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October 25, 2021 1:00 pm

A Message to Progressives: It’s Time to Reclaim Zionism From the Anti-Zionists

avatar by Shaya Lerner


Worshipers pray in distance from each other at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, amid coronavirus restrictions, March 26, 2020. Photo: Reuters / Ammar Awad.

In corners of the progressive world, there has been an emerging trend of shifting the anti-Israel narrative away from criticizing Israel, to demonizing Zionism and Zionists.

The demonization of Zionism is not anything new — the Soviets perfected it back in the 1960s and 70s, as part of their antisemitic propaganda campaigns, culminating in the infamous Zionism=Racism UN resolution of 1975.

What’s new today is that this language has become normalized within the progressive discourse about Israel.

As an American Jew who identifies as a liberal and progressive, I find this trend highly disturbing for many reasons, not the least of which is because I also am a Zionist. And by that, I mean I believe that Jews, like other peoples, have a right to self-determine, specifically in their historic homeland of Israel.

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I also strongly support the Palestinian right to self-determine in that same land — which is why I advocate for a two-state outcome to the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an approach that is both an imperfect solution and the single best option to solve a highly complex issue.

Yet that is not enough for this new crop of anti-Zionists. These voices and organizations argue that Zionism is not about self-determination and historic connections, but is rather simply a racist ideology rooted in a colonial effort to uproot another people and commit unspeakable acts of violence and oppression against them.

Rather than wasting ink debunking these false claims many have already done so very effectively — I feel compelled to point out that those playing the “Zionism is racism/colonialism” card are not merely critiquing those who support pro-Israel views, but rather — intentionally or not — targeting a core component of contemporary Jewish identity and life that is integral to the beliefs and practices of millions of Jews around the world.

When the magazine The Nation decides to hire a correspondent who, on a semi-regular basis, espouses sheer hate towards Zionism, tweeting things like “Zionism is a death cult” and “Zionism is genocide” — what message does that send to the magazine’s Jewish and non-Jewish readers?

When the correspondent casually nods at racism by tweeting “‘ancestral homeland?’ Then explain why y’all can’t walk around Jerusalem without getting sunburnt?” — one must ask what The Nation’s tolerance level is for attempts to rewrite history, and for outright antisemitism and racism.

And when progressive groups like Sunrise DC declaratively refuse to partner with Zionist organizations in a campaign to fight voter suppression because they “oppose Zionism and any state that enforces its ideology,” one wonders if they are really telling the vast majority of organizations and institutions within the Jewish community — from synagogues, to soup kitchens, to youth organizations, to NGOs — that their Judaism falls short of Sunrise DC’s standards, making them impure for engagement and partnership.

There are unfortunately many other examples of this type of anti-Zionist behavior, with these being just two of the most recent ones.

Ultimately, what many anti-Zionists are telling Jews is this: We have no problem with you … as long as you amputate your Zionist organs. Zionism is infecting your body, which is making you evil.

So, what is to be done?

For starters, we cannot allow fringe voices to dictate the norms around Zionism and support for Israel’s existence — norms that risk becoming mainstreamed.

When loud voices criticize supporters of Israel as advocating genocide or supporting a colonial power, we need to forcefully call those voices out as an attack on a core component of Jewish identity. This includes fringe voices within the Jewish community, like Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow, who have built an almost cultish practice around attacking what they term the American Jewish establishment for their Zionist views.

These Jewish groups do not represent the views of the majority of Jews, nor should they be recognized as such. In fact, I would contend that they serve as useful pawns in the hands of anti-Zionist voices, who now have a new and perhaps more effective, front for their blatant anti-Israel, and even antisemitic, views.

Zionism should be celebrated as a transformational moment in Jewish history, and not treated as a dirty word. After millennia of antisemitism, which included pogroms and the horrors of the Holocaust, Zionism and Israel’s existence have allowed Jews from all over the world to seek refuge and security from persecution.

It’s time to reclaim the term Zionism from those voices who tried to muddy its meaning. If you support the right of Jews to self-determine in their ancient homeland of Israel, you are a Zionist. That doesn’t mean you support the settlement movement, or the policies of the Israeli government. Nor does it mean you reject Palestinian self-determination. But it also does not mean that you are a baby killer, advocate for apartheid, or support genocide or ethnic cleansing.

Ultimately, we need to lay down a marker about support for Israel, and not apologize or shy away from Zionism. The message ought to be this: We are Jewish and we are Zionist. Both are integral to our identity, history, and beliefs. If you can’t recognize that vital fact, that is a sad testament to your inability to fully accept the Jewish community for who they are. This isn’t something we are willing to compromise on, and it is wholly unfair and wrong for you to expect us to do so.

Shaya Lerner is the ADL’s Associate Director of Middle Eastern Affairs.

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