Demystifying Zionism

By Rabkin, Yakov M. | Canadian Dimension, November-December 2009 | Go to article overview
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Demystifying Zionism

Rabkin, Yakov M., Canadian Dimension

THE WORD "ZIONISM" MEANS DIFFERENT THINGS to different people. Some use it a badge of honour, unconditionally defending the state of Israel right or wrong. Yet, many Zionists take offense at the designation of Israel as a Zionist state. They insist that it is a "Jewish state," a "state of the Jewish people." Quite a few people who identify themselves as Zionists, are distressed by what Israel is and does, but remain reluctant to express their distress in public. Others, including quite a few Israelis, see Zionism as the main obstacle to peace in Israel/Palestine, a path to collective suicide. And, finally, in some circles the word is used as an insult.



Zionism is a product of European history and one of the last movements in contemporary history that set out to transform humanity and society. Both Zionists and their opponents agree that Zionism and the State of Israel constitute a revolution in Jewish history, a revolution that began with the emancipation and the secularization of European Jews in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Secularization, which affected many Jews in Europe, was a necessary, though not a sufficient, factor in the emergence of Zionism. Another important factor was the resistance against the entry of Jews into European society, which coalesced into the secular ideology of racial anti-Semitism. Unlike Christian anti-Judaism, which aimed at salvation through conversion, modern anti-Semitism considered Jews to be a race or a people intrinsically alien, even hostile, to Europe, its population, and its civilization.

Secularization also revolutionized Jewish identity from within: traditional Jews can be distinguished by what they do or should do; the new Jews by what they are. While they practice the same religion, it would be truly daring to assume that Jews from Poland, Yemen, and Morocco belong to the same ethnic group, let alone are descendents of the Biblical Hebrews. Some, such as Professor Shlomo Sand of Tel-Aviv University, argue that the Jewish people, as an ethnic concept, was simply "invented" for the needs of Zionism in the late 19th century: after all, one needs a nation to be a nationalist.

In the words of the late Professor Yeshayahu Lei-bowitz of Hebrew University in Jerusalem:

  The historical Jewish people was defined neither as a race, nor as a
  people of this country or that, or of this political system or that,
  nor as a people that speaks the same language, but as the people of
  Torah Judaism and of its commandments, as the people of a specific
  way of life, both on the spiritual and the practical plane, a way of
  life that expresses the acceptance of ... the yoke of the Torah and
  of its commandments. This consciousness exercised its effect from
  within the people. It formed its national essence; it maintained
  itself down through the generations and was able to preserve its
  identity irrespective of times or circumstances.

Zionism rejected the traditional definition in favour of a modern national one. In this sense, Zionists accepted the anti-Semites' view of the Jews as a distinct people or race and, moreover, internalized much of the anti-Semitic blame directed at the Jews, accused of being degenerate unproductive parasites.

Zionists set out to reform and redeem the Jews from their sad condition. In the words of Professor Elie Barnavi, former Israeli ambassador in Paris: "Zionism was an invention of intellectuals and assimilated Jews ... who turned their back on the rabbis and aspired to modernity, seeking desperately for a remedy for their existential anxiety." Most Jews rejected Zionism from the very beginning. They saw that Zionists played into the hands of their worst enemies, the anti-Semites: the latter wanted to be rid of Jews while the former wanted to gather them to Israel. The founder of Zionism, Theodore Herzl, considered anti-Semites "friends and allies" of his movement.

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