What is Zionism today?

Page last updated 27 Oct 2015


Some of the key issues in this debate are discussed in the first part of “Israeli Society and Politics – What kind of society?” which starts by saying: “There are various ways of interpreting developments in Israeli society. Liberal and left Zionists tend to see Zionism as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, building a new society under enormous pressure and trying, in adverse circumstances, to maintain both its Jewish and its democratic character, with (inevitable) shortcomings. Radical critiques generally see it as a settler-colonial society of some kind and tend to look at Israel in comparative perspective.”

Zionism, in Brian Klug’s view, is Janus-faced. Or, as he puts it in an essay on antisemitism: “Zionism belongs to two opposite histories at one and the same time. On the one side, it saw itself as a movement for self-determination by (or on behalf of) the Jews, the ‘inside outsiders’ of Europe, a people with a long history of persecution. On the other side, it was itself part of a European expansion into non-European territory. This is because, unlike the case of other self-styled national liberation movements, there was no existing national territory under occupation; the project was to gather in the exiles and populate a land rather than expel an invader. From the beginning, starting with Herzl’s address to the first Zionist congress in 1897, Zionism spoke the language of colonization – but for the sake of emancipation, not empire. Seen from this side, Zionism historically was a flight from Europe, not an extension of the European homeland. But seen from the other side, the Jews who came as settlers were Europeans by any other name. And they were. They were both. They were Jewish as distinct from European, and European as distinct from Arab.”

Before 1948 there were many currents within Zionism: from Ben Gurion’s mainstream Labor Zionism, to Jabotinsky’s revisionism and Magnes Judah and Martin Buber’s binationalism. (See the links in From earliest times to the present – introductions and overviews – especially Zionism And Its Impact.) There are debates as to the real nature of Zionism but it is pointless now trying to discern an “essence” of Zionism before 1948, what Zionism really was. It was many different things to many people, and there is a danger in these abstract debates of forgetting the realties on the ground. For example, even if Israel is justified “merely” as a refuge for Jews immediately before and after the holocaust, it was the Palestinians who paid a very heavy price for the catastrophe in Europe.

Over the decades since 1948 a certain kind of Zionism has come to predominate and this, many of us have come to argue, is “a danger to the Jewish people”. The question as to whether a “Jewish and democratic state” is possible in theory (see Jewish and democratic?) seems increasingly likely to be resolved in practice: in favour of the former and at the expense of the latter. A counterpart to this development has been to consider all anti-Zionism as a form of antisemitism…


1a. Zionists all
Uri Avnery, Gush Shalom, 31 Jan 2015

Veteran campaigner Uri Avnery writes:

MANY TIMES people ask me: “Are you a Zionist?”
My stock answer is: “Depends on what you mean by Zionism.”

This is quite sincere. The term Zionism can mean many different things. Like the term socialism, for example. Francois Hollande is a socialist. So was Joe Stalin. Any resemblance?…

1b. Zionism, then and now
Uri Avnery, Gush Shalom, 19 Sep 2015

Avnery argues that from the 1950s Zionism “became a cynical slogan, to be used by anyone to push his or her agenda. Mainly it became an instrument of the Israeli leadership to subjugate world Jewry and mobilize it for their national, partisan or personal aims.” Instead, we must return to A. B. Yehoshua’s distinction between nationalism and Zionism, two different entities in constant conflict with each other. It is time, not for separation, but for recognition that, whatever their “natural bonds”, Israel’s future lies in peace with its citizens and neighbours and the future of Jews throughout the world within their own nations.


2. Israel is 60, Zionism is Dead, What Now?
Tony Karom, Rootless Cosmopolitan, 2008, JfJfP 19 Apr 2013

A glorious piece written at the time of Israel’s 60th birthday, by a former Habonim militant.

Zionism rationalizes conquest and colonization as “redemption” of Jewish territory on behalf of the world’s Jews. It treats the Palestinians only as an obstacle and threat to its own purposes, not as people with the same rights as Jews and with legitimate claim to the land on which they were born. And yet, there’s a guilty conscience that sometimes emerges in flashes — a rare moment of Jewish ethical recognition, that is quite at odds with Zionism. My favorite came from Ehud Barak, world class chump though he may be in the annals of statesmanship, when he was on the campaign trail in 1999, and was asked by a TV talkshow host what he’d have done if he’d been born Palestinian. “Join a fighting organization,” he said in a flash of honesty he’d later regretted.

