Friday, July 1, 2016

Why I avoid the word "Zionism"

"If you would converse with me, define your terms." -- Voltaire

The word "Zionism" is used online in so many different ways nowadays -- often with totally conflicting definitions -- that I believe it has become useless for any kind of real dialogue.

The Meriam-Webster dictionary defines Zionism as "an international movement originally for the establishment of a Jewish national or religious community in Palestine and later for the support of modern Israel." The Jewish Virtual Library has a more expanded version of this definition, which is pretty standard in the mainstream Jewish community.  Zionism was, and still is, primarily a political movement.

But in addition to this positive version, adds a secondary negative definition for Zionist that is all too common online: "A substitute word for Jew used by antisemites who, for whatever reason, wish to hide their racist intent."  And I have indeed come across people who use it that way, often the same people who use expressions like "jew the price down."  But is every criticism of Israel or Zionism automatically racist?  And are Jews and Zionists always synonymous?

On the other side, there are those who argue that Zionism itself is a racist ideology.  Again, what exactly does that mean?

Hitler defined Jews as a race, but he was hardly an authoritative source.  Biologically, Jews are not a race.  Anthropologically, Jews are more like a tribal people, with the "12 Tribes" actually being 12 clans within a tribe.  Converting to Judaism is more like being adopted into a tribe than just taking on a "religion."  So many people of all races and nationalities have done that over the centuries that Jews now come in every possible race and nationality.  So what, exactly, is meant by "Zionism is racism?"  What "race" would it be promoting?

As you can see, we are already in a tangle of confusion, and it doesn't end there.  Still others talk of a conspiracy theory where a secret organization called "The Elders of Zion" or "Zionist Occupying Government" (ZOG) is supposedly controlling the world (or the media, or the banks, or Congress, or Hollywood, or whatever else people are mad about at the moment.)

So,  for my Twitter and Facebook readers who are constantly asking me where I stand on the subject of Israel and Zionism, here's a brief rundown of the various ways the word is used, and why I now shy away from using "Zionist" altogether.

Nathan Birnbaum
Where does the word "Zionism" come from, anyway?

The term Zionism was coined by Nathan Birnbaum in 1890.  Birnbaum was an Austrian journalist and freethinker who played a major role in the First Zionist Congress, but, ironically, he did not remain in the Zionist movement.  His life had three main phases, representing a progression in his thinking: 1) A Zionist phase; 2) a Jewish cultural autonomy phase which included the promotion of the Yiddish language; and 3) a religious phase when he turned to Orthodox Judaism and became staunchly anti-Zionist. (More on anti-Zionist Jews below.)

 The word "Zion" itself was taken from the name of Mount Zion, a hill in Jerusalem, but the exact location has shifted in the minds of the people over time.  (The Wikipedia page discusses three different sites.)   The Prophet Isaiah referred to Zion as being synonymous with Jerusalem, the seat of government in the time of King David, and prophesied that:

Many peoples will come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the temple of the God of Jacob. God will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in God's paths." The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. (Isaiah 2:3)

This quote and others like it in the Bible may partially account for the antisemitic idea that Jews are out to rule the world.  However, the Jewish interpretation is that A) this is something that will happen in messianic times and B) the people will voluntarily "walk in God's paths," not be forced to convert to Judaism.  Jews do not have missionaries like some other religions do.  (For more on the Jewish concept of the Messianic Age, read here. Jews also do not believe everyone must be Jewish in order to be saved. You can find God through your own religion.)

It is important to keep in mind that Isaiah was preaching at a time when the Jews had been conquered by the Assyrians and Babylonians.  So what he was prophesying was a return to self-rule, a future time of peace when the nations of the world would "beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore." (Isaiah 2:4) 

And is that not the hope of most people on earth, to have world peace?

Is criticizing Israel always antisemitic?

Not if you are criticizing specific policies.  Israelis themselves are quite critical of their own government and society, as anybody who reads the Israeli press certainly knows.  Unfortunately these criticisms do not get much coverage in the mainstream American press, but if you follow publications like The Jewish Daily Forward, the English version of the Jerusalem Post, or Haaretz you will see a wide diversity of opinions on Middle East affairs.

In Israel and the Jewish community at large, "Zionism" has a lot of different meanings, the same as "Americanism" means different things to different Americans.  There are religious Zionists, secular Zionists, left-wing Zionists, right-wing Zionists, militant Zionists, pacifist Zionists, Green Party Zionists --  and everything in between.

There are even non-Jewish Zionists, often Christians who support Israel as fulfillment of  the "Holy Land" prophecies in their own religion.  (Read more on Christian Zionism.)  However, not all Christian groups agree with this stance, and many actively oppose it.

As you can see, all of these different kinds of Zionists have a lot of differences among themselves --and often criticize each other quite strongly.

On the other hand, if you oppose the very existence of Israel and call for its total destruction, then you will be perceived as antisemitic as well as anti-Israel.  Calling for the destruction of any country is taken as a threat of war -- and what country would sit by and calmly let themselves be annihilated? In the same vein, what country would not fight back if people were lobbing bombs over the border? What country would not arrest people who throw stones or knife civilians on the street?  Here is not the place to go into the Israel-Palestinian conflict, but it is important to keep in mind that even in this conflict, there is a wide variety of opinions.  So the rule of thumb seems to be to criticize policies of Israel all you want, but don't deny the right of Israel to exist.

What about anti-Zionist Jews?  Who are they?

It may be hard to believe today, but Zionism was not met with great enthusiasm by most Jews in its early days.  The majority of rabbis objected to the idea of establishing a secular state, believing that to do so without the Messiah was blasphemy.  The original Zionists were, with very few exceptions, secularized Jews who no longer observed "the religion," although they felt connected to the Jewish people as a culture.

