Zionism is, at its essence, the national liberation project for Jews as applied to creating a Jewish nation-state in Israel. Its object and purpose centers around Jews. Since Israel has been established, Zionism today means just that one thinks creating Israel was a pretty good move and it should stick around (a definition inspired by, if not outright plagiarized from by virtue of not being able to find a link, Phoebe Maltz). Consequently, being a Zionist doesn't mean supporting any given Israeli policy. It does, however, mean affirming Israel's right to exist, be treated fairly and equally in the global community, and be secure.
In America (and throughout the world, but let's just stick with America) most defenders of Zionism as I define it are not Jews. This is not because Jews aren't Zionists (by and large, they are), but just because because most figures with a national audience are not Jews. With the possible exception of Joe Lieberman (who spends most of his time today talking about how peachy things are in Iraq), pretty much of all the national figures who explain why America should support Zionism are non-Jewish. These people -- Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, George W. Bush, whomever -- are what I mean by proxies. They are non-Jews who are all out there in the public arena defending Zionism.
My thesis is that Zionism cannot be (or at least, is not) effectively defended by proxies. This is not meant to be churlish towards these supporters. Jews tend to accept help when they can get it, and with some exceptions I don't disagree. I just mean that the type of discourse employed by non-Jewish figures tends to differ dramatically from the reasons Jews themselves support Israel, and that disjuncture leads to problems. There are, I think, three major arguments the proxies use when trying to explain their support for the Zionist project (the right uses all three, the left only the latter two). All are problematic, though some more than others, and none really grasps why Zionism is important for Jews.
The first argument is the evangelical Christian perspective that wants Jews in Israel so we can hasten the coming of the Messiah (and then all convert/die, but that part is usually left off the brochure). This argument is growing in influence as the Christian Zionism continues to flourish and increase its ties with several mainstream Jewish organizations. It is on its terms not a "Jewish" argument (as its conclusion indicates), but it does give Israel a very powerful ally in the Christian religious right.
The second argument is the strategic claim that "Israel is America's strongest ally", either in the world or in the region. I have no idea if that's true as a technical matter (are we actually more important than England or Saudi Arabia?), but no matter -- it's clearly true that Israel contributes material things (trade, technology, intelligence) that are important to America. It is, however, once again not all that concerned with the Jewish perspective -- I'm glad that Israel's relationship with America isn't parasitic, but it's not why I wanted Israel established in the first place.
The third argument is the moral claim that Israel is a beacon of democracy in the Middle East -- sometimes described in religious terms as Israel being a "light unto nations". With the possible exception of Turkey, this is true, at least relatively: Israel certainly is more liberal and democratic than the Arab states around it. As a Jew, I'm proud of that fact, and certainly don't want Israel to cease being liberal or democratic (and indeed, could do an even greater commitment to both). But again, this is not quite getting at why I, as a Jew, wanted Israel to be around.
The missing justification, the one that both actually motivated Israel's creation and still explains its support amongst Jews today, is quite simple: safety. Jews didn't try and establish Israel so that we could die in the rapture, or so we could share neat-o technology with America, or even to prove that we can build a better nation than everyone else. Jews founded Israel because Jews understood -- through painful experience -- that we needed a place where we weren't at the mercy of others, where we were in charge of our own destiny, where we would be the ones who got to decide whether to let fleeing refugees in. In short, we needed a place to flee in case the world decided to start Pogroming again.
This is the defining feature of Jewish Zionist discourse. But it is largely absent from the proxy discussion. This is not surprising. Barack Obama can't get up and give a speech justifying his support for Israel because "at any moment, I might start killing you folks again." That would be absurd. But it would cut to the heart of the matter, and reveal the essential truth that undergirds Jewish Zionism: our insecurity in a gentile world.
The shift of the discourse away from actual Jews and to proxies has several negative effects. Each of the preceding three arguments I think recasts the Zionist question in an ultimately harmful way. The first argument is the one I find most despicable, because the relationship between Jewish Zionists and Christian evangelicals is one based on mutual contempt. The evangelicals think we're deluded hell-bound sinners who will get what's coming to us during the apocalypses. The Jews think the evangelicals are illiterate country bumpkins, and honestly take delight in taking advantage of it (if Christians are going to go crazy in favor of Jews for once, hey, why not?). It's unseemly all around, and it should abandoned. But more generally the Christian Zionist argument, like the other two, emphasizes ultimately marginal elements of the Jewish experience to the detriment of the community as a whole. It exaggerates the Jewish link with Christianity in the west, making easy pickings for those who want to lump Jews as part of a broad "Judeo-Christian" oppressive colonialist movement running roughshod over the rest of the world.
