement was hardly surprising given that members of this group had presumably been taught for many years that Israel was the homeland of the Jewish people. Nevertheless, I have to admit this banner left me feeling uncomfortable because it suggested that Australia was not the home of these young people.

There is no evidence that this banner would be representative of the feelings of most Australian Jews. And even those idealistic youngsters that held the banner may not necessarily have believed they were privileging Israel over Australia. It is possible in a multicultural society to have two homes, and to feel no contradiction between loyalties to both countries.

However, I do feel that we as a community need to think more about what we mean by Zionism. Does it only mean going to live in Israel, or does it mean general solidarity with Israel, or does it mean taking more interest in Israeli than Australian politics? It may legitimately include all these meanings, but until we have this debate ourselves, it is unlikely that we will be able to provide a cohesive definition to others.

Associate Professor Philip Mendes is the Director of the Social Inclusion and Social Policy Research Policy Unit in the Department of Social Work at Monash University, and also holds an Honorary Appointment in the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation. He is currently preparing a book titled Jews and the Left: The Rise and Fall of a Political Alliance for publication in late 2013.

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