But if the roles had been reversed, and it had been the Israeli Jews who’d been first driven out of their homes in 1948, and then occupied in 1967, you can bet that Barak and Rabin and all before them would have been leaders of the PLO. Ariel Sharon would have been in Islamic Jihad!

The end of the Zionist moment leaves Israeli Jews facing — although in many cases not necessarily facing up to — the reality that the people with whom they’re going to share the Holy Land are not the rest of us Jews, who have no intention of moving there, but the Palestinians, who they found there and displaced and dispossessed, and continue to rule over — supposedly in our name, but without our consent.

Zionism — contemporary Jewish nationalism — is unlikely to bring Israel peace, because of its failure, or inability, to accord full equality to the claims of others.


3. Cambridge Union debate, Feb 2006

On 16th Feb the proposition that “This House believes that Zionism is a danger to the Jewish people” was narrowly carried in a debate at the Cambridge Union. The speeches in favour of the Proposition by Brian Klug, Daphna Baram and Richard Kuper are reproduced. The speakers against were Ned Temko, Daniel Shek (Bicom) and Jeremy Briar.

It provoked the most extraordinary response from Melanie Philips both before the event [The Oxbridge sport of Jew-baiting, 14th Feb] and after [The closing of (some) university minds, 20th Feb] and a ferociously misleading report by Emanuele Ottolenghi entitled Jews against Jews in the Jerusalem Post on 22nd Feb which licensed some extraordinarily malicious talkback. Daphna Baram finally got a reply published Who really sets Jews against Jews? on 1st Mar.


4. The State of Zionism: Tracing the course of Zionism and the splintered state it has created
Brian Klug, The Nation, 18 Jun 2007

“Could it be that Zionism, ‘whose aim was the return of the Jewish people to the stage of history,’ is caught in a time warp? Could Israel, under its influence, be continually undermining itself, while millions of Jews who have no say in the matter are implicated in its policies? …

…on the whole, it is better to let go of the word along with the illusion. Jewish ethnic nationalism is no solution to the problems we face today, while the name ‘Zionism’ evokes as much fear and loathing as love and pride. We cannot formulate today’s questions in yesterday’s language. It is time to move on.”


5. Zionism’s Bad Conscience
Joel Kovel, originally on Tikkun, reposted by the Committee for Open Discussion of Zionism, 1 Jan 2002

A personal and political/psychological analysis asking: “Why do Zionists not see, or to be more exact, why do they see yet deny, the brutal reality that this state has wrought?… Jews were supposed to know better, to be better. Suffering persecution and being eternally on the margins of Europe were supposed to have made Jews more morally developed. I speak from first-hand experience, having been made to feel as a boy that I had inherited a two-fold superiority, by belonging to a people both cleverer and more highly moral than the non-Jews who surrounded us. We Jews were history’s exceptions.”


6. Expert on antisemitism attacked for being anti-zionist
Benjamin Weinthal, JPost, JfJfP 6 Nov 2013

A report on events in Berlin where The Jewish Museum faced withering criticism for inviting Brian Klug, a renowned scholar and academic, and a founder of Independent Jewish Voices in Britain, to be a keynote speaker at an event to mark the 75th anniversay of Kristallnacht. Censorship and thuggery of a high order and a sign of a certain current in Zionism today…


7. The Jewish answer?
Geoffrey Wheatcroft, The Spectator, 16 Dec 2002

Historically, opposition to Zionism among Jews was strong. For example, Claude Montefiore, president of the Anglo–Jewish Association dismissed the Zionist idea, since “it assumes that the Jewish race constitutes a ‘nation’, or might profitably become a nation, both of which propositions I deny”.

“Underlying Zionism was the belief that, if brought about, a Jewish state would honourably remove the Jewish people from the pages of history, would ‘normalise’ them, would make them — as the founders of Israel proclaimed in 1948 — ‘a nation like all others’. You can feel any amount of sympathy with the Jewish plight today; you can list any number of Israeli achievements; and yet, listening to these very debates with all their bitter recriminations, can anyone deny that Zionism has failed in that one central purpose?… Was Zionism really the answer to the ‘Jewish Question’ — or was it a further complication?”


A selection of articles posted on our website since 2010

Zionism is so last century, 1 Feb 2015
But as it acts as the password to get into the Israeli public forum it no longer has any particular meaning. Uri Avnery looks at the different meanings the word Zionism has had since it first came into popular use after the first Zionist congress in 1897.

