The Zionist in my closet

Few conversations about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seem restrained by reason; worse, someone inevitably tosses out the word “Zionism” in some form or another.  Things generally go to hell after that.  “Antisemitism” follows closely on the invocation of the dreaded Zionist, and from then on the “conversation” too often becomes a matter of person A proving that person B hates Jews and person B either defending himself or cloaking actual antisemitism in the guise of being anti-Zionist.  All sorts of proofs and arguments follow from both sides.  I like to call it the good Jew/bad Jew routine.

It was recently suggested that a glossary of terms should be developed.  Unfortunately, many of these terms are subjective and a true glossary would need to be provided by each user of the word.  But the call to duty was raised and i’ve supplemented what i already knew with some quality time at Mid-East Web, the Jewish Virtual Library, and E-Zion.  I purposefully did not visit “anti-Zionist” resources because i don’t really believe that there’s a Zionist in my closet or that a shadowy cabal of powerful, Jewish bankers is plotting the domination/destruction of the planet.  I don’t believe in Leprechauns either.

Originally, the request for a glossary covered all the various modifiers that might be put before the noun “Jew” (which may, in itself, be offensive to some…but i’ve failed to find a connotationless moniker for the situation).  A secular Jew might similar to a Christmas/Easter Christian.  He would be a believer, but would not define himself by his religious belief.  The same definition applies to a “cultural Jew”.  A secular Jew might also be a person of Jewish extraction.  There is debate within the Jewish community as to what it means to be a Jew; many of these labels come from within Judaism rather than without.  But i don’t have the time and you don’t have the patience for the kind of reading necessary to explain all that.

An “observant Jew” is just what it sounds like: someone who observes the calender, dietary restrictions, festivals, etc. of Judaism.  But being an observant Jew falls into a multitude of categories too.  Reform, orthodox, ultra-orthodox, etc.  And none of these variations on a Semitic theme have anything to do with politics.  A secular Jew might well be very conservative, politically, and there’s nothing that says an observant Jew cannot be a flaming liberal Defeatocrat…i know at least one of those.

All of the above exist in a spectrum, and the spectrum is more important than the label.  Just because one is Jewish does not mean that one must hold certain political beliefs.  Labels are useful until they trap us.  For example, most would probably think that the ultra-orthodox Jewish community is very ‘Zionist’; the labels fit together nicely.  But it’s wrong.  The ultra-orthodox community is often the most anti-Zionist section of the Jewish community.

Which brings us to today’s loaded word.  I’ve read a lot on this now, much of it overlapping and in basic agreement, and it’s as confusing as confusing gets.  We’ve reduced the word “Zionist” in a manner similar to our reduction of the word “Communist”  to mean Stalin’s USSR.  There are enough twists, turns, and schisms in the Zionist movement that it would be a good subject for a Russian novel.  You’d need that kind of page count to do it justice.

“Zionism” was coined in 1891 by Nathan Birnbaum, but Theodor Herzl founded the Zionist movement in 1897.  There is no official Zionist ideology, sorry.  But basically Zionist ideology boils down to the belief that the Jews are a people or a nation like anyone else, and that they have the right, and should, gather together in a national homeland.

The idea of the Jews as distinct people is not entirely religious.  It is also a product of the 19th Century enlightenment, which also gave us the full flowering of nationalism.  European Jews gained their first measure of freedom; some left Judaism, some converted, but there was still a sense that they would be Jews no matter what they did. (Here i call philosophical bullshit.  Of course the first generation would always be Jews, just like first generation immigrants are more old country than new, while their grandchildren are old country in name only.) The idea of a Jewish nation fit nicely with the the ideas of German racists and gave them an excuse to persecute.  But if the Jews were a people, they lacked an actual nation.  Zionism is the ideology to achieve the nation.

The late 1800’s were not a good time to be Jewish in Russia.  Leon Pinsker was originally an assimilationist, at least until the Odessa pogrom of 1871.  He changed his mind and penned Auto-Emancipation.  Pinsker thought that Argentina would make a nice homeland, but his fellow Russians liked the idea of Palestine much better.  The idea at this point was to organize and lobby the great powers to grant the Jews a homeland, a movement that became known as political Zionism.

Herzl was all for political Zionism and he had the power and connections to pursue it.  The first Zionist Congress was willing to settle for Uganda or Cyprus, but the Russian Zionists would have none of it and declined the offer.  Herzl, and other Europeans weren’t actually looking for new digs themselves…they were just trying to be helpful to their “brethren to the East”.  All this was happening at the same time as political philosophy in Russia was tending towards Marxism and revolution, and Zionism was pretty entangled with that process.  (Is this complicated enough for everyone?)

Herzl died about the same time that any hope for political Zionism ended.  At the time, Russian Zionists were mostly members of the SDLP (the party that would later split into Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks.  Unfortunately, the antisemitism that would come to characterize Russian Communism  was already evident.  Ber Borochov left the SDLP and founded his own party, Poalei Tziyon, which rested on a synthesis of Marxism and Zionism.  Borochov theorized along Marxist lines but ran into the same problem as other Russians: how do you throw a prolaterian revolution without a proletariat?  Simple, you get a new country and build a proletariat…no revolution needed.

