'Zionist' has become a dirty word

The other day, on other pages, I took a blast at the more unlikely supporters of Republican presidential candidate, Ron Paul. I wrote what was true, that Paul was part of an extreme isolationist and anti-government tendency on the US right, and one that had flirted extensively with folk possessing dodgy views on questions such as race.

Among the more hostile responses was a common theme. My criticism, I was advised, was motivated by Zionism. I was against him because he was against war on Iran, Muslims, Muslim countries, wars Israel wanted and that "Zionists" therefore sought to arrange.

These days, the Z word crops up in almost any collection of critiques of things I write about foreign policy, or even domestic questions. The word's meaning, as far as I can tell, is anyone with a Jewish connection who advocates a position that the critic imagines might be to Israel's benefit. It is always bad.

"Zionist" is used to mean, in effect, a Jewish racist who subordinates conscience to the interests of the second homeland.

I'd never urge a fellow Briton to make aliyah

This is not remotely what it meant even a very few years ago. Wikipedia still gives Zionism to be what I grew up believing it to be - "a political movement that, in its broadest sense has supported the self-determination of the Jewish people". Now, I was brought up in a secular, left-wing household, and didn't feel the need to have or maintain a Jewish homeland. I would never urge a fellow Briton to make aliyah. Consequently I am not a Zionist.

But I was not an anti-Zionist either. Why make a key part of your political stance an opposition to one particular expression of nationality? I am, after all, happy for Palestinians to have a country, too. Ditto Slovaks. Slovenians. Montenegrins. Canadians.

Reading the most recent book attributed to the late essayist, Tony Judt (in essence, a series of edited conversations), I was struck by what he said was his mother's attitude towards Zionism, that it was "just a showy form of Jewishness". That was essentially my reaction. Those who declared themselves anti-Zionists tended to be genuine Stalinists, some ultra-left lunatics, Arab nationalists and that was it. You would get a Workers Revolutionary Party member or fellow-traveller writing a play suggesting that Zionists had collaborated with Hitler, the production puffed in their Gaddafi-funded publications, but otherwise Zionists were as offensive as Catalans.

Judt's journey intrigues me, because in some ways it describes why the word Zionism went from analytical descriptor to term of abuse. Judt at 18 lived on a kibbutz (he continually stressed the sexual attractiveness of 1960s Zionist maidenhood). But after 1967 he discovered an Israel that wasn't sex and oranges - one with racists, nasty people, raisons d'etat and similar blemishes. Over time, he went from keen teen Zionist to advocate of the bi-national state - ie no Jewish state.

Of course the warty Israel was what any grown-up would have expected. In 1977 I met a perpetual Jewish adolescent in Tel Aviv who told me that I must know that "the Jewish heart is a good heart". I knew no such thing; not about Jews, not about anyone. Having no illusions, I had no disillusions. The fantasy farming socialist Israel had held no particular attraction, so there was no disappointing epiphany. When Judt discovered the inevitable reality of Israel, it seems he blamed the whole country and its people for his disappointment, to the extent that he could write screeds on the Middle East without any reference to other countries in the region.

The disappointment of the intellectuals helped transform the Z word from neutral to faintly demonic. One problem with this is the respectability it has lent conspiracist views, particularly among educated Muslims. In one way it's funny. The ability to believe both that Ed Miliband is a "Zionist Jew" and that, a few months later "Miliband Calls for Break-Up of Murdoch's Zionist Media Empire" suggests an imperviousness to the ludicrous. Such blog headlines, often linked to on Twitter, are worryingly common.

It's not just blogs. Andrew Gilligan counted 32 mentions of Zionism and Zionists compared with 30 for Transport for London in Ken Livingstone's autobiography. And I bet that the references weren't complimentary.

    Last updated: 11:31am, January 12 2012