Friday, November 25, 2011

The New Definition of Zionism

"Zionism" is one of those terms that gets bandied about a lot, but doesn't seem to have much of a stable definition. The one I forward (inspired if not outright stolen from Phoebe Maltz Bovy, though I can't remember exactly where), and still think is pretty good, is "the belief that the establishment of Israel as a Jewish, democratic state was a good idea and it should stick around." That's deliberately quite broad, and is also deliberately agnostic to a whole range of Israeli policies. For obvious reasons, I reject the claim that the settlements are "Zionist" at all, much less intrinsic to the definition as some of their proponents claim. Zionism, at core, is about granting Jews national self-determination -- there is no rule that we have to use it to occupy the West Bank.

But of late, I think there is another definition of "Zionism" rising to prominence -- at least in some quarters. A "Zionist" is anybody who speaks out against anti-Semitism, no matter their politics on Israel. The CST blog forwards this claim with respect to the rhetoric employed by defenders of rabid anti-Semite Gilad Atzmon, in a post titled "You're all Zionists now". Atzmon has long been condemned even by Jewish anti-Zionists, and it's not hard to understand why, for the target of his vitriol is not (or not just) Israel, but "Jewishness" as a whole. That includes Jewish anti-Zionists, because for Atzmon the core sin that he opposes is "acting politically under a Jewish banner", and insofar as Jewish anti-Zionists identify as Jewish anti-Zionists, they qualify.

But when these anti-Zionist speakers speak out against Atzmon's inclusion in a "progressive" cultural festival called "Raised Your Banners", suddenly -- presto! They're "Zionists". The one thing I will say is that the CST is, if anything, too generous in calling this a "new low". It isn't particularly new at all: brushing aside accusations of anti-Semitism as "Zionism", even when the complainant is anti-Zionist, has a much longer pedigree (of course, the idea that only anti-Zionists have standing to have their claim of anti-Semitism taken seriously is itself a deeply reactionary position predicated upon denigrating Jews and enforcing the third rule of racial standing). Steve Cohen, introducing his classic text That's Funny, You Don't Look Anti-Semitic, recounts an early review his pamphlet received in a putatively "left" magazine:
There was a particular review—in Searchlight—one sentence of which I will never forget. Every Jew on the left will know that terrible syndrome whereby, whatever the context and wherever one is, we will be tested by being given the question "what is your position on Zionism?" Wanna support the miners—what's your position on Zionism? Against the bomb—what's your position on Zionism? And want to join our march against the eradication of Baghdad, in particular the eradication of Baghdad—what's your position on Zionism? And we all know what answer is expected in order to pass the test. It is a very strong form of anti-Semitism based on assumptions of collective responsibility. Denounce Zionism, crawl in the gutter, wear a yellow star and we'll let you in the club. Which is one reason why I call myself an Anti-Zionist Zionist—at least that should confuse the bastards. Anyhow this particular review, noting that my book actually did attack Zionism, said "It is not enough to trot out platitudes, as he does, about being against Zionism and in support of the Palestinian struggle". So I'm not allowed into the club even though I fulfil the entry requirements. I'm not allowed in because I recognise and oppose the existence of anti-Semitism on the Left—and this therefore renders all support for Palestinians a "platitude". Well it ain't me who's here confusing anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.

Once you speak out against anti-Semitism, boom -- Zionist. But this is useful knowledge! As it happens, I am a Zionist (based on my own definition given at the start), and I feel no need to apologize for that. But it is important to know that when I say something is anti-Semitic, and it is dismissed as "Zionist", all we have is a tautology. My complaint against anti-Semitism is "Zionist" because it was a complaint against anti-Semitism. Nothing more is needed than that.


PG said...

While the "Jewish" part of your definition of Zionism is self-explanatory, why is "democracy" a necessary component? I don't think other ideologies that say a group should have its own nation are necessarily democratic; certainly Pakistan has been fairly competent at being a South Asian Muslim country without having nearly as successful a track record in democracy.

This also seems like an obvious reason you split with others who presumably identify as Zionists, like the settlers/one-staters: they're fine with non-Jews being second-class citizens who can't vote or whose votes couldn't alter Israel's Jewish identity, whereas this troubles you because it's anti-democratic, so you think there need to be two states that each can be democratic.

David Schraub said...

I did have a pause when I incorporated "democratic" into my definition, wondering if it was just smuggling in a (deeply-held, to be sure) policy preference. In my defense, I think Zionism makes the most sense as (and I conceptualize it as) the Jewish subset of the liberal nationalist ambition, and that to me not-so-implicitly incorporates a democratic element. After all, if the goal is Jewish self-determination, I don't think that's accomplishable without Israel being a democracy. Moreover, since I reject a static account of what Judaism is, in favor of one in which Jews themselves are constantly constituting and reconstituting Jewish identity, it also is hard for me to see how Israel can maintain a genuinely Jewish character without democratic input from its citizens.

PG said...

I think your definition makes sense given your idea of Zionism as "the Jewish subset of the liberal nationalist ambition." I just think it prevents your definition from fitting a significant number of people who identify as Zionist. Plenty of self-identified Zionists see an obsession with liberal democracy in Israel as a threat to Israel's ability to defend itself and to hold Eretz Israel.

David Schraub said...

Obviously, I'm besides myself with grief that these people are not included in my circle.

Actually, any definition of Zionism which renders ZOA anti-Zionist causes me to cackle uncontrollably.

PG said...

Glad to provide entertainment, but I don't think it's the most helpful form of thinking/writing to define terms in an unnecessarily narrow way because the trait that's unnecessary to the definition is one that you'd like to see embodied in the movement.

E.g., I find it silly to define "feminism" as somehow intrinsically encompassing anti-racist ideology. Ideally all feminists are also anti-racist, but to say that you must be anti-racist to be a feminist is just a way to dissociate myself from people I dislike instead of having to make an effort at changing their thinking. It rarely fools anyone who perceives indifference to racism among feminists.

David Schraub said...

I don't disagree, but since there is a perfectly valid liberal nationalist rationale for including "democratic", it's more happy happenstance.