Oliver Kamm

Honour of being a Zionist

April 27, 2016 12:51

The truth is, as those who know me well understand, I've always been a strong campaigner against racism and fascism in all its forms," wrote Malia Bouattia, newly elected president of the National Union of Students, in The Guardian last week.

Why would anyone preface their political opinions with a declaration that they're opposed to racism? The obvious and dispiriting answer is that otherwise you wouldn't be able to tell. So it is with Ms Bouattia. She is a declared foe of "Zionist-led media outlets" and has described Birmingham University as "something of a Zionist outpost" on the grounds of the size of its Jewish society.

I'd never heard of Ms Bouattia till last week and wish her no ill for being an inflammatory ignoramus. But I'm not having this. I'm politically on the left and I'm angered when values that ought to be axiomatic to progressives are betrayed. The politics of Ms Bouattia are sadly widespread but that doesn't mean they're radical. They're deeply reactionary. Secularism, women's rights and a genuine hostility to xenophobia are conspicuous by their scarcity these days on the left, in the academy and in the labour movement. The catch-all term of anti-Zionism has superseded them and I wish to explain as dispassionately as I can to my fellow leftists that they should avoid it.

I'm often called a Zionist as a term of abuse but in fact it's not a term I've ever applied to myself. The reason is that I'm simply not close enough to Israeli affairs. I've visited Israel and the West Bank (I've not been to Gaza) only half-a-dozen times. I'm no expert on Israeli politics, culture and security. I count myself merely a friend and supporter of Israel. I relish its literature (in translation) and admire its ethos. Above all, the values it stands for are those I want advanced and hastened. For all its idiosyncrasies, errors and rank injustices, the Jewish state has managed to build a thriving democracy and tolerant secular society in a region that is short on those qualities.

It's precisely the success of the Zionist enterprise that has perversely persuaded many of today's purported radicals that Israel is a colonialist enterprise rather than an essential liberal cause. It's a historical accident that the realisation of the dream of Jewish statehood came after the wave of self-determination of smaller nations in the 20th century. If only Israel had been founded earlier, then some European Jews at least might have been saved from Nazi barbarism.

For all its errors, Israel has built a thriving democracy

The fact that Israel now exists is a guarantor that Jews will have a refuge in future. But it's not only Israel's right to exist that ought to be an integral part of left-wing politics. It's also Israel's right to be a sovereign, independent power, with a right - consequently - also to make mistakes and learn from them.

Like many of Israel's friends, I'm dismayed at Israel's settlement policies and the needless frictions of its present government with overseas supporters like the Obama administration. But what I value about Zionism more than anything is that it embraces pluralism as part of its being. Its founders cracked down on Jewish terrorist groups early in the state's existence. When there is eventually a two-state solution between a secure Israel and a sovereign Palestine, that too will be an expression of the pluralist values of Zionism.

In the meantime, while it's not strictly true to call me a Zionist, I'll always be honoured to be described that way.

April 27, 2016 12:51

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive