What Is Zionism?

Aaron Simons

Few words have become as flexible as ‘Zionism’. All at once, Zionism has become synonymous with Israel, nationalism, Jewish liberation, oppression, support for Israel, colonialism, Jewish identity, racism, anti-racism, nation-state theory, ultra-nationalism, ethnic exclusivism, Jewish heritage, occupation, territorial maximalism, and much else.

Any party with a stake in Israel and Palestine likes to claim and redefine the term as if that constitutes winning the debate. By rendering Zionism synonymous with support for Israel, sympathetic but critical voices are invalidated. By making Zionism and colonialism one and the same, there is no place for any sympathy with the Zionist narrative. By making Zionism and Judaism the same, any opposition to Zionism is construed as anti-Semitism.

Far from winning the debate, the politics of terminology over Zionism is largely a pathetic attempt to suppress debate. Instead of engaging with the issues at hand, debate is shut down, as the topic of the debate already comes preloaded with a final judgement. If someone says that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, any debate on Zionism is automatically shut down. Likewise, saying Zionism is colonialism does not win a debate, rather it just suppresses it. The merits and criticisms of Zionism cannot be discussed when the definition itself becomes a loaded one. Opposing views simply use different definitions and shout over each other at deafening volume.

To move away from the politics of terminology into genuine debate, it is worthwhile outlining a basic definition of Zionist ideology. This means looking not at actions or consequences of Zionism, or what has been done in the name of Zionism, or interpretations of Zionism, but at what the basic premises of Zionist ideology actually are.

Zionist ideology contains three key premises. Zionism claims that 1) the Jewish people 2) should have self-determination in a national home 3) in the land of Israel.

Like most ideologies, each premise here is a separate conceptual claim. If we are to have any meaningful discussion on what it means to be Zionist, we need a clear and nuanced understanding of what each principle entails.

Zionism’s first principle: the Jewish people

This is an often overlooked but nonetheless important aspect of Zionism. Zionism is Jewish nationalism, claiming that the Jews are a not merely a religious group, but a people or nation. Zionism argues firstly that modern Jewish identity has all the characteristics of nationhood: a shared history, culture, common identity, tradition, and religious heritage. The idea of the Jewish people is the first premise of Zionism, and a building block for its later arguments.

The principle of Jewish peoplehood today goes largely unchallenged, as it does accurately describe contemporary Jewish identity.  Historically, however, this was not always the case. Zionism triggered dramatic intra-communal debates on the nature of Jewish identity in the 1930s and 1940s, between those who claimed Jewish identity was solely religious and those who claimed it was national. Similarly, today many ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel are explicitly anti-Zionist, as they reject any idea that Jewish identity can be based on anything other than adherence to the laws of the Torah. The concept of Jewish peoplehood also has important implications for Israel as the Jewish state today, as it is this concept which defines the members of the national community.

Zionism’s second principle: self-determination in a national home

Zionism argues that the Jewish nation, like other nations, should have national self-determination in a national home. It is this principle which is at the core of Zionism, but also its lack of specificity places this principle at the centre of the various strands of Zionism. In its most basic form, this principle means the Jewish people should be free to live as they like, in control of their own lives, rather than relying on the benevolence of others as an ethno-national minority.

The various strands of Zionism diverge at this point. There is divergence over what political form the national home should take to fulfil the idea of self-determination. The political Zionism of Herzl argued that a Jewish state was required, whilst Ahad Ha’am’s vision of cultural Zionism argued a state was unnecessary. Many Jews envisioned a Jewish state but had no idea how it would come about, imagining decades of immigration under British or American control. Revisionist Zionism, led by Jabotinsky, argued for a romantic militaristic Jewish state based on an ‘Iron Wall’ against Arab opposition. The binationalist Zionists, such as Henrietta Szold and Judah Magnes, sought a single unitary state of Jews and Arabs. Radical socialist Zionism also sought one state based on the unity of the working classes.

There is also divergence at here over what principles the Jewish national home, and then the Jewish State, should embody. Labour Zionism argued that the Jewish state should be secular and socialist, based on the communal living of the kibbutz and moshav. Cultural Zionism saw the Jewish state as a means to inspire a national cultural and religious revival, educating the Jews of the diaspora. Religious Zionism saw the Jewish state as key to restoring the Jewish faith to a messianic age, and today sees settling in the biblical lands of Israel (the West Bank, or Judea and Samaria) as central to this goal. Liberal Zionism emphasises democratic values and the protection of human rights.

Zionism as a whole cannot be reduced to any of its individual interpretations. Zionism is only the broader principle from which all these interpretations are derived. The differing interpretations of Zionism remain at the core of Israeli politics today. Netanyahu’s Likud follow Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionism, sitting in coalition with the religious Zionist parties. Herzog’s Zionist Union is the inheritor of Labour Zionism, whilst Yesh Atid, Kadima, and Meretz all carry strands of liberal Zionism.

Zionism’s third principle: the land of Israel

Zionism holds that the location of the Jewish national home should be in the land of Israel. This is based on the presence and status of the land of Israel in Jewish texts, scripture, and history. Quite simply, the Jewish homeland could not be anywhere else. The importance of the land varies according to the strands of Zionism, ranking highest in religious Zionism due to its emphasis on the land’s biblical heritage.

Ideology in Context

None of this is intended to preclude criticism of Zionist ideology, or to whitewash the history of Zionism, or to invalidate interpretations of Zionism, critical or otherwise. Defining Zionism by its own ideological claims sets a common basis for what Zionism fundamentally is. It does not mean that Zionism has to be accepted, or that it is free from judgement. Nor does it free Zionism from interpretation. Zionism can be interpreted both as a liberation movement and as a colonial movement, but neither interpretation fundamentally changes this definition.

What is required is an end to the politics of terminology, whereby interpretation and judgement are interwoven with definition. Redefining Zionism is not a substitute for argument; it is rhetorical isolationism. Attempting to redefine Zionism in this way simply fragments debate into a series of misfiring echo-chambers, each unable to engage with opposing views. If any substantive debate on Zionism is to occur, it is time to move beyond such pettiness.