It is not a question of Zionism

25 Aug

by Ilan Bloch


Martin Buber. Image courtesy of

Several years ago I was facilitating a seminar on Zionist thought and theory, which included a presentation of “Humanistic Zionism,” represented by personalities such as Martin Buber and Judah Leon Magnes. These thinkers called for a bi-national state, in which Jews would enjoy not only constitutionally guaranteed individual rights, but also rights as a collective. I shared with the class my thoughts that many Israel educators would refrain from presenting these views as part of their teaching about Zionism and that, in fact, some might even condemn me for presenting what they might consider to be anti-Zionist ideas. When I asked my students what they thought about the matter some argued that such viewpoints were anti-Zionist because Zionism means a Jewish state, some said that such ideas were not anti-Zionist before the establishment of the State of Israel but that their application today should be considered anti-Zionist, and others recognized these beliefs as Zionist in every way.

One student, however, responded by remarking that the question was a silly, or at least irrelevant, one, and that it had no business being asked in an academic setting. When I asked her what she meant, she responded by arguing that the relevant issues at hand when discussing a political idea about the future of Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) are whether it can be applied in a way which strengthens democracy, human rights, the security of the residents of the Land and the development of Jewish culture in the Land. Whether this policy or another can be defined as Zionist, post-Zionist or even anti-Zionist is simply irrelevant. “Zionism” meant a lot of different things to different people before the State was established – there were thinkers who called for a Jewish state, those who thought such a state was unnecessary, those who thought the status of Jews was the key problem to be resolved and those who thought it was the status of Judaism itself. Only after the establishment of the State did “Zionism” become a tool which could be used to invalidate opposing political views. Today, instead of actually critically analyzing the benefits and drawbacks of this policy or another, one can simply dismiss it as “anti-Zionist.” People attempt to disenfranchise their political opponents through branding them anti-Zionists, instead of actually engaging with their challenging ideas. Such as an act is a demagogic one, similar to dismissing an opponent’s argument by responding that “it’s against the will of God.”

I thought of this discussion when considering the statements of many left-wing politicians, thinkers and public activists who call the settlement enterprise in Judea and Samaria/the West Bank (and previously in the Gaza Strip) “anti-Zionist.” Such name-calling is irrelevant. Criticism of the settlement movement – just like criticism of far-left wing ideas, or any other ideas about the future of Israel for that matter – needs to be based on the same four criteria my student enumerated during the seminar about Zionism. This is not to argue that Zionism is irrelevant per se, but rather that using it as the measure of whether a particular political idea is cogent or not is not a useful exercise when discussing politics in the twenty-first century.

Ilan Bloch is the Director of Teaching Israel.


2 Responses to “It is not a question of Zionism”

  1. Heather Abramson August 25, 2013 at 1:19 pm #

    Good article, Ilan.

    Respect and friendship, Heather Abramson Mahatma Gandhi : “There is no path to peace, peace is the path”

  2. Yael Unterman August 25, 2013 at 6:14 pm #

    Interesting point Ilan, and indeed getting stuck on whether something is “Zionist” or not might well be counterproductive…
    However, there is a reason why people passionately defend their understanding of the definition of Zionism, just as people struggle to define what’s really Jewish and what’s not – and that is because both of those are identity markers (I am a Zionist; I am a Jew) and there are things people do and do not want to identify with when they use those words.

    Hence, when people ask me if I am a Zionist, I first ask them what they mean by it, and then I can ascertain whether I fit their definition or not.

    What with this being an identity issue, as well as an ideological one, I don’t think people are going to give up on that behaviour anytime soon. The best that can be done is to encourage them to unpack the words and find out what’s behind them, without dismissing the words themselves. Words are powerful rallying calls that succinctly pack a world of emotion into one or two words – and they will always be that way, that is their nature.

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