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We Need To Talk About Zionism
It's not a bad word, and if you think it is, you're using it wrong
Instagram comment sections are always a very specific form of hell, but this particular moment has made them that much more inflammatory. But I just want to talk about one thing I am seeing, namely: “Fuck Zionists.”
I think (I hope) the people who think Zionism/Zionist is a bad word are mistakenly understanding it to mean a tacit endorsement of everything the Israeli government and IDF do and have ever done (I do realize this is generous). Well, take it from this Zionist who has been vocally against the bombing of Gaza from day one of Israel’s response to the October 7 massacres: It’s not.
Yes, I am a Zionist. A word that has been manipulated by some into meaning “white colonizer” (despite much of Israel’s population in 1948 being Holocaust survivors and Jewish-Arab refugees) and twisted by others to be a dog whistle for “Jew” (just ask former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, who uses it to describe us.) What it actually means is just someone who believes in a Jewish homeland existing.
I’ve also been observing a growing movement of (in my opinion) uninformed people of the internet loudly proclaiming themselves anti-Zionists, nevermind that they would never call themselves anti-Muslim states, of which there are dozens, or anti-Italy, where the Catholic Church still exerts immense influence over politics.
But where did “Zionism” come from?
Theodor Herzl is known by many as the father of modern Zionism. To be sure, his vision of Zionism was largely dismissive of Arab populations already living in Palestine (they did not identify as Palestinians at that time, and actually aspired to a Pan-Arab nationalism).
But Herzl didn’t invent Zionism. Not even close. He may have helped kickstart the modern political movement of the Jewish return to their ancestral homeland, but he wasn’t the first one with the idea. Crack open a siddur (Jewish prayer book), and you’ll see that 95% of our prayers refer to “the land” and “Jerusalem”; I hate to break it to everyone very busy in their comment sections, but those 3,000 year old writings are much older than Al Gore’s internet.
In Rome, The Arch of Titus proudly depicted the first time they kicked the Jews out of Judea (modern-day Israel/Palestine) and it remains in their capital city today. Here’s a picture of me underneath it in 2009. Peep the menorah victoriously toted out of Jerusalem.
So can I believe in Israel existing without adhering to everything Herzl wrote? Well, can I believe in America existing and not be a George Washington stan?
Spoiler alert: I can. I do. You probably do too, for at least the second question. The two options aren’t overthrow the government or get a founding father tattooed on your body. There’s an in between, where you’re a citizen of an imperfect democracy that you believe in bettering for the most marginalized communities. As imperfect as America is, I am not (not, FBI!) interested in declaring its illegitimacy. Nor are most Americans.
“Zionism” being bastardized by ultra-nationalists who do seek Palestinian displacement is no different than “American patriotism” being warped into literally taking a shit on the walls of Congress, which self-anointed “patriots” did just three years ago. Those people are the ones who misunderstand what it means. It’s up to the rest of us to not let them hijack the word.
Of course, if a country has done a lot of things you aren’t proud of, that is also important to reckon with. Whether it’s Israeli settlement building and displacing of Palestinians, or American bomb dropping on ______________ (fill in the blank with one of the many options), or Chinese occupation of Tibet, or France banning abayas (a garment worn by Muslim women) in schools just this past August, it is our duty to say something. But that’s not the same as wanting to do away with an entire country, something I’ve never heard expressed about anywhere but Israel.
So is there something specifically offensive about an historically persecuted group that’s been kicked out of everywhere they’ve ever tried to blend in wanting self-determination? Or is it just that the Jews want it?
And here’s something else you need to know. Being “for Israel” and being “for Palestine” are not mutually exclusive. Your Instagram comment sections may once again lead you to believe one can’t be both, but they’re wrong.
I’m a Pro-Palestine Zionist.
How is that possible?
Quite easily, actually. Allow me to explain.
It means I believe in self-determination for both groups. It means I will still call myself a Zionist at the end of this war. I will also still call for Netanyahu’s resignation. I will still condemn violent settlers. I will still condemn IDF abuse. I will still believe Israel to have failed in many regards with the Palestinians over the decades. I will still know the Palestinians to have rebuffed many offers for land and peace. I will still fight for Palestinian freedom, justice, and statehood at the end of this war. And I will still believe Israel should exist next to it at the end of this war.
If you do choose to demonize Zionism, know that you are proudly declaring the Jews should not be allowed self-determination in their ancestral homeland — the one they occupied before Romans, before Arabs, before Ottomans, and before Brits. Know that in saying that Jews should just be part of American or French or German or Iraqi societies, they have tried. And they’ve been expelled, persecuted, and exterminated again and again and again for it (check out this fun full list!)
Be critical of the Israeli government. I am. But if you’re proudly calling yourself an anti-Zionist and not anti-any-other-country, know that you’re an antisemite. It’s a provocative thing to end a piece on, but it’s reality. A friend from college put it really well this week:
If I seem angry, it’s because I am. I’m angry at all the people co-opting a word that was never theirs to begin with. I’m angry at everyone consciously or unconsciously believing us all to be indifferent to the immense, horrific suffering of Gaza because we want a Jewish country to still be intact at the end of this.
I am not indifferent. I am angry at the Israeli government. Many Israelis are too. I am angry at the IDF. I am shattered for the thousands of innocent Palestinians, whose lives have been destroyed. I am demanding an end to bombing. I am donating to causes that help Israelis, Arabs, and Palestinians. I am critical of Israel.
And I believe in her existence.
*The original email said inspired instead of aspired, and I am embarrassed. Forgive me.