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Neologism and Nationalism

There has never been agreement about Zionism.  Not only is the idea of Jewish nationalism controversial, the very word “Zionism” arouses unique passions, as a recent controversy highlights.  It was recently reported that the Jewish Federation of North America had dropped the word “Zionism” from a planning document.  In a vehement denial, the Federation clarified that this was not so: It was merely a single individual on a subcommittee who proposed dropping the phrase “Zionist enterprise.”  The proposal, the Federation emphasized, went nowhere. 

So, the word Zionism, uniquely among terms related to nationalist movements, arouses attacks and defenses.  But is “Zionism” even a useful or relevant term in the 21st century? And what does the answer to this question say about the state of the Jews and the Jewish state?

The term Zionism was invented in 1890 by Nathan Birnbaum in his periodical Selbstemanzipation! (Self-Emancipation!) to describe a national-political movement for the restoration of Jews to “Zion.”  The term was popularized by Theodor Herzl, then used to characterize movements ranging from cultural to labor-oriented, from religious to secular.

The plasticity of the term is not just a modern phenomenon.  The term “Zion” appears in the Bible over 100 times.  It referred originally to the Jebusite fortress in Jerusalem conquered by David, then to a hill in Jerusalem. Most commonly, it was a synonym for the land as a whole, especially in exilic times.  Israel and Judah were the names of the biblical-era kingdoms of the north and south, respectively, one destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 B.C.E. and the other by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E.  But, unsurprisingly, the exilic authors—like Birnbaum and his successors—found “Zion” a more encompassing term to describe the national movement, since it blends the religious, territorial, and national dimensions of the aspiration to restore Jewish sovereignty.

Zionism was among the last European-based nationalist movements.  It had odd features, including the fact that it was based initially only in a diaspora.  Even stranger was its success: A Jewish national home was created.  The name “Zion” was rejected, and the state was named Israel; but the term for the national movement, Zionism, has remained.  Thus the neologism invented to describe a national movement was retained after the nation-state was successfully created under a different name.  The term Zionism is now an anachronism, only slightly less so than “self-emancipation.”  But what could possibly take its place?

Most national movements do not have associated neologisms.  There is no specific term for Brazilian nationalism, at least one known in the broader world.  The Breton nationalist movement—Emsav—and Kemalism, the “six-arrowed” national ideology of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey—are equally unknown outside their countries’ borders.  But Zionism is known globally, and reviled globally.

Since the beginning, Zionism’s enemies have made a uniquely concerted effort to wrest control of the term from its proponents, to besmirch the brand.  The infamous 1975 United Nations General Assembly resolution declaring that “Zionism is racism” was the culmination of over two decades of patient Soviet propaganda, eagerly consumed and amplified by the Muslim, Arab, and non-aligned worlds.  Since then, Zionism has become the paradigm of “extreme nationalism,” imperialism, and “settler-colonialism” in the eyes of intellectuals and activists alike.  The term “Zionist entity” so favored by Palestinian and Arab spokesman is an explicit statement that the idea and reality of a Jewish state are illegitimate.  To defend Zionism is, in some circles, to defend an almost mythically evil concept. 

Attacks on Zionism are thus clarifying.  Enemies of “Zionism,” as a term and a concept, attack not just the actual state of Israel but the aspirational aspect of Jewish nationalism and Jewish sovereignty.  That is, it attacks the very idea of a Jewish state as illegitimate, not simply the manner in which the state conducts itself. If such attacks were founded in uniform opposition to all nationalism, they would at least have some consistency and intellectual foundation—but, of course, they are not.

It should be said simply that attacks directed solely at Zionism and not at any other national movement are anti-Semitism.  When Jewish—not Breton or Turkish, Irish or Iraqi—nationalism is deemed illegitimate and the actual state of Israel condemned to extinction in the name of “historical justice” or some other Orwellian euphemism, this is an especially pure example of anti-Semitism.  So, too, is the relegation of Jews to a permanent diaspora and, thus, perpetual minority status.  Whether or not such condemnations come from Jews is irrelevant.  Jews need not live in Israel or even support Israel, but to deny the idea of a Jewish state is to deny Jews their past and future.

The sad reality is that defending the term Zionism—not “Israelism” or some still newer neologism to describe the Israeli nation-state, as opposed to the Jewish nation—defends the past and future of the Jewish people, history and aspiration as well as the present reality.  Equally sad is that Zionism must always be on the defensive, always responding to yet another attack or lie, always patiently explaining Jewish history and Jews’ rights to a state in their own land.  

But there is another, prospective dimension.  All national projects are works in progress.  The term Zionism must be retained; but the content is continually reformulated, consciously or not.  The challenge is to make the process of reformulation conscious and explicit.  

