What Zionism REALLY Is

I became involved in some interesting “debates” on Twitter lately regarding Israel and Zionism. Quite a few people were outraged by my claim that the extreme-right in Israel (and their supporters abroad) are, de facto, acting against the best interests of Israel. I called that being “anti-Israeli” and I guess that was a confusing term to use. In fact, I am fully aware that right-wingers would fervently argue that their way is the true “pro-Israeli” ideology and some of them would probably consider me some sort of an anti-Israeli traitor. On the other hand, I have received criticism for declaring myself “a Zionist” – a term that seems to have become a derogatory term in some left-wing circles.

One Twitterer even directly inquired as to what my Zionist role-models were, as I professed to be what I called “mainstream Zionism”. Keeping in mind that as an Israeli I spent over a year in high school learning “Zionism”, even a longish post may be too short to explain it all. Still, it’s better than a 140 characters long tweet, so here goes… a short recap of what Zionism really is.

The Basics (if you don’t know what Zionism even is):

Zionism is a Jewish national movement that began in the 19th century. European Jews were influenced by the European national movements and gave up on becoming integrated within them, faced with antisemitism (demonstrated in the massacres of the Pogroms and the Dreyfus Affair in France).

Zionism argues that the Jews are a nation and not just a religious minority. Since they will never be able to assimilate within Europe, there should be a Jewish state in which the Jewish people can lead its national life.

Zionism and Religion:

Zionism is not about God. Zionism is not about religion. In fact, Herzl was an atheist, as were the “Fathers of Zionism” such as Ben Gurion. In fact, they were very much against religion and their vision for Israel was entirely secular.

Zionism and the Arabs:

Zionism is not about oppressing another people and Zionism is definitely not anti-Arab. In fact, the original Zionists, whether the liberals like Herzl or socialists like Gordon, were all keen advocates of equality for all people, regardless of their ethnic, religious or racial identity.

What’s more, early Zionists idealized the local Arabs. HaShomer, the early Zionist military branch, reached out to the Arabs to learn their ways. They were keen on learning Arabic and communicating with Arabs. They even turned to wearing traditional Arab clothing including Kafiyas. It’s no coincidence that so much of our slang in Hebrew comes from Arabic – Arabic used to be way cool back then.

Zionism and the Community:

Zionism, whether the “hardcore” socialistic kind or not, was also about creating a community with a high level of solidarity. In its more extreme form, this is the idea behind the Kibbutz, but the way I was brought up, caring for others and providing help for others was part of my Zionist upbringing.

My Zionist Role Model:

I’ve mentioned a couple of notable “Fathers of Zionism” here, but if I had to choose a modern-day Zionist role model, Steff Wertheimer gets my vote. An entrepreneur and industrialist, an idealist who created an entire small town in the Upper Galilee based upon his vision. This place, Kfar Vradim (Village of Roses), is a secular modern town, with its own hi-tech industrial area: Tefen Industrial Park) where Arabs from Nazareth and Jews from Kfar Vradim work side by side. Economical development in order to facilitate co-existence is Wertheimer’s vision.

This is my Israel. This is my Zionism.

So much more can be said about Zionism (and has been said!). My hat is off to that movement for performing a small miracle during the 19th and 20th centuries and creating a prosperous country out of pretty much nothing. I am immensely proud of my grandparents for being part of that miracle – in another post I may share their personal tales that highlight various angles in the Zionist narrative.

It has little to do with the Jewish fanatics roaming the hills of Judea and Samaria, pushing Israel into international isolation. These people harm the original Zionist vision of a prosperous modern secular Jewish state that benefits all of its citizens regardless of their ethnicity or religion.

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12 Responses to What Zionism REALLY Is

  1. Peter Weissenstein says:

    Excellent post. You’ve put into words what I get to argue with friends of mine here in the U.S. and in Israel! They say that smiling is contaigious and we should start an epidemic. Let’s do that with this post as well!

  2. lucidnitram says:

    This is a very positive take on Zionism; I wish the reality were this rosy.

    The reality is that the Zionist Movement has resulted in the forced depopulation of 750,000 indigenous Arabs, the establishment of an apartheid state, and the perpetuation of the longest and most brutal military occupation of living memory. The Palestinian people have paid the price for the Europeans’ bigotry and hate. Who will pay the price for Israel’s?

