Think Twice Before Using the Term ‘Zionism’

Noah Lachs and Joel Collick

“Zionists are not welcome here” was the statement released in June by the administrators of NoHeterox**, Oxford’s online forum for the Queer and Trans community. NoHeterox** justified their position “because we are anti-colonialist; we are anti-empire”, before a post called for the expulsion of all “Zios”. On Skin Deep, Oxford’s largest platform for the discussion of racism, Jews have been labelled “Zionist infiltrators” or simply “Zionists” by members when flagging up anti-Semitism. explains how “Zionism = Racism”.

Critics of Israel love to use the word ‘Zionism’. It’s rhetorically punchy, and creates an all-encompassing enemy that all criticism can be focused on. Many unconnected people and organisations use “Zionist” as a catch-all term for everything and anything connected to Israel, or as an insult, or as a synonym for occupation, colonialism, racism, and control.

Where do the pejorative connotations come from? For many, the answers are the Nakba, the Palestinian refugee crisis, occupation, settler expansionism, and so on. These are each topics for discussion in their own right, and all deserve attention. But it is a misinterpretation of Zionism, as well as selective simplification and deep-set prejudice that elicit the kind of statements above.

There are three reasons to be cautious, clear and specific when using the term ‘Zionism’ in discussion of Israel and Palestine.

Firstly, the complete amalgamation of Zionism with all these related and unrelated issues is just factually wrong. It is important to separate Zionism from the State of Israel. Zionism is Jewish nationalism; the belief in the Jewish people’s right to self-determine in the land of Israel. Since 1942, Zionism chose the path of statehood to fulfil these national aspirations, with the State of Israel coming into formation in 1948. It is a state like many other states, with leaders, institutions, and policies.

Railing against Zionism or Zionists in order to criticise Israeli policy, institutions, socio-religious groups, and policy, misses the crucial difference between an ideology that supports the existence of the State, and the subsequent actions of that State.  

Zionism is not actions done by Israel, or a politician who wins just 25% of the vote in Knesset elections. Zionism is not the discrimination and racism experienced by Israeli Arabs, or even Mizrahi and Ethiopian Jews. It is not a byword for Palestinian oppression. Many Zionists oppose all these things.

That is not to say Zionism itself is free from analysis. Nor is it to deny that Zionism has historically caused injustices, or that certain interpretations of Zionism play a direct role in Israel and the Israel-Palestine conflict today. However it is to say, that if you are using the word ‘Zionism’, be aware that you are not tackling these specific interpretations of Zionism, or just the occupation, or the IDF. It means you are tackling nothing less than the entire basic concept of Jewish national self-determination.

Secondly, Zionism is not a monolithic entity. Zionists do not represent an organized mass conspiracy of malign intent. Zionism, as the broad principle of Jewish nationalism, includes within it a speckled cohort of conflicting voices, independently projecting their own interpretation of what Jewish self-determination should look like.

Many Zionists shudder at the thought of Binyamin Netanyahu, while others venerate him. Zionism can be religious and secular. Some Zionists aspire to territorial maximalism, depriving the Palestinians of a state. Most Zionists don’t believe in this vision and favour a two state-solution. Some Zionists think Israel should give preferential treatment to its Jewish citizens. Other Zionists think this is abhorrent. All these groups claim the mantle of Zionism, as they share a belief in its core principles.

There is a tendency on the left to subsume all of these groups into one, and that one is normally the worst incarnation of Zionism. To extract the least palatable aspects of a broad-church ideology to represent an entire belief system is not only lazy but disingenuous and prejudiced. There is an added irony too, in that by seeking to divide those who support and criticise the State of Israel into ‘Zionists’ and ‘Anti-Zionists’, the left excludes Zionists who are harsh critics of Israel and also desire change.

Thirdly, there is another group which also uses ‘Zionism’ as a catch-all term: anti-Semites. Contemporary anti-Semitism masks itself using the word Zionism. The story goes as follows; the Zionist lobby instructs international policy, the Zionist banks finance it, the Zionist media pumps out propaganda, and Zionist forces execute racist imperial oppression, globally. It is in this vein that David Duke, blamed “the Ziomedia” for falsely reporting that he had endorsed Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, and Saxophonist Gilad Atzmon attributed Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity to party members’ “fatigue” with “Zionist interventionist wars” – presumably referring to Iraq.

These kind of conspiracies blend dated anti-Semitic tropes with contemporary accounts of Palestinian oppression. It is not only those on the political fringes that are responsible. To quote Liberal Democrat Peer, Baroness Tonge “The pro-Israel lobby has got its grips on the Western world, its financial grips. I think they’ve probably got a grip on our party”.

Indeed some portrayals of Zionism reel into the downright disgusting. The Independent published a cartoon of Ariel Sharon eating a Palestinian baby in 2003, reimagining the blood libel slur for the 21st century. Anti-Zionism and anti-Semitic tropes coincided recently in the title of Samantha Comizzoli’s documentary, “Israel, the Cancer”. This presentation of Israel as an unassailable far-reaching sickness carries haunting echoes of some of Europe’s worst anti-Semitic propaganda.

Needless to say, to criticise Israel—its government, its policy, its military, and its judiciary; the racism in its society, the settlements, and the occupation; even the conditions and events of its founding—is not necessarily anti-Semitic.

However, if your statement sounds like a Der Stürmer headline with the word ‘Zionist’ substituted for the word ‘Jew’, it obviously carries anti-Semitic overtones. Remember that NoHeterox** statement? “Zionists are not welcome here.”

Whether or not you mean to be anti-Semitic is irrelevant if you’re using language and images of anti-Semitism. Jews shouldn’t have to decode what is political critique and what is vicious hatred. The burden should not be on Jews.

By all means say you’re anti-occupation, condemn the Nakba, and rail against racism in Israel. Critique Zionism itself, if you’re being very specific about what you’re critiquing. But for all three of the reasons above, stop using Zionism as a coat-hook for every Israel-associated grievance, or indeed anti-Jewish sentiment that you might harbour.