Israelis hotly debate Zionism as it relates to culture, to the religious-secular divide, to Arab minorities, and much more.  But the term has not been much debated by American Jews, many of whom caught between their knee-jerk defenses and embarrassed evasions, or even vicious attacks, and whose understanding of the diversity of Zionist movements and the state of Israel is minimal or, worse, shaped by their enemies or equally ignorant media.

The opportunity is to reinvent Zionism and reclaim it as a proud description of a multifaceted concept that now, fortunately, has a state of its own.  The first step to remaking Zionism in the future is learning what Zionism meant in the past. 

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Mindy Waizer on August 31, 2012 at 10:57 am (Reply)
Very interesting article! For further reading on the topic, see the new book on how non-Jews and Jews view the state of Israel, and how it is connected to anti-Semitism. It is called THE STATE OF THE JEWS, and it's by Edward Alexander, professor emeritus of English at the University of Washington, Seattle. He is also the author of The Jewish Idea and Its Enemies, The Holocaust and the War of Ideas, and Irving Howe: Socialist, Critic, Jew.

Benjamin Ben-Baruch on September 2, 2012 at 4:37 pm (Reply)
I believe that Jews need to liberate ourselves from the Zionist framework of political discourse and that part of that process needs to be the recognition that the term Zionism has in fact come to mean support of the policies of the State of Israel and of the ideology that justifies those policies. Alex Joffe makes an erudite case for struggling to reclaim the term "Zionism" -- but his argument is fundamentally flawed.

Joffe correctly notes that like all such terms, its meaning has been both varied and has changed over time. He correctly notes that it was a term that denoted a late 19th century and early 20th century European national social movement. (Part of my argument is that because this movement has passed into history, use of the term today in this way is essentially meaningless.) Joffe also correctly notes that like all such plastic political and ideological terms, there have been cultural and political struggles to define and “own” the term.

But this is where Joffe’s argument begins to fall apart. Joffe focuses entirely upon attempts by “enemies” of Zionism to define or redefine the term. However, most of the defining and redefining of the term has been the product of internal Jewish struggles over the term. And while Joffe wants the term “Zionism” to refer to the national aspirations of the Jewish people he also conveniently ignores that the majority of Jews were non-Zionist and anti-Zionist – until sometime shortly after the 1967 Israeli-Arab war. At that time, the world Jewish community, led by Israeli political leaders, radically redefined the term into something that most Jews embraced and which served the interests of Israeli politicians and the Israeli state. The transformation of the meaning of Zionism into a term which means “support of the State of Israel and its policies and the ideology which legitimates those policies” was accomplished by the new (Jewish) “Zionists” and Israeli politicians – not by the “enemies of Zionism”. Jews, and especially Zionist Jews, are responsible for stripping “Zionism” of the meaning preferred by Joffe.

Joffe believes that it is necessary to both retain and reclaim the term “Zionism” in order to continue the ongoing work of creating the kind of society that manifests the best of Jewish national aspirations. Thus Joffe recognizes that the Zionist social movement that has passed into history did not fully succeed. His solution is to reclaim the term “Zionism”. But his solution is not practical. The problem is not that “Zionism” has been redefined by its enemies and we only need to redefine it to encompass our Jewish national aspirations. The problem is that Jews have redefined Zionism to mean support of the state’s policies and acceptance of those policies as our Jewish national aspirations. Joffe is correct that we need to make these issues central to internal Jewish discussions – but the discussions need to be based on understanding how Jewish values and culture should inform our national political aspirations and our relationships with Jewish communities, institutions, and organizations in Israel (and elsewhere). Debating the term “Zionism” and pretending that we are all united around some undefined Zionist national project is not going to get us there.

I support the struggle for the full democratic empowerment of women – but I do not define myself as a suffragist. The suffragist movement has passed into history (without having fully accomplished all of its aspirations). I support guaranteeing and defending the human rights of all people and peoples – but I do not define myself as an abolitionist. The abolitionist movement has passed into history (without having fully realized all of its aspirations). I support the struggle for the full democratic empowerment and cultural autonomy of Jews in Israel – but I no longer define myself as a Zionist. The Zionist movement has passed into history without having fully realized all of its aspirations but having transformed many of its institutions into a support system for Israeli state policies that deny the Palestinian people democratic empowerment and human rights.

If progressive Zionists are really interested in struggling to realize the progressive and democratic aspirations of the Jewish people, they should embrace progressive democratic social movements struggling to end the Occupation and to create a future for Israelis and Palestinians based upon democratic empowerment and the protection of human rights. And they should be working in coalition with all such organizations rather than fighting with them over the meaning of Zionism.

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