  3. Anya says:

    I hate that “you’re either with us or against us mentality.” I see it here in the States with the right-wing conservatives – if you’re critical of anything the US does, you’re obviously Anti-American and you need to leave. Thanks for explaining your Zionism. I’ve always seen it as a hardcore nationalist movement because that’s what has been portrayed to me. I’m very curious about kibbutz life. I may be idealizing it, but to me it sounds almost like a socialist utopia. I like the idea of solidarity and concern for others.

  4. shahaf ifhar says:

    hi isralimom

    that Zionism sees Judaism as a nation as well as a religion should not go unchallenged just because it is the sentiment of so many. I could just as well decide that being gay is not in fact a sexual orientation but a national belonging, and constitute a state around this concept that would inevitably be racist and label any gays choosing to disown it as self-hating.

    I am well aware of what you describe as your type of Zionism. I too have deep respect to the socialist origins and collective well-wishing of the early Zionists (that existed alongside a deliberate ethnic cleansing of Palestinian non-Jews, admiration of “their ways” notwithstanding), though I am not ready to equate it with Zionism the way you seem to be doing. on an institutional level, I see this as exactly the kind of intellectual muddling that is used to protect Israel from a fair political scrutiny.

    how can we talk of “equal rights” at the same time as “making room for minorities”? Palestinians with Israeli citizenship have no equal rights – have you noticed? this is not some incidental derailing off the path of the socialist Zionist dream – it is its inevitable conclusion. simply because, since Israel sees itself as a Jewish state, it can only tolerate its minorities as long as they stay as minorities – without a national consciousness. many countries are multi-national, in law, demography and practise. Israel will not tolerate that, because it is obsessed with the idea of securing a “Jewish home”. this is why Palestinians in this country are hugely discriminated against – and if some of them are “Zionists” as you say – it is probably because this mechanism of oppression convinced them that it is better to join the system than to fight it. why else would a non-Jew Israeli say “yeah, you know, this Jewish state thing, this law of return, great. keep it there. I love the Jews, I’ll take second place to their children.” because of all the progress and prosperity Jews have supposedly brought to Palestine? this is pure colonial arrogance. have you been to a Palestinian or Druze village in Israel lately? seen the sewage running down the streets?

    as Israelis, we have got to wake up to our own history and reclaim the freedom to redefine citizenship and nationality in this country. nothing short of this will save its future.

  5. Steve says:

    That’s a great and fairly nuanced post in my opinion, Shahaf. The route to equal rights and peaceful coexistence inside Israel is strewn with steps forward, seemingly multiplied by nearly twice as many steps back. It is so depressing watching this take place from the States – another equal opportunity-squashing colonial power. In the end, reasonable and hopeful people like Annette are who keeps the place from blowing up. You can make fun of their naivete and their hopefulness all day long, but they are still a wall that separates the animals in their cages who somehow manage to run all this crap into the ground for political survival reasons. Or for thier version of fun and an incredibly inappropriate and bizarrely misplaced sense of morality.

  6. Josh says:

    I agree and strongly disagree with some of your points 🙂 but Im off to prevent Palestinians from kidnapping soldiers and firing rockets into Israeli towns

  7. Israeli Mom says:

    Thank you everyone for all your comments! I will address some of the points later on – but probably not today. It’s not recommended for recovering from a migraine :p

    Josh, you take care out there. Hope to see you on Shabbat maybe, if you’re not too tired. Will stock up on soy and nuts 😉

  8. Senhal says:

    I’m sorry, but I have to disagree with a a number of your factual assertion (though I do appreciate that you hold to a Zionism that has a number of positive characteristics – so please don’t take it as a full-scale attack on you).

    The Basics:

    Pogroms [and the rise of a variety of Eastern European nationalities]: yes.

    The Dreyfus case: yes and no. In fact, recent scholarship has shown that Herzl didn’t care about while it was ongoing, but only made that claim later, after others had made it a point. There were also non-Zionist reactions, from a renewed effort at re-establishing France’s Enlightenment and Revolutionary ideals of citizenship, to Bernard Lazare’s concept of the ‘conscious pariah’ in ‘Le Nouveau ghetto’.

    The idea of the ‘nation’ is of course a disputed concept, both generally and as far as Jews are concerned, and the idea was bitterly opposed by many Jews. But sure, it essentially formed the basis of the Zionist claims.