At the time, many Europeans thought of Jews as a bunch of homeless parasites, (the old "wandering Jew" stereotype) and antisemitism was on the rise.  The early Zionists believed that if Jews had a country of their own, then the non-Jews would see them as simply another nationality like Irish or French, and antisemitism would cease to exist.

Unfortunately that did not work.  Antisemites simply transferred their hatred for "the Jews" to "the Zionists," carrying over all the old negative stereotypes from one to the other.  More on that later.

Satmar Hasidim protesting the Israeli draft
After World War II, when the State of Israel became a reality, most Jews ceased to oppose it.  However, there are still some very Orthodox groups, most notably the Satmar Hasidim, who do not recognize the State of Israel as a "Jewish" state, but see it the same as any other secular government they have lived under in the past.  These groups do not object to living in Israel -- some families have been in Jerusalem for centuries -- but they are opposed to Zionism as such and refuse to serve in the Israeli army. (More on that...)

In the past these anti-Zionist groups were marginalized in the Jewish community, but since the advent of the Internet you can find them posting on Facebook and Twitter.  On March 3, 2015, 3000 Satmar Jews protested in NYC against Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech claiming he spoke for all Jews.  They do not see Israel or Netanyahu as representing them.

Some anti-Zionist Orthodox rabbis go so far as to say that Zionists are not true Jews -- a stance I disagree with, because halachah (Jewish law) does not define Jewishness according to one's politics.  According to Jewish law, if your mother is Jewish or if you have formally converted, then you are Jewish, period, regardless of your level of religious observance and/or politics.

Display of Religious Zionist yarmulkes
However, there are some Jews who practice what they call "religious Zionism," a more recent movement that combines the biblical idea of the Holy Land with the present government.  An old saying has it that "God, the Torah, and Israel are one."  The "Israel" here refers to the Jewish people, after the new name, Israel, given to Jacob by the angel. (Genesis 35:10.)  Religious Zionists re-define it as referring to the State of Israel, giving it a nationalist twist.  Some go so far as make loyalty to Israel as a requirement for being a good Jew.  The anti-Zionist Orthodox groups, on the other hand, see this as a heresy.

There are also non-Orthodox and secular anti-Zionist Jews.  These are individuals who are opposed to the occupation of Palestinian lands, and who see Israel as an extension of Western colonialism.  This is, of course, a very simplistic definition, because there are also Zionist groups that oppose the Occupation, such as J Street and others.  Opposing the Occupation does not automatically make one into an anti-Zionist.  It may, however, get you called a "self-hating Jew" by the mainstream Jewish press.

What about the "Elders of Zion" who secretly rule the world? 

They don't exist!  There is no secret cabal of Jewish Illuminati or ZOG conspiracy "shadow government."  The idea dates to a  book called The Protocols of the meetings of the learned Elders of Zion (called The Protocols for short) published in Russia in 1903.  The book, which claims to be the minutes from a secret meeting of these "Elders," is a proven forgery that also contains a lot of plagiarism from other non-Jewish sources.   (The Wikipedia page on this topic goes into more detail about this plagiarism.)  Nevertheless the book was promoted by Hitler, and more recently has been passed around in both Arab and white supremacist circles.

Typical ZOG cartoon implying that Jews
control the American government
Anybody who knows anything about real Judaism can immediately see that The Protocols is not only a vicious forgery, it is ludicrous in terms of style and dialogue.  Unfortunately there are still gullible people who believe anything they read, and with the advent of the Internet, a lot of old junk -- much of it long discredited -- is getting resurrected from the past and posted.  And since the Net is worldwide, people on the other side of the world who have never met a Jew and have no historical context for this bogus text sometimes mistake it for fact.

Among other things, this book is a source of the false definition of the Hebrew word goy as meaning "pig" or "subhuman" for non-Jews.  (More than ironic, since the white supremicists who distribute The Protocols consider Jews and non-white races to be inferior and see themselves as a "master race .")

The word goy simply means "nation" in biblical Hebrew and occurs 550 times in reference to both Jews and gentiles.  Genesis 10:5 uses it in a neutral way applying to non-Israelite nations.  In Genesis 12:2 God promises Abraham that his descendants with be goy gadol, "a great nation."  Exodus 19:6 refers to the Jewish people as goy kadosh, a "holy nation." The prophet Isaiah uses it universally when he prophesies that "nation (goy) shall not lift up sword against nation (goy) neither shall they learn war anymore." (Isaiah 2:4)

While it is true that in recent years goy has sometimes been used as an insult (same as "Jew" is used by some people as an insult), that is vulgar street usage and not the true meaning of the word.  However, many Jews nowadays shy away from using it to avoid misunderstanding, and prefer "gentile" or "non-Jew" instead. (Most of the time when I see it online it is being thrown at me by antisemites trying to look informed about Jews.  Again pretty ironic.)

On the other hand, the recently-coined term "goysplaining" is sometimes used, meaning when a non-Jewish "expert" explains Jewish beliefs/issues to a Jew and gets it wrong. (read more on that...)

So where do I stand on all this?

As I said above, the word "Zionism" is now used in so many different ways that it confuses more than clarifies.  Therefore I try to avoid it altogether.  But if you insist, then politically I have  called myself a "non-Zionist."  Zionism and the State of Israel simply do not play much of a role in my Jewish identity, which centers more on God, spirituality, and love of humanity, rather than on nationalism.  I have no theological objection to the existence of the State of Israel, but I do not see it as the fulfillment of messianic prophecies, either. The land of Israel is holy, but the State, to me, is a secular government.  As such it can be criticized and questioned the same as any other government.

(This article was updated on January 11, 2017 by the author)