I’m a progressive. My politics are of a social-democratic variety. I’m Jewish. And I’m a Zionist.
The last phrase is going to raise the hackles of some readers, perhaps a lot of readers, just as my hackles are raised when I read people attacking Zionism. It has taken me awhile to puzzle this out, although the explanation is, I think, pretty straightforward: we mean radically different things by the word “Zionism”. For someone of my generation (born in the 1950s), and even more so for my parents’ and grandparents’ generations, Zionism was a radically hopeful and forward-thinking ideology behind the movement for establishment of a Jewish homeland. It was about gestures such as planting trees in Israel in honor of a boy’s bar mitzvah. It was about rebirth from the ashes of the Nazi death camps and the pogroms of the Russian Empire. It was about self-reliant social democracy as represented by the kibbutz. And it was pretty much a reflexive attitude among Jews. I’m going to call this ideology Zionism1. For many on the political left today, however, Zionism has nothing to do with any of what I just mentioned. Instead, it’s a reactionary ideology in the service of the repression of Palestinian Arabs, inextricably linked with the corrupt and distinctly unpleasant Benjamin Netanyahu and with evangelical “Christian Zionists”. I’m going to call this latter ideology Zionism2.
There’s nothing in common between Zionism1 and Zionism2.
I’ve called out some diarists here whose critiques of Israel and Zionism have, in my opinion, crossed the line into using dog whistles that evoke traditional anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish control of the media, say, or Jews as disloyal to the countries where they live. I find this sort of dog whistling to be distressingly common in the pages of certain left publications, with Counterpunch my Exhibit A.
One rebuttal to what I’ve just written is commonly framed as “you’re just trying to discredit all criticism of Israel by portraying it as anti-Semitic”. Not at all. Israel has plenty to answer for. Half a century of occupation of Palestinian territories ought to be regarded with distress and anger. But distress and anger don’t justify stupid anti-Semitic dog whistles.
Another rebuttal is commonly framed as “you’re intentionally conflating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism”. And here we get tripped up by that word “Zionism”. Those using this rebuttal equate Zionism with what I’ve called Zionism2; if they’ve ever even heard of what I’ve called Zionism1, they probably regard it as some sort of fossil and of no relevance whatsoever. They are very mistaken.
So where am I going with this? Most simply put, consider this a plea for making your arguments clear and for avoiding terminology whose definition is unclear or contested. If Zionism for you is what I’ve called Zionism2, ditch the term entirely and write about the particulars. Sure, it’ll take you an extra two or three minutes, but you’ll be forced to be precise and you’ll wind up with a stronger argument in the end. But if you instead opt for lazy, familiar labeling, expect pushback.