23 February 2014

What does the word “Zionism” mean?

In the course of the long essay Apartheid and Zionism : Precise Definitions, Visceral Ontologies, Lev Lafayette offers an instructive capsule history of “Zionism” which demonstrates why slogans like “Zionism is racism” are an irresponsible misrepresentation.

In 1975 the United Nations General Assembly “determine[d] that Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination” by a vote of 72 to 35 with 32 abstentions. In 1991, the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 46/86 adopted on December 16, 1991, revoked Resolution 3379, by a vote of 111 to 25, with 13 abstentions. The change in vote had much to do with the realignment of the global balance of power following the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite states. For a political philosophy however, the question is not the successes of the resolutions, but rather which of the resolutions are true.

It is from the insightful classic paper of Abdeen Jabara that some basic definitional assessments can be made. Racism, as Jabara illustrates from the The International Convention on Racial Discrimination, notes that there must be exclusion preferences based on race, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin that have the purpose or effect of impairing the equal exercise of basic freedoms. The segregational aspect of such policies expressed in a inhuman manner constitutes the crime of apartheid. Jabara makes a case that Zionism engages in racism, as it argues that Jews are members of a single nation that requires a single nation-state. Rather sensibly, criticism is made of the implausible claim of Jewish as a nationality, the enormous influence of the exclusive land laws, and the numerous examples of discriminatory laws. A conclusion is reached that Zionism was a colonial force that dispossesed an existing population of their lands in the formation of a new state.

But is this really what Zionism means, and what is required of it? On August 29, 1897, the First Zionist Congress in Basel adopted the definition that “Zionism aims at establishing for the Jewish people a publicly and legally assured home in Palestine”. Theodor Herzl wrote in his diary a few days later: “At Basel I founded the Jewish State”. But there is enormous difference between “homeland” and “state”. Herzl's opinions on the matter are well-known; he certainly wanted a statehood for the Jewish people as a matter of priority. But others disagreed such as the cultural Zionists, led by Ahad Ha’am, who sought primarily a revival of Jewish religious identity and the Hebrew language (the “eastern” Chibbath Zion) over political statehood (the “western” Zioniyuth). Following his first trip to Palestine in 1891, Ha'am had the following to say — one can only wonder what he would think of the situation today:

We must surely learn, from both our past and present history, how careful we must be not to provoke the anger of the native people by doing them wrong, how we should be cautious in our dealings with a foreign people among whom we returned to live, to handle these people with love and respect and, needless to say, with justice and good judgment. And what do our brothers do? Exactly the opposite!

From the two fundamentally different orientations, a myriad of variations developed. The majority viewpoint combined both the religious revivialism with nationalism utilising a Statist approach, often with revanchist attitudes of a Jewish State, although rarely to the extremist position of extending over the entirety of Eretz Yisrael Hashlemah (“from the brook of Egypt to the Euphrates”, Genesis 15:18-21). From the cultural-religious perspective, emphasis was placed on reviving cultural identification. In some cases that meant a religious rejection of a Jewish state, such as with the small Haredi sect, Neturei Karta. In others, it became a Hebrew (rather than Judiac) nationalism, such as with the Canaanites. Among the more liberal perspectives something akin to the unification of Chibbath Zion and Zioniyuth was sought — a state that would be simultaneously Jewish and democratic.

A smaller tangent developed among those who rejected Jewish statism, but supported the concept of a Jewish homeland in Palestine — a democratic, liberal, secular, and socialistic Palestine. Chief among these advocates are luminary figures such as Albert Einstein, Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt, and Noam Chomsky. Einstein supported a Jewish homeland in Palestine, but opposed the establishment of a Jewish state and the proposals to partition Palestine into independent Arab and Jewish countries, and even moreso, the existence of separate armed forces. Martin Buber, the famous existentalist, agreed. Deeply committed to the Zionist project as a spiritual and anarcho-socialist endeavour, as a member of Brit Shalom, he too argued for a bi-national rather than for a Jewish state in Palestine. The ever-astute Arendt, was of a similar perspective. Her writings in the 1940s predicted the Nakba, an unending conflict, of Israel's dependence on the American Jewish community and a rising conflict with the same as the country trends towards a nationalistic conservatism, and the rise of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism in response — all of which can be summarised with her pithy and tragic brilliance: “... a Jewish state can only be erected at the price of the Jewish homeland”.

Finally, it is well known that Chomsky's Zionism is more influenced by labour and socialist perspectives that sought Arab-Jewish working-class cooperation for socialist binational Palestine and that he was associated with groups like Hashomer Ha’tzair. He points out that mainstream Zionism at the time included opposition to the “the deeply antidemocratic concept of a Jewish state”. In the 1990's Chomsky argued in favour of a two-state solution for two peoples with aspirations for self-determination. More recently, he has become a stronger advocate for the more principed position of a binational secular state “from the sea to the river”. Of course, as has been pointed out in the past, the issue isn't one, two, or many states, but rather the content of those states — where secularism, civil liberties, and democratic rights equate with the “a zero State solution”.


In reference to the the two UN General Assembly resolutions it should be evident that Zionism as such does not equate to racism, let alone a form colonialism. It can represent the legitimate desire of a dispersed and ethnically varied religious community to a spiritual and even linguistic reawakening and to identify with a geographical area as their historically meaningful homeland after centuries of extreme persecution. But it has also been most certainly in the name of Zionism that racially-inspired policies of violent invasions, dispossessions, and continuing oppression continues to this day against the Palestinian Arabs (not to mention the apocalyptic visions by Christian Zionists). But by the same token, in introducing the revoking resolution to the General Assembly, George W. Bush commented to equate Zionism to racism is to reject Israel's right to exist. How extraordinary it is to think that “nations”, those “imagined communities” to use Benedict Anderson's phrase, or even “States”, have rights when the rights of real flesh-and-blood human beings are quite forgotten.

I've been meaning to write about this for years and am relieved that Lafayette has done a better job of it than I would have.

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