    Zionism and the Arabs:

    For some, yes. For the vast majority, no.
    As the Dutch Orientalist LMC van der Hoeven Leonhard, who studied Herzl writings on the issue in his diaries, found:

    The existing landed property was to be gently expropriated, any subsequent resale to the original owners was prohibited, and all the immovables had to remain in exclusively Jewish hands. The poor population was to worked across the frontier ‘unbekempert’ (surreptitiously), after having for Jewish benefit rid the country of any existing wild animals, such as snakes. This population was to be refused all employment in the land of its birth. (Gabriel Piterberg, The Returns of Zionism

    Furthermore, as Adolf Böhm discovered, while he was writing Altneuland Herzl was in (unsuccessful) discussions with the Ottoman empire, and drafted a charter for a proposed Jewish Ottoman Land Company modelled on the colonial companies of Britain and the Netherlands. Clause III of the charter would give the company the right to transfer all the native inhabitants out of Palestine and into other areas of the Ottoman empire.

    Indeed, in the Utopian novel Altneuland, which Herzl insisted should be read as a serious sketch for the future, all the Arabs (save a token character) disappear in the space of twenty years, without a mention of how this happened.

    As to the whole idealising of Arabs I’m not terribly convinced: there are enough accounts of the opposite, and much of the rhetoric (pace North America, South Africa, etc.) was based on the claim that the Arabs had misused and/or underdeveloped the land, and thus had no claim on it. Indeed, your emphasis on ‘creating a prosperous country out of pretty much nothing’ has strong echoes of this canard (which also ignores the actions of the British Mandate authorities, and, of course, the nascent Palestinian national movements: who’s to say what they would have achieved had they not been ethnically cleansed from their land?).

    Zionism and the Community:

    No. I wouldn’t say that solidarity (in a positive or socialist sense) was a defining feature of the Yishuv – as can be seen in the attitude to the ‘yekkes’ (German Jews) and the highly exploitative treatment of Arab Jews imported as cheap (but sort of Jewish) labour from other countries. Zeev Sternhell, in a dry but excellent examination of the political theory and practices of the Yishuv (The Founding Myths of Israel) has definitely established that it cannot be described as socialist, but rather nationalist socialist: all individual and class demands and solidarity was entirely subjugated to the needs of the ‘nation’.

    As far as the kibbutz is concerned, it was not a socialist idea. It was directly modelled on the German colonisation of Posen (Poznan in Poland), which, along with establishing a German claim to the land, was intended to establish a suitable stock of echt Germans – a Blutquelle to serve to revivify the true (manly) Germanness then conceived to be under threat. Arthur Ruppin, the designer and early director of the kibbutz programme, was fully up to date on the latest American and German eugenics theories, and consciously made them the basis for the selection of the kibbutz population. The goal, of course, was to create the ‘New Jew’ (pace Max Nordau and others), and eradicating the old, effeminate and effete – indeed degenerate – Jew, too preoccupied with intellectual concerns and the related professions. A frequent complaint from Yishuv officials to the immigration officials in Europe – who selected those who could be part of the quota of immigrants to Palestine – is about the terrible ‘human material’ they’re sent – all these old, ill, useless Jews – and, indeed, in certain circumstances threats to send people back if they didn’t rapidly improve their selection procedure.

    One may, of course, see aspects of this in how various kibbutzes – and Israeli society in general (cf, e.g., Segev, The Seventh Million) treated Holocaust survivors. (I never want to read his chapter on the children again: it made me sick to the stomach.)

    Steff Wertheimer I can’t comment upon.

    I applaud, in part, what you sketch as your Zionist ideals, but I do not see much of it in the current practices of the Israeli state, nor, indeed, in those of much of its population; and, with a few exceptions (e.g. Judah Magnes), I don’t see much of it in the ‘founding ideals’.

  9. Steve says:

    Senhal – It’s cruel and politically incorrect to the max, but I had to laugh at the characterization of those people who you mention were “chosen” to settle in the new Israel as “terrible human material, all these old, ill, useless Jews.”

    I would think spending 4 years in Concentration Camps would make me “old and useless” (as all hell) long before my time as well.

    The “Kibbutz” could just as easily have come from the original settlers of the United States as well. For the longest time, it was – at best – severely “non urban”. These “communes” – as well as their later equivalents in America such as New Harmony and even Mormons which were always all the rage – the Utopian village” – used to pass the insane among them as well as minor criminals, from family to family and house to house. They really defy definition in many ways into a convenient niche. The efficacy of the kibbutz is only seen over time as an agricultural aid and a means to solidarity and an informed public, IMO only. The international basis of them screams of a sensible and fortunate masterstroke of cooperation. People from all over the world have been to them and had a good time, working hard and meeting others in a working type environment. That it helps Israel is a given, but it actually does more.

