Defending Zionism in a Time of Occupation and Oppression

By Zunes, Stephen | Tikkun, March/April 2004 | Go to article overview

Defending Zionism in a Time of Occupation and Oppression


Zunes, Stephen, Tikkun


As someone who has emerged in recent years as one of the more prominent academic supporters of Palestinian national rights and critics of Israeli policies and U.S support for the Israeli government, many people are surprised that I am unwilling to categorically denounce Zionism.

I am not at all oblivious to the many crimes committed in the name of Zionism, but there is often real confusion as to how one defines it. Many supporters of the Palestinian cause tend to portray Zionism as its worst historical manifestations (just as many supporters of Israel do the same for Palestinian nationalism). Certainly, if Zionism is defined as an ideology which advocates dispossession, oppression, and racism-which, unfortunately, is how most Palestinians have experienced it-I have no problems calling myself anti-Zionist.

However, there is something fundamentally wrong with someone who does not identify with a certain ideology defining what that ideology is. (One can only remember Rev. Pat Robertson's definition of feminism as an ideology which teaches women to "leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.")

This confusion has been exacerbated by the tendency of some American Zionist leaders to imply that one can only be a true Zionist by blindly supporting Israeli government policies.

What, then, is the nature of Zionism?

The creation of modern Israel was based in part on the premise that only by establishing a Jewish nation-state would Jews be safe from the waves of oppression which had occurred in virtually every country in which they had lived, especially in the West. Ironically, the relationship of Israel to its Western backers, particularly the United States, has actually perpetuated and exacerbated anti-Jewish attitudes (including those on the Left) and has strengthened institutional structures which perpetuate what is commonly known as anti-Semitism.

The modern Zionist movement began at the height of European nationalism. In certain respects, it is ironie that it was not until the Enlightenment-which for the first time allowed Jews to participate in largely Christian societies-thai Jewish nationalism came into being. However, while Jews could finally be accepted as part of the larger society under certain conditions, the rise of nationalism led to continued persecution because they could not be accepted as true members of the nation. Jews were still perceived as exiles and thereby of questionable loyalty, as dramatically illustrated in the Dreyfus Affair. Their Jewish identity denied them a nationality of their own. To be treated as equal citizens, Jews had to assimilate, thereby negating many of the cultural and religious aspects of their heritage which made the Jewish identity special. The nation-state, whatever its faults, has been the primary vehicle during this era by which historically oppressed groups have been able to develop and defend autonomous social institutions, which is what made nationalism a largely progressive force; thus, Zionism was born.

Zionism is based in part on the fear of annihilation. Indeed, many of the worst pogroms occurred during the culmination of the Enlightenment. Still, the Jewish community was divided on the question throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The Holocaust vindicated the Zionists throughout most of the Ashkenazi community, in that it demonstrated the extreme vulnerability of Jews as a minority population in the Western world and physically eliminated most of the non-Zionists in Nazi-occupied Europe. The persecution of Jews in the Arab world following the establishment of Israel led the Sephardic community-which had been living in relative security compared to their European counterparts for many centuries-to likewise embrace Zionism and immigrate en masse to the new Jewish state.

The simplest and most accurate way to define Zionism is that of Jewish nationalism. …

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