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In some circles, “Zionism” has become a dirty word, like some of the other “isms” which have been discarded on the ash heap of bad ideas. In other circles, however, Zionism is held in high esteem, as the redemption of the Jewish people, and as the fulfillment of the promise made by no other than God himself. So which is it?

What is Zionism? There are many definitions depending on your point of view. I prefer to think of Zionism as the political movement which made real the aspirations of the Jewish people to a homeland of their own in the land of their ancestors, the land of Israel. When Jews are asked to justify why they are entitled to establish a nation in the land of Israel, they often use several types of justifications, including: Biblical, historical, and ethical.

If you accept the Old Testament of the Bible as sacred, and many Christians and Muslims do, then you could say that about 3200 years ago Moses led the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, to freedom in the Promised Land, the land of Israel. And who made that promise? None other than God himself. Using the Biblical approach, Jews justify Zionism as the modern day fulfillment of God’s promise to allow them to settle in the land of Israel.

If you prefer the historical approach, you could argue that there has been a significant Jewish presence in the land of Israel for the past 3000 years. In fact, Jews believe that King David build the city of Jerusalem approximately 3000 years ago, and the city of Jerusalem appears some 600 times in the Old Testament. It is true that in the year 70 C.E. the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans, and most of the Jews were exiled. However, some Jews continued to live there, generation after generation, which lends historical credence to the legitimacy of a Jewish state in the land of Israel.

The ethical justification for Zionism has to do with how the Jews were treated during their exile from the land of Israel. Anyone who is the least bit aware of Jewish history knows that for the past 2000 years, the Jews in the Diaspora, or exile, were subjected to various forms of mistreatment and persecution: forced conversions, inquisitions, pogroms, inability to own land, discrimination, etc. Such persecution culminated in the Holocaust in which 6,000,000 Jews, or about one third of all Jews, were slaughtered.

In the late 1800’s, people like Theodore Herzl, who is the father of the political Zionist movement, decided that without a homeland of their own, Jews were dead men walking. The Holocaust would end up confirming his worst fears. He and others like him organized a political movement to buy up land, in what was then called Palestine, and to work toward the established of a homeland for the Jews. The immigration by Jews to Palestine began in earnest in the late 1800’s and continues to this day.

What hurt the image of Zionism in the eyes of some is that the establishment of the State of Israel caused approximately 700,000 Palestinians to leave their homes as refugees. Most of them left voluntarily, thinking that Israel would soon be destroyed by the seven Arab armies which invaded Israel just as she came into being. Some Palestinians, however, stayed in Israel, and today 20% of Israeli citizens are Arabs. In a recent poll, some 77% of Israeli Arabs say that they prefer to remain citizens of the State of Israel. It should also be remembered that while 700,000 Palestinians became refugees after the establishment of Israel, 850,000 Jews were also expelled from Arab countries where they had lived for centuries.

Despite all the justifications for Zionism, however, there is a lot of worldwide pressure being exerted on Jews in general, and on Israel in particular, to bring some semblance of justice to Palestinians. In the wake of such criticism, some people consider themselves to be “anti-Zionist.” Being anti-Zionist could mean different things to different people. Some consider Israel to be illegitimate for the start, and call for the eventual dismantlement of the Jewish state. One version of this approach is to call for a “bi-national” state, which would consist of all the Jews and Palestinian Arabs in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, and would therefore destroy the Jewish nation of Israel by creating a state in which the Arabs are a majority. Yet others consider themselves “anti-Zionist” because they disapprove of some of the actions taken by the Israeli government in protecting the State of Israel. The occupation of the West Bank, for example, with its checkpoints and security barriers, evoke a deep seated resentment in the hearts of a lot of people.

To counter the rising tide of criticism of the policies of the Jewish state, Zionist organizations such as AIPAC, or the Zionist Organization of America and the like, work hard to defend Israel in the public eye, and to protect the special relationship that exists between Israel and the U.S. The U.S. is one of the few allies that has consistently defended Israel, from the time that President Truman recognized the Jewish state just ten minutes after she was declared, until today.

So when we talk about Zionism, a whole range of emotions come to the fore, including those rooted in religion, in history, and in our notion of what is fair and just. Different people see things differently, and that is only normal. In the final analysis, I believe that there is plenty of justification for the establishment of Israel as a home for the Jews. However, there is also some measure of validity in criticizing Israel for at least some of the injustices that Palestinian Arab refugees have had to endure.

The answer in my view is not to destroy Israel. Destroying Israel would bring to an abrupt end the dream of Palestinians to live in peace, prosperity, and freedom. The answer is to use Israel’s many talents to help bring justice to Palestinians; to create two states, living side by side, in peace, prosperity, and freedom. It could well be argued that there is no other country on earth that is better able, or willing, to bring a good measure of justice to Palestinians, and to have that become the impetus of a global effort to revitalize the Middle East. Of course, Palestinians would have to become open to that. People on both sides would have to let go of some of the hate, in favor of hope. But if a peace agreement is reached, and if justice is done, then the true promise of the Zionist enterprise will have been realized, and only then could Israel fulfill her Biblical destiny to become a “…light unto the nations…” At such time, and with God’s help, Israel will no longer be considered the problem in the Middle East, but the solution for the Middle East.

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Comment by Nissim Dahan on July 1, 2010 at 12:32am
Fred, thank you for your comments.

Even though Israel has a long way to go, she has much to be proud of. I would argue that if you look at the Middle East as a whole, Israel is one of the few places that inspires a sense of hope on such fronts as: the economy, the environment, education, treatment of women, treatments of ethic minorities, rule of law, freedom, etc.

With regard to the Palestinian refugees, however, Israel has to take much bolder steps to bring about justice, and I would agree with that.

In terms of your criticism that any Jew can automatically become a citizen, I would not necessarily hold than against Israel. Part of the reason that Israel was founded in the first place was the persecution that the Jews had to endure. Therefore, as a persecuted minority, a minority subjected to the Holocaust, it would make sense, in that context, that the state would be a Jewish state, as a state created to provide a safe haven for Jews. That doesn't mean that non-Jews should be discriminated against. I would agree with you there. But to allow Jews to become citizens easily is fair given the historical background that gave rise to the founding of the modern state of Israel.

As to your second point about outside interference in the Middle East, I would agree that the Middle East has been subjected to negative influences from colonialism and the like. However, I am not suggesting that a revitalization should be foisted upon the Middle East. I am saying that a peace deal between Israel and Palestine could be the spark that lights the fire of change in the Middle East, but change that conforms with the aspirations of the people of the region. And you and I both know that the people themselves are desparate to see even a glimmer that things can change for the better.
Comment by Fred Schlomka on June 30, 2010 at 10:50pm
Mr. Dahan - Biblical destiny aside, Israel is a very long way from becoming a 'Light unto the nations'. As the only country in the world where a foreign convert to the state religion (Judaism) immediately becomes eligible for citizenship, Israel remains well outside the community of civilized and democratic countries. If we are willing to move from the present 'ethnocracy' towards a more democratic framework them perhaps the state will survive.

Also, Mr. Dahan, I think this region has had quite enough of a 'global effort to revitalize the Middle East'. Between the post-Ottoman artificial nation-states, Zionist activities and American military adventures, many of us in the region would like to see more of a hands off approach by Western Powers and leave us to develop our own countries without interference.

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