There ended up being multiple forms and groups of socialist Zionists.  Arthur Ruppin (an ethnic Pole born in German territory and trained as an economist) was sent to examine the Palestinian situation in 1907.  His ideas led to the kibbutz, which solved some practical problems of settlement and dovetailed nicely with the socialist ideals of the settlers.  Where the colonial model of the first aliya failed the kibbutz succeeded.  It also made a handy place to hide arms and organize defense force.

Combining the remnants of political Zionism with the practical, settler approach became known as synthetic Zionism; it is generally credited with producing the Balfour Declaration.

Now begins the growth of serious conflict between the Arabs and the Jews of Palestine; WWI; and the British fiddling with their mandate in the post war years.  Mostly it wasn’t pretty and grew ever more violent and unyielding.  Yet another split developed between those who wanted to work with the British and those wanting to fight whoever got in the way.  Enter Ze’ev Vladomir Jabotinsky.  He formulated the idea of a Jewish defense force that would show Arab neighbors that the Jews could not be pushed into the sea.  When the British balked at overseeing such a force, Jabotinsky went ahead with it anyhow.  He also founded the revisionist Zionist movement in 1925 with fellow radicals who disagreed with the socialist Zionists and were bitter over the British subdivision of Palestine.  The main tenent of revisionist Zionism is a claim to both sides of the Jordan river.

The revisionist didn’t gain much power in the official Zionist council.  The labor Zionists under David Ben-Gurien held the real power.  The two groups cooperated at times and fought each other just as often.  Labor basically controlled the Israeli government until after the Six Days war, after which the revisionists were allowed to participate in the government.  The Yom Kippur war broke the hold of Labor over the Israeli government.  It soon found itself in the minority, replaced by militant, religious Zionists and the Likud party, which inherited revisionist Zionism.

At this point, Likud revisionist Zionism basically represents the ideology to the world.  It is through Likud policies – the settlements in particular – that Zionism has taken on its current connotations.  Obviously it is a form of Zionism; just as obviously it is not the only form of Zionism.  Unfortunately it portrays itself as true Zionism, similar to our own politicians making pronouncements about the “real” America.

I hope that i disappointed the black and white crowd, as you suck anyhow and i’m far less worried about Zionists in my closet than i am about you shouting your proclamations far and wide.  And one thing is abundantly clear after this headache inducing experience: the word Zionist is thrown around with far too much abandon by people who have no idea what they’re talking about.  I realize that some of those people will be here any minute to rant from one side or the other; most of them won’t even have read the above.

Fuck it, i’ll light the fuse.  3-2-1…

10 replies »

  1. Thanks for the history lesson, Lex. I appreciate it. Add one more word to the list of things that are WAY more complex than 95%+ of the world realizes.

  2. Gracious that is complex. Thank you for taking the time to create such in interesting accounting of these factions.

  3. Fantastic, I love it 🙂 I feel the only way I can return the favour is to conduct a similar investigation of the equally traumatised “Capitalism”.

  4. It was complex, that’s where the headache came in, and i didn’t really do the complexity justice here. But my personal summation is that by saying “anti-Zionist”, you are to some extent, implying Antisemitism. If you are against the idea of a Jewish homeland, then you’re anti-Zionist, but that requires first discussing why the Jews are not a people/nation.

    What people really mean is that they’re anti-Likud. That’s understandable, but it should be stated that way. The overuse of the word “Zionist” conflates a complex history with one political party and it’s policies. Put the ire on the Likudniks and maybe the Israeli population will start the process of finding a political solution to the I/P conflict through internal politics. Rail against Zionism and you’re likely to have Israelis defend the Likudniks.

    I’m probably one of the few who’s willing to make the argument that every adult American could be put in the dock for crimes against humanity; most are willing to blame the barbarity of the last 8 years on a small group of power players. So i question why so many are willing to blame all of Israeli society for the actions of a small group of people.

  5. Thank you for the explanation, Lex.
    I have been puzzled at when the term ‘Zionist’ became a vile word. I am probably much older than you, but when I was in college, I (and many others) wore a little badge that said ‘I am a Zionist’. I am not Jewish and neither were many of the others who wore it. We were mostly progressive (all right, all right, Rush would later label us Radical Liberals) young people supporting Israel’s right to exist in a very tumultuous time in Israel’s young history.
    Maybe the term ‘Zionist’ can be rescued from the wingnuts in Israel, dusted off and placed back where it belongs. Thanks again.

  6. “but his fellow Russians liked the idea of Palestine much better.”

    Palestine was selected for Religious reasons, Religious History reasons, I’m sure. You don’t cover why the “Jewish people/nation” felt THAT location, around the birthplace of Jesus, god, and cradle for Judaeo-Christian (and, actually, Muslim) religions happens to be.. Jerusalem.