Zionism is complete. Now we have two options., 15 Jan 2015
Avraham Burg, once Knesset speaker and part of the Israeli establishment (when it had left-wing members) has burned his boats and joined Hadash, the Arab-Jewish party with communist roots. He himself is a feminist. In this Ynet interview, he says the future is either of religious fundamentalism – or two states.

Liberal zionism – unequal partnership, 9 Oct 2014
In the early days, there was not, for most, a conflict between being a liberal and being a Zionist. Hopes that a Jewish home could be created that was run on the principles of democracy and universal human rights were high. That hope has long since gone. The Zionist element that triumphed forced out the liberal, making liberal Zionism an oxymoron. Ran Greenstein traces the history.

An effort to salvage the reputation of Zionism, 22 Aug 2014
Anyone who has been on any of the recent demonstrations for Gaza will have noticed that ‘Zionist’ is the usual term of abuse for Israel’s policies. It is used to reject accusations of antisemitism especially as many Christians describe themselves as Zionist. In South Africa, Benjamin Pogrund says it is the right term for a liberation struggle while Ran Greenstein argues this ignores the reality of the oppression carried out in Zionism’s name.

Now we see the ’48 war as a step in the colonizing enterprise of Zionism, 8 Mar 2013
When they published ‘Peace, Peace, When There is no Peace’ in 1961, Akiva Orr and Moshé Machover – who both moved to London – were challenging the Israeli narrative of its peace-loving victimhood in the face of united Arab aggression. As documents were released, they realised their suspicion of anti-Palestinian agreements were founded in truth. Reproduced here, a new introduction to their book..

The underground stream that may redeem the name of Zionism, 8 Aug 2012
Most of what is done in the name of Zionism is abhorrent to progressive Jews. Here Jerry Haber traces the hidden current of thought, based on Judaic religious teachings, which puts first the principles of truth, love, peace and justice. If practised, the expropriation of Palestinian land and human rights would, at least, be challenged by religious Jews.

From idealism to corruption, Zionisms all the way, 29 Jul 2012
Uri Avnery examines the ways in which the meanings of Zionism have changed since the 1890s and especially since the founding of Israel. He recounts how and why he coined the term ‘post-Zionism’ – as a word for the redundancy of this ideology which is thus still useful.

A Rabbi tells how he came to see his Zionism as racist nationalism, 7 Jun 2012
In a slow and painful account, Rabbi Brian Walt describes his journey from being a keen Zionist in apartheid South Africa to understanding, via a visit to the West Bank, that the democratic Jewish state is an illusion and Zionism – the “religion of American Jews” – a discriminatory ethno-nationalist system. Now he works to separate Judaism, with its central tenet of justice, from Zionism.

Does Liberal Zionism have a future?, 28 Mar 2012
Now widely seen as the ideology of Jewish domination in Israel/Palestine, Zionism has not been in such bad odour since the term was coined in the 1880s. Does the qualification of ‘liberal’ make Zionism an acceptable aspiration for Jews seeking a safe, self-determining, homeland? Or are the conflicts between Jewish supremacy and democracy too great? Rebecca Steinfeld and Hannah Weisfeld debate.

Is there a “progressive” Zionism?, 1 Dec 2010
A previous article by Jeremiah Haber asked “Do you have to love Israel as a Jewish state to be part of the Jewish community?”. Here are his wider reflections on whether there can be a progressive Zionism and how “when push comes to shove, many progressive Zionists I know will let their Zionism trump their progressiveness”.

Where is Zionism going?, 25 Jun 2010
Antony Lerman looks at trends of ideological revivalism within Zionism today: the ultra-nationalist, religious and messianic settler movement, Im Tirzu; demands for loyalty oaths to the Jewish state; and the like. But more questioning voices within the Zionist camp fear that such an exclusivist nationalism will take Israeli Jews back to the perceived ghetto mentality of diaspora Jews that Zionism was meant to eradicate…


Contents of this section


a) Setting the scene: the hasbara (propaganda) war
b) Is criticism of Israel antisemitic?

Singling out Israel
Is Israel an apartheid society?
BDS and antisemitism

c) Can you have a Jewish and democratic state?
d) What is Zionism today?

e) The nature of the nakba
f) One state or two?
g) Is Hamas to blame? Is Gaza still occupied?
h) Right of return and law of return
i) The role of the JNF


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