Simon Rocker

What’s happened to Zionism and Anglo-Jewry?

The proportion of British Jews identifying with Zionism has fallen from 72 to 63 per cent


A pro-Israel march in London (Photo: Getty Images)

April 10, 2024 14:33

You would not have found a more staunch champion of Israel, certainly within Progressive Jewish circles, than the late Rabbi Dr Sidney Brichto, former executive director of the Liberal movement. Yet shortly before his death in 2009, he wondered whether the term “Zionism” had outlived its usefulness and suggested it should be “pensioned off”.

Rabbi Brichto argued that the meaning of the word had been so distorted by its opponents that it was counterproductive to continue using it; it had become a gift to Israel-haters who could mask their antisemitism by levelling their invective against the “Zionist entity” rather than the “Jewish state”.

From what I remember, his view did not gain a lot of traction at the time. But it came to mind when I read the findings of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research’s latest communal survey – published earlier this year – which found “quite a significant decline” in the proportion of UK Jews identifying with Zionism: down from 72 per cent in 2010 to 63 per cent.

JPR didn’t explain what might have caused the drop. No doubt some have turned their back on Zionism, disillusioned by Israel’s continued rule over the Palestinians on the West Bank, settlement expansion and the rise of its far-right. But only a very small number of UK Jews, 8 per cent, go so far as declaring themselves anti-Zionist.

One reason for the fall in identification may be the growth of the Charedi population. While they do not form a monolithic bloc, their rabbinic leaders have generally disavowed Zionism as a secular ideology that puts nationalism rather than Torah at the heart of Jewish peoplehood.

Yet at the same time, Charedim are the group within British Jewry who, according to the survey, are the most emotionally attached to Israel, along with the strictly observant part of the Orthodox community (both at 93 per cent). Charedim connect with Israel on their own, religious terms.

What is striking about the report is the weakening of Zionist sentiment among the young. Most Jewish youth movements – outside the Charedi community – are nominally Zionist and more teenagers go to Jewish secondary schools than a couple of decades ago. But the 20-to-29 age group had the lowest share of Zionists in the community, 57 per cent, compared to 61 per cent among 30-somethings and the much greater 78 per cent among those in their 50s.

The Jewish Leadership Council (JLC) is sufficiently exercised about this to make one of the proposals in its new “Forge the Future” community plan, produced to meet the post-October 7 challenges, to set up a commission on the Jewish identity of young Jews and “their relationship to Israel”. Young people are “far more exposed to anti-Israel messaging online,” the JLC observed, “and have had a very different experience of Israel in their lifetime”.

Perhaps some Jews don’t consider themselves Zionist because they can’t see what the word means any more. The platform of the World Zionist Organisation refers to Zionism as the “national liberation movement” of the Jewish people, a perfectly reasonable way to sum it up historically, but perhaps an outdated formula to describe the relationship between Israel and the diaspora today.

Some might think of Zionism as mission accomplished: In less than a century since its founding, Israel has gathered in millions of “exiles” from all over and remarkably become the world’s largest centre of Jewish population (though some would reserve that accolade for the USA; it depends on whom you count as Jewish).

What JPR also shows is that more UK Jews acknowledge attachment to Israel (73 per cent) than subscribe to Zionism. You can enjoy falafel in pitta, watch Fauda, donate to UJIA or bristle at BBC coverage of the Middle East and not call yourself a Zionist.

Perhaps the term is only genuinely used of diaspora Jews who believe their future lies in Israel and move there.

The JPR survey was carried out nearly a year before the fateful events of October 7, the repercussions of which are still unfolding. So JPR has cautioned that it is “highly likely” that the current war would have an impact on perspectives on Zionism and attachment to Israel.

For many, their sense of security has been shaken. Polls which report a substantial number of Jews saying they have considered leaving the country certainly indicate the mood of uncertainty, but that’s different from booking a visit to the aliyah office.

When JPR collected its data, only one in 10 said it was “more”, rather than “less likely”, that they would be relocating to Israel within the next five years.

Most of us have a bond with Israel and may well admire those who leave London or Manchester for Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.

But we are not, in any strict sense, Zionists. 

April 10, 2024 14:33

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