    The LOCATION of the “homeland” was seemingly set based on “religion”.

    Do the “Jewish People” need “land” of their own, to call a homeland? .. I don’t know. I suppose I could concede that it might help with giving them a unifying identity as a “people”, but what’s the point? America is only just over 200 years old.. Why do the Jewish People need a “homeland” in a contentious place? What’s the GOOD reason?

    Clearly, this is about sense of history, tradition, historical framing, ALL of which is RELIGIOUS at its root. Face it, 500 years ago you probably had no such thing as a Secular Jew. In fact, having a lack of religion in your life is a very new concept in the many thousands years of human culture.

    Zionism, like any word that’s been around for over a hundred years and been applied to many many differing situations, has many technical connotations (as pointed out). But it also has one “current, best” definition that’s in common understanding. Today, that seems to be a group of people looking to reclaim their holy land, and by doing so, bringing their god back to earth and making the entire place “theirs”. At least, that’s the “general idea” I’ve picked up about Zionism over the years (having never heard it before in any official, educational context).

    Jews, not believing that Jesus is/was god’s son, don’t think making Jerusalem a Jedaeo-Christian “city” again will bring back Jesus.. George W. Bush believes that, though. And unless I’ve heard WAY too many tall tales, Jews _also_ have beliefs around the importance of them having Jerusalem under “their control”, so their god grants them their rewards as the “only chosen people”. ……. again, this is _all_ religious.

    If the “Jewish People” want a homeland, then they can have one. All they have to do is, in a modern world, discuss with the ruling powers around the globe where a suitable location would be, and what it will cost them to have that land.

    But this started 70 years ago.. at the cusp of the “modern age”, when wars (world class, at that) still raged and the final settling out of nations was finishing. Then, on a haphazard approach, we decided to dump a bunch of people into someone else’s country, someone that didn’t want those “guests”, and told everyone “deal with it”.

    Israel didn’t want to deal with it, they want Jerusalem. Palestine doesn’t want to deal with it, they want their fertile lands and fresh water access back (lands that Israel has been “occupying” over the past few decades).

    My history on Israel is very lacking..but it appears, from what I can garner from various tidbits of conversations here and there, that in 1967 there was a conflict, and borders were established, and things looked hopeful. Sometime after that, on into today, Israel has been occupying lands _beyond_ those “agreed upon borders”, and THAT is the crux of what’s happening. …. why is Israel encroaching? Why are they so bent on THAT location? .. I’m guessing (again, from the bits I’ve seen and putting it all together with bigger picture stuffs) it’s because Israel wants the _entire region_, including Jerusalem. They don’t want to share, and they want it for _religious_ connotations.

    All of “Israel”? All Israelis? no.. but the leadership of a country holds the country’s title, name, destiny. Hence, Israel is the bad guy in this, Israel doesn’t need to be where it is, it can be elsewhere, and it’s Israel’s religious drive that has that specific location being the only place the “Jewish People” could have a “homeland”. Nothing in reason or decency allows for what’s going on over there now (in the past few decades, sense). Solutions could be reached by reasonable people who were interested in achieving a peace based on the _proclaimed_ goals… but it seems to be the quiet aims that drives the process.

    That’s just what I’ve gotten from all of this over the years of passive (mostly) understanding of the situation.

  7. Savanster, this was never meant to a pro/anti-anything piece. But count me as one of the gutless centrists who think that both sides are wrong in this conflict. This post has nothing to do with the conflict. (My thoughts on the conflict have stated pretty clearly elsewhere.)

    This post was about the meaning of a word. Words only work when we all agree on their meanings and use them with accuracy and precision.

    I can say “nigger” and add that i don’t mean all black people, just a certain type of black person…but that addendum probably won’t matter to a black person. That black person might even agree with my judgment on a particular type of person…but chances are my choice of words probably won’t help build any bridges of understanding.

    Use the word however you want, just don’t be surprised when people are offended, or when it turns people who otherwise might agree with you against you. Though i would caution anyone against using a word they don’t fully understand.

  8. i would caution anyone against using a word they don’t fully understand.

    And that would be why I don’t use the word Nazi much, and get offended by other people using it almost always inappropriately and inaccurately.

  9. With all due respect, this article is pure nonsense. Zionism is simply the notion that an ethnic group known as the Jews has a mandate to invade and confiscate some alleged “holy land” from the native Palestinians who have lived there for thousands of years. Period. Other people call it “Israel,” but that’s a biblical notion, not a nation. The attempted Jewish nation in Palestine should presumably be called Ziony. As a theocracy, it, by definition, discriminates against non-Jews. In other words, Ziony has defined itself as an offensive, invasive, and apartheid nation, and should be removed. Iran should stop being theocratic too, but at least non-Muslims, including Jews, are treated well there. This is to say nothing negative about Jews in general. Zionism as roughly a little over a century old, and is a very simple concept.