Last week I conducted an experiment. I was one of several partygoers being subjected to a long and tedious sermon on Middle Eastern politics by a Tehran-based journalist. As his references to Zionism became increasingly vicious (and his tone increasingly tiresome), I decided to change the direction. “I’m a Zionist”, I said.
A shocked silence followed. The other members of the group stared into their wine glasses, mildly embarrassed to have ended up in conversation with such a mindless zealot. They quickly drifted away. Our Tehrani journalist was, it is fair to say, less than pleased. “How can you possibly consider yourself a moral person and a Zionist at the same time?” he asked. With three short words, I had transformed myself into a social pariah. I’d almost have been better off arguing that Jimmy Savile was a tragic victim of the obsessive anti-paedophile movement.
Ed Miliband encountered a similar problem recently. At a question and answer session, the Labour leader told the audience that he was a Zionist because he was”a supporter of Israel”. A day later, after strong criticism, his office beat a hasty and pusillanimous retreat, issuing a statement saying that Miliband had “not used the word Zionist to describe himself”. Even if you are a Zionist, it seems, it is political dynamite to admit as much, particularly for those on the left.
The prescribed liberal Zionist response to this dilemma is simple. “Ah, but you see that doesn’t necessarily make me a supporter of the current Israeli administration. All it means is I support the existence of a Jewish state in in Palestine”.
It’s an easy formula, one that exonerates the speaker from any association with nasty Netanyahu and bloodshed in Gaza. The problem is that it not enough. For many, the word Zionism has become utterly toxic, symbolic not just of walls, tanks and dying children but of a vast imperialist project that from its inception sought to dispossess an indigenous population in order to accommodate the desires of European migrants with an ancient, even spurious territorial claim.
To the many anti-Zionists who believe this to be the case, it isn’t enough to simply say you believe in the existence of a Jewish state in Palestine. This doesn’t wash. To make any meaningful defence, you must be able to explain why such a state was, and crucially still is, both necessary and desirable (even, or especially, if you find some of its actions reprehensible).
Mounting such a defence is important for Zionists in the diaspora, because the more toxic the word becomes, the less it will appear in mainstream political discourse. Every time one of Israel’s detractors successfully associates the term with imperialism, fascism or even Nazism, the legitimacy of the state is diminished.
In order to mount an effective defence of the term, a nuanced appeal to history is essential. It is not enough just to cite the Holocaust, the pogroms and historical antisemitism. These are, of course, enormously important. Herzl conceived of Jewish state as a refuge from European anti-Semitism, the depth of which he witnessed firsthand during the Dreyfus Affair. But why, you will undoubtedly be asked, must the Palestinians pay for the sins of the Europeans. To answer this question effectively, a more positive Zionist formula is required (while observing that the price paid by the Palestinians has been far higher than it should have been). This is particularly important in modern Britain, where the threat of marauding Cossacks has thankfully receded.
A positive Anglo-Zionist formula should reach for some of the great Zionist thinkers, such as Ahad Ha’Am, Chaim Weizmann and Isaiah Berlin. It should reach for the idea that Zionism is about more than providing shelter. It is also about giving a rootless, homeless people the freedom to build their own country. It seeks to give members of this nation the choice whether to live in that country or not — the choice members of other nationalities have. It seeks to normalise the Jewish experience, so that Jews do not forever remain a nation of forced exiles. It seeks to create a country where, as Ben Gurion said, there would be Jewish criminals, but also farmers, their spirit no longer hemmed in by the walls of the ghetto, both real and imaginary.
None of this is flawless, but these are powerful ideas that should be kept alive and disseminated, because they legitimise Zionism as a concept, both past and present. Of course, this all came to me long after my Iranian acquaintance had walked away. But I intend to try it out next time.