  10. Steve says:

    Senhal – another note, sorry, Annette. I enjoyed your post, lol. I did not mean to demean a thing you said. Your scholarship and your take are unique to me and interesting. There are elements of European thinking which, to this day, mystify regarding Israel and their take on Jews in general. I appreciate your intelligent view of things.

  11. Israeli Mom says:

    Ok, work for today is more or less done, so let’s tackle some comments.

    @shahaf ifhar

    There is definitely a challenge between democracy and maintaining a national identity. It exists not only in Israel. Look at the problems in the US over the Spanish language. Look at France and legislation against Muslim dress codes. Why are other countries allowed to fight for establishing their national cultural identity and Israel is not? I feel we have established something here, culturally, with a unique language, code of behavior, culture, movies, music, the whole bundle. It already is wonderfully influenced by the Arab culture too. I want to retain that identity and see nothing wrong with that.

    As for the so called “demographic” issues of keeping the Arabs as a minority. Honestly, I am much more worried with internal demographic issues within the Jewish population. I don’t really care if a citizen is Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, or whatever – I am just looking to strengthen my country with progressive secular elements.

    And in case I haven’t made myself clear yet – I object to the Law of Return in its current form.


    Thank you for the detailed comment – I do not take it as a personal attack in any way or form.

    Thanks for clarifying on the Dreyfus affair – it doesn’t really change my argument much.

    Zionism and the Arabs:
    As I said, I was reflecting on a certain stream in Zionism – the one I grew up with. I assume that when I said “creating a prosperous land out of nothing” it may have sounded a bit like the old Zionist adage of “a country without people for a people without a country”. This was not what I meant. I was speaking about the admirable, IMO, way in which this small group of people have managed to pull this country from intense poverty in the 1940’s and 1950’s into what it is today. Other countries have done similar things – and they are just as worthy of admiration, IMHO.

    As for the famous “a country without people for a people without a country” quote, to me it’s indicative of the colonialist tendency to ignore the presence of indigenous people in general. These people are at best transparent and at worst some sort of a pest to be rid of or controlled. Wrong? of course, by our standards. No argument there. The perception has to be evaluated though by late 19th century standards, and not by 21st century ones.

    Zionism and the Community:
    You bring up valid points. Sure, things on the ground were far from perfect. We are talking about people, and many of them are the product, again of early 20th century thinking. It does not contradict the fact that in my very Zionist upbringing, values of giving to others, solidarity, the importance of social cohesion were central.

    Last, but definitely not least:
    You said, “I applaud, in part, what you sketch as your Zionist ideals, but I do not see much of it in the current practices of the Israeli state, nor, indeed, in those of much of its population”

    I am very much in agreement with you there. I have this other post brewing in my head with the title of “Who Moved My Zionism”. I open the newspaper and read about so many wrongs done in the name of this country it makes me sick. Not just vis-a-vis the Palestinians, but concerning refugees from other people, religious enforcement issues, and lots more. These are so not the ideals I was brought up on. So not what we were taught in school. The point of this post was more along the lines of: “I’m a Zionist, but that does not make me a bad person – at least not necessarily.”

    What is my Zionism today about? I guess it’s about maintaining that unique Israeli identity we have developed here over the years. About preventing it from sliding too much to the right, and from turning overly religious.

  12. Al Walker says:

    Lets be real here, the truth is obvious to those willing to see it, or have you not heard “I am unable to see a forrest due to all the trees in my way”?
    When the influence ISLAM holds over its brainwashed followers is neutralized then and only then will your dream of a Zionist inspired Free state of Israel be possible in the middle east.
    Can you be so blind you have not seen how for 20 plus years the corrupt Yassir arafat stole the billions given to ease the plight of Palestinians but they willingly lived in squalor because Islamic leaders told them they must?
    Stolen millions kept Arafats wife living like a queen in Englands or France but even when the palestinian people found out arafat had become so rich while he was their leader they blamed Zionists for planting the money on her just to hurt arafat!
    Can you ever reason with such brainwashed people? Can you give them your hand and be sure it will not be cut off on instructions from a moolha?
    Mom please wake up and be strong or you will leave a world in which your children are at the mercy of evil again.
    Christian armenians of Turkey saw what weakness & a desire to be reasonable gave them when followers of islam killed 1.5 million of them in 1915 turkey!
    So please do not ever let the world see again what happened to the jewish citizens of Europe & Russia. YOU MUST NOT FORGET “NEVER AGAIN”!