The second argument does much the same thing: it over-emphasizes Jewish power and encourages the view that Israel, despite being the size of Vancouver Island, is really this titanic behemoth that can be America's best friend (and the Arab World's worst nightmare). Moreover, shifts the debate away from remedying anti-Semitic oppression (indeed, by making Israel out to be a hyperpower, it violently lurches it away from that field by making it seem absurd that Jews could be oppressed) in favor of simple cost-benefit analysis about whether Israel (and by extension Jewish lives) is really giving us enough to make it worth it. And from there, we get folks like Walt and Mearshimer who say, no, it isn't. Since I don't believe that the marginalized have to earn their lives through trade, I don't find this line of reasoning compelling, but its where we go when we make Zionist advocacy center around whether Israel is a good ally or not for the United States.
The third argument is the most complicated. Again, I'm very happy that Israel is a relatively liberal democracy. I support efforts to make it yet more liberal and yet more democratic. At the same time, I recall Irving Greenberg's telling statement: "If Israel proves to be 10 percent better ethically than the rest of the world, it will be 'a light unto the nations.' If it proves to be 25% better, it will bring the Messiah. If it is 50% better, it will be dead." Hinging Zionism on Israel being awesome means holding it to higher standards than everyone else. I don't object to higher standards per se, although as Greenberg notes, the risk is that setting them too high means that we get killed trying to leap the bar.
The argument also strikes me kind of as an extension of the "politics of respectability" efforts by Blacks in the Civil Rights era -- if we just act good and pure enough, then people will have to accept us. The problem is threefold: first, there's no guarantee of that, second, while we're waiting for people to make that determination our commitment to "purity" makes us very vulnerable, and third, it does nothing for the people who aren't Gandhi-like superhumans, but just regular Joes (or Josephs). Jewish liberation means that all Jews, not just our Gandhis, have a right to be safe. Jews shouldn't be allowed to get away with unjust activity any more than anyone else, but even the human members of our community have a right to be treated fairly and equitably. When Israel commits a wrong, it deserves to be called on it, but not subject to the hyperbolic screaming fits and flagellations that come its way from the international community.
The light unto nations argument thus corrupts the discourse again by shifting the discussion away from Israel's purpose as a haven for Jews and over to a very specific and exacting critique of its behavior. To critics, this makes any ethical failing by the state a facial indictment of its existence -- a standard under which no nation could survive. To defenders, this same dynamic forces them to be overly-zealous in defending Israeli policies. Because Israel only deserves defense insofar as it is perfect, defending Israel means not conceding that it can do any wrong doing. This is a terrible debate for those of us in the Jewish community -- the vast majority of us -- who want Israel to do right, recognize that it can do wrong, but have realistic expectations about what it can do at all.
Even beyond the shortcomings of the specific arguments made by the proxies, there are other problems caused by the absence of the distinctly Jewish voice in defending Zionist ideology. For one, it obviously diminishes the public consciousness of the degree to which Jews still feel and are marginalized in American and worldwide, leading people to think that the problem of anti-Semitism has been solved and stifling discussion on its persistence. The difficulty so many people have in accepting that Jews aren't just paranoid maniacs, that there really are folks out to get us, and that there really are barriers to our full inclusion in society (Western and otherwise), is proof positive of this dynamic.
Second, our silence occurs as part of a broader paradigm of exclusion by which Jews are presumed to be spoken for and hence Jewish inclusion is unnecessary. Even if the proxies could perfectly defend Zionism from a Jewish perspective, it is not at all clear they could do the same on other issues that are of importance to Jews. Again, the hegemony of the "Judeo-Christian" acts to marginalize Jewish voices and block our full participation in the public arena. On a great many issues (most notably Church/State, but also any normative discussion that deals with the values of the Jewish community), it's very important that Jews have an independent platform to articulate our needs, wants, and arguments free from outside domination. That goal is undermined when the public does not feel the need to hear the Jewish voice because it wrongly assumes it is already part of the deliberative stream.
Third, the lack of a consciousness about what Jews actually think about Zionism breeds mistrust about our motives and allows anti-Semitic theories to run rampant. When the real Jewish motivation behind Zionism -- as a response to oppression in Europe and in the Muslim world -- is not heard, people replace it with their own theories -- inevitably negative ones. Zionism is an extension of European colonialism, or is a recasting of the crusades, or is the natural extension of an unquenchable Jewish thirst for power. It is only by stripping Zionism from its foundation rooted in the actual lived experience of the Jewish community that these theories can gain sustenance.
The upshot is not that Jews need to be more vocal as to why they're Zionist. Jews are already speaking on the subject, at length. It's the world that is not listening; that does not see our contribution to the discourse as relevant, "objective", or meaningful. This is the failing that needs to be acknowledged, and that needs to be remedied. The proxies only have to speak for us because nobody cares to listen to the Jews. So long as that continues to be the case, Zionism -- insofar as it is defended at all -- will continue to be defended from a vantage point that ultimately does not act against Jewish subordination.