Thursday, December 17, 2009

Has "Zionist" Become a Slur?

This op-ed in the Jerusalem Post speaks to a sentiment I've had for some time. Reading the news, blogs and especially people's comments on public forums, having discussions in academic contexts, the term Zionism or Zionist, seems to have become a slur.

The number of times I've read comments about how Zionists are guilty of some act, or some conspiracy, the number of times I've seen attempted ad hominem attacks with the victim of the attack being called a Zionist, to somehow delegitimize them, and the number of times I've seen Zionism and Zionists denounced for ascribing to that idea is so large as to make these 'sightings' commonplace. When these comments appear, nobody bothers to say what they mean by Zionism or Zionists, but often, I've seen those who throw these terms around in a critical sense hurry to distinguish Zionism and Zionists from Jews, Judaism and Israel and Israelis. Each time I see one of the almost boilerplate screeds against Zionists or Zionism (a comment I see frequently on the CBC is that Zionism has launched a war to annex Palestine) my reaction is to speak out loud to the screen as I shake my head, "do you even know what Zionism means? Zionism is an idea, how can an idea wage a war?"

Many people who have come to spit out the word Zionism, like so much venom, probably don't really know what Zionism is. To rely on a simple dictionary definition, Zionism is: "a worldwide Jewish movement that resulted in the establishment and development of the state of Israel." I would submit that this statement could be simplified even further. I would suggest that Zionism be defined simply as Jewish nationalism. To expand on that, Zionism is the idea that the Jews are more than just a religion, but that they are a people who have a religion (the religion adhered to by the Jewish nation--the Jews--is Judaism). Being a nation, a people, like all other nations Jews want their own nation state, just like Indians, Japanese, Vietnamese, Mongolian and Italian people have. Naturally, Jews would want this nation state to be in the land to which they have had a historical connection since the first moments of their recorded history as a nation, thousands of years ago. That land, is today known as Israel.

Zionism therefore is the idea that Jews should have what other nations have and seek, their own state. Of course, to leave the definition at that is overly simplistic. Zionism, Jewish nationalism, in its modern form has taken on many iterations. Religious Zionism, Cultural Zionism, Political Zionism, Labour Zionism, to name a few are all different interpretations of the same idea, Jews should have a state, just like any other people.

It is because Zionism can be so simply defined, and because Zionism is in many ways a search for parity, equality for Jews when compared to other nations, it becomes so frustrating to see this concept turned into an insult, to see the label of Zionism converted into a scarlet letter of sorts.

I think that its important, when being labelled a Zionist in a derisive fashion, or when Zionism is referred to as somehow inherently evil, or illegitimate, the response should be not to shrink away from and deny a tie to the term, but to be clear about what the word Zionist means and turn the question around. Ask whoever would use the word in a negative context if they are equally vehement in their criticism of the nationalism of other nations and if not, why does Jewish nationalism get to be the lucky target? Or, failing that, take heed of Gil Troy's defense of Zionism and remember that the term ought not to be a source of shame or embarrassment, but can well be a source of pride.


cba said...

"Zionist" and "Zionism" are used as epithets by Jew-haters who want a fig-leaf to deny their anti-Jewish bigotry.

On those self-same CBC boards where I first "met" you I once saw the comment "Zionists killed Jesus" -- which I thought rather gave the game away!

Charlie H. Ettinson said...

That's correct in most cases I would say. In other's however, I would say it's a case of someone really not understanding what Zionism means and opposing it because the term has become linked with ideas to which it is actually alien.

Unless one is really opposed to nationalism of all types--and that's certainly not novel, there are people like that--then it is hard to justify why Zionism alone is singled out for criticism.

If one is a French patriot, loves all things French and wants to support the French state, how can that person deny Jews wanting to do the same for their state!?